The Complete Oral History Of The Time That The Beatles Died On Tokyo Disneyland Splash Mountain

Candid photograph of the Beatles on Tokyo Disneyland Splash Mountain. illustration by Josh Gates

We all remember where we were the day it happened: July 27th, 1996. Perhaps you were buying groceries when you saw the newspaper: BEATLES DEAD ON SPLASH MOUNTAIN. Maybe you turned on CNN only to see the headline: JOHN PAUL RINGO AND GEORGE SLAIN BY JAPANESE LOG FLUME.

As we near the 23rd anniversary of what has come to be known as “The Day The Music Died (On Tokyo Disneyland Splash Mountain),” I reached out to everyone involved to present the history of that fateful day as it’s never been heard before: in a series of disparate, vaguely chronological anecdotal quotes.

Paul McCartney wearing a Mickey Mouse costume at Tokyo Disneyland in 1996 moments before eating one of everything from a churro stand. illustration by Josh Gates

PART 1: “A REAL NICE TIME”

Ringo Starr: [member of the Beatles]

I remember, probably around ‘94, hearing that Tokyo Disneyland was a real nice time. Then one time a couple years later, I was havin’ a bad day. It was rainy and I’d ran out of raspberry jam and I didn’t really want to have to call my personal shopper to buy some more. It was definitely a low. And I thought, “Y’know what, Ringo? You could use a real nice time,” and then I remembered Tokyo Disneyland was apparently a real nice time. And I thought, “Who better to spend a nice day at the ‘Happiest Place in Japan on Earth’ with than your best pals?” And no one’s a better pal of Ringo Starr than the other Beatles. So I gave ‘em a ring.

 

Paul McCartney: [via publicist’s email]

Mr. McCartney has never attended Tokyo Disneyland and has no further comment on the matter.

Dolly Westerman: [Beatles historian]

As I explain in my new book Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-The 90s: A Definitive Examination of The Beatles at the End of the 20th Century, Summer 1996 saw the Olympics come to Atlanta and Dolly the Sheep [no relation] born in Scotland, but all eyes were on Tokyo Disneyland. What few people know, is that the trip almost didn’t happen.

Daphne Vander-York [the Beatles’ longtime travel agent]:

I was the Beatles’ longtime travel agent.

Ringo Starr:

Daphne was our longtime travel agent. She’d planned everything from our first trip to America to play The Ed Sullivan Show to the four-week Caribbean cruise George and I took in ‘83. She’d never let us down before.

Daphne Vander-York:

I’d made all the arrangements for the trip, but on the morning of the flight I received a call from Ringo saying that I hadn’t booked enough seats on the plane. I was under the impression that John Lennon had been dead for 16 years so I hadn’t booked him a ticket.

Maria Monae: [airplane passenger]

I gave up my seat on the plane for John. I think it was the right thing to do. But it’s crazy to think about sometimes. What if he hadn’t gone? It could just as easily have been me alongside Paul, Ringo, and George on that fatal log flume.


Ringo Starr wearing a mickey mouse hat. illustration by Josh Gates

PART 2: “BEATLESINTOKYODISNEYLANDMANIA”

Dolly Westerman:

The trip was bound to be a media circus from the moment it was announced. After all, it was the first time all four Beatles had been seen publicly since December 8th, 1980. It sparked a second ‘Beatlemania,’ of sorts. A ‘BeatlesinTokyoDisneylandmania,’ if you will, which is a term I coin in my upcoming book.

Doug Porchsmith: [Beatles merchandise bootlegger]

The Summer ’96 bootleg scene was incredible. As soon as I heard the Beatles were reuniting for a trip to Tokyo Disneyland, I quit my job, sold my house, and moved my family to Tokyo. I used our savings to buy a small t-shirt manufacturing facility and started pumping out everything I could think of. ‘The Beatles’ but in Disney font. Mickey, Donald, Minnie and Goofy crossing Abbey Road. John dressed as Tinkerbell throwing pixie dust over Cinderella castle. Some Grateful Dead tees just to be safe. You name it, I had it. I’d never infringed so much copyright in my life.

Dolly Westerman:

Sensing a tourism opportunity, the Japanese government temporarily eradicated all fire safety laws that dictated capacity limits. Tokyo Disneyland was allowed to sell as many tickets for entry to the park as they wanted. For my book, available on Amazon and select bookstores in the Cleveland metropolitan area on May 29th, I tried to interview the Tokyo fire marshal who was responsible for the Tokyo Disneyland area. He refused to speak to me despite my many calls to his personal residence.

Haru Nakamura: [worked at Tokyo Disneyland for six months in 1996]

We had to close nearly every ride to the public during the Beatles’ visit. The park was so packed with people that it became impossible to distinguish the lines for attractions from the beleaguered masses just standing around for a glimpse of the Fab Four.

Dolly Westerman:

The Beatles arrived at 11:45 a.m. to a park already over capacity. Despite the constant screams of fans and extremely slow movement as security guards fought their way through thick crowds, John, Paul, Ringo and George seemed to be having a good time from the very start.

Ringo Starr:

It was like they’d created a whole little city, when you enter the park. It was quite charming, y’know? Paul was the giddiest of the four of us. I remember he shouted, “This is just like Penny Lane!” and did a little skip like a schoolboy.

Haru Nakamura:

I was working the churro stand on Main Street. We were told by management not to sell anything to anyone other than the Beatles that day. Their fear was that the ravenous, starving crowds would buy up all our products and we’d be left with nothing to offer our four special guests. I guess it proved to be a good strategy, because Paul almost immediately ran up to my churro stand and asked for “one of everything.” I only sold churros, so I just gave him one.

Ringo Starr:

Paul was so excited about how large the churros were that he sang a little ditty and pretended to play the churro like a guitar. He was really pandering to the crowd in a way we hadn’t done since we were just lads singing love tunes.

Haru Nakamura:

Paul sang “Love Me Do” but changed the lyrics to “love me dough,” about the churro dough, presumably. He then switched from playing the churro like a guitar to holding it like a flute and pretended to do a little flute solo.

Dolly Westerman:

The crowd went wild for Paul’s impromptu show. The energy was electric, you could feel it in your bones. I wasn’t there, but what’s important to understand about the 90s—besides the fact that it was the most underrated decade of Beatles activity, a thesis I argue in my upcoming book—is that personal camcorders were far more affordable and accessible than in the Beatles’ heyday, so we have footage of nearly everything that happened.

Paul McCartney: [via publicist’s email]

Mr. McCartney has never purchased a churro at Tokyo Disneyland, and if he did, he would have respectfully consumed it. Mr. McCartney does not play food like musical instruments and has no further comment on the matter.


Candid photograph of the Beatles on Tokyo Disneyland Splash Mountain. illustration by Josh Gates

PART 3: “WE NEVER SAW IT COMING”

Ringo Starr:

After a few hours of wading slowly through the crowd and trying to avoid stepping on all the fans who fainted from excitement or heat-related illness, we decided we’d really like to try out one of the rides, y’know? They were part of what made Tokyo Disneyland such fun, as I’d been told by a mate. One of our security guards lifted me on his shoulders, and above the many fan posters and camera flashes, I saw two fateful words: “Splash Mountain.” Everyone thought that sounded like a real nice time, except George.

Dhani Harrison: [George Harrison’s son]

My father was incredibly afraid of logs. He called them “the skeletons of trees.” The idea of climbing inside of one to float along a river did not appeal to him.

Ringo Starr:

George and I got in a serious argument over Splash Mountain. I tried to explain to him the logs were plastic and had nice little seats built into them, but he didn’t want to hear it. George finally gave up when Paul started to pull his “just let it be, mate” bullshit. I, for one, was glad I held firm. It was the first time I’d visited a mountain.

Dhani Harrison:

We don’t have a lot of mountains in England. Mostly just hills.

Ringo Starr:

So we rode Splash Mountain. And we were having a great time, y’know? Just a couple of lads in a log. John was so inspired by the singing animals that he was talking about getting the band back together.

Br’er Fox: [Splash Mountain animatronic]

They seemed to be having a zip-a-dee-doo-dah grand old time! Well, everyone except George. My, oh, my, he was not having a wonderful day. He seemed nervous at every turn.

Ringo Starr:

And that’s when it happened. The big drop at the end of the ride. We never saw it coming. The ride’s called Splash Mountain, after all. I think we all just kinda assumed the ride would end once we reached the top of the mountain. It’s not called Splash Waterfall, y’know?

Dolly Westerman:

The Beatles made it over the final drop just fine. Unfortunately, as they passed the cheerful Zip A Dee Lady River Boat scene at the end of the ride, a wall collapsed from the pressure of stampeding fans attempting to escape the overcrowded park, and crushed all four Beatles instantly.

Dhani Harrison:

The public outpouring of support was really touching as we all grieved the loss of my father and his bandmates. Fans held candlelight vigils at the other Splash Mountains in Disneyland and Disneyworld. Japan reinstated their fire safety standards as a tribute to the Beatles under the new name “Remember Squished Bugs Law”—which sort of gets lost in translation but it’s the thought that counts. But most of all it was nice to hear what a lasting impact my father had on so many around the world.

Kevin: [author’s roommate]

Oh man, yeah I remember when that happened! Crazy. Crazy stuff.

Doug Porchsmith:

I made so much money on memorial t-shirts, man. So much. A tie-dye shirt with Mickey leaving flowers on a really wide tombstone that said “Here Lies All Four Beatles” was my best seller. Those were the days.

Dolly Westerman:

Please buy my book. I have to support myself. This is all I do. The Beatles are my life.

Madame Valsama: [Ringo Starr’s personal necromancer]

It’s such a shame that the Beatles were crushed by that giant plastic wall—and so soon after I had used the wicked, unbridled power of dark magic to pry John Lennon’s soul from the cold grip of Death. He was so excited to be not-assassinated. I still remember, the first thing he said, after he breathed a wretched, unholy breath and was birthed a second birth back into this mortal coil, was “All religions are right and wrong in their own way! I no longer have to imagine a better world! I see it all now, the path is clear! I’ll use this gift of time to bring a permanent, lasting peace to all those who walk this wonderful gift that is Earth! I have realized the exact, specific steps necessary to bring about world peace, and they do not include sitting in a bed!” It’s a shame that you can only return a mortal soul from the dead once. I had no problem reanimating the other three, but John was permanently dead. At least he got to enjoy Tokyo Disneyland!

Paul McCartney: [via publicist’s email]

Paul McCartney has never met a Madame Valsama, and has no further comment on the hideous sorceress of darkness to which he owes a great debt.

Ringo Starr:

The whole accident—John being eternally dead and such, especially—was a quite a bummer. But all in all, I had a real nice time.

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