Home » 5 Disney Attractions That Were Forever Changed by a Lawsuit

5 Disney Attractions That Were Forever Changed by a Lawsuit

Haunted Mansion

The Disney Parks have seen their fair share of warranted and unwarranted lawsuits over the last 62 years. Sometimes, it’s the guest’s fault. Someone trips on a loading platform, forgets to watch where the path intersects with a parade route or deliberately chooses to disregard the instructions of a cast member. In one of the more ludicrous cases to attract Disney’s attention, a man sued Disneyland four months after the park opened its gates for the first time in 1955, claiming injury when he slipped on a pile of orange and banana peels.

Other times, the parks themselves are at fault. The very worst cases have involved permanent injury or death, as was the case in 1998 when an untrained cast member attempted a premature docking of the Sailing Ship Columbia, causing an iron cleat to rip loose from the ship and fly through the crowd, killing one guest and injuring both the cast member and two others. These are the lawsuits that not only remind guests of the real-world dangers lurking behind Disneyland’s pristine façades, but often lead to permanent changes in protocol and the attraction designs themselves.

1. Haunted Mansion

Haunted Mansion

Image: mliu92, Flickr (license)

Ever wonder why cast members are so adamant that you “Move into the ‘dead center’ of the room” when you enter the Haunted Mansion? Just ask Maria Miranda, who sustained a head injury after the wall she was leaning against unexpectedly gave way. Not realizing she had been resting against the elevator door, Miranda fell out of the room and banged her head on a railing – then promptly settled with the park out of court.

Following the incident, guests noticed a rather spooky addition to the cast member spiel at the beginning of the preshow, though it had a lot more to do with their general safety than giving them the perfect spot to watch the stretching room’s haunting finale.

2. It’s a Small World

It's a Small World

Image: HarshLight, Flickr (license)

Disneyland had already faced considerable backlash from the public in November 2009, when filmmaker and quadriplegic Jose Martinez was stranded aboard a wheelchair-accessible ride vehicle for It’s a Small World. The ride had temporarily broken down, but the unique configuration of the boat made it impossible for Martinez to make an emergency exit without first returning to the loading dock. He waited 40 minutes to be evacuated and claimed to have suffered dysreflexia, which is often triggered by overstimulation (in this case, the endless refrain of the attraction’s theme song) and in extreme cases can lead to stroke or death.

Disney eventually disproved several allegations about the condition of the attraction and the length of the initial delay, but the court ultimately ruled in Martinez’s favor and awarded him $8,000 for Disney’s mishandling of the situation and lack of proper protocol.

Two years after the incident, Disney took a closer look at their ride vehicles when another guest fell off the wheelchair platform itself. Seventy-four-year-old Anthony Delgado was loaded onto one of the attraction’s wheelchair-accessible boats, but promptly fell backwards in his chair once the boat left the loading area. By the fall of 2011, the park had rolled out a new set of wheelchair-enabled boats – this time, with anchors to keep the wheelchairs locked firmly into place.

3. Space Mountain

Space Mountain

Image: Goldie, Flickr (license)

Alcohol and roller coasters rarely mix: a lesson 18-year-old James Higgins learned the hard way after boarding a 1983 Space Mountain ride vehicle while intoxicated. Had he chosen to visit Disneyland just a year later, after the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was passed, he might have escaped injury altogether, but his actions, while irresponsible, weren’t technically illegal at the time. As the coaster made its final turn, Higgins was thrown from the back of the rocket and collided with the wall. He spent the next six months in a coma and was both paralyzed and brain-damaged as a result of the incident.

The court ruled in the park’s favor after Disney’s lawyers proved that Higgins and his two friends had deliberately ignored safety precautions and somehow escaped their vehicles’ restraints. While the incident was rare, though sobering, Disney wasn’t taking any chances. They upgraded the lap restraints to the now-customary T-shape design in order to prevent guests from unlocking their own seats while the vehicle was in motion.

4. PeopleMover


Image: Gene Spesard, Flickr (license)

The PeopleMover doesn’t weave its way through the upper quarters of Tomorrowland anymore, in part because of the sheer numbers of accidents, incidents and lawsuits it attracted from 1967 to 1995.

The first notable change to the ride occurred after a barrage of lawsuits in November 1967, when a rare rainy day in Southern California caused the ride vehicles to repeatedly plow into one another. Cars headed for an incline in the track were met with ones that had already started to roll backwards, causing violent collisions from both ends. Several guests were left with permanent facial scars, while still others claimed they sustained various injuries after getting knocked out of their seats. One such guest was even left unconscious in the chaos.

By the time the dust cleared, Disney had settled with 22 of 23 plaintiffs. Imagineers, meanwhile, took every precaution to outfit the ride vehicles with weather-appropriate tires and lifts. Extensive refurbishments enabled the vehicles to handle inclement weather, but it still wasn’t enough to prevent another rash of injuries.

Although the PeopleMover didn’t suffer another serious rainy-day incident, it was shelved for good after a slew of accidents surfaced in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Unsupervised children and foolhardy teenagers continued to try to climb out of the ride vehicles, sometimes fatally misjudging the attraction’s low MPH and suffering serious harm in the process. Several children lost their toes after the vehicles ran over their feet, and 17-year-old Ricky Lee Yama was killed after trying to jump from car to car and falling onto the track. By the mid-1990s, it was clear that the PeopleMover presented more safety hazards than Disney wanted to deal with, and it was quickly replaced even as its Walt Disney World counterpart continued to be a staple of Tomorrowland.

5. Matterhorn Bobsleds

Matterhorn Bobsleds

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

Some rides required more than a minor safety upgrade. Since its heralded opening in 1959, the Matterhorn Bobsleds had been subject to plenty of revisions, from padded bars to bumpers and two-sled cars to accommodate nearly triple the original number of riders per hour. Vehicles were also controlled by an automated computer program that was designed to anticipate and prevent any potential collisions.

Even computerized systems have their bugs, however, and the Bobsleds were no exception. From 1980 to 1984, several guests were thrown from their sleds after the seatbelt restraints failed to secure them properly. Two were killed as a result, though the court ruled that the incidents were largely due to guest negligence rather than Disney’s oversight – that is, riders stood or otherwise tried to exit a moving ride vehicle after being instructed not to do so.

Prior to 2011, guests were loaded into the ride vehicles in tandem. One rider sat in the back of the sled, bracing against the seat back and wrapping their legs around the sides of the person riding in the front. Cast members followed strict guidelines that instructed them to load heavier or larger guests first (in the back of the sled) and lighter or smaller guests second (in the front of the sled). Failure to do so could result in injury or death – and, during the summer of 2011, that’s exactly what happened. A sled was loaded backwards, with the larger passenger sitting in the front, and the passenger in the back of the vehicle sustained neck, shoulder and back injuries after being crushed between his fellow passenger and the metal bar along the seat back.

Disney quickly agreed to a settlement with the plaintiff while the Matterhorn Bobsleds underwent a total renovation. Upon its reopening in January 2012, the sleds featured single-passenger seating, a brand-new height requirement and redesigned seatbelts designed to keep riders securely strapped into their seats.

Today, Disneyland continues to maintain rigorous safety standards to prevent the tragedies of years past from repeating themselves. No theme park can ever offer a 100% guarantee against accidents and malfunctions, but a little care and prevention – watching where you walk, following cast member instructions and avoiding off-limits areas — can go a long way to ensure that your visit is both safe and magical.