Walt Disney Was NOT Frozenby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I recently did a presentation at the Museum of Military History in Kissimmee, Florida, about Disney and World War II. During the question-and-answer session, I was asked if I actually believed Walt was cremated and his ashes interred at Forest Lawn Glendale, because they had heard from a reliable source "that worked at Disney" that it was obvious he was frozen.
I was even asked about this during a question-and-answer session after a presentation I did at the Walt Disney Family Museum a few years ago about Disney and outer space.
It is a question I keep getting asked not out of idle curiosity, but because the person often wants to prove that they know this "secret fact" and if I am simply a Disney apologist who only promotes the official Disney line.
First, it is always challenging to try to prove a negative to the satisfaction of all people.
Second, just the mere mention of these falsehoods about Walt continues to give them additional life, with people claiming they saw this assertion in a book or heard it somewhere, like from a Disney cast member, so it must be true.
Finally, there will be people who despite common sense and all the evidence to the contrary will condescendingly assume that where there is smoke, there must be fire, or that someone is trying to cover-up the real story.
The one image that sticks in my mind when someone asks me if Walt were frozen is the memory of his oldest daughter Diane Disney Miller. I remember her telling me with a mixture of sadness and anger in her face and voice about how upsetting it was to the Disney family over the years for this question to even be asked in the first place.
She told me that one of the reasons she was so adamant about creating the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco was "Other little kids would say to my kids, 'Your grandfather is frozen, isn't he?' And I just couldn't let that stand. What if someone said that about their parent? How would they feel?"
When I lived in California, some California Institute of the Arts students as an art project raised some money by producing a limited amount of "Waltsickles" that featured a full-figured model of Walt Disney in a suit inside of a popsickle. That never happened again although gags about "Disney on Ice" with Walt frozen in a block of ice and skaters performing on top of him abound.
Walt Disney was not cryogenically frozen, but was cremated on December 17, 1966. Rumors still persist that Walt was put into cryogenic suspension and buried somewhere underneath Disneyland, in particular under the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, since it was still under construction when he died.
However, I have had people tell me, he was put under the dedication plaque on Main Street or directly in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle. Interestingly, I haven't yet had anyone tell me Walt's supposed frozen body is somewhere in the Haunted Mansion. I guess that is because the Mansion is supposed to be for dead people and in theory, if he were frozen, Walt would still be alive.
Articles and books about the preservation of animal tissue through freezing appeared in medical and scientific journals and occasionally the general press starting in the late 1950s. Perhaps the most prominent book during Walt's lifetime, The Prospect of Immortality by Robert C.W. Ettinger, was published in 1964.
However, this book still discussed cryonics as merely theoretical although eventually possible. Just as it was possible Walt "might" have heard about this topic, but there is no documentation that he ever did. Neither his family nor his closest associates ever heard him talk about the topic—and Walt talked about everything he was interested in at the moment.
Certainly, there are several untrustworthy and unreliable sources that have proposed that he did but there is no evidence, including interviews with those who actually knew and worked with Walt.
Again, this is one of those Walt Disney Urban Legends that "everyone knows" but nobody seems to know where the information originated.
Waking Walt was a novel published in 2002 by former Disneyland and Walt Disney World Vice-President Larry Pontius about Walt Disney supposedly being defrosted by a very small group of former confidants to save the Disney Company from the machinations of Michael Eisner.
It is no surprise that Walt's disgust about what has happened to his dream, especially Epcot, is clearly apparent in the novel. Pontinus never knew Walt, but worked as a Disney marketing executive from 1976-1982.
Diane Disney Miller asserted in 1972: "There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics."
Walt's official death certificate clearly shows that his body was cremated at Forest Lawn Glendale on December 17, 1966. The name, license number and signature of the embalmer, Dean Fluss, are those of a real embalmer who worked at the mortuary at the time. Court papers show that the Disney family paid $40,000 to Forest Lawn for the interment location of his ashes.
Certainly, Walt did not like attending funerals and even avoided the ones for his own father and brother.
"He never goes to a funeral if he can help it," wrote Diane in 1956. "If he had to go to one it plunges him into a reverie which lasts for hours after he's home. At such times he says, 'When I'm dead I don't want a funeral. I want people to remember me alive'."
Walt did not want people to see him in the hospital, and so only the immediate family was allowed into his room. Very few people, even those close to him, knew how really sick Walt actually was. The story told to the public was that he was undergoing surgery for an old neck injury from playing polo that most people knew had troubled him for decades and then re-entered the hospital days later for a routine post operative checkup.
Walt's death was not immediately announced to the press until several hours after it occurred at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, December 15, 1966. Walt lay in his hospital bed for a few hours while his family arrived and said their farewells. If Walt was to be put into cryonic suspension, it would have had to be done immediately to preserve him or even just moments before his death. That did not happen.
He lay there as his daughter Diane tried to get her mother to hurry up to get to the hospital but Lillian kept delaying the inevitable. His older brother Roy sat at the edge of the bed rubbing one of Walt's feet that was sticking out from the under the sheets. Walt had always complained his feet were cold in the hospital.
The cause of Disney's death was initially announced as being "acute circulatory collapse" and, on the death certificate, "cardiac arrest," which meant simply that his heart had stopped beating. It was a standard medical phrase giving no indication of what caused the heart to stop beating, which, in this case, was cancer. The cause was considered of secondary importance and to the general public the actual cause was unimportant. Walt Disney was gone.
Walt's funeral was quietly held at the Little Church of the Flowers in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale at 5 p.m. on Friday, December 16, the day after his death. No funeral announcement was made until after it had taken place. Only immediate family members attended, no friends, people who worked at the studio or business associates.
His widow Lillian; daughters Diane and Sharon, with their husbands (Ron Miller and Robert Brown); his brother Roy and his wife Edna; and their son, Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney, with his wife Patty, were the only ones there. His sister Ruth was told not to fly down from Portland, Oregon, where she lived for fear the press would follow her to the service.
The Los Angeles Times reported, "Secret rites were conducted at the Little Church of the Flowers at Forest Lawn. The services were a closely-guarded secret. Family services were announced only after they had been concluded. Studio and cemetery officials refused to reveal details."
Forest Lawn officials refused to disclose any details of the funeral or disposition of the body, stating only that "Mr. Disney's wishes were very specific and had been spelled out in great detail."
The situation that people were not fully aware how ill Walt was, never saw him in the hospital and how badly he had deteriorated, nor attended his funeral to see him lying in state sparked the speculation that like other popular celebrities who died somewhat suddenly, including Elvis Presley, Walt was not really dead.
While the Disney family were a private family and felt this was a private matter, others saw it as a mystery.
The origin of the rumor of Walt being frozen has often been credited to Disney Studios animators who "had a bizarre sense of humor" and perhaps the earliest known printed version appeared in the French magazine Ici Paris in 1969.
In 1985, I asked animator Ward Kimball if he was the source for the rumor since he was well known for his pranks. "When Disney fans ask me if it's true that Walt's body is kept frozen for future resurrection, I answer that question by pointing out that Walt was always intensely interested in things scientific and he, more than any person I knew, just might have been curious enough to agree to such an experiment."
A decade earlier, Kimball had told another interviewer, "The smoking may have set the stage for his death. It probably weakened his physical condition. But I'm convinced it was the emotional stress he was under that killed him. It's such a dull world. So when I am asked if Walt's body was frozen and if he believed he could come back someday, just to stir things up I tell everybody he is frozen. Actually, he was cremated."
in 1972, Bob Nelson, who was then the president of the Cryonics Society of California, gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times. He specifically stated that Walt was not cryogenically frozen and reaffirmed that he had been cremated. However, he continued that he felt that Walt wanted to be frozen and based it on the fact that he had been contacted by someone at the studios prior to Disney death that asked elaborate questions about the process, the facilities, the staff, and their history.
That someone may have been writer Charles Show, who had worked on the Tomorrowland episodes for the Disney television series and has admitted doing research on the topic before Walt's death.
Nelson pointed out that the first cryonic suspension took place just a month after Disney's death. Dr. James Bedford, a 73-year-old psychologist from Glendale, was suspended by Nelson and his team on January 12, 1967. Bedford has yet to be revived from his comfortable rest in Arizona.
"If Disney had been the first it would have made headlines around the world and been a real shot in the arm for cryonics," said Nelson who had hoped to put Walt in a nitrogen filled capsule chilled to minus 371 degrees Fahrenheit. Interestingly, Nelson's organization had its incorporation papers approved by the state of California on December 15, 1966, the same day Walt passed away.
Nelson was later asked if some other facility than his own might have been involved.
"There was no other facility at that time. The only other group was the Cryonics Society of New York and they had nothing — no mortician, no doctor, no nothing," Nelson said.
Author Ray Bradbury said later, "There was a rumor that (Walt) had been frozen in a cryogenic mortuary to be revived in later years. Nonsense! He's alive now! People at the studio speak of him as if he were present! That's immortality for you. Who needs cryonics?"
In the 1970s, the National Enquirer revealed the grave site of Walt Disney.
For nearly a year after the cremation, Walt Disney's ashes remained un-interred. When Sharon's husband, Bob Brown, died less than a year later, in September 1967, Sharon made the arrangements for her father and her husband to be interred together so that neither would be alone. She and her older sister, Diane, chose a remote plot outside the Freedom Mausoleum.
A modest bronze rectangular tablet on a wall lists the name of Walter Elias Disney; his wife, Lillian; his son-in-law, Robert Brown; and a mention that daughter Sharon's ashes were "scattered in paradise."
To locate the site, drive through the entrance to a road called Cathedral Drive. Stay on the road to the eastern edge of the park where Cathedral Drive intersects with Freedom Way. At that intersection, turn right onto Freedom Way. On your left will be trees, fountains, and statues. This area is called Freedom Court.
At the far end of Freedom Court is a large mausoleum. Pull over and park on the right-hand side of the street. There should be a "33" painted on the curb opposite your car, indicating 33 Freedom Way. Standing at the base of the steps leading to the main entrance of the Freedom Mausoleum, turn to your left and walk to the far edge of the steps.
There is a small, private, low-gated courtyard garden near the brick wall. Inside this area guarded by a hedge of orange olivias, red azaleas, and a holly tree there is a small statue of Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid sitting on a rock.
In recent years, another huge falsehood has circulated in regards to Walt Disney's death and I have no clue where this could have originated.
According to the myth, in Walt Disney's Last Will and Testament dated March 1966, he stipulated that the first man to get pregnant or give birth would receive millions of dollars, all of Walt Disney World or even the entire Disney Company. The vagueness of the reward should be the first clue that this is bogus.
Walt Disney's will is a public document and easily accessible so it is easy to see that no such statement exists or anything else like it relating to bizarre statement.
In addition, Walt was a highly conservative Midwest Christian and such a decree would certainly be out of character even for a man interested in innovation and the latest technology. In any case, this would not be something the traditional Walt would likely want to encourage at all nor did he ever discuss anything like it.
In any case, The Walt Disney Company was a publicly held corporation so Walt wouldn't have been able to give away the company or Walt Disney World. He didn't own them. In his will, Disney clearly left 45 percent of his estate to his wife and daughters and another 45 percent to be distributed primarily to California Institute of the Arts and the remaining 10 percent to be divided among his sister, nieces, and nephews.
So there were no extra millions of dollars to be distributed to any other bequest.
While there have been stories of eccentric wealthy people making unusual bequests in their wills, Walt never did.
However, even Walt knew that a good story is hard to extinguish and will often take on a life of its own. You might think that the information in this column is enough to put the story to rest but I can tell you that I shared this with an avid and somewhat knowledgeable Disney fan before publication and her immediate reaction was, "documents can be forged!"
I just sighed.
So the falsehoods will probably continue while the facts are forgotten. I just keep remembering how sad it made Diane Disney Miller and I wish there were more I could do.