A young mother had a horrifying experience during a trip to Disney World when the unimaginable happened, and months later, there’s still no resolution, and the grieving mom cannot find closure.
For more than four months, a young mother from Iowa has been searching. She’s been hoping against hope and pleading for help from the public after a trip to Disney World in April 2023 went terribly wrong. But so far, nearly five months later, even Disney magic hasn’t been able to bring the grieving mom any answers.
An Unsettling Practice in the Parks
For more than 51 years, Disney fans have been flocking to Central Florida to see Mickey Mouse, revel in the majesty of Cinderella Castle, and, more recently, to live out their favorite Star Wars fantasies. Others come for a different reason–with the goal of leaving something behind during their visit to the parks–namely, the ashes of a loved one.
It’s a practice that’s not only a violation of Disney World’s rules but also illegal in Orange and Osceola Counties, where the Walt Disney World Resort is located. Guests who are caught spreading the ashes of their loved ones at any of Disney’s four theme parks are working to grant the wishes of their loved ones, many of whom had a special connection to the parks and wished to have their ashes spread at Disney World.
But the loved ones who are caught doing it risk being banned from the parks, and worse–they face the certainty that their loved one’s ashes will be immediately removed by trained cast members. It makes sense for Disney World to create a special memorial location on the property as a designated place for such a practice.
But when Liz Atkinson brought the ashes of her son Gabryel to the parks in April 2023, she had no intention of leaving them behind.
A Grieving Mom Attempting to Grant a Wish
Immediately following his birth, Liz’s son Gabryel had to be placed in the neonatal intensive care unit. While he was there, the family was given a light blue stuffed elephant that they affectionately named “Bruce.” The elephant stayed by Gabryel’s side throughout his life and was there during each of the more than 50 surgical procedures he had to undergo in an effort to save his life.
“Bruce has been at every hospitalization,” the young mom said. “There’s far too many to count. He’s been with my son at every procedure. My son that’s surviving holds Bruce and cries when he’s missing his brother.”
“[Gabryel] slept with [the stuffed elephant] every night, and since his passing, my husband and I have had it in our bed with us.”
Tragically, Gabryel passed away before his eighth birthday.
His ashes were placed inside a small pouch that was sewn onto the toy elephant’s back. In remembrance of Gabryel, who had always wanted to go to Disney World, Liz and her husband took their surviving son, Sebastyan, to the parks in late April 2023. The family also spent time at Cocoa Beach, Florida, and in the city of Kissimmee, located just minutes from Disney World. It was only natural that she would bring the elephant that held Gabryel’s ashes with them.
“Bruce, of course, was brought on our trip, and a small bag of our son’s ashes was inside the pouch on Bruce’s back,” she wrote in a post on Facebook. “The trip was a bit hectic with three different cities and hotels, and grief-brain kicked in at some point with all of the emotions, making me really struggle with simple memory tasks.”
Their vacation began on April 22 at Beachside Resort at Cocoa Beach, and then the family visited Kissimmee, where they stayed at the Palazzo Lakeside Hotel. They visited Disney Springs on April 24, and the following day, they checked into Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, where they stayed until April 30.
It was there at the Disney Resort that Liz first realized that Bruce, the stuffed elephant toy, was missing.
Panic and Desperation Set In
“Because vehicles get messy on trips, I kept thinking maybe he was just mixed in somewhere,” Liz explained in a Facebook post in which she tells her story and implores anyone who might have found Bruce the elephant to contact her. “[It’s] very unlike me; I know where everything is 100% of the time, even on trips (thank you, grief).”
On May 1, when the family returned home, Liz said she looked everywhere for Bruce: “I searched everywhere–every bag. He’s gone.”
She immediately took to Facebook to post about the heartbreaking loss–a grieving mother, now facing loss for the second time. In the post, Liz said she’s “completely desperate” and hoping in earnest that she and her family are able to be reunited with Bruce and the very precious cargo he carries on his back.
“I feel sick, struggling to sleep,” Liz said in a detailed Facebook post about her plight. “I’m desperate.”
The distraught young mother pleaded with users not to criticize her for bringing her son’s ashes on the family trip to Disney World, saying she struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and that she has brought the stuffed elephant with them on every trip they’ve taken since Gabryel passed away.
“I never in a million years would’ve thought that struggling with grief would have impaired my memory enough to forget him somewhere,” she explained. “I tried very hard to make sure he was always in a bag or in my arms so this didn’t happen.”
Since her story was first shared in early May, Liz’s Facebook post has been shared more than 21,000 times by people she doesn’t even know, each of them hoping to get the word out in case someone has seen the tiny elephant that means such much to Liz and her family. Sadly, however, Liz says there’s still no sign of Bruce.
“If I had all the money in the world, I would give it to whoever found him, honestly,” Liz said in the post.
Many have reached out to Liz, but she has updated her Facebook post to let them know that the stuffed animal belonging to her family doesn’t have the original battery pack inside.
“The elephant one has a long battery but we had replaced it with a battery pack from a different animal and that battery pack is more egg-shaped,” Atkinson said. “So even if someone removed the ashes, the battery pack would be a giveaway of it being Bruce.”
Liz recently said that some people have been using their days off from work to help her retrace her steps in Florida. They’ve also taken time to talk with people in the area to see what can be done to help Liz and her family find Bruce, resolution, and peace.
“Hopefully, wherever he is, he gets back home.”