No one really knows how the rumor that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen got started. And yet it persists, in part because the founder of The Walt Disney Company was a technological innovator with a secretive streak (look up where the new movie The Florida Project got its title) and was also unimaginably wealthy. The speculation that Disney’s body — or, at the very least, his head — is cryogenically frozen and hiding in a basement somewhere, waiting to be reanimated, is ingrained in the public psyche. And so, it was only a matter of time before someone made a movie about it.
The Further Adventures of Walt’s Frozen Head, a new film by director Benjamin Lancaster, is a quasi-fan fiction imbued with a mix of love and satire and funded by a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign. The movie posits that Disney’s head is unfrozen once a year to oversee the direction of his company (sorry, Bob Iger). One year, Disney convinces a low-level park employee named Peter to kidnap him and sneak him into Disney World. Things get a bit wacky from there, as expected when you’re toting Walt Disney’s head around Disney World in a Mickey Mouse bag.
At its core, Lancaster’s film is a family-friendly romp through one of America’s greatest urban legends (the whole frozen head thing). The title came first, Lancaster says, followed by the realization that, if he and his team were going to make a movie about Walt Disney’s frozen head, then there was no question that Disney would want to see his crowning achievement in all its realized glory.
Disney’s head would want to hang out in Disney World. The problem with that was, well, Disney World.
“We have a story about Walt's frozen head that's so interesting to me,” Lancaster told SYFY WIRE, contemplating the potential lengths someone would go to stay alive, to preserve themselves after death. “What that character wants is to get into the one place that he's not allowed to go. That's the story we've got to show… I can't go make a Magic Kingdom. We don't have the budget. But, gosh darn it, I can sneak in some cameras.”
He knew that Disney — considered one of the most stringent, message-controlled media conglomerates in the world — would never approve an official request to film a movie titled The Further Adventures of Walt’s Frozen Head in Disney World. So Lancaster and his team went rogue. They never even made a request to Disney, since that would have just put security on alert for a bunch of people with cameras walking around. Technically, it's not illegal; it's just highly frowned upon.
“Walt Disney once famously rejected [Alfred] Hitchcock from shooting a suspense thriller in Disneyland because he didn't like the movie Psycho and the shower scene, which he thought was filthy,” Lancaster says. “So I don't think the company's gotten any less puritanical since those days.”
Armed with Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras, a six-person crew, and minimal support staff, Lancaster and his team made their way through Disney World. They filmed The Further Adventures of Walt’s Frozen Head without Disney’s express permission — and without getting caught. They managed to get every scene they wanted to shoot in the theme park.
“We would actually have runners in case we got busted who had specific drop points throughout the park,” Lancaster says. If something were to go wrong, every team member was light enough on their feet that they’d be able to melt into the crowd.
The only time the team risked discovery was at the turnstiles leading into the Magic Kingdom when the lead actor, Daniel Cooksley (Peter), was recognized by one of the cast members working that day. Cooksley, a local theater actor in Orlando, Florida, had to think on his feet, especially after his ticket didn’t work and one of the managers was called over.
“We knew that there was no way for us to build a fake turnstile,” Lancaster says. “You have a movie about getting into Walt Disney World, sneaking Walt's frozen head into Walt Disney World — you gotta show the head getting in. There's no way to fake that one. We really only have one, maybe two chances at this before someone's gonna notice that, ‘hey, these people keep going through the turnstiles again and again.’ That's not something you can get away with a million times. Luckily, we just kept rolling and our actor went with it.
“I'm kind of a rule follower by nature,” Lancaster adds. “So this was a big step for me.”
Walt’s Frozen Head wasn’t the first film to result in a guerilla production team sneaking through Disney World, and it certainly won’t be the last. The Florida Project, a 2017 award season contender, filmed its final scene “very clandestinely” in front of Cinderella’s Castle. And Randy Moore’s 2013 Sundance Film Festival contender, Escape from Tomorrow, famously filmed in both Disney World and Disneyland without Disney’s permission. It’s been called the “ultimate guerrilla film,” and tells a disturbing story that turns “The Happiest Place on Earth” into a living nightmare. Escape From Tomorrow’s entrance into Sundance caused an uproar at the time and speculation about how Disney would react.
Disney, it turned out, decided it was better not draw any more attention to Escape From Tomorrow than it had already garnered. The same seems true, so far, for Walt’s Frozen Head. Lancaster says he hasn’t heard anything from Disney yet, although he’s certain the company is at least aware of his film.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day, no media company can keep their own films from being distributed, so it would be hard to keep someone else's from being distributed,” Lancaster says. If Disney tries to put a stop to the film from being released through official channels, then he’ll find another way. “I really care more about this film getting out than I do about it getting out in the channels that would sort of make a profit, if that makes any sense… The primary objective is that as many people who want to see it get to see this movie.”
Considering that sneaking into Disney World was Disney's head's idea in the first place, it feels likely his media empire might let it slide. And, besides, the moral of the story is this: Asking for permission is no way to get a-head in life.