Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Tragic Kingdom - A Death On Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain

Today, we have another post that can be filed under the heading of, "Tragic Kingdom."

Twenty years ago today, a fatal accident occurred on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attraction.  It was the tenth death in the park's history, and the second in only five years, following an accident in 1998, involving the Columbia Sailing Ship.

Ten other passengers aboard Big Thunder were injured, with nine of them being transferred to local hospitals.

The timeline given below has to be wrong, because if the passengers boarded the ride "about 11 a.m.", it wouldn't have taken 20 minutes for them to reach the second lift, where the passenger cars detached from the engine.

The section labeled, "Accidents Since 1997" (above), reveals just how many incidents had occurred at the park, within only a six-year period.  However, it fails to mention the 6-year old girl who lost two-thirds of her index finger, after getting it caught on a rifle on Tom Sawyer Island (in January of 2001).  It also does not mention the 4-year old boy, who fell off of King Arthur's Carousel, and ended up in the hospital with a concussion.  That accident occurred on the same day as the Columbia incident.  And that last accident listed, mentioning a "double-deck boat" tipping over, is referring to the Mike Fink Keel Boats.  Unfortunately, that attraction never reopened after that incident.

Following this accident, and the one involving the Columbia, there was a lot of finger-pointing at park management, accusing them of making cutbacks to proper employee training and attraction maintenance.  According to Wikipedia, "The cause of the (Big Thunder) accident was determined to be improper maintenance.  Investigation reports and discovery by the victim's attorney, confirmed the fatal injuries occurred when the first passenger car collided with the underside of the locomotive.  The derailment was the result of a mechanical failure, which occurred due to omissions during a maintenance procedure."

For further information on the accident, and the legal settlements that followed, here is an article which also mentions how park management admitted to incorrectly performing maintenance on the attraction.

Incidentally, Cynthia Harriss resigned from her role as President of the Disneyland Resort, just one month after the Big Thunder accident.  The next year, she followed in the footsteps of former chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Paul Pressler, and took a job working for The Gap.  I wonder if she ever gave couch-painting lessons to The Gap employees (as she had done once, during a Disney cast member party).



K. Martinez said...

Some people complain about Disneyland today. I'm one of them, but I think the 1990's were still the worst period in Disneyland history even when compared to today. I guess it's what was known as the Pressler/Harriss era. It's what happens when you put the wrong people in charge. When you let a beautiful and innovative park run down and do not perform proper maintenance and training, then you go downhill. The loss of many classic attractions, shoddy maintenance and uninspiring new attractions resulted in my not being so enamored with the Eisner regime. And the worst and most shameful part is the unnecessary deaths and injuries of visitors at the park. And this all falls under Eisner as he was the head of the company. That's my opinion. Without Frank Wells, Disney went to hell in a hand basket.

Anyway, a sad time in Disneyland history. Hard to save much positive about this era. As a kid who grew up on Disney to say the 1990's at Disney was disappointing is an understatement.

Thanks for such a cheerful article, TM! ;-)

TokyoMagic! said...

Ken, I guess I have complained about Disney ever since the nineties. It seems like that is when it all started to go down hill, and just continued from there. And yes, the cost-cutting that resulted in deaths and injuries is very shameful. Walt is probably rolling over in his urn.

I do wonder how things would have turned out, if Frank Wells had not died. We will never know!

I know it's a "downer" post, but I had saved the article all these years, and thought if I'm ever going to share it, now might be the time.....you know, as sort of a 20-year remembrance. May the unfortunate victim of this accident, Marcello Torres, rest in peace.

Stefano said...

I haven't been to Disneyland since 1997, just before so many things started going so wrong. The previous deaths were mostly of teenage boys acting recklessly, while I've thought the Debbie Stone incident was a case of tragic heedlessness, and Dolly Young had some sort of seizure or panic attack which compelled her to stand up. But to see the park unquestionably to blame for these injuries and deaths, with the main reason being greed --very sad.

I remember this article and the follow ups; the park payed some $35 million out of court to the Torres family ( the same lawyer got a similar amount for the victims of the Columbia accident). Eisner was quoted as saying safety is always the top priority...then he probably had admission prices raised. As I recall, a school or foundation was named for Marcello in the South American country the family hailed from; Marcello's best friend, sitting next to him and badly injured himself, said "It isn't going to be the same without him".

Major Pepperidge said...

The Big Thunder death AND the Columbia death were incredibly sad, and very preventable. The idea of making the park more profitable by cutting down on maintenance and staff training is a recipe for disaster. I’m not sure I knew about the boy falling off of the Carousel, not great but at least it was not a fatality.

At some point in any park’s long history, it’s inevitable that some accidents will happen. But Paul Pressler and Cynthia Harris were infamous for cutting as much as they could get away with. Remember all the websites with photos of rotting wood and peeling paint?

It is a shame that it took several deaths to wake up the management - I think even Roy E. Disney had finally had enough, after seeing what had become of Walt’s park.

Any idea where Paul Pressler is today? I guess I need to Google him.

TokyoMagic! said...

Stefano, yes.....most of the earlier guest deaths were due to the guests doing things that they shouldn't be doing. It is very sad to think about these deaths being a direct result of management's cutbacks and greed, and not caring about the potential outcomes that could follow.

I would be willing to bet money, that Disney raised admission prices, following the settlements they had to make with the victim's family, and those who were injured. Management certainly wasn't going to let the company take the financial loss over that. "Let the public pay for it" was probably their solution.

I can't imagine being the person in the seat next to Marcello Torres, and going through all of that. I would think that it would affect you for the rest of your life.

As a side note, I went to WDW just 6 months after this accident. After getting up to the front of the line for their Big Thunder, we were told to go to "Row #1" by the cast member. After standing in that spot for "Row 1" for a few seconds, I decided to go back to the cast member, and tell him that we did not want to sit in that row. He didn't blink an eye, and he just gave us another row number to go to. I figured, if it could happen at DL, it could happen at WDW.

TokyoMagic! said...

Major, you are right, those two deaths were totally preventable.

I do remember seeing all of those photos of the park rotting away. I was glad to see management called out on their neglect. But it probably didn't have an affect on the current management at the time. I don't think the changes occurred until Pressler and Harriss left....if I remember correctly. Oh, and if they had done proper maintenance on things, Uti and her canoe would have never fallen from the rafters above the Tiki Room entrance, and then wouldn't have "disappeared" from backstage. Imagine if they had fallen onto a guest or a cast member! I say, good riddance to all of them, Pressler, Harriss and Eisner!

I don't know what happened to Pressler. I know that he didn't stay at The Gap. Maybe he's in charge of a traveling carnival....somewhere.

Nanook said...

@ TM!-
It sounds as if Paul Pressler is running out his clock'. At the moment he seems to be the Chairman of the Board at eBay, (Yawn).

As for Ms. Harriss - it seems she may be "between gigs": "My passion is creating extraordinary experiences for employees, customers, and shareholders… each meeting their highest expectations. You see, it’s not about getting results at all cost but I believe in getting results for the long term". WOW - Go Team-!!

"Looking to the future, I am open to board positions and working with emerging companies going through transition where I can leverage my vast experience and expertise in transformation, high growth, brand building, and developing strong culture".

TokyoMagic! said...

Nanook, I suppose if Pressler ordered cutbacks in training and maintenance at eBay, the results might not be as deadly?

My passion is creating extraordinary experiences for employees....

I suppose that is her reason for doing her bizarre "couch painting" demonstration at DCA, for that Disney employee party. So clueless. I can just picture her telling the employees, "First thing you do is, go out and buy yourself a sofa to paint on.....the more expensive, the better!"


In the early 2000’s prior to the Big Thunder accident there was a pretty big Space Mountain accident . There were no deaths but lots of injuries. I was in our office with my area manager Meg and she got a security message that an accident occurred at space mountain that was severe . That the area was going to be cleared … a routine emergency stop halted all rockets in motion except the last two …. And they careened right into the first E STOPPED rocket it reached. The guests in the still rocket had broken bones and many of them had their teeth smashed out as their heads bashed against the headrests they sat behind. Security then said a FAKE announcement had been made ( to the press ?? I don’t know to who ) that Micheal Eisner and some investors would be flying into the park via helicopters … ( this was at night I forgot to mention) thus was to cover up the fact that the helicopter landing backstage were emergency Life Flight …. Because of this accident Space mountain received all new track and all new rocket vehicles after an extensive rehab. When Disney sold off the older space mountain rockets on EBAYs Disney Auctioneers , some of the rockets were greatly damaged and I wondered were any of these from from big accident?? Supposedly when a vehicle is involved in a accident or lawsuit, it’s kept for legal reasons. For many years an original
1955 Jungle Cruise boat sat backstage because it had been involved in an injury accident and had been used in court proceedings as evident and demonstrations to the jury. If it still exist … it may be the only surviving 1955 period jungle cruise boat.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to watch your light magic videos but they are private. Can you make them public ?

TokyoMagic! said...

Anonymous, sorry about that! YouTube made some changes a while back, which switched the settings on some of my videos to "Private." They did warn me about it in advance, and stated that I would have to go in there after those changes, and switch the settings back. However, I never got around to doing that. Thank you for the reminder! I have finally corrected the problem, and you should be able to watch those videos now.

TokyoMagic! said...

Mike, I don't know how I missed your comment from two months ago....sorry! I do remember that Space Mountain went down for it's major rehab/rebuild, earlier than what was originally planned. I'm assuming that accident was the reason? It's scary to think that you could be riding something like Space Mountain, and then have that happen to you. I never used to worry about things like that, but now as I get older, I think about it more! I remember when I was a kid, my mom worried about me going on some of the wilder rides at amusement parks, and ESPECIALLY the ones at traveling fairs and carnivals. I guess I have "become my parents"!