I knew that, if I was going to run a PeopleMover blog, there would come a time when I had to talk about the deaths.
Please understand that I take no joy in talking about this; but I do want to be a repository for information on this attraction, and this comes with the territory.
WARNING: The descriptions ahead are quite gruesome. If you want a watered-down version of these events, try Wikipedia.
When the PeopleMover first opened in July 1967, it was meant to showcase the promise of clean, efficient public transportation. Individual cars did not need a driver or conductor…it was self-sufficient.
Sadly, it didn’t take long for the thrill of breaking the rules to take hold. Almost immediately, perhaps lured into a false sense of security by the slow-moving trains, it became something of a game for people to climb out of their cars and move to another in the tunnels, where they could not be seen.
As you can see in the above photo, this was quite easy to do. There were, at the time, no barriers of any kind between the main body of the PeopleMover cars and their roof. It was a simple matter to sit up on the back of the seat and swing your legs over the side.
In August of 1967, just one month after the PeopleMover opened, Ricky Lee Yama — a 17-year-old from Hawthorne, California — decided to switch cars in the tunnel of the CircleVision 360º bulding.
He hopped out of the PeopleMover car he was in, and slipped on the track. The next PeopleMover car came up on him and, with the grip of the Goodyear tires that made up the PeopleMover’s propulsion system still pushing the car forward, Ricky’s head and upper body were crushed underneath the unyielding PeopleMover car.
Three sections of the PeopleMover train had to be dismantled to dislodge and remove his mangled body from the track.
While changes to the cars didn’t happen right away (davelandweb has pictures up to January of 1968 showing PeopleMover cars without any design alterations), by the Summer of 1968 PeopleMover cars had been fitted with railings around the outside to make exiting the vehicle during the ride a bit more difficult.
A metal rail ran around the length of the car, about eight inches above the top of the fiberglass body, except for above the sliding doors. At the front and back of the car, the railing went up to a second layer so adventurous riders could not sit on the backs of the seats.
This worked well for quite a while, but you know what they say…if you make something idiot-proof, the world will build a better idiot.
Fast-forward to June 7, 1980. It’s Grad Nite, when high school graduates come to celebrate the end of their high school days with an all-night party at Disneyland. Gerardo Gonzales, 18, was there with other graduates from his San Diego high school. In the we hours, he and some friends decided to car-hop in the Super Speed Tunnel.
Much like what happened to Ricky Lee Yama, Gerardo lost his footing and was run down by a PeopleMover car. According to witnesses, he made it out the other side of the PeopleMover car broken and battered, but still alive. unable to move, however, he was then again crushed by the next car and dragged for quite a ways down the track (at least 100 feet, some sources say it was several hundred) before the ride was stopped. There was not much left of him by the time his ride was over.
After this, the safety railings on the PeopleMover were again modified; this time the double-layer went all the way around the PeopleMover cars, including the door. The doors had railings that were designed to go inside the railing attached to the body when the door opened.
There were no similar incidents between June 7th, 1980 and the PeopleMover’s closure on August 21, 1995 (though a ghost, either of Ricky or Gerardo or both, were said to haunt the attraction).
The closure, despite what I have heard people claim on some occasions, did not close as a result of the deaths. If even the second death was to blame, it would not have taken 15 years to make the decision. Besides that, the ride was inherently safe…it was the unsafe actions of these two young men that led to their own deaths (although that didn’t stop the PeopleMover from gathering nicknames like PeopleMauler and PeopleReMover).
Disneyland stopped operating the PeopleMover on Grad Nites, partly because of the drugs and alcohol that teens are constantly trying to sneak in which make them do stupid things (Disney does take precautions against this, including sweeping the park with drug-sniffing dogs, but teenagers can be clever) and partly due to the reputation that the PeopleMover got as an easy place for some Grad Nite lovin’ (aka doing some PeopleMaking).
If you’re at Disneyland and feeling a bit adventurous, bear in mind that you are riding on industrial machinery that puts on a happy face. When you are told to keep your body parts inside the vehicle at all times, it’s best you listen — if you want to keep those body parts, that is.
Photo Sources: (1) (2) (3)
Most of the above information was taken from conversations I’ve had about these incidents over the course of many years.
I also used the following sites to refresh my memory on names and a few details, though no one source has the full story (including myself, no doubt):
If you have anything to add, feel free to get in touch.