I’m writing this down to A) help me process what happened and B) create some sort of written record.
I'm a Disneyland employee—have been for 5 years. I started running a concession stand, moved to ride operator, then into resort operations. All the while, I was a pursuing a degree in psychology with intentions to become a psychiatrist someday.
After I graduated, I continued working at Disneyland while I applied to grad school. To my surprise, Disney offered me a job—something that would allow me to work in my field (kind of) and stay in the park. Job title: Mental Health Assistant.
I’ve been in this role for exactly a week.
[first week / worst week / last week?]
I haven’t been fired yet, but let’s just say I’m expecting a call.
Let me back up a bit.
Deaths in Disneyland are rarely reported on, courtesy of the sophisticated PR team of a $168 billion company.
Suicides (anywhere) are also rarely reported on. That shouldn’t surprise anyone.
So what do you think happens when there is a suicide inside a Disney park?
It doesn’t happen.
Not to the outside world anyway. Families of victims, innocent bystanders, or anyone else affected by suicides inside the park generally go away with generous cash offers and thick non-disclosure agreements.
A disturbing online community has developed over the past year—a group that glorifies dying in Disneyland. It’s called the Disneyland Death Pact or DDP for short.
Their stated purpose is to serve as a metaphor. To illuminate the stark contrast between “The Happiest Place on Earth” and the utter horror and darkness of death. A metaphor that people who are happy on the outside can be dead inside. For some, a call back to when they were last happy.
I think their actualpurpose is to terrorize innocent people, to forever pervert happy childhood memories for the handful of people who happen to see the aftermath of suicide before staff cleans up.
The suicides have become more frequent in recent months, leading Disney to create the Mental Health Assistant role. They told me I was the ideal candidate—someone young and hip enough to speak the internet language of the DDP community, someone well-versed in the park itself, and someone with a psychology background (however meager that may be).
In the two weeks preceding my job offer, four suicides happened in the park:
Kelvin Goodwin took a fist full of pills then got on the Star Tours ride. Died in the middle of it.
Clifton Hedges pretended to fasten his seatbelt on the Guardians of the Galaxy tower ride, finagled his way off the elevator near the top, and jumped 200 feet down the elevator shaft, dying instantly upon hitting the top of the ascending elevator cabin.
Patrick Brayhill climbed off a Pirates of the Caribbean boat and hid in the Pirate's Lair scene. He slit his throat and bled out. He wasn't found until the next morning.
Jenny Davies scored an overnight stay in the highly-coveted princess castle, only to jump to her death in the middle of the night.
And I bet you've heard of none of these. They're not in the news, they're not on the "List of Incidents at Disneyland Park" Wikipedia page, they're not on YouTube. They're nowhere. That's the power of Disney PR at work.
I'd like to think Disney wants the trend to stop out of the goodness of their hearts, but let's be real, it's all about the bottom line. If the witnessing patrons or the victims’ families talk too much (despite the non-disclosure agreements and cash settlements), it can have a lasting effect on park visits.
A $168 billion-dollar company can keep a lot of people quiet, but how many?
In my first couple days on the job, I generated a fake online persona for Dave Karat—a name I thought of driving past a Wendy’s (founded by Dave Thomas) and then looking down at my coffee cup (lid imprinted with Karat), creating accounts on Facebook and a few others. Once it was believable enough, I applied for the Disneyland Suicide Pact’s online community—appropriately named the Mouske-tears. I was accepted a day later.
Just to be clear, you don’t have to make the ‘suicide pact’ in order to join the Mouske-tears. Anyone can join after a “light vetting.” Then once you’re ready to join the pact, you undergo a “heavy vetting”—something that Dave Karat probably wouldn’t pass—and are awarded a Mickey Mouse badge that accompanies your username on the site.
After being accepted, I began clicking on all the usernames with the Mickey Mouse badge, trying to determine who the next victim may be.
I quickly flagged four users as short-term risks—those that talked seriously about suicide in the park and appear to be planning a trip—but one stood out above the rest.
Her username was beauty_or_beast. Her profile picture showed a gentle girl with long blonde hair, probably 16 or 17 years old. She was very forthcoming about her life, detailing her reasons for suicide and why Disneyland is the ultimate venue. She mentioned the nostalgia of Haunted Mansion on three different occasions.
I saw her and others talking extensively about “Death Day” a couple weeks earlier. Upon a bit more investigation, I discovered that Death Day referred to December 15th, the day Walt Disney died. December 15thwas only a few days away.
Beauty_or_beast mentioned that her family was planning a trip to California during the week of December 15th and that she may, in fact, be in the park on Death Day. Someone suggested that perhaps the stars have aligned for her.
I private-messaged her asking what her plans were, saying that I may in the park for Death Day. She messaged back quickly and said she wasn’t sure. That she didn’t want to ruin the day for her family.
My heart broke.
I asked if she’d do it in Haunted Mansion. She said she didn’t know. Of course, she did know. That and so much more.
She told me her plan was to push for her family to go to the park on December 14th, then she’d say she’s meeting a friend and ditch her family just before park closing. Really she’d hide in the park overnight—something that’s much easier than people think—then kill herself right before park opening on Death Day.
I knew that the online community was a toxic place for her. That if I could talk to her in person, I could help her. I told her to message me when she knew her plans cause I might be there too. She told me she would. She said her name was Shay Kane.
On the morning of December 14th, I messaged Shay to see what time she was getting to the park. She didn't respond. She had changed her profile pic to a photo of Walt Disney with blacked out eyes.
I spent most of the day standing in the security control room watching the turnstile camera feeds. It's common for at-risk kids to change their appearance shortly before committing suicide, especially girls, so she must have slipped through unnoticed because I never saw her come in.
I messaged her a few more times, telling her I was in town and that we should meet up, or even meet in the park somewhere. She never responded. Before I went home that night, I showed Shay’s picture to the overnight security staff and let them know to keep an eye out.
I hardly slept that night.
The next morning, I headed to the park at 7 AM—two hours before open. I gave printouts of Shay's picture to the morning security team then walked to Haunted Mansion.
Disney is very thorough in their security camera coverage of areas where patrons are, but not so much “behind the scenes”—Disneyspeak for employee-only areas. That meant that I had to physically inspect every room of Haunted Mansion. After a fruitless hour of walking through the eerily empty ride, I continued my search through the rest of New Orleans Square then Frontierland. Nothing.
About twenty minutes before park opening, I got a call from the security staff. They saw a female similar to the picture I gave them walking around the backside of Haunted Mansion. I rushed back to the ride.
I barged into the side employee entrance and immediately started calling Shay's name. This was only a couple minutes before park opening, so the ride was now running—music and sound effects and all. I moved through the haunted graveyard, the seance scene, the beheaded groom scene, all while yelling "Shay!" at the top of my lungs. I felt defeated. There were a million places she could've been hiding.
Finally, I made it to the dining room scene. The ride moves along the mezzanine level of a two-story dining room. The scene features a large, elegant dining table with gold place settings, all caked in cobwebs and dust. There is a tall fireplace, floral wall moldings, high-back chairs, and ornamental windows. Holograms of ghosts dance around the room.
Finally, I found her. She was standing on the mezzanine level but over the railing about fifteen feet from the tracks. She was holding a rope in her hands. She had cut her hair short.
"Shay?" I climbed the railway and shimmied across the decorative mezzanine. I was worried the whole thing would collapse since it was built for show—not to support actual people.
She looked up to me. She had been crying. "Who are you?"
"I'm Rich," I said.
"What are you doing here?"
"Can we talk?"
She held the rope up for me to see. Her eyes followed it to where it was tied around a fire riser behind us. I sat down next to her.
"Tell me what's going on," I said.
We sat in silence for about two minutes. I watched the ride cars roll by, "Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize," playing in the background. They hadn't let people on the ride yet, which was a good thing.
Eventually, she warmed up to me and began talking. She opened up about everything going on at school, at home, in her head. It became clear that she didn't want to kill herself. She had thought about it. A lot. But when she became a part of the Disneyland Suicide Pact community and heard all the talk about Death Day—which happened to coincide with a planned family trip—she felt that it was her time.
After about twenty minutes of talking, she paused and looked down. "There's something else," she said.
"You can tell me anything."
"I'm not the only one."
"The only one, what?"
"Death Day. I'm not the only one that planned to kill myself on Death Day."
A pit in my stomach grew. The room began spinning around me. I started thinking about my research into all those on the forums that had talked about Death Day. About how Shay was the only one that was for sure going to be in the park that day.
"Oh god," she said and brought her hands up to her face. "Rich, I was supposed to be a distraction."
"A distraction from what?" My mind was racing a thousand miles an hour.
She began sobbing. "It's a small world."
"No." I stood up, not knowing if she was making it up to get me away, or if she truly was a distraction. "Come with me," I said.
"I'm fine. You go," she said.
I pursed my lips then buzzed medical on my walkie-talkie. I told them Shay's location inside Haunted Mansion. They were already waiting out back. I also told them to send a team to It's a Small World, that we might have a situation there.
I climbed over the railing and ran through the ride to the front entrance where hordes of antsy people were waiting for the ride to open. I ran past them, setting off a chain of whispers amongst the crowd—"What's he doing?" "Who is that guy?" "Did you see his face?"
I called ride operations and told them to close "It's a Small World,” that we might have a suicide attempt, potentially multiple. They said that they hadn't opened yet anyway, due to a mechanical issue, but that they would keep it closed until the situation had been cleared.
The park had only been open for a few minutes and it was already crawling with people. I began running across the park when I got a call.
"Small world didn't get my shut down order in time, the ride opened for a few minutes after our call."
"You better head over there."
I continued running and was soon joined by medical teams in yellow jackets, also running toward the ride. One of the park ambulances drove by, bewildered guests jumping out of the way. As I got closer to the entrance of the ride, the real horror began. People—men, women, children—were crying. Many hysterically. One woman stumbled out of It’s a Small World’s emergency exit and threw up violently into the hedges. I heard screams from inside.
I stopped one of the medical staffers running out of the emergency exit. "What the hell—"
"It's bad. It's really bad."
I pulled my employee badge out of my shirt so that it was visible. Park guests in line began stopping me. "Sir, do you know what's happening?"
I ignored everyone, hopping the fence and bee-lining for the emergency exit near the entrance. People were still climbing out of boats, following the emergency lighting to the exit. One of the ride operators came on the loudspeaker. "Please calmly exit the boats where safe and follow the arrows to the nearest emergency exit. Ride operators will assist those who need help. Parents, please shield your children's eyes through the Scandinavian exhibit."
Parents carrying children filed past me along the emergency path. "Keep your eyes closed, sweetheart, we're almost there." "What were those people? Why was everyone screaming like that? Are those people hurt?"
The pit grew in my stomach as I moved through the North Pole exhibit and into the Scandinavian room. Then I began to smell it—the overwhelming stench of vomit. I started to notice vomit tracked through smeared footprints along the walkway. For a moment the music kicked back on and the ride began to move again. Although it appeared that everyone had been successfully evacuated, the music startled everyone.
"It's a world of wonder a world of tears, it's a world of hopes and a world of fears."
I turned the corner and immediately felt my stomach turn violently. About ten bodies dangled from the ceiling spread throughout the exhibit. Beneath the bodies—all with bulging eyeballs and kinked necks—the model Scandinavian children swayed back and forth in their white snowsuits. "There's so much that we share that it's time we're aware..."
The medical staff scrambled around, trying desperately to reach the bodies, gently swinging about ten feet off the ground. "We have to get to the ceiling. To the ceiling—go!"
I couldn't bear the sight any longer. The pressure in my face intensified until the tears began streaming down my face. Hot tears. Tears of death. Of loss. Of failure. Tears of the hundreds of friends and family members that would be impacted by these suicides.
I climbed back through the emergency exit, through the North Pole exhibit and into the sunlight. I caught a whiff of vomit and felt the churning in my stomach pick up again. I ducked behind one of the hedges and vomited.
"Are you ok sir?" One of the guests waiting in line asked.
I looked at him. "Go find another ride."
I radioed the medical office asking if they knew if Shay made it out of Haunted Mansion safely. I began walking that direction while I waited to get an answer. Eventually, they came back on.
"Shay appears to have left."
I was shocked. "Like they let her go?"
"No, she made it back to the medical office then slipped out before she was evaluated."
I began running to the medical office near the front of the park. The closer I got to the front gates, the more chaotic it got. Crowds of families were running for the exits. The customer service lines were packed fifty people back, guests demanding refunds, I imagined.
Disney is great at covering up incidents in isolation, but when ten people commit suicide on one of the busiest rides right at opening, that's hard to recover from.
The medical office was nearly empty since the suicide victims had all been taken by ambulance to various hospitals in the Anaheim area. I took a deep breath and looked around. So eerily empty. So void of life.
I walked out the back door of the medical office and looked around. I wondered if the pandemonium had spread to the entire park or only to those that had seen the ambulances and medical staff running around (and those that saw the direct aftermath of the suicides, of course). I walked along the service road behind Disney City Hall looking through the fence into the thick brush that lays just beyond park boundaries.
There stood Shay.
She stood about twenty feet behind the fence amongst the trees and bushes. She saw me and took a step forward.
I opened my mouth to speak, then realized I had no idea what to say.
She smiled, turned around, and disappeared into the brush.
Out of everything I saw that day, Shay’s smile is what I think about most often. Was it one of gratitude—a smile that said you saved my life? Or was it sinister—a smile that said I played you for a fool?
She told me her job was to serve as a distraction. Whether she was planning on killing herself that day or not, she succeeded.