Behind the Magic

I’ve become obsessed with the dark side of Disney.

Illustration by Leanna

Illustration by Leanna.

The Walt Disney Corporation has, for the better part of the last century, been the world’s leading purveyor of family-oriented entertainment; today it’s fair to say that the name Disney is synonymous with childhood and fairy tales. Also, the first penis I ever saw was on the cover of a VHS copy of The Little Mermaid. I was seven years old. The penis was very whimsical (it was gold and it sparkled!), as one might expect a Disney penis to be, and figurative rather than literal: on the cover of the video, in the background, just behind Ariel and Prince Eric, there was a castle with a spire that was undeniably phallic. Or would have been if I had known what a phallus looked like back then, which I didn’t. The summer between second and third grade, I watched The Little Mermaid at least once a day. The video’s case was always just lying in the middle of the living room floor, so I’d probably looked directly at the castle hundreds of times. It wasn’t until later that year when I overheard several adult members of my family discussing a rumor about a hidden penis on that cover while pointing out the offending spire that I even knew that there was something unseemly about it.

The 1990 VHS cover art. See if you can spot the offending spire!

The 1990 VHS cover art. See if you can spot the offending spire!

This news was funny to me for the same reason that I it was funny when kids cussed in front of teachers—it was wildly inappropriate, and that made it deliciously entertaining. I wasn’t traumatized by this subliminal penis (but I am obsessed with castles to this day, so feel free to interpret that any way that you’d like), and I wasn’t at all disillusioned with Disney or The Little Mermaid after finding out about it—I continued to buy into the Disney fantasy, the magic, and the “happily ever after” of it all. But this was both the first time I saw what was possibly an illustration of a penis and the moment I began to realize that Disney is sort of twisted.

Disney dismissed any similarities between the male reproductive organ and the Little Mermaid spire as coincidence. Of course that’s what they would say, though, so who knows if they’re telling the truth. But Disney’s wholesome image is so painstakingly constructed that it’s alarming and in some cases kind of exciting to find out that there may be a darker side to the company—a company that was built almost 90 years ago by brothers Walt and Roy Disney around the idea of good, clean fun.

Recently, I’ve been actively searching for weird stories about Disney. My curiosity was sparked a couple of years ago after reading an article about actual human remains being found in the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. Though Disneyland’s spokespeople deny it, there have been rumors for years that visitors have been scattering the ashes of their deceased loved ones, likely Disney über-fans, in the park’s ghost themed attraction—a notion that is at once touching and unsettling. But even before I started collecting strange Disney anecdotes, peculiar details about the company’s movies, theme parks, and Walt “everyone knows this dude is cryogenically frozen” Disney had sort of trickled down to me over the years.

When I was in high school, for example, the big Disney-related gossip was that there were secret sexual messages hidden in Aladdin and The Lion King. There is this balcony scene in Aladdin where you can allegedly hear Aladdin say, “good teenagers take off their clothes”:

…and in The Lion King there’s a scene where leaves float up into the sky and appear to spell out the word sex:

At a sleepover when I was 14, the party’s host dug up her old VHS copies of these movies and we watched the supposed risqué scenes over and over again. This was my nerdy, Disney-loving crew’s version of playing records backwards and listening for demonic messages. It was kind of thrilling to think we were uncovering something lewd, that we were in the know.

As it turns out, the questionable moments in Aladdin and The Lion King were actually innocent and simply misinterpreted by viewers like my friends and me, who were maybe hoping to find something scandalous. However, 1977’s The Rescuers (a kid-friendly animated movie about two mice who help save an orphan girl while wearing really awesome hats) did briefly feature a small photo of a topless woman in the background of one scene, presumably inserted by some devious, bored, or perhaps disenchanted member of the production staff. As the movie’s two main characters fly through New York City, the topless woman appears behind them for a split second—it happens so quickly that you’d have to play the movie in slow motion to see it. After discovering the image in 1999 (after it came out on VHS, allowing people to for some reason play it in slow motion, carefully studying each frame), Disney recalled all home video copies of The Rescuers; the topless woman was removed from the subsequent rerelease of the movie.

This kind of intentional mischief is rare, though; most of the disturbing stories about Disney’s products are as insubstantial as The Lion King’s floating leaves, held aloft by flights of fancy. But there’s one Disney creation whose creepiness is overt and persistent: the jewel in the company’s crown, Disneyland Park.

Opened in 1955 in Anaheim, California, Disneyland was designed to be a mini paradise, “the happiest place on earth,” as the official tagline goes. Walter Disney, a prolific cartoonist and animator whose already considerable influence in Hollywood was on the rise, was inspired to design the park after visiting some lame, boring amusement park with his two daughters. “I will build a park way doper than this. For I am Walt Disney,” he probably didn’t say. His park would be perfectly clean and perfectly organized, and it was more than just kiddie rides—Walt designed it to trigger a sense of nostalgia and warmth in older visitors (one of the park’s attractions, Main Street, U.S.A., resembles an early 20th century American town square). The park was also meant to offer an escape from the real world—according to a book by David Koenig called Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland, Walt even got the city of Anaheim to agree to never construct any buildings that would be visible from inside of the park’s gates, so as not to disrupt the fantasy world he’d created.


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  • Melanie Hunt March 19th, 2013 3:33 PM

    errrrr, with the exception of disney man himself being a bit of a knob, Disney has gone up a notch for me… I like a bit of twistedness, might go on the ashes ghost train when in Paris next, then tell my friend once we’re already strapped in >:D


  • moonchild March 19th, 2013 3:44 PM

    There’s this AMAZING spoken word poem that made me cry a bunch of times about how Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were unconsensually kissed:


  • LuxOrBust March 19th, 2013 3:44 PM

    there’s also a secret dining area in the pirates of the carribean ride called Club 33, which alludes to the highest degree you can reach in freemasonary. walt disney was a free mason and this restaurant is reserved for elite park visitors. you can see a door marked for the restaurant when you go through the ride. here’s an article about it:
    the video in the article is very telling

    • rhymeswithorange March 20th, 2013 10:01 PM

      I went there two years ago! The neighbor of my mom’s best friend knows someone who is a member. It was really cool, and the desserts were OMG heavenly

  • AliceS March 19th, 2013 3:48 PM

    Love this article. I’ve always been interested in these things, but I didn’t know some of these facts.

  • sugarmilz March 19th, 2013 4:09 PM

    I couldn’t even find the offending spire…someone help me look?
    And I love Disney, so although it’s like the dark side, I still love Disney as much as I did before I read this.

  • HearMeRoar March 19th, 2013 4:19 PM

    When it comes to the “subliminal messages” in the Disney movies, even if they were put in on purpose, kids won’t notice that really. I think what’s really wrong with the Disney movies is the way they portray women’s bodies. If you just look at most of the princesses’ bodies, they are very skinny and usually possess a body that real women just cannot physically have, like Meg from Hercules. Watching the movies now makes me realize that it’s no wonder why girls think skinny is better. Disney princess movies are some of the first movies they watch, so they are told at an early age that princesses can only be skinny and have the societal standards of beauty. For some reason, that’s just the one thing that stands out for me whenever I see those movies– how much they sexualize women. And thinking about it now, unless I’m forgetting one, literally every princess is described as beautiful early on in the movie. Oh well, there’s my two cents.

  • Tangerine March 19th, 2013 4:27 PM

    Another theory for club 33, mentioned above in the comments, is that it was made for Walt to wine and dine his sponsors, and there were 33 original sponsors for the park. ;3
    Not as exciting, sure. To this day, you can rope yourself an invitation if you know someone with a corporate membership.
    There isn’t any memorabilia in there you can’t find pictures of online; thank you internet.

    My favorite disneyland myths when I went there every year for band were the ones about deaths on rides. To this day, I tuck my head on Thunder Mountain RR, because I’m the tiniest bit afraid of being beheaded. :p

    Also, there is a basketball half-court in the matterhorn.

  • AnaRuiz March 19th, 2013 4:38 PM

    Such a fun article!! I was really missing the Rookie humor.

  • abby111039 March 19th, 2013 5:20 PM

    Very interesting article. Somehow, there being a dark side to something makes it all the more enjoyable for me. Maybe I’m just weird. ;P

  • Mary the freak March 19th, 2013 5:21 PM

    this article was so amazing and funny!

    I have this feeling that this will be a awesome day on rookie. Well, it should. It’s my birthday yay! (:

  • MaddieMae March 19th, 2013 6:35 PM

    Hahaha, I loved this! My sister and I look up subliminal messages in Disney movies when we’re bored, but I don’t think I ever knew all this weird stuff about the man himself. There are also a lot of Silly Symphony cartoons (which I think are Disney, if I remember correctly) that are pretty racist.

  • GlitterKitty March 19th, 2013 6:37 PM

    Great article! I was at Disney World earlier this year and while sitting in the park having ice cream my Mom goes, “You know Disney was a Nazi?”. And because that’s how we are, she pulls up the Wikipedia article on her phone. It said that Disney himself wasn’t a Nazi but he was a little too close with some people who were.
    My aunt also said that the employees have this secret underground entrance and change rooms so no one sees them enter in regular clothes and then come out as a character. It would “ruin the illusion”. When we were there we had a look around and there didn’t seem to be any sort of employee buildings or “back rooms” anywhere. And we did see a lot of employees slip through a space at the end of a fence….. I was fascinated by this and now imagine some secret underground Disney world.

  • jenaimarley March 19th, 2013 6:46 PM

    Banksy’s stunt in the Exit Through the Gift Shop movie freaked me out so much: it made Disneyland seem like the CIA mixed with the KGB or something.

    • soretudaaa March 19th, 2013 7:35 PM

      lololol THIS is exactly what came to my mind when I read the title

  • Eryn March 19th, 2013 6:49 PM

    Walt Disney was my grandma’s fifth cousin, just had to share that cause I think it’s pretty cool to be related (however incredibly distant) to him okay gonna actually read the article now

  • StrawberryTwist March 19th, 2013 6:50 PM

    This is so true! We watched these videos clips in psychology a few months ago. This also reminds me of swoozie youtube videos. He shares his experiences at his old job at disney world
    here is the link :

  • NotReallyChristian March 19th, 2013 6:53 PM

    Oh my god, I have a copy of the Rescuers on VHS that’s probably from before 1999!!! So excited to watch it in slow motion…

  • missblack March 19th, 2013 7:27 PM

    Urr, not trying to be a dick here but it’s the Wind IN the Willows.

    Also I always hear people say that Walt Disney was terrible but I can just never believe it because I read Bill Peet’s autobiography ages ago and he said Walt Disney was a really nice guy who smoked too much. And Bill Peet worked for Disney for a long, long time.

    (Also I must be super ignorant because I always thought that Indian song from Peter Pan was kind of cute.)


    • Anaheed March 19th, 2013 9:31 PM

      Not dickish at all; I love getting corrections in the comments! Thank you! That was a hilarious typo on my part — I must have been subconsciously confusing it with Sex and the City (you can see the parallels I’m sure).

    • Hannah Mask March 20th, 2013 2:08 PM

      yeah, agreed about the Peter Pan song. I made an account just to comment on this (I have no business reading this website because I’m 24 years old, hah). But I must have watched that version (and the Mary Martin version) of Peter Pan at least 1,000 times when I was a toddler, so maybe I am biased. I can definitely see how it would be offensive by today’s standards, but for it to have been made in 1953, I think it’s pretty tame. Even by today’s standards, though, I would never call it “stomach churning” or “repulsive”.

      If it’s “stomach churning” because of the broken English used, what about AAVE (African American Vernacular English)? Or any other type of pidgin language? As for their use of “red man”, that was common then, just like using the term “colored” or “negro” was common and not offensive. I am certainly not saying someone does not have the right to be offended by whatever they are offended by (as convoluted as that sentence is–you get my drift). I’m more or less just saying: I did not find it offensive, and these are my reasons.

  • Ribba March 19th, 2013 7:31 PM

    Disney *definetely* has definitely had a lot of racism in their movies. Pochahontas and Mulan are two recent examples, but the older movies has much more blatant racism:

  • hiraari March 19th, 2013 8:01 PM

    This article is so interesting, I love it!!!

  • ___ellarose March 19th, 2013 8:06 PM

    Ugh now I wana go to Disney land soo bad and look for secret doors and stuff! (I haven’t been since I was really little)

    my dad worked as a bus boy at the pirates of the Caribbean ride restaurant, he said he would hide and then through peoples left over bread at people on the boats going by.

    my brother in law is a cartoonist and he was mentored by one of Disneys cartoonists who told him the subliminal messages are totally legit and that the cartoonists would sneak them into movies when they got bored.

    but thanks for this article as always very entertaining :)

  • hanalady March 19th, 2013 8:45 PM

    I am very disappointed to read such disregard for racism and anti-Semitism on Rookie. The fact is that Disney’s “alleged anti-Semitism” actually HAS been substantiated many times over: the man was known to make anti-Semitic comments around the office, he blatantly included negative stereotypes of Jews in early cartoons like The Three Little Pigs, he owned a newspaper that regularly printed anti-Semitic propaganda, and he didn’t just give one tour, he maintained professional relationships with many German companies throughout the war. And please let’s not minimize the effect of maintaining social and financial relationships with Nazi supporters–that’s exactly what almost every single non-targeted person across Europe did, and their combined silences created a social environment where millions of people were murdered and everyone just let it happen because it was easier than speaking up. The prioritization of corporate interests (by companies like Disney, Coca Cola, and IBM) over moral/human interests contributed to the deaths of millions of people.

    Furthermore I am sick to death of the argument that just because a certain level of prejudice was socially acceptable at some time in history means we shouldn’t hold the people of the time responsible for their actions in memory. We absolutely hold slave owners accountable for the treatment of their slaves, so why does Disney get a pass? I like Disney movies too but it is seriously not okay to sanitize history and minimize past oppression because we want to ooh and ahh over “Tangled” without feeling implicated ourselves.

    • hanalady March 19th, 2013 11:27 PM

      *i mean specifically in the last few paragraphs. the rest was fine as far as i’m concerned (although i must admit i didn’t read the first page too closely)

    • lilblucherrygrl March 20th, 2013 9:10 PM

      Completely agree. I don’t care if it was “ok” to say those things back then. They always had the choice to evaluate what they were saying and most people didn’t take that opportunity. Sure in the present times we have more information on why these things are messed up but it doesn’t take much knowledge to understand why being hateful is wrong.

    • hanalady March 21st, 2013 2:21 AM

      thank you! and all this isn’t to say that Rookie should never post an article that’s remotely positive about someone like Disney… i just think we need to find a way to reconcile the fact that he was a racist and anti-Semitic jerk with the fact that we like the movies his company makes. it’s okay to have both, but arguing that it really “wasn’t so bad” for the sake of not feeling guilty about liking his movies is just hiding and reminds me of revisionist history :/

  • AliceinWonderland March 19th, 2013 10:42 PM

    “Disney is pixie dust AND penis castles”

    Lol. This should be Disney’s new motto.

  • taste test March 19th, 2013 10:52 PM

    there’s this blog that writes long, intense essays about disney world with a category devoted to weird tidbits from disney world’s past. I think it’s sorta relevant to this article, so I’ll leave it here if any other rookies want to take a look.

  • spudzine March 19th, 2013 11:13 PM

    I am very glad that this article has been made, because I recently found out about some hidden and very creepy messages in old micky mouse cartoons
    So I’m glad I could delve deeper into “the wonderful world of disney”

  • clairedh March 19th, 2013 11:22 PM

    I am heading to America for the first time in June/July this year and I am super excited! One of my first stops will be Disneyland so I’m just going to forget I read this cool article and let myself get immersed in the Disney magic! But really guys, my mind is blowing with excitedness

  • aliastro March 19th, 2013 11:50 PM

    I wrote a paper once about all the hidden stuff about Disney World. To learn about the hidden queer history of Disney check out:

    See also Celebration, Disney’s creepy Stepford wife-town in Florida.

  • carofine March 19th, 2013 11:55 PM

    I’m giving a speech about Disneyland next week and how it’s pretty much a giant symbol of our American dream for happiness. Mouse Tales is one of those books I can read over and over, it’s fascinating to see how much control and detail there is at Disneyland. Cool article, Rookie!!

  • pearl irene March 20th, 2013 12:05 AM

    i went to disneyland for the first time this winter at age 16 and i’m going to be honest… i loved it. the weather was perfect and sunny and breezy and cool and we didn’t wait in a single line and i got my picture taken with princesses and the mom from the incredibles and it was just great.

    and this is the icing on the cake, how strange/funny to learn stuff like this about something we’ve all grown up with :)

  • lydiajamesxxx March 20th, 2013 12:29 AM

    well, this could explain my longterm childhood fear of the older versions of mickey mouse…

  • Melisa March 20th, 2013 3:30 AM

    One VERY interesting (not to mention creepy) thing I’ve recently read is that lots of families are scattering the ashes of their loved ones throughout Disneyland. The most popular place is actually the Haunted Mansion.

    Honestly, I’d understand why Disneyland would be the perfect place to scatter ashes (the happiest place on earth, anyone?), but it’s just creeeeepyyyy.

  • Nikilodeon March 20th, 2013 9:49 AM

    okay i didn’t know where to put this comment but i guess i’ll just say it here:


    i love that movie so much.

  • littleredridinghood March 20th, 2013 1:41 PM

    In Pinocchio a man kidnaps little boys and takes them to a place called PLEASURE ISLAND where they drink and smoke. That ruined a bit of Disney’s magic for me.

  • saramarit March 20th, 2013 2:05 PM

    Did you know that visibily disabled people, including kids, can’t have their picture taken with Mickey Mouse or any of the other characters?

    Apparently it doesn’t look right in the happiest place on earth.

    • riseagainstyourfate April 1st, 2013 3:26 PM

      This I know to be false – I have been to several parks several times with my extremely disabled sister, and if anything the characters spend more time with her and she gets more pictures taken.

  • MabelEnchanted March 20th, 2013 2:28 PM

    Is it weird that I love finding stuff like this? It just makes me laugh a lot so thanks for the new things. :’)

  • yourenotfunny March 20th, 2013 3:44 PM

    Wow, i’m going to Disney World next month and all this talk of free-masons and scandal.. I’m not sure if it excites or horrifies me.

  • unicornconnect March 20th, 2013 3:59 PM

    This is one of the best, most interesting, slightly creepy articles I have ever read!!! Human remains in the ghost house, that actually kept me awake at night.

  • Molly March 20th, 2013 7:18 PM

    This was so crazy! It definitely renewed my interest in Disney Pictures (I mean, seriously, now I have to go watch every single Disney movie ever made all over again) not to mention the wonderful fact that it added some mystery to the oh-so-glamorous life of this Disney OBSESSED teen. Walt (may I call him Walt?) was a normal person, and people have flaws, and people can do evil things sometimes, but that doesn’t change the good things about us. And who can disagree with me when I say that (as a whole) Walt Disney’s cartoons are full of good things.

  • Molly March 20th, 2013 7:27 PM

    But this was on the top 5 million for my favorite Rookie articles (don’t worry though–it’s way up there, not that you should care what I “rate” you). I’ve always suspected something dark and twisted about Disney’s… style. You know… always adapting Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm stories into seemingly less um gruesome and/or depressifying(depressing and terrifying) tales.

  • shelley March 21st, 2013 2:05 PM

    I had a super realistic dream that disneyland was kidnapping kids, operating on them and feeding their organs to aliens!

  • mickeyf19 March 24th, 2013 11:01 PM

    I’ve been to Disneyland a few times annually and while I find myself getting caught up in it all, loving it, there are so many things that just seem…off. I love reading about all these scandals and stories. Because I love Disney’s stories, but I also despise them for so many terrible messages that they send…

    Anyway, I kept thinking about this story I read on tumblr while reading this article. It really…gets to you. I often find myself thinking about it. So if you have an extra ten minutes, definitely take a look at this:

  • Kay Dee March 26th, 2013 8:55 PM

    YOOOOO!! beauty and the beast is a narrative about domestic violence. it tells BBgirls that, its your jobs to change the batterer/prince.

    dun believe me?

    watch this is a clip from an amazing documentary called Mickey Mouse Monopoly( i think the whole this is on youtube, which is great am i right, eh eh?!?).

    final thought: luv disney, but with a VV critical eye, and firm boundaries.

  • meels April 1st, 2013 6:33 PM

    damn i really liked this article, made me laugh a lot.

    disney is an odd little world

  • shutitoff April 6th, 2013 5:02 PM

    If you don’t believe there’s racism in Disney films, it’s worth a look at the deleted centaur girl from Fantasia.

  • May 15th, 2013 1:37 PM

    Disney does have a dark side and I wish it really was 100%”Magical and happy” and all of that positive stuff. I admit, I may watch the “Lion King” from time to time with my sister and watch that stuff go over my head until I search it up a day later. I’ve always thought there was something a little bit strange about Disney. Let alone I’ve wanted to go to Disney World from time to time.

  • Cecelia May 24th, 2013 3:59 PM

    Besides Walt Disney holding some inappropriate views such as his anti-semticism and blatant sexism and racism, I can’t see anything else wrong? His views are, in most cases, to be expected of the times he lived, though it is sad, it is true. I can see the word SEX in The Lion King or hear anything but “Here kitty…” in Aladdin; people are just making this up to have a little fun in my opinion.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 24th, 2013 1:33 PM

    This is awesome. Creepy Disney is delightful!

  • ArmyOfRabbits July 10th, 2013 1:48 AM

    There has been some discussion whether or not Walt Disney was an anti-Semite. It’s hard to say since he worked with Jewish artists for his company. (Haven’t found any reliable evidence about him being one or not). But you guys are welcome to check this link out, and read the comments:

    I’d like to go on the Small World ride again and see if I can witness anything different. XD Gosh the next time I head over to Disneyland, I might just look for hidden mysteries and clues.