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David Koenig
Idiot-Proofing the Parks
Despite a spate of well-publicized accidents, Disney parks usually are safe if guests exercise appropriate caution and common sense. That's a big if.

A week ago, a man lost his life after climbing out of his log at Disney World's Splash Mountain. [MousePlanet today has an exclusive news item detailing what happened in that case.] Similar carelessness at Disneyland has cost five teenagers their lives, three of them on Grad Nites. Each year, Disney parks log thousands of accidents, and the reports often point to the same cause: the victims themselves. Visitors assume nothing can go wrong at the Magic Kingdom, and check their brains at the gate. Consider the word "amusement." It's formed by the Greek root "a-" meaning "not" and "-muse" meaning "to think." To not think.

A Disneyland employee noted, "A ride operator bitterly joked that if guests cannot use some common sense, and take some responsibility for their actions, the park should just close. The attitude of a lot of cast members is that we are getting fed up over taking the heat for things that we were not responsible for. The ride operators are busy enough as it is, and many of us feel that the parents could at least keep an eye, or control their kids some of the time. Sounds a little callous, I know, but speaking from experience, it's true."

But no matter who's to blame, Disney invariably ends up in unflattering headlines and later in court. As a result, Disneyland has begun revamping dozens of attractions to keep guests from hurting themselves. Some of the changes are so obvious, so simplistic, so basic, it seems that the park is trying to become "idiot-proof." But, as one ride safety consultant noted, "you can't assume anything in this business."

New Big Thunder Mountain safety gates
New Big Thunder Mountain safety gates

Most noticeable are changes at Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain, which reopened this weekend after a lengthy rehab. Disney used the downtime to install mechanical safety gates in the boarding area to ensure guests remain behind the yellow lines. Reportedly, the system is a direct response to the 1998 accident in which then-5-year-old David Fackler lost part of his left foot on the ride.

Big Thunder Mountain safety gates in use
Big Thunder Mountain safety gates in use

"I've seen the Thunder gates operate and they seem okay," says an insider. "They are themed nicely to the station area and aren't that big of an intrusion on the Show. I have seen the metal bar gates they use on coasters at Six Flags parks, and I was fearing that ours would resemble that type. But thankfully WDI themed the mechanisms very nicely. However, they will affect capacity on busy days. They are unsure if they will be able to run all five trains at once during peak times, and that will hurt capacity on busy days and weekends."

He expects that eventually Disneyland will install similar gates on all attractions that have vehicles moving through a station area. Gates, as well as improved Show lighting and scene updates, should be added in Splash Mountain's boarding area during an extended rehab next Labor Day. Pirates of the Caribbean will get station gates next March during a five-week rehab. Matterhorn, it's a small world and Space Mountain also should get them sometime next year.

it's a small world boat loading area
it's a small world boat loading area

Other changes include increased signage in pre-show and boarding areas, constant recorded spiels before the vehicles are dispatched, and pictogram-type signs that show proper boarding and seating requirements. "They are thinking of having several types of pictures or pictograms, like one that shows passengers properly sitting, and other pictures alongside that show what it looks like to sit improperly in the vehicle," adds one cast member.

Newly added warning signs to Big Thunder Mountain
Newly added warning signs to Big Thunder Mountain

The park took advantage of the OSHA-mandated closure of Roger Rabbit's CarToon Spin to add signage in the station and on the vehicles themselves. A possibility is equipping the vehicles on every attraction with safety signage. The wording would read something like, "Remain seated at all times. Keep your hands, arms, feet and legs inside the vehicle at all times."

Changes also are coming to the height requirements. The Matterhorn is going to a 36-inch requirement. Currently, the only Matterhorn requirement is that children be at least 3 years old and in the accompaniment of an adult. "That," explains the operator, "is all very subjective though, according to the guests, as you can imagine. Guests sometimes try and claim that 18-month-old infants are 3-year-old children, and so on. The height requirement will help, and it's kind of funny that Matterhorn didn't get one sooner."

Matterhorn Bobsleds loading area
Matterhorn Bobsleds loading area

In fact, the Matterhorn was slated to adopt a height requirement a few months ago, but the plan was put on hold while management, in the aftermath of the Roger Rabbit accident, reevaluated every attraction.

One proposed idea is giving every attraction a height requirement for "unattended" riders. For instance, at Splash Mountain, you might have to be 40 inches tall to ride with an adult, or 44 inches tall to ride alone. At Pirates, you may have to be a certain height to ride unattended, even though the attraction currently has no height requirement.

What will definitely change is how guests are measured at attractions. Currently, cast members use the good old sign with a line on it. But the vice president of attractions, Jim McPhee, has been talking about plans to install laser-guided height check stations at attraction entrances. The child has to stand under the beam, and if the computer says he successfully blocks the laser beam, then a light goes on that says "Yes" and the child can ride. If the child can't pass the laser test, then the computer simply says "No."

One of the height measuring signs for the Indiana Jones ride
One of the height measuring signs for the Indiana Jones ride

"This will take the guesswork out of the equation and be much easier on the cast members who have to work the Greeter position at height requirement rides," smiles a relieved ride operator. "Anyone who's spent a busy Saturday afternoon checking heights at Indy or Space or Splash has been called a bigot, a liar, incompetent or even a Nazi because someone's child just barely misses the red line. If the decision is taken out of the hands of the cast member and the decision is placed on a computer-controlled laser, it will be easier to stand up to the guest and not allow the child to ride. It is also easier for Legal to prove we are not allowing unsafe guests onto attractions."

Many of these and other changes should be in place, at both Anaheim parks, by the time Disney's California Adventure opens early next year. It reminds me of 10 years ago, when a former ride operator remarked, "There's a lot going on and you can't physically control people all the time, outside of putting them in cages."

Nowadays, I wouldn't rule out anything.

You can write to David atthis link..

Idiot-Proofing the Parks


It should be noted that David Koenig submitted his piece well in advance of the breaking news MousePlanet offered on the same day about the Walt Disney World Splash Mt. Death


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.

You can contact David here.


Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)


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