Inside Walt Disney World's Most Infamous EPCOT Heist
By the late 20-teens, Walt Disney World's EPCOT, a once shining beacon of social harmony and later, a vision of cutting-edge theme park technology, had seemingly veered off the rails. Speeding away from both Walt Disney's utopian vision of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and its hyper-capitalist, opening day portrait of 1980's American optimism, the park found itself inadvertently hurtling towards a crumbling, outdated, and sometimes hazardous shell of its former self.
The Horizons pavilion, known for praising the promises of future technology with a beloved, eponymous ride guiding visitors through the innovations of tomorrow, closed in 1999 after a nearly two-decade spanning run. While several sources cite mega-conglomerate GE's decision to pull their sponsorship and financial support from the attraction as the catalyst for its downfall, some fans speculate that the actual reason for its demise was more sinister, alleging a sinkhole beneath the structure had brought Horizons to the brink of physical collapse. In its place, came Mission: Space, a ride that led to two passenger deaths – one of which was a four-year-old boy -- with 194 additional guests requiring treatment from paramedics over the period of one year, exhibiting symptoms including nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, and irregular heartbeat after riding, per the Orlando Sentinel.
Horizons was not alone in meeting an eerie end, yet its dramatic departure was an outlier, a notably spectacular downfall when compared to the slow disintegration of EPCOT's other defunct attractions. Unbeknownst to most visitors, the stoic corpses of several early pavilions remained partially or entirely abandoned, gathering dust in almost plain sight.
The ethereal, rainbow-lit hallway in the upper floor of the Imagination pavilion that pop legend Michael Jackson famously strolled down amid his Victory/Off the Wall tour in 1984, stood dark and largely untouched – except by a handful of curious, camera-toting trespassers who managed to slip past park security to see the now-lifeless tunnel of white, un-illuminated neon tubes for themselves.
The Innoventions pavilions, too, faced a similar fate. Once home to several interactive technology installations, the theoretically ever-changing attraction spaces remained eerily sparse in their final years. Hosting only a handful of activities – most notably, a seemingly unending series of makeshift walls barring off empty and likely abandoned sections -- their barren-ness served as a visual testament to just how far the park had strayed from Walt's vision of a functioning, live-able utopia and its optimistic opening day concept.
Yet of all of these decaying EPCOT offerings, the Wonders of Life pavilion managed to not only survive but thrive in its abandonment, finding renewed purpose as an event space for some of the park's several festivals while simultaneously transforming into one of Walt Disney World's most exclusive, unofficial attractions – an animatronic-filled playground for urban explorers.
Opening in October 1989, the Wonders of Life pavilion was one of EPCOT's many corporate-backed structures, sponsored by insurance company MetLife. Aimed at teaching visitors about physical health, including fitness, nutrition, and medicine, the pavilion boasted two notable features – a Star Tours-esque motion simulator ride called Body Wars, the park's first thrill ride, and Cranium Command, a stage show explaining the importance of the human brain, detailing a pilot named Buzzy's first day navigating the mind of a 12-year-old boy.
Unlike other offerings throughout EPCOT, sponsorship wasn't the sole reason for the Wonders of Life pavilion's demise. Although MetLife's decision to end its sponsorship in 2001 served as a major catalyst in the pavilion's downfall, Body Wars, too, likely played a role in the area's partial abandonment. A perfect storm of nauseating late ‘80s simulator ride visuals and a weirdly gory concept centering around riders being shrunk to the size of a single cell and speeding through a patient's body via bloodstream, many parkgoers complained this unnerving combination made them queasy. As such, several squeamish guests labeled the simulator a must-miss thrill ride, cauterizing the fate of the bloody attraction – and the rest of its EPCOT home.
By 2004, the Wonders of Life pavilion was given the Disney kiss of death -- seasonal operation – only running when the park reached near capacity during the holidays and throughout the spring months. Roughly three years later, Body Wars and Cranium Command shuttered for good, their signage removed and entrances obscured with EPCOT's infamous makeshift walls as the rest of the pavilion served as a locale for private events and some of the park's several yearly food festivals.
“People who weren't hip to the theme park jive would stand in there drinking their wine and eating their chocolate nitro-truffles, and not realize they were just on the other side of some plywood from a fully in-tact, abandoned theme-park attraction,” YouTuber Jenny Nicholson explained in her 2019 deep-dive on the topic, which has since garnered more than one million views.
EPCOT enthusiasts, however, were well aware that beyond those inconspicuous barriers, the attractions remained virtually untouched since Body Wars's last stomach-churning ride and Buzzy's final curtain call, clandestinely venturing beyond the makeshift partitions to pay respects to the nearly 20-year-old pavilion and inadvertently ushering in a new era for Wonders of Life – its existence as Disney World's premiere urban exploring locale.
Over the next decade and change, several die-hard EPCOT fans – mainly “adult men with YouTube channels” at first, according to Nicholson, although younger explorers later got in on the fun -- slipped past the walls, smartphones in hand, to view the essentially fossilized remains of the pavilion's offerings. Yet instead of keeping their (pretty darn illegal) activities to themselves, many of these trespassers took to YouTube and other social media platforms to share updates on Body Wars – despite unverified whispers of test runs in 2011, the thrill ride's vehicles were removed circa 2014 – and also, Buzzy, who had essentially become the new, unofficial mascot for Wonders of Life.
To the likely relief of EPCOT's theme park spelunkers, Buzzy's condition remained generally consistent throughout the years. Aside from a few instances in which his gloves and other items of clothing were stolen, he received an animatronic facelift earlier in the decade, which repaired his drooping eye along with a few other cosmetic issues. Yet in early 2018, Buzzy began sporting a new accessory – a white “red tag” hooked to the front of his brain-operating gear. An indicator that the end was nigh for Disney's unsanctioned urban exploring attraction, the tag was signaled that Buzzy would soon be removed, preserved, and scheduled for a one-way trip to The Walt Disney Archives in Burbank, California, an occurrence Nicholson described as “bittersweet.”
“I say bittersweet because it was good news that they intended to save Buzzy and not throw him in the garbage, but it was kind of a sad confirmation that they were not going to reopen the attraction,” she recalled.
By the end of 2018, Buzzy was ultimately removed – yet instead of being tenderly dismantled by Disney's archival staff, it seems the animatronic met a much darker demise. In December of that year, disturbing reports began emerging that Buzzy, command seat and all, had been ripped from his perch, a purported thief slashing through the animatronic's power lines, leaving behind pools of hydraulic fluid, splattered like blood, throughout the crime scene. To this day, it seems no one – sans Buzzy's kidnapper(s) -- knows what, exactly happened to the beloved EPCOT icon.
Throughout the early months of 2019, the Wonders of Life rumor mill began turning with seemingly unprecedented fervor, truth nearly indistinguishable from fiction as fans forged forward in the pursuit of animatronic justice. Some claimed Buzzy's disappearance was the work of Patrick Spikes, an ex-cast member and now former admin of an extremely edgy Twitter account called Backdoor Disney, infamous for posting compromising photos of cast members in costume and off-limits areas of the park. With authorities questioning him about a reported theft of Buzzy's clothing from the summer of 2018 the following November, according to a legal document, several suspected Spikes was the culprit when it came to Buzzy's later kidnapping.
Others, as Nicholson explained in her video, alleged it was an inside job, citing Buzzy's weight (theme park animatronics are not generally known for their portability) and location high above the stage, asserting that it would be almost impossible to remove the brain pilot without special equipment and perhaps an alternative means of exiting the park.
“After disconnecting Buzzy, it would also take more than one person to carry him out,” mused Annie Wilson of WDW News Today in her breaking coverage of Buzzy's disappearance. “How does something like this happen without Disney security noticing? This also raises safety concerns for guests, as if someone without authorization drove a truck into a backstage area in a park to do something like this, what would stop someone with more serious intentions?”
Amid this panicked speculation, some fans remained calm, arguing that Buzzy was in safe hands, and that the workers from the Walt Disney Archives were particularly sloppy while moving the animatronic to his new, Burbank home.
Yet on May 12, 2019, EPCOT fans' worst nightmares were realized when Backdoor Disney shared a harrowing photo on its Twitter account, depicting what appears to be the animatronic's severed, eye-less head, seemingly confirming that Buzzy, our boy, was gone for good.
Five days later, Spikes was arrested on a series of charges – not including Buzzy's theft -- with police alleging, among other accusations, that he stole roughly $7,000 of clothing from The Haunted Mansion and reportedly sold several items on the black market, including Buzzy's costume to then Milwaukee Bucks player, Robin Lopez, for $8,000.
“I had asked him, ‘Where did it come from? How did he get it?’ I always wanted to make sure it was on [the] level,” the NBA star, who currently (and quite coincidentally) plays for the Orlando Magic, said of his transaction with Spikes. " I had been told that he got it from a cast member or Imagineer ... who had worked there and it was given to them."
Despite the implication that Spikes was behind the animatronic's theft, the former Cast Member, who was ultimately sentenced to 10 years probation, 250 hours of community service, as well as more than $25,300 in restitution for allegedly committing the aforementioned crimes, has not faced any charges regarding Buzzy's disappearance – nor may anyone, ever.
In April, a representative from the Orange County Sheriff's Office told Theme Park Tribune that the case was now considered inactive, a development that “indicates all available leads have been exhausted but the case has not been brought to a conclusion and the investigation has been suspended," though, as the spokesperson noted, “investigative efforts may be resumed if and when new information is received."
Despite existing as a prime suspect in the eyes of several spectators, a status fueled by his constant allusions to obtaining insider information about Buzzy's whereabouts, Spikes maintains his innocence, citing his size. “It’d be ridiculous to steal a 300-pound animatronic,” Spikes said, told the Orlando Sentinel in April 2020, likely referencing his 5-foot-8 stature, as listed on his arrest warrant.
So, what exactly does Spikes think happened to Buzzy? “There’s a theory someone talked about that Imagineering removed Buzzy and didn’t tell anyone else. So when Operations, the part of the company that runs the Pavillion noticed he was missing, they filed him as ‘stolen,’” he told The Daily Beast shortly after his 2019 arrest.
So folks, wherever he is and however he met his untimely demise, here's to Buzzy – the beloved animatronic and Disney's unofficial urban exploring mascot. Thanks for proving that even amid abandonment and isolation, it is possible to find love, acclaim, and a renewed sense of purpose.
Top Image: Carly Tennes/The Walt Disney Company/Orange County Sheriff's Office