Not Coming to a Theatre Near You: Walt Disney’s Head is in a Freezer (Maybe)

Walt Disney

On December 15, 1966, Walter Elias “Walt” Disney died from an aggressive form of cancer, with the first signs of the disease appearing six weeks before his demise. The abrupt nature of Walt Disney’s death and the lack of a public funeral led some to wonder if Disney had a part of his body, likely his head, frozen in hopes of one day being re-animated. Is there any truth to the story? Let’s take a look at the details, along with some interesting copyright law implications that arise should Walt rejoin the land of the living.


Freezing the Creator of Mickey Mouse

Rumors and myths surrounding the cryogenic preservation of Walt Disney abound. Many suggest that his head currently resides in a temperature-controlled room underneath the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Anaheim’s Disneyland. This muggy, hot ride appears to be a less than ideal place to hide a frozen head.

The attraction is the last one Walt Disney helped design, with the ride still under construction at the time of Disney’s death. The ongoing construction and symbolic nature of Disney’s work on the ride lends a little (but not much) credence to the theory, suggesting a preserved head is hidden under the attraction.

A rumor that suggests Disney sought to cryogenically preserve a portion of his body, likely his head, first appeared in a 1969 issue of  the French tabloid Ici Paris. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the practice of cryogenics captured the attention of science fiction aficionados and futurists, but the process remained in its infancy, with only a handful of individuals undergoing the process.

Money troubles plagued many early cryonics companies, with the cryonics company CSC Chatsworth thawing almost all of its patients  in the late 1970s. Retired psychology professor James Bedford is the only subject it saved, the first human to undergo cryopreservation. CSC thawed the bodies without telling their constituent families, with Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the leader in modern cryonics, taking custody of Bedford for historical reasons.


A Severed Head Under the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride?

Storing Disney’s head on site at Disneyland would be rather costly, with a number of “custodians” of Walt needed to change the liquid nitrogen necessary to preserve the head and perform other acts of care for it over the decades. At the very least, one of these caretakers would surely speak out in the intervening decades. Little to no facts support the possibility that Disney sought to cryopreserve any portion of his body, but it makes for an interesting urban legend.

Sadly, Walt Disney did not have a long amount of time to prepare for death. Disney, a smoker, died from lung cancer stemming, with a large lung tumor found during a routine surgery performed in early November of 1969. Believing he had up to two years to live, Disney  spent a small amount of time tending to Walt Disney Corporation business, leaving it in the hands of his brother Roy. In the weeks before his death, Disney underwent chemotherapy and spent time with his wife before dying six weeks after the initial diagnosis.

No grand funeral service occurred, with a small group of family and friends witnessing the internment of his cremains at Forest Lawn Memorial in Glendale, California. The cremation of Disney two days after his death does not do a lot to dissuade theorists, as a complete body of the deceased Disney is never shown.

Cremation also provides plenty of time for the body to undergo the cryopreservation preparation process, which takes several hours. Disney’s death also predated to cryopreservation of James Bedford by almost a month. If Disney did undergo the process, he would have been the first in the world—a news item quite difficult to keep under wraps.

Frozen Heads and Copyright Extension


The Walt Disney Company has been extremely aggressive—and rightfully so—in protecting character copyrights over the past several decades. This aggressive nature is in part due to Disney’s death at the reasonably early age of 65 and his role in creating so many of the company’s cornerstone characters. If Walt Disney’s head is frozen and hidden underneath Pirates of the Caribbean or in a proper storage facility, an interesting legal situation comes to light.

In the United States, copyright claims are determined by the lifetime of the creator. Once the creator dies, the clock is ticking until his works or creations enter public domain. Once in public domain, any company or individual could copy and distribute the characters created by Walt Disney. For example, an X-rated action flick starring live action versions of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck would be perfectly legal.

The Walt Disney Corporation has been on the forefront of the battle for extending the copyright length, with 1998’s Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (also known as the Mickey Mouse Act) extending ownership of creations by 20 years beginning with properties created since 1923. The choice of year was not a fluke, as it is the year that Walt and Roy Disney began the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. The Copyright Term Extension Act extended existing laws by two decades, extending the copyright holding period to 95 years after the death of the creator.

Unless additional patent extension occurs, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and others will enter public domain sometime around 2064. If Walt Disney happened to come back to life using his rumored frozen head via cryogenic technology, copyright litigation regarding these characters could become extremely interesting. We will have to wait and see if the great Disney comes back to life over the course of the next five decades to find out.

Image Source: Wikimedia

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