NEWS: Safety of Florida’s thrill rides in hands of amusement parks

BY DONNA BALANCIA

Orlando, FL — At Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, the screams went quiet on
SheiKra on Oct. 14, when Florida’s tallest roller coaster shut itself
down, stranding as many as 24 passengers at the brink of a 200′ drop
for nearly an hour. A rescue trolley evacuated them, and the ride
later was deemed safe.

At Disney-MGM Studios, a 16-y.o. British girl collapsed from a heart
attack in July after repeatedly riding the Tower of Terror, which
drops riders in pitch darkness in a simulated elevator failure. In
2002, a 47-y.o. woman suffered “anxiety and claustrophobia, atrial
fibulation” on the 13-story ride with the state’s strongest downward
acceleration, a state list of park incidents shows.

At Universal Studios, 3 passengers within 4 months in 2002 reported
back pain, neck pain and a fractured back after seeking thrills on
the Ripsaw Falls water-flume ride. They ranged in age from 36 to 62.
Incidents like those, compounded by 2 highly publicized deaths at
Disney-owned parks this past summer, have raised questions about
whether the state should begin inspecting and testing theme park
rides the way California does.

Florida regulates ride safety for carnivals and fairs. But big theme
parks like WDW, SeaWorld Orlando and Universal are exempt from state
inspections and oversight.

Instead, they abide by a written agreement known as a “memorandum of
understanding” with the Florida Department of Agriculture and
Consumer Services. It calls for the parks to inspect themselves,
report mishaps to the state and make an annual presentation on safety
issues.

And all of the major theme parks employ engineers and maintenance
crews that inspect and repair rides, records show.

It’s a good system, operators say. “We have a team of dedicated
professionals, and each team is assigned to a coaster, spending a
minimum of 4 hours a day – well before guests arrive – inspecting
those rides,” said Gerard Hoeppner, a spokesman for BG. “They walk
every inch of the rides. We have redundant safety systems, video
inspection and computer inspections. I can’t stress enough that
safety is a No. 1 priority.”

A FLORIDA TODAY/WKMG-Local 6 examination found that the motion and G-
forces on some of the region’s signature roller coasters are stronger
than on the space shuttle, but not sustained enough to violate
industry standards.

But a review of incident reports and annual state safety meeting
minutes from the past 4 years revealed 63 incidents involving
illness, injuries or death over the past 4 years on various rides.

Documents obtained under the state’s public records law show:
2 cases that made news in 2005. In June, Daudi Bamuwamye, a 4-y.o.
boy from Philadelphia, died on the Mission: Space ride at Epcot
Center. A heart condition caused his death, according to the Orange
County medical examiner. In August, Jerra Kirby, a 12-y.o. from
Newport News, Va., collapsed at Typhoon Lagoon and died. Her death
also was attributed to a heart condition.

9 other reports of fainting, chest pains or severe nausea on Mission:
Space since 2003.

17 reports of injuries or illness at water parks. They include broken
limbs from collisions and falls, as well as likely coincidences, such
as strokes or seizures suffered while at the park.

No incidents were reported by SW between 2002 and 2005.

At their annual meetings, state officials and the park operators have
concluded their discussions of mishaps by blaming most accidents
on “patron error,” meeting minutes show.

State clamps down
Activist-mom Kathy Fackler often wishes she and her son had not
ridden on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster one day in
1998. Her son’s foot was crushed between the car and a platform as he
was getting off the ride at DL in Anaheim, CA. Part of his foot had
to be amputated.

Fackler, a former computer programmer and a homemaker in La Jolla,
Ca., said DL’s analysis found they had no responsibility for the
accident because her son stuck his foot out – patron error.

Since then, Fackler has made it her business to ensure that other
parents can judge the risks by reviewing accidents and reports on
state-inspected rides in California. “The standard lap bar used on
many of these rides is a concern of mine,” she said. “When you bring
a young child on a ride, you pull down the bar. Of course, it fits
fine across your lap. But it does not fit across a child’s lap.”

Fackler lobbied for state legislation passed in California in 1999
that called for the Division of Industrial Relations to inspect and
regulate rides at big parks such as DL and Six Flags. She says
Florida needs reforms, too. “There is no system of getting specific
information out on the hazards,” she said. “I’m sure that parents
want to know about accidents that happened on rides their children
are going on.”

Now, state inspectors examine maintenance reports; review safety
procedures and training; observe the ride in action; and review
accident and death reports.

Harold Hudson, an amusement ride engineer and industry consultant
based in Southlake, TX, sees advantages and some pitfalls to state
inspections. “They have total control over the process. They can
spend a week looking at one ride if they want. It’s expensive,”
Hudson said. “Some people question the value added. I think it gives
the public more confidence. It doesn’t necessarily mean the rides are
more safe.”

Against regulation
Not everyone believes state regulation would help in Florida. “If you
impose a government standard, you can really lower the standards,”
said state Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge. “Right now, they’re required
to do whatever it takes to treat invitees with the highest level of
safety. If you establish standards, as long as they can assure
they’re at that level, that’s their only obligation for safety. And
if there’s an opportunity that would dictate they could do more, they
wouldn’t be obligated to do it. And they’d have a good defense that
they met the state standards, and whatever happens, happens.”

Posey said there are no good reasons to enact mandatory inspections
and public reports. “If you look at the millions of people who pass
through the theme parks and how so few are hurt, it’s remarkable,” he
said. “So why create a thousand new bureaucrats to oversee the theme
parks? If it got out that the theme parks did not treat their
customers to the safest extent humanly possible, their business would
be wrecked.”

Likewise, Cocoa-based lobbyist Guy Spearman said people should feel
comfortable with corporate safety measures. “Is there something wrong
with self-regulation?” asked Spearman, who represents Anheuser-Busch,
owner of SW and BG. “Theme parks are in a fixed location. They don’t
change rides and locations from week to week. There is a memorandum
of understanding, and that’s a legal document.”

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About News

Donna Balancia is a digital content producer. She is an expert at content management systems, social media, video and editing. Donna creates websites and produces a range of communication properties in entertainment and technology sectors. She is also a contributor to major news outlets, magazines and popular websites.
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