5 Crazy Stories From The Early Days Of Disneyland
As we've mentioned many times in the past, your favorite purveyor of childhood memories and nostalgia isn't as wholesome as you like to think. From sidelining Mickey Mouse's true creator to backstabbing Robin Williams, there are plenty of whimsical cartoon skeletons in Disney's closet, and we aren't done airing them all. You can blame our broken childhood, penchant for fun-ruining, or plain old spite, but it's a drug that we can't kick. So let us tell you about ...
The Pirates Of The Caribbean Ride Was (And Might Still Be) Decorated With Real Skeletons
Think fast, what's your favorite ride at Disneyland, and why are you lying about it not being Pirates of the Caribbean? It might have resulted in Johnny Depp's career being extended way beyond its natural lifespan, sure, but it's so cool, what with the waterfalls and the pirates and the cannons and the real desiccated skulls laying everywhere.
Kidding. They aren't "everywhere" anymore. There are only a few left in the ride ... they think.
You see, when the ride was built in 1967, it cost $105 million -- a sum that went into making PotC the most in every way possible, from the animatronics to lighting to special effects to puffy shirts. According to a book by former Disney producer Jason Surrell, the only problem they had was finding decorative skeletons that didn't look like they'd spent the best part of the last century sitting in your grandma's attic. Utilizing the sort of ingenuity that lands you the job of designing theme park rides, the team hit up some friends at UCLA Medical Center and asked if they wouldn't mind handing out some medical specimens.
And it worked! The ride was a smash hit with park patrons, who probably weren't aware that they were now subject to the dumbest curse imaginable. Over time, the skeletons were replaced with better-looking replicas and given a proper burial. Or at least, most of them were. Maybe. Although it's hard to say for sure, there's reason to believe that there are still a few genuine body parts occupying the ride, identifiable thanks to the fact that they look a lot more ... discolored than the fakes, and also possess anatomical features that it's doubtful model makers would have bothered to include.
It's hard to confirm these as real without security attempting to turn you into a human pinata, but the legends might be true about there being a disembodied head at Disneyland, folks. We all just made the mistake of thinking that it was Walt's.
You Could Fly To Disneyland By Helicopter ... Until Two Crashed In The Same Year, Killing 44 People
Driving to Disneyland with a car full of children is an experience equal to journeying through the nine circles of Hell, except we don't remember The Divine Comedy making reference to anyone having to poop at the world's dirtiest truck stop.
It's not like the good ol' days, when tourists were able to beat the crowds entirely and fly straight into the park, courtesy of a frequent helicopter shuttle provided by Los Angeles Airways. Visitors could fly from LAX to a heliport built near the park (and back again) in a little under 20 minutes, all for the princely sum of $4. Alongside luxury and the obligatory cocaine-like ego boost that riding anywhere in a helicopter provides, riders were also able to experience a breathtaking view of the park that few have seen since those halcyon days ... albeit for a very good reason.
In May 1968, a shuttle carrying 20 passengers and three crew crashed en route to LAX from Disneyland after encountering mechanical difficulties. Whilst flying over the city, witnesses reported that the helicopter started lurching uncontrollably. Although the crew attempted to lighten the load by throwing cargo over the side, their efforts to reduce how badly gravity was trying to screw them were proven to be for naught by the helicopter suddenly nosediving into the ground. Everyone aboard was killed, in what was deemed the then-worst civilian helicopter disaster in U.S. history. Unfortunately, there was about to be competition in that department.
In the aftermath of the accident, it was found that a single missing bolt had caused the rotor blades to essentially dismantle themselves in midair. You'd expect such a failure with the needing-to-have-working-rotors-in-order-to-not-kill-a-bunch-of-people machines to cause the fleet to be grounded while they were checked for problems, and they were. It's too bad that almost immediately after service was resumed, the same freaking thing happened again.
In August 1968, only three months after the first crash, a copter travelling from LAX to Disneyland carrying 18 passengers and three crew dropped out of the sky from a height of 1,500 feet after, you guessed it, the rotor blades separated from the craft. All 21 people aboard were killed in what was probably the then-second-worst civilian helicopter disaster in U.S. history, including the grandchild of the CEO of Los Angeles Airways. The service was grounded again, and the ensuing lawsuits, legal costs, and strike actions shuttered the shuttle -- which, let's face it, was probably just as well at that point.
Disneyland Used To Have "Real" Mermaids (Swimming Near Razor-Sharp Propellers)
In building Disneyland, Walt Disney strived for a level of immersion just shy of hallucinogenic. Nothing in the park -- nothing -- could remind his guests that they were paying crazy amounts of money to ride average-ish fairground rides and cheer as their kids kicked a costumed performer in the groin. This is the same philosophy that resulted in a supervillain-esque tunnel complex being built beneath the park (although we're not sure where the communal underwear fits into this).
So when the time came to build a mermaid lagoon to drive submarines into, you can bet that Uncle Walt made damn sure that they were the most mermaid-y-acting mermaids money could buy, up to and including their willingness to damn near shear their faces off.
In 1959, Disneyland opened Submarine Voyage, a ride which allowed visitors to experience what it was like to ride in a submarine and journey through the briny depths of the oceans, including seeing sea monsters and mermaids. Of course, we don't mean real mermaids, because as you know, Disney wouldn't go into genetic engineering until they created Justin Timberlake in the '90s. We're talking about starfish-bra-wearing, fake-tail-clad women who made an easy $45 a week by swimming in the waters of the ride and sunning themselves on a rock, to the delight of onlookers. As it happens, however, the ride's submarines used real propellers for authenticity, and so the mermaids would frequently have to worry about being sucked into and vaporized by the blasted thing.
Being half-naked women having fun in the sun, the mermaids would also have to contend with lecherous dudes jumping the fence and swimming out to them, presumably in the hope of fertilizing their eggs. That is, when they weren't showering the mermaids in dollars bills and rolls of quarters like dancers at the world's happiest/weirdest strip joint. The problems with male guests, as well as the general dangers of asking people to swim in a dirty pool of flotsam, jetsam, and razor blades, eventually convinced Disney to call quits on this one and stick to cartoon merfolk.
The CIA Advised Walt Disney On Preventing The Government From Meddling With Disney World
Not too long ago, we told you about how Disney World is, legally speaking, a secessionist state outside of the reach of the guvmit and its unfair insistence on rules and stuff. It's a pretty weird arrangement for what is essentially a high-class Chuck E. Cheese's, but how did it come to be in the first place? We're pretty sure that though Walt Disney was an eccentric motherflipper, he had better things to do than host a coup d'etat. Well, that's partially correct, in that he didn't have the time -- no, he palmed the job off to the CIA, who were more than happy to help. They had experience in this sort of thing, after all.
After he'd finished purchasing the land for their proposed park, Disney was left with more than 40 square miles under his company's control. Eager to keep as much of that out of the government's grasping mitts as possible, Disney teamed up with William Donovan (also known as the "Father of the CIA") and Paul Helliwell (a lawyer who was part of efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro) to help build, lest we remind you, a cartoon-character-filled theme park.
So how do you solve a problem like government oversight? Oh, that's easy: You create two ghost cities (the City of Bay Lake and the City of Lake Buena Vista) and populate them with your own workers, who, in exchange for certain privileges, agree to run the town in whatever way their corporate overlords want. Under this arrangement, Disney gets what it wants (freedom from the state, zero taxation, exemption from environmental regulations, maybe a goat sacrifice or two), and the workers get what they want, i.e. to live next to Disney World and line-cutting privileges at Space Mountain.
There are some pesky issues with this, namely that it violates certain parts of the Constitution and requires that all workers toe the line politically unless they want to be homeless. But that's a small price to pay for wholesome, family-friendly fun, right?
A Former Nazi Interrogator Made The Mosaics In Cinderella's Castle
As anyone who has ever undergone a midlife change in career knows, that stuff is hard to pull off. There's all the doubt about whether you did the right thing, the constant line of questioning about why your old place was so bad, and the general confusion that comes from, say, spending 50 years as a coal miner, only to take up fluffing. For Hanns Scharff, however, it was a pretty easy, stress-free decision to move into the illustrious world of designing the mosaics that adorn Disneyland and EPCOT. After all, his previous job was "Nazi interrogator." And no, we don't mean that he interrogated Nazis.
During World War II, Scharff served as an interrogator with the Luftwaffe, tasked with dredging information out of captured Allied pilots and other POWs. He only managed to avoid being assigned a shift as a gallows tester at Nuremberg because he was one of those rare interrogators who didn't like hurting people. He'd only fallen into the job butt-first after his superiors were wiped out in a (non-Disney-related) plane accident, not because of any raging bloodlust. Consequently, he wasn't totally down on beating people, figuring that there must be a better way, gosh dang it. Even if he was working for the actual Nazis and all.
Scharff found that "better way" in the art of manipulating minds. Instead of strapping pilots to chairs and electrowiring their nuts, Scharff would simply let his newfound friends talk. One of his favorite gambits was to use his extensive intelligence network to build up a complete picture of each pilot and then lord his superior knowledge over them, making sure to get certain pieces of information wrong. His prisoners, desperate to one-up him, would then correct him, not knowing that they'd given him the information that he needed.
His success rate was also helped by his habit of taking his prisoners on long walks through the local woodland, where they would share cigarettes, frolic, and talk about, like, home and the war and stuff that in a parallel universe lost them the war. Scharff would also arrange other experiences for his guests: dining with high command, visiting the local zoo, enjoying baked goods provided by Scharff's wife, and so on. It was pretty much how you'd get a toddler to spill war secrets. One prisoner was even afforded the opportunity to fly a Messerschmitt fighter plane, albeit one with little to no fuel and no machine guns. Scharff was kind, but he wasn't as gullible and easily manipulated as, um, our guys.
Despite being a foot soldier for history's great evil, Scharff was well-respected by his prisoners, and come the end of the war, he was able to hit up some of his old contacts for advice about moving to the United States. Once there, he discovered his true passion: mosaic art. He established a workshop in New York City. His business booming, he subsequently moved to California, where he was soon contracted to decorate Cinderella's Castle and EPCOT. It's all well and good stealing Nazis for NASA, but did they ever make a child smile? We think not.
Mermaid tails are actually pretty heavy-duty gear and you do not want to be sucked into a propeller while wearing one.
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