On December 15, 1966, animation legend Walt Disney died from complications of lung cancer, for which he had undergone surgery just over a month earlier. A private funeral was held the next day, and on December 17, his body was cremated and interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. But while Disney undoubtedly lives on through the legacy of the beloved feature films and theme parks that comprise much of his life’s work, shortly after his death, a rumor began to circulate that he might be living on in a more literal sense as well—with his body suspended in a frozen state and buried deep beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, awaiting the day when medical technology would be advanced enough to reanimate the animator.
PHOTO: Walt Disney Building Disneyland
His fascination with the future fueled rumors
Over the years, proponents of this seemingly absurd rumor have cited the secrecy surrounding Disney’s death and burial as evidence of its veracity. They claim that news of his passing was intentionally delayed in order to give his handlers time to place his body in cryonic suspension, and that both his funeral and the actual location of his burial plot have been kept secret as a means of further concealing the truth of his interment. Disney’s lifelong interest in the future, projects such as his EPCOT Center (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) and the technical innovations for which he was known throughout his career would no doubt have lent the rumor a certain air of truth, while a Time magazine article about the cryonic freezing of a 73-year-old psychology professor, published just two months after Disney’s death, would have helped lend it weight. The assertions of two separate biographies of Disney (Leonard Mosely’s Disney’s World, published in 1986, and Marc Eliot’s Walt Disney—Hollywood’s Dark Prince, published in 1993), which claimed that an obsession with death led Disney to an interest in cryonics, surely did their part to perpetuate it through the years as well.
Disney's daughter has denied that he's cryogenically frozen
The exact origins of the rumor are uncertain, but it first appeared in print in a 1969 Ici Paris article in which a Disney executive attributed it to a group of disgruntled animators seeking to have a laugh at their late taskmaster employer’s expense. The rumor has been repeatedly denied by various sources since that time, including by Disney’s daughter, Diane, who in a 1972 biography wrote that she doubted her father had even heard of cryonics. It has been further discredited by those pointing to the existence of signed legal documents that indicate Disney was in fact cremated and that his remains are interred in a marked plot (for which his estate paid $40,000) at Forest Lawn, the exact location of which is a matter of public record. Further, by all accounts, Disney was known to be a very private man in life, making the quiet circumstances of his cremation and burial far from suspect, and the assertions in Mosely’s and Eliot’s biographies have been widely rejected as unfounded.
The science behind cryonics is still developing
Yet despite the apparent lack of any credible evidence supporting a connection between it and Walt Disney, the existence of cryonics is very much a reality. Since 1964, when Robert Ettinger published a work discussing the plausibility of freezing human beings for the purpose of bringing them back to life, a significant cryonics industry has developed in the United States. Today, for fees ranging anywhere between $28,000 and $200,000, companies such as Suspended Animation Inc., the Cryonics Institute and Alcor Life Extension Foundation offer their clients the opportunity to have their bodies placed in a large metal tank in a state of deep freeze known as “cryostasis,” for the purpose of being restored to life and complete physical and mental health at a theoretical point in the future when medical science is advanced enough to do so. According to reports, there are hundreds of people being kept in cryostatis at facilities around the country, and thousands more that have already made arrangements for their own preservation. Following his death in 2004, baseball legend Ted Williams became the highest-profile person to date to be placed in cryostasis, but celebrities as diverse as Muhammad Ali, Paris Hilton, and Larry King have all been linked to cryonics as well.
Cryonics is not without its detractors, however. Its science has been largely dismissed as fantastical, and the people that work in the industry derided as nothing more than con men and profiteers. Still, it’s the futuristic stuff of science fiction that maybe even Walt Disney himself would have appreciated.
From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on December 15, 2014.