Tampa Bay columnists
Mary Jo Melone
World & Nation
AP The Wire
Comics & Games
Home & Garden
Advertise with the Times
These urban myths need good dose of skepticism
By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2000
I wrote a column a few weeks ago about the nightmare of losing your children, even briefly, at the airport, circus or any other crowded public place. The column prompted four people to tell me about what happens at Disney World when a child is separated from his or her parents.
From my editor to a doctor friend to my sitter, the story varied only slightly: The Disney people whisk the parents into a room filled with television screens displaying every inch of the park. They anxiously urge parents to "Look at the eyes, look at the eyes." (In one version it's "Look at the shoes.")
The reason is simple. After the child snatchers have the kid, they quickly duck into a bathroom or behind a ride to change the child's clothes, then cut, shave or dye the hair. If you're looking for your little girl with red pigtails and a green Pooh dress, she could walk right past you with short black hair and blue gingham shorts and shirt.
"It happened about 10 years ago to a woman in my Bible study," my sitter told me. "Her little girl had long, black, curly hair and they cut it all off. They found her in line for Space Mountain."
I asked why a kidnapper would take the time to ride Space Mountain instead of hustling the child out of the park. She said she was told Disney immediately closes all exits from the park when a child is missing so the kidnappers have to wait it out until they can find an escape route.
I told my sitter about the others who mentioned this story to me, and that it sounds like one of those urban myths. She conferred with her sister about it and later told me they think this woman could have made the whole thing up. After all, she dropped in and out of the Bible study and was the type who might be capable of turning an urban myth into a personal nightmare.
Still, plenty of other people were telling me this story and they aren't the only ones who know of it. Turns out a web site dedicated to urban myths, http://www.snopes.com, has a whole section on myths about Disney. This one of the hair-dyeing, head-shaving child snatchers is one of the most frequently told. And these days they are spreading farther and faster with the fuel of the Internet.
The same scenario is often said to take place in Wal-Mart as well. The web site included a scary tale by a mother who said her child was stolen at a Sam's Club. The little girl was found within five minutes in a bathroom stall, her head half shaved. The story is one of many circulating throughout the Internet. It's titled "Child Alert," and begins with the mother's urgent message: "Please take the time to forward this to any friend who has children."
The Disney story, according to the urban myths web site, often includes an attack on the mighty powerful Mouse himself. Some storytellers say Disney wants to quell the story so it offers parents a lifetime of free admission to keep quiet about what happened to their child. While a day at the park does cost a small fortune, I still can't see parents trading silence about a missing child for endless free rides on Space Mountain.
Disney's response to all this: False. Bunk. Untrue. Never happened. No way. Wrong.
"No child has ever been abducted from Walt Disney World resort," Rene Callahan, a Disney spokeswoman, told me.
"It is definitely an urban legend," she said of the kidnapping stories. "It has been out there for a while and seems to have gotten around to many people in the country. But it is in fact legend."
I wholeheartedly believe her. There are no past news stories about this happening. And if it did happen as much as people hear it happening somebody would call the cops or tell a newspaper or TV station.
Callahan, however, would not tell me if the gates are ever shut to seal off the park during operating hours. "We don't give out details of security measures. To do so would compromise security," she told me.
Why and how this story spread wide and far as fact is unknown. The urban myth web site stated that many people distrust and dislike large corporations, such as Disney or Wal-Mart, and are happy to tarnish their good-guy image.
My sitter didn't question why these myth-tellers pick on Disney but instead why they lay claim to such a horrible ordeal. "Day-to-day life is hard enough," she said. "Why would you want to have something like this, too?"
To make you more aware of what's fact and what's fiction, here are some other "parental nightmares" listed on the urban myth web site that are widespread and untrue:
A babysitter on drugs mistakes the infant for a turkey and cooks it in the oven.
School children are given cartoon character tattoos laced with LSD.
Drug smugglers smuggle cocaine into the country in the hollowed-out bodies of dead babies.
A Red Cross blood drive found that 20 percent of high school donors are HIV positive.
Venomous snakes live in the outside ball pits at fast-food restaurants.
And then there's the one I fell for in an instant. A couple of years ago a neighbor showed me a notice her husband's co-worker pulled off the Internet. It stated that Gerber had lost a class-action lawsuit because it claimed false ingredients in its baby foods. As part of the company's settlement it had to give a $500 savings bond to any child between four months and two years old. All parents had to do was mail a copy of the birth certificate to Gerber.
Our whole street, along with myself, was rushing around to get birth certificate's copied when another neighbor broke the news that she had called Gerber and learned the whole thing was a hoax. Reality bites!
-- You can reach me at 822-7225 or Oliviachar@aol.com. Please contact me if you are a stay-at-home dad or know of any.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.