Disney World: When Death Comes to the Magic Kingdom

Disney World: When Death Comes to the Magic Kingdom

Enchantment can be dangerous work. A series of employee fatalities this summer at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., has exposed a hard truth: the recipe for making dreams come true at the Magic Kingdom includes not only pixie dust and princesses but the hard work of very mortal human beings acting in a risky world where sometimes things go badly awry.

Over the past six weeks at Disney World, a 21-year-old monorail driver, a 47-year-old actor portraying pirate Captain Jack Sparrow’s henchman “Mack” and a 30-year-old stuntman practicing for the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular died in on-the-job accidents. Nothing links the deaths except the fact that they all resulted from incidents at the theme park, but the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, along with the local sheriff’s department and the Actors’ Equity Association, is investigating nonetheless. Disney spokeswoman Zoraya Suarez told TIME this week that the three deaths, separated as they were in time, location and job title, are unrelated. “The only common thread is the sense of loss we feel for these valued cast members and the sympathy we feel for their loved ones,” Suarez says.

The first in the string of accidents occurred on July 5, when two monorails collided at the Magic Kingdom’s main station at closing time, killing driver Austin Wuennenberg, who friends say was working his dream job. Next, on Aug. 10, actor Mark Priest died in a hospital where he was being treated for a broken vertebra in his neck and other injuries from a fall that took place four days earlier during a mock sword fight at Captain Jack’s Pirate Tutorial audience-participation show. According to his friend Jeffrey Breslauer, Priest — just before he died — said he was performing the sword fight on a new stage for the first time and slipped on a wet spot. The third death occurred on Aug. 17, when stuntman Anislav Varbanov broke his neck while practicing a tumbling roll at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for a scene in a 20-year-old show based on stunts from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. Maria Somma, spokeswoman for Actors’ Equity, said Varbanov had just signed his equity contract the week before his death.

Among Orlando’s tight-knit theatrical community , performers were inclined to view the deaths as freak accidents rather than negligence by Disney. “It would actually be unfair to say that Disney doesn’t know what they’re doing and they’re lax,” says Breslauer, a former Disney actor.

But the depth of the acting community’s grief is apparent on their Facebook pages. “We lost another one of our own at Disney. Too many, too young. Just wish it made some sense,” posted Krista Miller, a Disney improv comedian. Rather than losing spirit over the losses, Kenny Babel, a Disney performer and close friend of Priest’s, says he and other performers have been inspired by Priest’s legacy to offer even more of themselves to the process of creating the Disney magic. “Mark lived for that magic. That’s when Mark was most Mark,” Babel says. “One’s person’s life can touch, in Mark’s case, millions of guests. And he would make a special connection with each and every one of those kids that he came into contact with. He was amazing. The shining example of someone like Mark is inspiring, and so I kind of take extra care to make the magic in honor of Mark.”

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