In the 21st century, the name Walt Disney has come to represent a mythical figure whose name has become synonymous with the largest and arguably most successful entertainment company on Earth. Given this, it can be easy for some to forget that Walt Disney was a real person who lived — and died — like any other human.
However, Walt’s larger-than-life standing has led to a longstanding myth about his death that simply refuses to end: Namely, was Walt Disney frozen?
To understand where the rumor of Walt Disney being frozen came from, we first have to understand the health issues he was dealing with at the end of his life. Despite the outward appearance of vigor, Walt was in terrible shape by 1966. A near lifetime of smoking had left him with a persistent cough, a long-nagging polo injury left him in almost constant pain, and decades of non-stop work on projects ranging from animated features and live action films to the birth of Disneyland and the 1964 World’s Fair left him exhausted.
That November, Walt was scheduled to undergo surgery to hopefully alleviate some of the pain from that aforementioned polo injury. However, during routine pre-surgical testing, Doctor’s discovered a massive growth on one of his lungs. On November 6th, Walt’s doctors’ worst fears were confirmed when surgical removal found that not only was the tumor cancerous, but also that it had spread to his lymph nodes and other areas of his body, leaving Disney with a terminal diagnosis.
Despite initially being released from the hospital, Walt found himself back there by the end of the month, his condition quickly deteriorating. By mid-December, despite his best efforts to continue working on his plans for E.P.C.O.T. from his hospital bed, Disney was fighting a losing battle. He passed away on December 15, 1966 due to “circulatory collapse” caused by the cancer that had ravaged his body.
Initially, Walt Disney’s death led to an outpouring of grief, with everyone from politicians and business leaders to common movie fans expressing sadness at his loss. However, within months of Walt Disney’s death, some of that grief turned to a stranger belief. Namely, that Walt had been frozen in a liquid nitrogen cryonic chamber be revived at a later date, when medical science could cure his cancer.
According to PBS, the genesis of the rumor stemmed from an incident week’s after Disney’s death, when “a reporter for a tabloid newspaper called The National Spotlite claimed he had snuck into St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, directly across the street from the Disney studios and where he was treated during his final illness. As the story went, the reporter disguised himself as an orderly, broke into a storage room, and saw the deceased Disney suspended in a cryogenic metal cylinder!”
From there, the story quickly took on a life of its own. Reports surfaced that Disney — a known science fiction fan and futurist in his later years — had been engrossed with Robert C.W. Ettinger’s 1964 book, The Prospect of Immortality, which spoke of cryonics as a viable medical procedure in the face of a terminal diagnosis.
The tale continued to spread through urban legend, biographies, and pop culture references, with many still believing it to this day. Some even claim that Walt is frozen under Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
However, despite the widespread knowledge of the story, there’s no truth to it. For starters, there’s no conclusive evident that Walt had ever heard of Ettinger’s work. Beyond that, and most conclusively, Walt was cremated two days after his death, and his ashes were interred at the family mausoleum in the Forrest Lawn Cemetery of Glendale, California.
Disney’s daughter Diane spoke of the rumors in the early 1970s, saying bluntly, “There is absolutely no truth that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics.”
So why did people still hold on to the believe that Walt Disney was frozen? Perhaps it all goes back to the myth that we discussed above. Many simply couldn’t – and arguably still can’t – deal with the fact that a man who’d made himself into a mythic figure in American culture could simply pass away like the normal, fragile human he was.
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When was the first time you heard the rumor that Walt Disney was frozen? Did you ever believe it? Let us know in the comments below.