The People v Disneyland

Louisa Luong

cw: assault, racism, ableism

To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land.

 Home to happiness, dreams, and childhood magic. There’s something for everyone at Disneyland; for kids, there are wholesome rides, fireworks, and overpriced hot dogs. For weary parents, there are ample sitting areas, clean bathrooms, and an endless supply of Mickey Mouse merchandise for all souvenir and Christmas gifts to come. The truth is, your parents haven’t truly loved you unless they’ve stuffed you in a plane for 17 hours and planted you in front of the iconic pink castle for a Kodak Gold moment.

Since its grand opening in 1955, the theme park in Anaheim, California has seen over 650 million guests from all over the world. In a country that prides itself on Freedom, the Right to Bare Arms, and Suing Whoever for Whatever the Fuck Reason, it comes as no surprise that Disneyland rides have attracted over 650 lawsuits. And this number only accounts for the years between 1954–1992 according to Californian author David Koenig. Koenig has written three books about Disney lawsuits and his Goodreads profile photo features him in a bowling shirt sitting in front of his 2002 iMac. As we enter the world of Disneyland law, please remember to keep your hands, arms, and feet inside the ride at all times.


It’s a Small World

Jose Martinez was trapped on the equally cheerful as it is creepy ride after it broke down. While other passengers evacuated the ride, Martinez, who is a quadriplegic, was left stranded in the Goodbye Room (the very last room before the exit). And if getting stuck in the dark wasn’t enough, he also had to endure listening to the song play over and over again for 40 whole minutes. While we can agree that it’s a catchy song, 40 minutes of it is just too much. In his complaint, Martinez said that he “suffered extreme emotional distress and feared that he was going to die as he remained trapped on the ride. [He] also felt extremely humiliated and embarrassed at having been singled out by this discriminatory treatment in Disneyland’s inability to evacuate him from the ride.” In his lawsuit, he also cited other discriminatory treatment. For example, lack of family restroom facilities, incorrectly constructed curb ramps with excessive slopes, and the fact that 75% of the park’s rides were not accessible by wheelchair. Martinez demanded that Disney alter its policies, practices, and procedures to accommodate for the full enjoyment of the theme park for people with disabilities. The judge awarded $8,000 for his pain and suffering. And as far as implementing a ‘procedure’ to evacuate passengers with disabilities, the court held that Disney had a duty to warn its guests with disabilities that rides might break down and that there’s a possibility that they could become trapped. Poor effort on Disney’s part while even places like Costco have handicapped shopping trolley that are more accommodating for people with disabilities.


Winnie the Poop

In 1978, Winnie the Pooh and OJ Simpson had a few things in common. A nine-year-old girl alleged that Pooh slapped her in the face causing bruising, recurring headaches, and possible brain damage. Actor Robert Hill testified that in his costume, his vision and movement were severely restricted. He claimed that the girl was tugging at his costume from behind and when he turned around to see who it was, he ‘accidentally’ struck the girl. After a court recess, Hill returned to the stand in full costume and answered questions as the cute, lovable, and totally huggable Pooh Bear. When the attorney asked him, “What do you do at Disneyland?”, he proceeded to do a jig down the aisle — to which the judge said, “Have the record show that he’s doing a two-step.” The costumed Hill then demonstrated for the jury that the costume’s arms were too low to the ground to have been capable of slapping the girl in the face — the classic ‘if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit’ moment. The jury took a total of 21 minutes to acquit Pooh on all charges; comparable to the four hours it took the jury in OJ Simpson’s murder trial.


Racist White Rabbit

In 2012, White Rabbit well and truly lived up to his name. A family claimed that White Rabbit was being racist towards their two African American sons when he refused to hold hands or hug them. Initially, they chalked it up to new policy that prohibited characters to touch children. But when they saw old mate White Rabbit hugging white and Asian children shortly after, they knew their suspicions held merit. While Disney offered an apology letter and park passes to the family, the family rejected the offer, and filed a lawsuit. Disney wouldn’t confirm if the employee was still employed, which is code for ‘yes, Racist Rabbit is still employed’. Call me naive, but I imagine finding a person with no skills or experience to don a costume and wave without being racist isn’t much of a tough ask. Maybe I am too idealistic, but I think we can all agree that Racist Rabbit has been a bad, bad bunny.


Segway or the Highway

Tina Baughman tried to fulfil her eight-year-old daughter’s birthday wish with a trip to the happiest place on earth. Suffering from muscular dystrophy, she finds it difficult to walk, or stand from a seated position. When Baughman contacted Disney to request permission to use a Segway, she was denied as per Appendix 1 of Disney’s policy stating that two-wheeled vehicles and devices are prohibited from the park’s premises. She sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that Disney denied her full and equal access to Disneyland. The ADA was enacted by Congress “to remedy widespread discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” The definition of discrimination being “a failure to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities.”

The district court of California held that Disney’s policy technically permits motorised wheelchairs and scooters, so it did not need to modify its policy because Baughman’s use of the Segway wasn’t “necessary”. In support of their case, Disney cited the case of Tennessee v Lane, where it was established that a paraplegic can enter a courthouse by dragging themselves up the front steps and therefore lifts and ramps are not “necessary”. In the same line of reasoning, Disney also stated that wheelchair-accessible doors and bathrooms were frivolous facilities as “individuals could be carried in litters or on the backs of their friends.” Clearly, Disney had grossly overestimated the power of the humble piggy back ride.

Fortunately, the case was appealed and went all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court which interpreted the ADA with respect to “full and equal enjoyment” rather than a strict examination of the word “necessary”. Under the ADA, Disney was required to take reasonable steps to provide guests with disabilities with a full and equal experience. In the end, Baughman was victorious as Disney was forced to change their policy to allow the use of Segways.


Tower of Terror

Meet Denise Mooty; she rode the Tower of Terror — a 40m drop ride set in the Hollywood Tower from television show The Twilight Zone — over fifty times a day, every single day. Suffering from abdominal adhesions, she claimed that the frequent 13-storey drop at 63km/hr helped ease the pain. Armed with an annual pass, doctor’s note, and a Guest Assistance Card, she was able to cut to the front of the line. Her true terror arrived in the form of a new manager who limited the number of times she could take the ride in a day. After verbally abusing staff, she was eventually banned from the park, and sued Disneyland for breach of contract, false arrest, and emotional distress. Her claim was dismissed by the court as it was held that although she was an annual pass holder, she was not entitled to extraordinary and unlimited access over any other regular ticket holder. Regardless, Mooty isn’t missing out on much these days as the Tower of Terror has been replaced by a new Guardians of the Galaxy ride as of January this year.


Headless Mickey

Disneyland is a place where magic becomes reality. And if we’re forking out up to $100 for a ticket plus $20 for parking, we have high expectations for the illusion that there’s a happy ending for us all — with our heads screwed on tight. While headless humans are indeed a sight, it seems headless Disney characters are in their own league of emotional trauma. In 1989, Lyndsey Boozer (aged five) coloured a hundred weather maps in a Pocatello television station competition, all in the hopes of winning a trip to Disneyland. Pocatello is in Idaho, which I’ve never visited, but I’m sure the weather cannot be interesting enough to warrant a children’s colouring in competition. Despite the poorly age-targeted contest, Lyndsey won her family a trip to the magic kingdom. While leaving the gift shop, they were accused by a security guard of stealing a piggy bank and taken to the security office — the scariest corner of the world’s happiest place. While they were being detained for questioning, Lyndsey “was shocked to see that her favourite characters whom she was hugging and shaking hands with minutes before had lost their heads in the meanwhile.” The Boozers filed a $1 million lawsuit, alleging that she became depressed and withdrawn, requiring three months of therapy. The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. I only hope that Lyndsey now knows that we all lose our heads sometimes.


Bad things happen to good people. Bad things also happen to bad people. And these bad things can happen in happy places. There’s not much we can do about it. All we can really do is enjoy the ride and exit safely through the gift shop.