The death of a young woman at Disneyland over the weekend has brought untold grief to her family and friends, and re-ignited discussions about suicides at Disney Parks, why they happen, and whether Disney has any responsibility in putting an end to them.
On Saturday evening, Anaheim Police officers arrived at the scene of Disney’s 7-story parking garage, responding to multiple calls about a woman “falling or jumping” from the structure. When they arrived, they discovered 46-year-old Marney Schoenfeld lying on the ground. Paramedics sprang into action, administering care in an effort to save her life. Moments later, she was transported to a local hospital, where she was pronounced deceased.
On Monday, Anaheim Police said Schoenfeld’s death was being investigated as a suicide.
In 2022, there were 311 suicides in Orange County, California, where Disneyland Resort is located, and the general public was likely none the wiser in most of those incidences, as they weren’t reported in the national media. But on the evening of December 3, a 51-year-old man took his life at Disneyland, and the terrible tragedy was fodder for online news sites and TV broadcast news alike.
Christopher Christensen, a beloved elementary school principal from Huntington Beach, California, penned a long post via Facebook just hours before Anaheim Police officers arrived at the Disney Resort complex in response to multiple reports of a man falling from the Mickey & Friends parking structure on the property. The post seemed to serve as Christensen’s farwell, as was as an explanation for his decision to end his life.
“I hate when people leave this Earth with so many unanswered questions,” Christensen said at the beginning of the post, “so I hope this provides some insight and perspective.”
To date, there have been eight reported suicides at Disneyland Resort, the first of which took place on September 3, 1994, when a 75-year-old man jumped from a ninth-floor balcony at the Disneyland Hotel. Of the eight incidences at Disneyland, three have taken place at the Disneyland Hotel (1994, 1996, and 2008), and five have taken place at the parking structure on the property where Schoenfeld died last weekend (2010, 2012, 2016, 2022, and 2023).
These incidences bring about unimaginable grief in the lives of those whose lives are forever marred by the tragic loss of a loved one, and they raise questions about why suicides happen at Disneyland and whether the resort has any responsibility in stopping the trend.
At the Walt Disney World Resort in Central Florida, there have been four reported suicides.
On March 4, 2020, just days before the Walt Disney World Resort announced its closure in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, officers from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and Reedy Creek emergency personnel arrived at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, responding to reports from Guests who said they saw a woman jump from the structure. When police arrived, the woman, later identified as 22-year-old Jasmine Samuels, was unresponsive.
According to police reports, Samuels was a former Cast Member who worked as a valet at Disney Springs. Her mother told officers that she had diagnoses including schizophrenia and had taken her medication the evening before, but that she didn’t appear to be in a “bad state” on March 4.
Of the four suicide incidences reported at Disney World, one took place at EPCOT (1992), one at the DoubleTree Guest Suites (2010), and two at Disney’s Contemporary Resort (2016 and 2020).
So is there a reason behind a person’s decision to take his or her life inside a Disney Park? The answer can vary from case to case, but when interviewed following a rash of suicides in California by individuals who jumped from overpasses and parking structures (like the one at Disneyland), University of California at Irvine psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty, a specialist is suicide prevention, said the decision can come down to accessibility.
“The reason for that is it simply appears to people to be really accessible,” Dr. Kheriaty explained. “[Individuals] can walk onto an overpass, and a police officer isn’t going to stop them from jumping, most likely. Probably they just look around and say, “What’s the highest spot I can gain pedestrian access to?”
But Kheriaty says that suicides often happen as impulses.
“Suicide is very often impulsive. The person is often ambivalent. People that jumped and survived, when asked what they were thinking, it’s typically, ‘What did I just do? I can’t believe I did this,’” Kheriaty said.
Over the years, as suicide incidences at the parks have involved Guests leaping from a hotel balcony or a parking garage, the question has arisen about whether Disney has any responsibility in helping to deter individuals from jumping from structures on property. Dr. Kheriaty says such measures can be extremely helpful.
“You can put up a barrier–if it slows them down, if it makes them think, if they have to struggle more to do it, that may be enough to prevent them in that moment,” he said.
Kheriaty points out two sides of the proverbial “equation” when it comes to suicides that take place in public places such as bridges, overpasses, and other structures like those at Disney Resorts–and even locations like the Eiffel Tower.
“People typically think there’s only one side of the equation, and that’s the decision on the part of the person,” he explained. “The person needs to not only have the decision and resolve, but they have to have the means available. If the means aren’t immediately available or they think it’s not going to work, they may botch it, then they’re likely not to act on the suicidal thoughts.”
“The Eiffel Tower was a hot spot [for suicides] until they erected a barrier. St. Peter’s Basilica was a hot spot. The Empire State Building was a hot spot,” Dr. Kheriaty explained. “Suicides went down to very few to zero at these places when they did something about it.”
Between 1889–when the Eiffel Tower was first built–and 2015, 370 people lost their lives after jumping from the Tower. But in recent years, that number has dropped drastically, due in large part to increased security measures and netting that serves as a deterrent. there has been a significant decrease in suicides thanks to nets.
The same could prove true at Disneyland and Disney World, if the company were to install deterrents, such as high railing, a wide base of trees and shrubbery around the perimeter of the parking structures (at Disneyland). Additional security measures could also be taken to prevent individuals from ascending the structures for the purpose of harming themselves.
Ultimately, a greater awareness of the need for mental health care is paramount, and those who need help should have open access to it–and not feel stigmatized when seeking that help. Suicide need not be a “taboo” topic, especially since a majority of those who commit suicide also suffer from severe depression and battle feelings of loneliness and isolation. Normalizing conversations about suicide, suicidal ideation and thoughts, and depression can open the door where help and healing can begin.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, there is help. There is hope at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The crisis center provides free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to civilians and veterans. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741-741 (Crisis Text Line). As of July 2022, those searching for help can also dial 988 to be relayed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.