Disney Lawsuit: Legend or Fact?
By Thomas Spychalski
When it comes to myths and legends, there are some subjects that just seem to attract them like moths to a flame. Think of how many urban legends surround Elvis, or just how many times you have heard something new about the Amityville Horror case?
Another icon that seems to attract and creates weird rumors is Walt Disney and the Disney company.
The list is a large one, with some rumors completely off the wall and untrue, like Walt Disney being frozen at the time of his death or that a performer in a Mickey Mouse costume was electrocuted when he was thrown into a lagoon by a bunch of high school students at one of the Disney parks.
Other legends are true, such as the fact there are bullet holes in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion due to a guest shooting at the ballroom’s ceiling and that someone died on the Fantasyland Skyway.
Then there are those that defy quick and easy explanation, like this one about Disneyworld being sued because a guest got injured by the Hydrolator, part of Epcot Center‘s Living Seas exhibit. The legend goes something like this:
The person, who is sometimes described as a male and sometimes as a female, claimed that they received eardrum damage from being in the Living Seas Hydrolator. Other variations say that the guest got the bends or hurt their back, while an amusing twist on the tale says that after the lawyers, judge and plaintiff were shown that the Hydrolator was completely safe, the plaintiff ran from the scene with embarrassment, trying to hide in the theme parks massive crowds.
As I know by now you are asking ‘what the hell is a Hydrolater’, I will elaborate. The best place to start would be the description of The Living Seas given in the 1989 Epcot Center Guide Book:
The world’s largest man-made salt-water environment holds 5.7 million gallons of seawater and more than 80 species of tropical fish and mammals, including sharks, manatees and dolphins. Travel to the bottom of the sea in hydrolators and arrive at Sea Base Alpha. Talk to divers and marine scientists who explore the world’s most impressive man-made coral reef. Try on an atmospheric diving suit, and test your knowledge with interactive video games. There are also special displays that detail the life-cycles and food chains of the seas, from the smallest plankton to the largest predators.
So, then a ‘Hydrolator’ would be an elevator like contraption that brings you to the bottom of the sea right. Well, not quite.
Much like the Elevator in Disney’s Haunted Mansion, which appears to be stretching and coming alive, the Hydrolator is an illusion. Besides the many practical reasons for there not to be a huge downward moving elevator burrowing into the ground in Orlando Florida, it also just would not be safe to send paying guests into an elevator hurtling at high speed into the Earth.
What Tte Hydrolator does do is show you a bunch of sculpted rock on a conveyer belt that makes it seem like you are descending into the earth, shaking the floors and turning the lights on and off for effect, while in reality you are traveling one floor down to where the displays of marine life are kept.
But now the question remains, in the lawsuit happy American culture where we have to put ‘Caution: Hot’ on our Coffee cups and we sue Anheuser-Busch for not providing us with beautiful women when we open a Bud Light (True Story!), did some really sue Disney over the Hydrolator?
Well, the answer in unclear, but Werner Weiss, who runs the wonderful Disney history site Yesterland, tried to look into the legend with the use of a web searching tool called ProQuest, which searches various publications for data via keywords.
What he found was one mention of a Hydrolator related lawsuit, in the January, 1987 edition of the Montreal Gazette. In that article, Marty Sklar, then president of WED Imaginering, had this to say:
“It’s probably apocryphal,” remarked Marty Sklar, president of WED Imagineering, the creative arm of the Disney operation, “but there’s a story going around that somebody was going to sue Disney for damage to his eardrums because of the change in pressure when he went ‘down’ in the hydrolator. I can’t wait for that one.”
Although it cannot be proven that this is the source of this Disney urban legend, it is most likely the origins of the story. Then, as often is the case in the world of legends, ghosts, monsters and UFOs, the story grew and grew with each retelling to the point that it has been mentioned by Living Seas cast members and was even a tale told by the guides on some of Disneyland’s back stage tours.
I think this tale is just plain Goofy…