For at least 11 years, an unnerving story has made the rounds on Disney fan blogs: people regularly scatter the ashes of loved ones at Disneyland and Disney World. Well, today, the Wall Street Journal has confirmed the urban legend. And we’re not talking about a couple of isolated cases. This happens on a monthly basis. Disney employees even have a special code to report when it happens.
The code is “HEPA cleanup.” You’ll know that acronym if you’re a vacuum enthusiast because it refers to a special kind of filter you need to suck up very fine particles, like human ashes. For its recent report, the Journal talked to custodians of the park who have taken part in cleaning up human remains as well as at least three families who have spread them. It’s worth quoting this part at length:
Current and former custodians at Disney parks say identifying and vacuuming up human ashes is a signature and secret part of working at the Happiest Place on Earth. It is grisly work for them, but a cathartic release for the bereaved, who say treating Disney parks as a final resting place is the ultimate tribute to ardent fans.
The Journal report continues with more specific details:
Human ashes have been spread in flower beds, on bushes and on Magic Kingdom lawns; outside the park gates and during fireworks displays; on Pirates of the Caribbean and in the moat underneath the flying elephants of the Dumbo ride. Most frequently of all, according to custodians and park workers, they’ve been dispersed throughout the Haunted Mansion, the 49-year-old attraction featuring an eerie old estate full of imaginary ghosts.
“The Haunted Mansion probably has so much human ashes in it that it’s not even funny,” said one Disneyland custodian.
One can only wonder if the hope of being laid to rest in the Haunted Mansion will turn them into a ghost so that they can live at Disneyland forever. However, the truth of the matter is more somber. Some people agree to spread their loved ones’ ashes at Disney parks, so that they can feel like they’re enjoying the place with them one more time.
Apparently, sneaking human remains into a Disney park isn’t all that hard. Families who have done it told the Journal that they put the ashes into prescription pill bottles or makeup compacts. A Ziploc bag hidden at the bottom of a purse will also work. Once there, it’s just a matter of spreading the remains at the right spot and hoping the custodians don’t catch you. If they do, the park staff simply sucks them up with their special HEPA vacuums. Getting caught in the act will also get you kicked out of the park.
“This type of behavior is strictly prohibited and unlawful,” a Disney spokeswoman told the Journal. “Guests who attempt to do so will be escorted off property.”
While this latest report sheds new light on the particulars of this process, the idea that it’s been happening has been around for years. Back in 2007, reports of spreading ashes at Disneyland surfaced online. Police even showed up at the Anaheim park, the Los Angeles Times reported, after witnesses saw a guest “sprinkling an unidentified substance into the water” of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. This drew attention to an incident documented in the book Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland by David Koenig. A Times reporter recounted the 2002 incident on the Haunted Mansion ride:
The group requested a little extra time for a quick memorial service for a 7-year-old boy who had died, the employee said, according to Koenig.
But later, ride operators spotted one of the guests throwing a powdery substance off her “Doom Buggy.”
After the ride was shut down, the employee discovered “a smattering of dust, ‘gray, like ash,’ “ Koenig wrote.
It’s all very sad. But it’s also surely frowned upon to scatter human remains in very public places, especially amusement parks.
So if you’re thinking about spreading a loved one’s ashes at Disneyland or Disney World, just realize that the parks know about this sort of thing. They’re prepared for it. There’s a process. And when all is said and done, the human ashes you left at the Happiest Place on Earth will probably just end up in the trash.