When you’re famous, and your face is recognized by people all around the world, you expect that throughout your lifetime, your name will come up in conversations here and there, whether things being said about you are good, bad, or indifferent–true, untrue, or questionable. It’s an empirical fact about attaining celebrity status.
But in the case of the visionary genius behind Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disneyland, and Walt Disney World, more has been said, spread, debated, and shared in the 56 years following his death than was ever said of him while he was alive.
In fact, Walt Disney’s passing is a topic of discussion and wild debate all the world over, as the death of the beloved and incomparable entertainment mogul in 1966 has fueled some of the most long-standing and outrageous variations of an urban legend ever passed down. Walt’s death and the corresponding posthumous placement of his body have nearly become a trope within the kingdom of Disney fandom.
Though he had just turned 65, Walt Disney was very much in the prime of his life when it suddenly ended on December 15, 1966, at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, just across the street from the Walt Disney Studios building. Only a year and a half earlier, Disneyland Resort celebrated its 10th anniversary, and four months later, in November 1965, Walt and his brother Roy formally announced plans for a second theme park resort in the Sunshine State during a press conference held by Florida governor Haydon Burns.
But no one could have imagined that the famed visionary would be gone five years before his “Florida Project” ever took shape.
He died on December 15, 1966, from complications associated with lung cancer after having had surgery related to his cancer only one month earlier. On December 16, Walt’s family held a private funeral during which they said their painful goodbyes, and on Saturday, December 17, his body was cremated, and his ashes were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
And the world stood silent as the great animator and visionary was finally laid to rest.
But thanks to a tabloid reporter with The National Spotlite, Walt could hardly rest in peace. In January 1967, the reporter claimed he had quietly entered St. Joseph Medical Center, disguised himself as an orderly, and broke into a storage room where, according to his account, he saw Walt Disney’s body encased in a cryogenic cylinder. And with that, one of the most widely-circulated urban legends on earth was born.
Never mind all the holes in the reporter’s story.
And while there’s far more evidence that Walt’s ashes were interred than there is that Walt’s body is currently being held in cryogenic suspension in a facility teeming with armies of 10-foot-tall silver canisters, awaiting the next medical marvel that will bring him back to life, let’s not fight the legend anymore. Let’s just go with it. Let’s take a look back in history and follow the timeline of events that would have taken place had Walt chosen cryonics over cremation.
The process began several months (or years) before Walt died when he contacted a cryonics facility to make an appointment to meet with representatives who could explain the cryopreservation process to him and his wife, Lillian. During that meeting, the Disneys discussed Walt’s wishes about being preserved, and he made it known that he wanted whole-body preservation as opposed to neuropreservation, in which only his head would be frozen.
Once arrangements were made, Walt paid thousands of dollars for the procedure to take place when it was time and thousands more to cover the fees associated with having a medical team on hand shortly before his passing so the initial stages of the preservation process could begin immediately. For the Disneys, the costs were higher, as they lived nearly 400 miles from the cryonics facility located in Scottsdale, Arizona.
In the days leading up to Walt’s death, Lillian visited a mortuary and retained the services of a funeral director who would be responsible for overseeing the transport of Walt’s body across state lines from California to Arizona following his death and the first phases of preservation, which would be performed by medical professionals from the Cryonics Society at St. Joseph’s minutes after his death.
Early on Thursday morning, December 15, as Walt’s time drew near, a doctor and nurses from the Cryonics Institute arrived at St. Joseph’s and prepared to begin the initial cryopreservation process when the time was at hand. Only a couple of hours after their arrival, Walt breathed his last. The cryonics team went to work, as they had only minutes to perform the first processes of cryopreservation and ready Walt’s body for its 391-mile journey to Arizona. A nurse then contacted the mortuary to alert that team about Walt’s death so that transportation could be arranged immediately.
Nurses placed Walt on artificial respiration so that oxygen would continue flowing to his brain as dimethyl sulfoxide was injected to replace his blood and protect his vital organs from becoming damaged. His body was then placed in a metal tube-shaped container full of ice to induce hypothermia before the funeral director arrived to begin transporting his body to Arizona via hearse.
Medical personnel accompanied Walt’s body to Arizona, and as soon as the hearse arrived at the Cryonics Institute, the medical team transferred his body to a surgery suite where they began administering several drugs, including propofol, which is usually used as an anesthetic for patients undergoing surgery. Antibiotics and anticoagulants–drugs that prevent the blood from coagulating or clotting–were also administered. Then nurses injected him with a protective solution to prevent his tissue from solidifying after death. The solution also prevented the formation of ice crystals within the body, which can cause irreparable damage to the body. This process, called perfusion, took approximately 11 hours.
Finally, less than 24 hours after Walt died, his body was placed into an insulated capsule, now referred to as a dewar, filled with liquid nitrogen and cooled to a temperature of 320 degrees below zero, as the whole world was just learning that the legendary visionary and creator of classic animated entertainment and the modern theme park was gone.
As the legend goes–the one in which Walt chose cryonics over cremation, the great animator now awaits his magnificent reanimation, some 56 years later.