In their rush to safety-proof every square inch of Disneyland, lawsuit-paranoid park management seems to have paid the least attention to the most dangerous corner of the Kingdom: the Autopia.
The kiddie car ride racks up the most guest injuries, employee injuries, and lawsuits, yet has less warning signage and fewer safety devices than many other, more docile attractions.
Concerned cast members hope that soon may be changing. As part of its regularly scheduled inspections, the state Division of Safety and Health (DOSH) spent last week examining Autopia and may compile a list of safety recommendations.
The main problems inherent in the attraction rampant rear-ending and passengers on the track in the loading zone were highlighted by two incidents that shut down the ride Friday, February 21. The first time the attraction went 101 (internal Disneyland code for a shut-down) for the day, one car plowed into a second and their bumpers locked.
Later in the evening, just after 9:00 p.m., again the attraction had to be cycled out after a boy wandered on to the track and was struck by an oncoming vehicle. Fortunately, the child was knocked away from the car and reportedly suffered no major injuries.
Disneyland has long recognized the dangers of rear-ending: bruises, sprained necks and backs, chipped teeth not to mention damage to the vehicles. (Tuck and Roll's bumper cars at Disney's California Adventure park can thank Autopia's legacy of lawsuits for their snail-like speed.)
Autopia workers are vigilant in discouraging guests from bumping. Guests think it is funny to bump each other as hard as possible, explained an Autopia host. Sometimes when they do this on a slight hill or in the off-road areas, the cars jump the track and the bumpers lock together. And it's a minor safety risk.
Pedestrians on the track is a major risk. And the problem worsened in 2000 when Autopia's remodeling doubled the number of lanes and introduced parallel loading zones, further confusing the exit route.
I have kids run on the track daily, confirmed one ride operator. The parents just giggle and say, Billy, you're so silly, take it as a joke, and totally ignore the potential danger that their child was in. I used to be opposed to child leashes, but after working Autopia, I'm a firm believer.
The load and unload area has to be the place where dangerous accidents occur the most due to a lack of the necessary safety additions, agreed a co-worker. If you want to see what I really mean, then go on the attraction and when exiting just stand above the track and watch how many people exit on the wrong side, run in between cars, or let their children run on the track. It happens so often now that new safety measures are desperately needed.
For one, he continued, The cones that tell the guest which number to go to need to be anchored to the ground. For some reason people love to play on these things, and one of our accidents came from a child swinging on the cone, and the cone tipping over onto the track, resulting in the child being hit by a car.
He added: Another thing that I know would help keep the cast and guest safer would be some sort of speed regulator like the ones Family Fun Centers have. For instance, as a car approaches the station, a frequency is sent out that slows the car to a maximum speed of 4 or 5 miles per hour. This would help to prevent cars from really hitting each other hard, and it would save us the cast members from so many injuries that we have had, such as chipped bones from trying to stop the cars with the foot pedal. I know one cast member once tried to stop a car only to have his leg broken and be dragged about 5 feet not a pretty sight.
The most significant safety upgrade would be the installation of loading gates. Loading gates should be the top priority, said one cast member. Too often do kids run onto the track to pick up a dropped drivers license or are simply walking to their car and step onto the track. Gates need to be added to stop this. Last summer a child was struck by a car and was injured quite badly. In response, we simply added a third line member when running eight cars, which does help some, but does not prevent people from walking onto the track. The child of the recent accident was very lucky. While he was hit and did roll a ways on the track, the wheel of the car stopped just before going over his head. He was very lucky, indeed.
One reason gates have not shown up so far is that they would make the loading area pretty narrow.
In addition, loading gates currently are on Disney attractions that load and unload en masse, such as Big Thunder Mountain, it's a small world, Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain. To keep Autopia running smoothly, cars usually unload and load one at a time, as they reach their mark.
A host explained: The word we have gotten about our specific gates would be that they will not be air-operated; rather there will simply be a gate in between the cars with a small opening for guests to enter and exit their cars, thus slightly preventing the potential for guests to fall onto the track or run on it. However, because the guests control the attraction, there is no way to stop each vehicle in an exact spot. If they go too far, we could not reverse the car without turning it off. I just see this type of gate creating all sorts of problems.
Ideally, he said, I would like to see air gates and sensors so as a car approaches its number, a brake fin on the track stop the car in its place and opens only its specific gate. However, I know this will never happen because it costs money.
A co-worker speculated: The gates will probably not be automatic as that would be nightmarish. I would think it's more of a fence and narrow open areas for the car to load and unload guests. This would take skill for my guests will miss their designated spots; however, I have my faith and I'd hope they'd stop about where they see the opening.
As well, the attractions that already have loading gates direct passengers to exit on the opposite side of the vehicle as those entering, unlike Autopia where passengers load and unload on the same side. If a child drives up to the station and meets a closed gate, might not he think to jump out of the other side of the vehicle?
This possibility doesn't bother the cast members I spoke with, since that happens without the gates already. We are supposed to be very vocal about which side to exit for the three cars that each cast member deals with on the line.
Don't worry. Sure as a price hike in January, more safety-proofing is on the way. Autopia still has further safety upgrades pending, confirmed a cast member. I've heard no time table to when they will arrive. However, gates and the like are coming. It's just a matter of when.
Another said, I only hope that the powers that be at Disney wake up and see that we cast members cannot control guests or children step who onto the track. We need loading gates or a better barrier between the incoming and outgoing cars on the track to better ensure guest safety. I don't know how many more people have to get hurt before the gates are put in, but we will see.
In early April, the Main Street Photo Supply, formerly the Camera Shop, is slated to be transformed into a photo location, similar to Splash Photo. A likely casualty is an array of free services camera-toting guests have come to enjoy since 1955. Although the shop will probably stock merchandise such as film and batteries, don't count on continuing services such as loading film, testing batteries, removing jammed film, instructions on camera use, charging of batteries for video and digcams, and other assistance with minor camera problems.
My last update mentioned the bug troubles Disneyland has experienced recently. A cast member clarifies:
Actually the gnats were not what caused Autopia to go 101 that day. In fact, we had a swarm of bees on the Monorail beam that caused the Monorail and Autopia to go 101 for about 45 minutes. During this ordeal, the radio call from the cast member sent out to deal with the bees went something to the tune of Umm... that bee problem is gonna take more than about five minutes. They are slightly more aggressive than I thought.
Responding to a cast member's claim that one horse in the Princess Procession is a veteran actor, reader Kathy Byrne writes:
Snow White might ride a professional horse, but we were there the day her horse was trying to get her off his back. The handlers were having trouble controlling the horse, and Snow White's pale complexion was not entirely due to make-up. It's possible that this horse was replaced by the pro as I haven't paid enough attention to the horses to see if they always use the same horses. But it was quite apparent that this horse wanted nothing to do with any procession.
As to the bugs, we first noticed a lot of these little gnats in Bug's Land in DCA. They seem to hang around the [Heimlich's] Chew-Chew, and we thought they might be attracted to the watermelon scent that is also attracting bees.
We had our own incident with bugs after viewing the Minnie Christmas show. We, along with other guests came, out to find little black bugs crawling all over our strollers. A cast member told us that they were having problems with bugs and we shouldn't park strollers by any of the trees or bushes in the park as these bugs probably fell out of the trees.
We've often remarked that you hardly ever see an ant, fly or bee at the Disneyland Resort and suddenly we're noticing a lot of these little gnats around both parks. There must be something that is attracting them.
Long-time Disney Gallery hostess Beverly Butrum hopes to bid farewell to guests during her last days at the park, March 14 to 16. Oklahoma City's Mark Zimmer, who supplied the photo of Beverly and also worked with the recently departed Hank Block, writes:
What a joy to be returning to Southern California this coming weekend. Now I will hopefully get to see Beverly before she retires. Thank you for sharing this news. We will miss Bev, but the joy she has given to all of us through the years will always be a treasured memory.
Hank was a great guy to work with. So relaxed and fun to be around. I will never forget a story he told me that I have shared many times: One time a lady stopped me at the Mark Twain dock and asked, Sir, which end is the front? I replied, Ma'am, just wait here and I will find out. I then proceeded to take my break!
That was the joy of working with Hank!
PS: He loved working The Enchanted Tiki Room!
Finally, a Universal Studios Hollywood source reports:
From what I understand, Big Fat Character Weekend was enormously successful. It felt like a real theme park for a couple of days, rather than a shopping mall with a few rides. When or if they will start implementing all the different acts remains to be seen, but they have slightly increased the number of weekend characters for the time being.
Although it was a success from an artistic and ratings standpoint, it didn't sell any tickets just enhanced the annual passholders' experience. Vivendi Universal really wants to increase the gate revenue at USH during the time before Shrek 4D opens.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.