20 years apart, two tragic deaths on Disneyland’s Matterhorn
There is an undeniable fascination with theme park accidents. There are books, countless blogs and even entire YouTube channels dedicated to them. And it’s no wonder: There’s something about the juxtaposition of a fun day at the park and an unexpected tragedy that sticks in our minds.
If you google “Disneyland accidents,” you get over 800,000 hits in Google. Among the most frequently cited are two deaths on the Matterhorn, one of the icons of the park. The details repeated online in each case are conflicting and often flat-out wrong, so we went searching for the real facts behind these incidents.
The first death occurred in May 1964, five years after the Matterhorn opened. It was among the park’s original thrill rides, a quick and jerky trip around a track inside a snow-capped mountain. To keep them safely inside, riders wore lap belts in their bobsleds. (It is worth mentioning here one of the other reasons people are so obsessed with Disneyland accidents: They’re exceedingly rare. There are only a handful of fatal incidents in the 66-year history of the park, so each one has gained outsized infamy as a result.)
It was approaching midnight when 15-year-old Mark Maples of Long Beach got in line at the Matterhorn with two teenage classmates. Maples was savoring freedom; his parents had just released him from a weeks-long grounding so he could attend the after-hours Elks Club event with his brothers.
The details of what happened next are murky: Maples sat in the middle seat and it was dark, so the other boys couldn’t see what transpired. The bobsled was beginning its descent down the mountain when one boy told the Long Beach Press-Telegram he felt Maples bump into him. “There was no way to tell what he was doing,” he said. “It’s a bumpy kind of ride.”
“I was looking up, heard a noise, looked down, and recognized Mark’s sweater as he was falling out the side,” the other boy added to the Press-Telegram.
Disneyland officials speculated Maples unbuckled his seat belt and stood up on the ride, “apparently [striking] his head on the side of the concrete mountain” and falling “vertically about one foot, landing beside the tracks of the sled.” They estimated the bobsled was going about 20 miles per hour at the time of the accident.
Maples’ father told the press the next day that ride operators didn’t believe the boys when they said their companion had fallen out. “It was not until two girls who were in the car behind them verified the story before the ride was shut down,” the Press-Telegram reported.
When paramedics arrived, Mark was unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital with severe head trauma and put on a ventilator. The teenager died four days later, having never regained consciousness.
An investigation by Anaheim police and the Orange County coroner’s office was already underway. Coroner’s deputies inspected the ride and took “slow motion” trips on the tracks to try to recreate what happened. Chief deputy coroner Eugene Miller said the department was getting calls that “the accident resulted from a hazing,” and one Associated Press headline heartlessly called Maples a “daredevil youth.”
Ultimately, the confusion of the night and the age of the witnesses meant there was no definitive answer to how Maples fell from his bobsled. Both the boys and the evidence refuted the hazing allegation, and a week after the fall, the Anaheim police chief ruled Maples’ death was “purely accidental.”
Maples left behind his parents, Jack and LaBella, and brothers Christopher, 17, and Anthony, 13. His death was the first fatality recorded in the park.
Exactly 20 years later, the Matterhorn saw its second accidental death.
A few days into the new year 1984, 48-year-old Dollie Regina Young of Fremont was visiting the park with five friends from Arizona. Young was a former Avon lady, friendly and particularly well-liked by all the kids in her neighborhood, the Fremont Argus later recalled.
Around 3:30 p.m., Young and her friends loaded into a bobsled at the base of the Matterhorn. Young sat alone in the very back. At that time, the Skyway gondola still went through the attraction, ferrying guests through a hole in the mountain. A family of three from Idaho, a father and two teen daughters, were passing into the Matterhorn just as Young’s bobsled was halfway back down the mountain. According to police reports, 19-year-old Helen Pischner screamed first.
The Skyway gondola passes through the center of the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride at Disneyland. The photo is undated, but the attraction closed in November 1994 so it would have been taken before that date.
Neil Rabinowitz/Getty Images
“Oh my god, someone fell out of that car,” her father Don recalled her saying. Helen told police she remembered seeing “a female bouncing on her back on the tracks” moments after presumably falling from her sled. For a moment, Helen said it looked like Young was trying to get up. Thirty-three seconds after Young fell from her bobsled, the next ride vehicle came around the corner. Don Pischner yelled for his daughters to look away.
A family from British Columbia was in the oncoming bobsled. For a moment, they thought the body lying between the two parallel tracks was possibly a prop. As they got closer, though, the horrifying reality set in. The bobsled struck Young on the head and torso, killing her instantly and trapping the bobsled on top of her. The ride system automatically shut off that portion of the ride, sensing a bobsled was stuck. That, combined with screaming, alerted a worker that something was horribly wrong. He raced up the mountain and found the nightmarish scene. On his sprint back down for help, he encountered two more cast members. He told them not to look.
Police and paramedics were soon on the scene, where Young was declared dead. An investigation was launched by Anaheim detectives. They quickly ruled out foul play and suicide, and zeroed in on the seat belt. When police arrived on scene, they noted Young’s seat belt was open and lying on her empty seat.
“Means it could have been either way,” detective Carl Martin told the L.A. Times. “If she stood up, her belt could have fallen on the seat, or if she could have been sitting on it.”
Disney officials said there was no way Young could have left the start of the ride with her belt undone; it was standard protocol for cast members to check guests twice to make sure they were fastened in. After interviewing witnesses, Anaheim detective David Tuttle ruled Young’s death an accident.
“It could be it will never be determined what actually happened,” Tuttle told the media.
Interestingly, no organization in the state had the authority to regulate theme park rides. Two years before, Congress had stripped the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission of its ability to inspect rides at stationary parks, like Disneyland or the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk; only OSHA could conduct inspections, but only within the context of employee, not guest, safety. So, like most amusement parks in the country, Disneyland was allowed to regulate itself.
The day after the fatal accident, the Matterhorn was running again as usual. Disneyland officials said the ride had been checked for malfunctions and, with none found, was safe to operate. The bobsled that Young fell out of, No. 10, was put back into service too, although the one that struck her was sidelined for more testing, the Times reported.
The Matterhorn pokes out of Fantasyland at Disneyland on Jan. 7, 2020.
Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG
In February 1984, a month after the accident, Young’s husband filed a $5 million wrongful death lawsuit against Disney. He hired a well-known Bay Area lawyer, James Boccardo, to represent the family. Boccardo came out swinging, blaming “two young men” who worked at the attraction for being “impressed with two beautiful girls who were part of the group” and failing to properly check Young’s belt — allegations Disneyland officials strenuously denied.
“My wife was not a frivolous or daring person,” Young’s husband told the Associated Press. “She was not some young kid that would have stood up on the ride.”
The Los Angeles Times reported Disneyland defended about 50 negligence cases each year and had “high success” negotiating settlements in the vast majority of them. And indeed, four years later, just as the Young case was entering jury selection, both parties reached a settlement. All parties were barred from discussing the terms of the deal, but a Disneyland spokesperson said the lawsuit was settled “to the satisfaction of the Walt Disney Co.”
After Young’s death, the seatbelts on the Matterhorn were changed. Before 1985, belts were slipped through a buckle, which closed down on top of it with a “friction fastener.” These were replaced with the kind you use in cars: a lap belt that buckles into a socket. Disneyland officials told the Times this change had nothing to do with the accident; their old supplier had gone out of business and they’d switched providers. These are the type of seat belts still used on the ride today.
There has not been another fatal accident on the Matterhorn since the death of Dollie Young.