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Snakes in the Ball Pit

Urban legend has it that deadly vipers infest the ball pits in fast food restaurant playgrounds everywhere. This version takes place at Burger King.

Description: Email hoax / Urban legend
Circulating since: 1998
Status: False

Email example contributed by Robert Dean, October 1998:

Subject: You should know this!!

This is a true story...

About a week or so ago, a mother took her eager 3 year old son to Burger King for lunch. After they ate their lunch the mother said that the son could go and play on the playground for awhile since he ate all his lunch.

She watched as the boy played in the tunnels, slide and in the ball-pit. The boy played for about 10 minutes when he started to whimper slightly.

The mother asks the boy what had happened and he mearly replied, "Hurt mommy." The mother assumed that the little boy had banged his elbow or something while playing.

They left to return home. A half and hour after they were home, the mother noticed some big red welts on the little boys arms and legs. Not being able to figure out what they were, the mother started to look at them closer. Could be red ant bites...she did not know.

An hour later, the little boy died. Come to find out, when returning to Burger King to see if there were red ants in the play area, in case the little boy had an allergic reaction. Burger King employees and herself discovered that there was a family of baby rattlesnakes living underneath the balls in the ball-pit area. She has since found out that this happens more frequently than not. The snakes will crawl into the ball pit because it is dark and warm in there. She knows for a fact that another death has occurred because of this in South Carolina. Please use caution when letting any children play in an outside play area of a fast food restaurant, this could happen anywhere. Burger Kings are now building their play area's inside the buildings for a safer environment.

Analysis: This is an updated version of a time-worn urban legend folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand calls "Death in the Funhouse." Older variants were typically set in amusement parks, where horror stories of "razor blades in the water slide" or "snakes in the merry-go-round" have long been de rigueur.

Consider Brunvand's 1989 description of the classic snake infestation legend (from Curses! Broiled Again!):

The story usually goes that a small child on a popular ride complains about stings or bites. At first, the parents laugh, but eventually they investigate. The cause proves to be an infestation of poisonous snakes. First aid is provided too late to save the child.

The Burger King playground version follows the classic form to the letter, with the additional (and highly effective) element of being framed as a warning to parents. Certain lines give it away as a work of fiction: "She has since found out that this happens more frequently than not" — which, if true, would mean, literally, that the majority of Burger King ball pits are known to be infested with baby rattlesnakes. Then: "She knows for a fact that another death has occurred because of this in South Carolina," which would mean, if true, that two children have died in this manner without the press taking note (or a high-profile lawsuit being filed). The latter, especially, ought to raise eyebrows in this litigious day and age.

In a statement dated Oct. 23, 1998, the Burger King Corporation categorically denied that incidents of the kind described above have occurred at any of its restaurants.

Update: A variant appeared in November 1999 claiming that a child died after encountering a heroin-laced hypodermic needle in a McDonald's ball pit. See "Needle in the Ball Pit."

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