Gather round, children, because I'm about to tell you a story of the bad old times. This was when smartphones were considered futuristic and you had to make sure no one was on the phone if you wanted to use the internet. It was a mystical land where fact and fiction weren't easily discerned, aiding in the creation of Disney urban legends!
I can't remember how I stumbled upon the imaginative world of Disney urban legends, but I distinctly remember where it came from. When I received my first computer and internet account (AOL, baby) I found myself on Snopes.com, which has now become the premiere site to discover whether something is true or untrue. To this day, one of their main sections is devoted to Disney, answering whether Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen (he's not!) or whether the company made an animated short about menstruation (it's true!).
What fascinated me the most were the stories about things hidden within Disney's animated features. The allure is akin to hearing a secret message in music. You were "in the know" if you were aware of the hidden treasures animators had managed to slip in. It was a party trick to impress your friends ⏤ "have you heard about the minister in The Little Mermaid..." ⏤ as well as proving you were a true Disney fan.
For those making the transition from VHS to DVD, it was proof of something that could be lost forever. Disney can and did update their movies, whether for the purposes of restoration or because of their awareness of what others were finding out. So to have an original copy of The Little Mermaid on VHS, with its infamous phallic castle spire ⏤ which the animator claims was a total accident ⏤ was like having the rarest of Beanie Babies. The box took on a sense of value, not just because VHS in general was going the way of the dodo, but because there was a supposed secret something as well. Unfortunately we should all have realized by now that we won't be retiring our old Disney VHS tapes.
More importantly, the use of urban legends fostered a deeper appreciation for the films themselves. In the 1977 featureThe Rescuers, it was later discovered that a few frames of a topless woman were spliced in. The scene was removed before the film's home video release, but watching it as a teenager who knew of its existence made me more interested in the animators who worked on it. Who was the dude ⏤ and let's be honest, it was a guy ⏤ who did this? What did it say about Disney as a company since it failed to notice these indiscretions for so long? I wasn't looking at the film, but the company's motivations. I was bonding deeper with the corporation which crafted a beloved classic, but also made mistakes that were present on celluloid. I won't say my love for Disney came because of these urban legends, but it did help.
And, really, the knowledge of these urban legends didn't just make rebels of those who knew. It made rebels of a company known for its wholesomeness. The possibility that Aladdin said something naughty or that the sand Simba laid in might've spelled out S-E-X, gave us the feeling that there was a time when Disney animators didn't give a rip about what went on the screen. For a corporation that is so widely known for catering to families and tightly controlling its public image, these moments remind us of a nostalgic past where Disney might have been messy... at least without the corporate bigwigs knowing.
With Disney re-releasing the same five titles every couple of years, and the upcoming launch of Disney+, the urban legends from this era are dwindling down to nothing. Now, kids don't revel in the joys of how their favorite animated film might have something salacious hidden within. This was only possible with the lack of social media which allowed these theories to go unsubstantiated for years. Things have changed drastically, and Disney's eagle eyes now sweep every frame before it even has the chance to hit home video. It's akin to the death of the video store or the rotary phone. You'll know of its existence, but it will feel dated and historical. The era of the Disney urban legend was a magical time that we won't see the likes of again.