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Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse Theme Parks


By Mike Patrick, Jr., M.D.

It's supposed to be the Happiest Place on Earth. Tell that to a family who has watched a loved one die during a Disney vacation. For them, it becomes the Saddest Place on Earth, their terrible tragedy casting a shadow over the memories of a fun-filled trip. The latest victim, a 12-year-old boy, became limp and unresponsive during his limousine ride on Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. His subsequent passing served as a rude reminder of an odd string of Disney deaths.

It all started with a 77-year-old woman. Gloria Land had a long-standing history of diabetes and stroke. In February of 2005, she stepped off of Pirates of the Caribbean, collapsed, and became the first of six Disney deaths in a 16-month period. The medical examiner said her death "was not unexpected" because of ill health. No one has blamed Disney for her death. So why did Gloria Land make the news? After all, 77-year-old women collapse and die every day. But Gloria was different. She collapsed at Walt Disney World, and that's why we heard about it.

A few months later, another death came to our attention, this one more newsworthy. A 4-year-old boy died on Mission: Space. Immediately, the cries rang out: Why was a 4-year-old riding Mission: Space? How come Disney allowed it? What were his parents thinking? Well, Disney does not require birth certificates for little riders, so they had no idea he was four. And his parents? They didn't break any rules--he was tall enough to ride and appeared in good health.

As it turns out, his age had nothing to do with his death. The problem was the assumption his parents made regarding his health. Their son wasn't in good health. He had a heart condition, but nobody knew it.

His heart was big and thick and prone to life-threatening arrhythmias when it got beating really fast. Did Mission: Space make his heart beat really fast? Probably. Had he skipped the ride, would the 4-year-old be alive today? Maybe. But at some point in the future, perhaps during a basketball game or a school dance or a track meet, the same thing would likely happen. Only this time his sudden death would only make the local news--it wouldn't go national. You know why?

Because it wouldn't have happened at Disney.

Soon after the Mission: Space incident, we heard two more stories. A 12-year-old girl died at Typhoon Lagoon, and a 16-year-old lost consciousness after riding Tower of Terror. The 12-year-old must have drowned at the Disney water park, right? Wrong. As it turns out, she hadn't felt well for several days because her heart was infected with a virus. The 16-year-old had also been ill, with leg cramps and severe headache. Her collapse was due to a massive stroke that led to cardiac arrest. Rescue workers got her heart going again, and surgeons performed an emergency procedure to relieve pressure from her brain.
She survived, but faces a long battle of rehabilitation. Believe it or not, kids sometimes die from heart infections and stroke. I've seen it happen. But then again, I'm a pediatrician. Your mileage may differ. After all, these kids don't usually end up on the nightly news.

The next death was a thirty-year-old man who rode Dinosaur. Guess what? He had severe heart disease and required a pacemaker. No one has blamed Disney for his death. Was the event newsworthy? You decide. But keep this in mind: He died at Disney.

This past April, we heard about Mission: Space again. This time, a 49-year-old woman had a stroke and died the next day. The medical examiner reported evidence of "severe, long-standing high blood pressure," which is a major risk factor for stroke.

Do you see the underlying pattern here? I hope you do, because it continues with the most recent case. Preliminary reports indicate the 12-year-old boy who died last month on Rock 'n' Roller Coaster had an undiagnosed heart problem.

Each of these cases, on its own accord, looks innocent enough. Lots of folks have undiagnosed medical problems. They take vacation. They engage in behavior that is risky for their unknown condition. Can you blame them for this behavior? No. Is it Disney's fault? No. But that's looking at individual cases. When you look at the big picture, it is cause for pause. Let's face it, six deaths and a very close call in little over a year sounds fishy. Surely someone or something is to blame. Is the medical examiner covering for Disney? That's a bit far-fetched, even for a Patricia Cornwell novel. Should we blame President Bush? How about global warming?

I choose to believe the medical examiner. Each death was precipitated by a natural cause, each death was expected given the person's underlying medical condition, and each death was newsworthy only because the terminal event began on Disney property. Did the Disney experience hasten death? For some, it probably did. But there would have been countless other non-Disney experiences waiting down the road of life and leading to the same outcome.

The thing is this: If any of these people had succumbed in a different context, you and I wouldn't have heard about it. But Disney makes headlines. People take notice. They tune in. And we all know a bigger audience spells more advertising dollars--that's your bottom line.

Expect to hear about more Disney deaths. Travel is up from the 9-11 doldrums. Walt Disney World has 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, resorts, golf courses, a sports complex, and millions and millions of visitors.

At any given time, there are plenty of folks with undiagnosed medical conditions on Disney property. Many will engage in behavior that is risky for their unknown condition, and a few more of them will pay the ultimate price for their behavior. The media will report it, the internet will spread it, and you and I will gobble it up.

There is one more piece to this puzzle. Disney was busy prior to 9-11, but you didn't hear about deaths back then. Why not? Well, just because you didn't hear about them, doesn't mean they didn't happen.

Prior to 2001, Disney was not required to report these incidents to any authority. As long as a ride hadn't malfunctioned and as long as the the death pronouncement came at the hospital and as long as the medical examiner determined the death to be the result of a natural cause, there was no news story. That's not true today.

So how does all of this this affect you and me? Do we live our lives in fear that an undiagnosed medical condition will result in death on a Disney attraction? Of course not. But we can use this as a wake up call of sorts. We should see our doctors regularly and we should follow their advice. We should pay attention to our family history.  And we should take seriously the posted rules and warnings we encounter in our lives.

Beyond that, there's no sense in worry. Any of us could die at any time. Death could come in a car, on a plane, in a pool, or on a Disney attraction. So, yes Virginia, there is death at Disney. But look, there's life too. lots of it. Life and magic and dreams and family. And I have to tell you, when my time comes, if it finds me enjoying Disney with my family, so be it. Because, really, there's no place in the world I'd rather be.


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