Few American figures provoke more urban mythology than Walt Disney. Two reasons may explain this. First, Disney’;s imagination fuels our own fancies, just as he inspired his employees. Second, all he created is, and has always been, controlled with a sense of near-paranoia.
Remarkably, for a man whose genius had no antecedent, Disney and his successors left nothing to chance. Possessive to a fault, litigious to a fare-the-well, and as spontaneous as a mountain, Team Disney (as it is known) researches, tests, analyses, extrapolates, and lobbies every decision before they commit to it. It would follow, therefore, that anything connected with the Disney organization has to exist on purpose.
Or does it? Here are 10 urban legends that have been associated with the Walt Disney organization over the years. The point is not whether they are true or false, but the mindset that nurtured them both inside and outside the Magic Kingdom:
Someone died at Videopolis—false. Videopolis is the 5,000-square-foot high-tech amphitheater at the Anaheim, California, Disneyland where music events are held. In legend, which is false, a fight broke out when it first opened in 1985 and a boy was stabbed. Rather than risk a scandal by calling an ambulance, park security bundled the boy into a private car and drove him to a nearby hospital. Because it was not an official emergency vehicle, it had to stop for all the red lights. The boy bled to death before reaching the hospital. Disney supposedly made a large financial settlement with the boy’;s family to hush it up. Never proven, this rumor recently resurfaced after a Christmas Eve 1998 accident in which two guests and a park employee were injured when a rope tore away from the sailing ship
Columbiaand sent a metal cleat flying. The cleat struck the two guests, one of whom was declared brain-dead two days later. In 1999 a legislative movement was begun in California to regulate amusement parks. Disney has always been a leader in theme park safety; nevertheless, since 1955, there have been eight deaths at Disneyland, all but one (the cleat incident) being the result of guests actively ignoring safety instructions.
The Repentant Car Thief
A New York City man can’;t find his car on the street where he parked it and reports it stolen. The next day it shows up back where it belongs with an envelope inside. “I apologize for borrowing your car,” the thief has written, “but I had to rush my wife to the hospital and couldn’;t get a cab. To make amends, here is a pair of tickets for …” Sure enough, enclosed are prime seats for the hottest show on Broadway. The car owner and his wife attend the show, grateful for the “thief’;s”
This myth is false for any number of reasons:
1. How would the thief know where the car owner lives?
2. Apartment buildings have restricted times for moving in and out, and the thief’;s crew would surely have been noticed.
3. How did the thief know the couple didn’;t have kids or somebody else inside?
4. The note, tickets, doorman, and neighbors, are evidence.
5. Who the heck would own a car in Manhattan?
There’;s Coca-Cola in the water fountains—false. When Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955—but before enough tourists returned from the park to quash the rumors—the drinking fountains were reported to rain with Coca-Cola, ice cream was free, and Walt Disney personally greeted all the guests. This myth is patently false, as anyone knows who has ever attended any Disney theme park.
Walt had a pied-à-terre in Disneyland—almost. When New Orleans Square was dedicated in the summer of 1966, Walt and his brother, Roy, planned to build an apartment for themselves on the land above the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. After Walt’;s death in December, however, Roy decided not to proceed. The area became a VIP lounge called Club 33 and was the only place in the park where liquor could be served. The space is now the Disney Gallery and features exhibitions of concept sketches and limited edition art. The initials WD and RD can still be seen on the wrought-iron railing leading up to the second-floor gallery.
Walt loved to ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” after hours—false. Although Walt was fascinated by technology, and particularly liked the Audioanimatronic figures in his parks, he died on December 15, 1966, and “Pirates” did not open until March 18, 1967. He may have enjoyed some prototype trips, however.
If you smoke pot in Disneyland or Disney World, they kick you out and ban you for life—unconfirmed. Security, particularly undercover security, is tight in all Disney theme parks, and unruly “guests” (which is what patrons are called), for whatever reason, are shown the way out. In the 1960s, guests with long hair were barred because they didn’;t meet the park’;s (unwritten) dress code. There have also been charges that guests suspected of shoplifting are held in isolation until the matter is resolved. This tactic has garnered some very unfavorable publicity from irate guests who have told reporters afterward that they were forced to sign affidavits admitting guilt without benefit of counsel.
There are hidden jokes in Disney cartoons—true. Until
Variety“outed” the practice in 1994, only a select few knew about the existence of “hidden jokes” (not messages) in Disney cartoons. As a consequence, all cartoons are examined frame-by-frame by the Disney video folks (get a life!), but a few that slipped past them (or never existed in the first place) are:
Walt’;s private screening—false. This is a chilling rumor, despite there being no proof, because it meets all of the qualifications for a Disney legend: It’;s spooky, it’;s brilliant, and it matches Walt’;s personality. After Walt died in 1966, his chief executives were escorted to assigned seats in the company screening room. There they were shown a film that Walt had made before he died in which he spoke to each of them by name and told them all what he expected them to do for the next five years. Although Disney was no stranger to long-range planning, the Disney archives have been unable to locate either the film or any foundation for the legend.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit:When Bob Hoskins and Jessica Rabbit are thrown from the Toon Town Taxi, Jessica’;s red dress goes flying and she isn’;t wearing underwear. Also, at the beginning of the film, Baby Herman gooses a woman as he leaves the soundstage.
• When King Triton makes his big entrance at the beginning of
The Little Mermaid,among the vassals he sweeps over in the crowd are Mickey and Goofy.
• When Bianca and Bernard take flight with Orville the sea gull in
The Rescuers,they fly past an apartment building in which a bare-breasted woman appears in two flash frames (so to speak).
There is no such thing as an aphrodisiac, but the legend persists that there is, and it is called Spanish fly. Medically, there is a substance called cantharidin, which is a product of the European blister beetle, sometimes called the Spanish beetle (get it?). It is a severe irritant if used externally (which may contribute to its aphrodisiacal reputation; i.e., the fantasy that its effects can be relieved by sexual friction), and it becomes a powerful laxative if taken internally.
Al Capp’;s Leg
Stories about missing prostheses make grizzly urban legends, but here’;s a funny one that’;s actually true.
As a boy, “Li’;l Abner” comic artist and social critic Al Capp (1909–1979) lost a leg “as the result of an unfortunate encounter with a trolley car,” as he openly and glibly recounted it. The garrulous Capp also told how he once returned to his suite in London’;s Savoy Hotel after a night of hitting the pubs and, as was his habit, unfastened his wooden leg and tucked it safely under the bed.
“In the morning I rang for room service,” he recalled, “and the waiter came up to the room. After I had given him my breakfast order, he glanced down and asked me, with typical British aplomb, ‘And what will the gentleman under the bed be having?’“
Walt could never draw Mickey Mouse—half-true. Although Walt was a competent artist, it was his employee Ub Iwerks who refined the character the world came to know and love as Mickey. Walt could draw a passable Mickey, but that’;s about it. He also didn’;t sign his name the way it appears in the world-famous trademark, although he would agreeably fake it for autograph purposes. There are still people who believe that Walt drew every frame of his animated films.
Walt was such a rabid anti-Communist that he refused to let Nikita Khrushchev visit Disneyland—false but true. Yes, Walt was anti-Communist, but he did not ban Premier Nikita Khrushchev when the Soviet leader visited California in 1955. Security experts from both the United States and the Soviet Union agreed that the 30-mile drive from Los Angeles to Anaheim, plus the crowds at the park, would compromise the VIP’;s safety.
Walt is frozen and awaiting a cure—false. After Walt Disney died he was cremated and given a discreet, private funeral (so as not to disturb the value of the company’;s stock, it is said). Nevertheless, the rumor persists that Walt is cryogenically preserved until such time as medicine can cure the cancer that killed him. The myth might be explained because of his affinity for science and technology, but it is absolutely false. Walt Disney’;s ashes reside in a crypt at the Freedom Mausoleum entrance of Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.