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MousePlanet Mailbag for July 29, 2004

We receive considerable feedback regarding our site. Although we cannot publish them all, the following may be of interest to our readers.

Today's Mailbag is filled to the brim with comments regarding the July 9, 2004 accident involving Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster in Frontierland. As the third newsworthy accident in 10 months, the ride has been the focus of much concern among our readers. For more information, see our coverage of the accidents here.

Vincent Randall writes:

I wonder how many more tragedies have to occur before anyone in Burbank wakes up?

I understand no establishment is perfect, and sadly accidents do occur. But the third accident on the same ride in less than a year? At a Disney Theme Park? OK, sure, then trains were moving very slowly, yes I get that. But, call it what you will, they collided.

I'm sure I am reading way too much into this (but, I am a bit dramatic) but doesn't this seem more frightening than on the surface? Is this perhaps a telltale sign of what is happening within Disney? If Disney observers are tracking the company, certainly they know of the problems with Big Thunder. And, coupled with the debacle in Philadelphia [the annual stockholders' meeting], the Disney's California Adventure park's Tower of Terror [a new ride in the park, modified and considered by some to be an inferior version of the one in Florida], Fahrenheit 9/11 (which by the way, Eisner didn't want to distribute because of the need to stay neutral; I'm sure ABC's broadcasts of Rush Limbaugh never slants to the right), the animation messes and the huge red numbers for their box office this year, it makes one wonder just what in the hell is going on in Burbank.

So, it looks like its going to come down to one of two things before real change will be deployed:

The end of [Disney CEO Michael] Eisner's contract, or, well, I can't even think about another attraction mishap. That sickens my stomach, although just as equally as Eisner does.

Anonymous writes:

This e-mail is in response to the Big Thunder Mountain article on the Web site.

Even though the accident was the second accident with guests let us not forget that this is the third accident since the ride was open. The other accident was during a down time when cast members were resetting the ride. This latest accident should be a lesson to Disneyland that the ride is not safe.

Kirk Reynolds writes:

I will keep this simple. It is time to remodel Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. All new tracks and trains, a complete Space Mountain overhaul. This classic attraction deserves it. No more Frankenstein assembly of fixes.

Paul Chew writes:

It kinda gets you thinking that someone that works at the Disneyland Park is messing with this ride. I mean, the ride opened up in 1979 and never had a problem 'til this past year. Several problems, I should say. My 4-year-old daughter and I just love this ride. Hopefully they can figure out all these problems this ride has occurring and maybe watch out for the staff. They might behind this whole thing.

Terence McClammy writes:

How unfortunate! One has to ponder the need for a complete overhaul of procedures at Disney. I for one just started to go back to Disneyland after a 28-year hiatus. I was, at first, pleasantly surprised and have become a annual passport holder with my wife. I'm beginning to lose a bit of the Disney magic, with each report. I am hoping the new management will make the hard decisions that are needed to keep this treasure safe and vital for myself and the next generation.

Jeff K writes:

How many more times does Thunder Mountain have to crash in order to make Disney realize that the lack of money being used to “fix” this problem, is really just making it worse. However, I do know that there is a good chance that rides would crash at least one time if they are properly maintained. But 3 times? Now there is no excuse for that! As I told my friend a few months ago about Thunder Mountain's riderless crash, Disney should just retire Thunder Mountain and replace it with a more thrilling roller coaster. After all, who would want to ride this ride now after it has crashed three times in the past year?!

Brian Patrick writes:

I'm not quite sure why I need to tell you the following but...

Thank you for the update on Big Thunder Mountain's most recent accident. I rode it in April and aside from the newfound feeling of impending doom, the experience was the same as it had always been. I have found that the more I know about a ride and its negative-focused history, the less I am apt to ride it. Big thunder is truly a scary ride to me, even though the physical experience is exactly the same. A large factor is that the accidents are blamed on human error. Thirty years ago I would trust a cast member with my life. Now with the underpaid overworked and undertrained disposable cast that is Disneyland, I don't trust anyone there. I don't feel safe. I feel fine on the ol' war-horse rides, but anything fast and retro or refit on or around 1977, I do not trust. That includes Indiana Jones Adventure.

Thanks for keeping me informed!

Hi Brian – Thank you so much for taking the time to write. You can write to us anytime, and I'm glad you decided to share your views.

A lot of folks have written to us today about the Big Thunder Mountain accident. And although we received quite a bit of feedback from the previous accidents (primarily the 2003 one), one theme that seems to be running through all of the e-mail we've gotten today is that people are voicing a serious concern about the ride. People seem to be very wary of the ride, and have told us that they are going to think twice about going on the ride. More importantly, it seems that “human error” is no longer a cast-aside factor, but people are looking at it as part of the overall decrease in quality at the parks.

As you point out, if cast members are underpaid and undertrained, invariably you do not have a cream-of-the-crop crew, and the park may be taking risks with guest safety.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

Again, thanks for your note. I appreciate it!

– Lani Teshima

Rebecca Carmichael-Stromgren writes:

I find it very likely that it was operator error that caused the accident of July 8, 2004. Disneyland needs to retrain the vast majority of ride operators on the proper use of the brake controls.

I visited the park on Wednesday, July 7, 2004. This is the fifth time, this year alone, that I have visited the park. The only ride that had a decent “brakeman” was Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. I wish I had noted the young man's name, as he should be commended. All other operators “slammed” on the brakes, causing a severe jolt to the persons on the rides. While I am not adverse to a “bumpy ride,” I do not really care for getting whiplash at the beginning or end of a ride.

Being that I am a passholder and lifetime Southern California resident, I have absolutely no plans to quit attending the Park. It would be pleasant to know that I am not in danger of whiplash or other serious injury, due to lackadaisical attitudes towards proper operation of the rides.

Thank you.

Rideinfo writes:

Hello. In your article “Echoes of Thunder” (link), it appears that the inspector name and inspector ID number has been redacted, as well as the contact info for the park. Did MousePlanet or the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health redact the information?

Hi Rideinfo – That information was redacted by MousePlanet. While we weren't required to hide the information, we didn't think it necessary to the story to put out the specific names and direct phone numbers for some of the people involved in the investigation.

– Alex Stroup

Steve writes:

Dear Sir,

As a working Cast Member at Disneyland Resort Paris, I find it shocking that Disney has not come out with the true facts established linked to this accident.

To blame human error is all too simple, but following the fatal accident last September, all Big Thunder Mountains were closed down for “maintenance checks.”

These maintenance checks, if they ever happened, proved what? Are there, or were there written documents established? Are they available?

I think I can say, in true “Disney-hide-the-truth” style, that if anyone got hold of these documents, that these said persons could reclaim a lot of money from Disney, as “hush money.”

Once again, the Disney policy of “hide it and say nothing” has proved itself.

It is a shame to admit this, but in a world where “dreams become reality,” sometimes the intrusion of too much “reality” causes us to question the limits of the “dream.”

My best wishes go to the injured guests of this incident.

Hopefully, one day, Disney will realize, and do it right.

Still hoping for that day,

Most Sincerely,

Steve – Disneyland Resort Paris

Patrick Miller writes:

Will the Big Thunder Mountain Train ride be opening soon? My family has plans to be at Disneyland on the 25th of this month

Any update would be appreciated.

Hi Patrick – It's difficult to tell. The people who can approve the ride for reopening is the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH), and their spokesman told news media last Thursday that the ride will more than likely be down for two weeks or more. That puts you right at the edge of that time frame, so it's difficult to tell.

Keep your fingers crossed!

– Lani

[As of the publication of this Mailbag, the ride is still closed. – ed.]

Hayley writes:

My family and I have been attending Disneyland for the past 14 years as annual passholders. Thunder Mountain Railroad happens to be one of our favorite attractions.

We were completely dumbfounded when we got wind of the accident in September that killed 1 person and injured 10 others. But, regardless of the accident, we took a week-long trip with some friends to the park in May. The ride was operating perfectly and I was happy to see that people were continuing to ride the attraction.

When I found out about the accident last week, I was at a complete loss for words. I am very upset with the fact that this ride has now had three accidents in the past 10 months. Sure, people get on rides at any theme park and are taking a risk. But as far as I can tell, Disneyland has always been one of the safest parks and now it seems that some of feeling of safety is melting away.

I will continue to visit the attraction when I go to Disneyland unless it has any other major accidents. I wouldn't consider this accident to be too big of a deal except for the fact that it happened. I see no reason to cancel future trips to Disneyland because of the closed attraction, and considering the fact that a completely remodeled Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear Adventure will be opening in light of the 50th anniversary, I believe this accident will not cast a shadow over the 50th anniversary celebration.

I just hope that Disneyland will close the ride and take their time with reopening it so that when it does reopen, there will not be any accidents. If there are more accidents, I fear that the ride may close down permanently, and none of us want that!

Thank you for keeping us posted on the accident, it is really a big help! your coverage is excellent! Thanks once again!

Kassy writes:

We were on the ride right before this accident and observed them replacing one train for another after there appeared to be a need to clean the train being replaced (someone got sick?). We were actually going to go again but didn't want to go on after someone got sick (so we thought?).

Jeff writes:

Just my own opinion, but there is no excuse for the public to yell and scream at cast members posted outside of the Big Thunder Attraction. It is inexcusable. These cast members had nothing to do with the accident, but are now being targeted. I hope they (DOSH and Disney) find an answer and a fix to the problem. This should not take away from the 50th festivities. One attraction doesn't make a park, especially with Disneyland.

As the comment about another thing closed down, Cynthia [Harriss; former head of Disneyland] and her crew let Walt's Dream Park go way down hill. To get it back where it belongs takes time and, unfortunately, things will be boarded up, roped off, and screened from public view until it is back bright, shiny and new. Just look at the great improvements that have been done so far. New management has their heads on straight. Look in the next five years for major changes. Before adding new, the old must be fixed.

I say go nuts trying to come up with an answer to the problem with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and implement the changes and get it done before July 17th 2005. I, for one, cannot wait for the 50th to start and I cannot wait to ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad again!

Hi Jeff – I agree with you that shouting at the cast members is like yelling at the waiter for burnt food. I guess some of the folks just felt frustrated and didn't know what else to do. I hope they went to City Hall to air their concerns.

Thanks for taking the time to write.

– Lani

Michael Strong writes:

Unless someone at Imagineering changed the operating software for Big Thunder, regardless of the number of trains in operation... there is absolutely no way two trains can collide based upon that design. No frickin' way. This has got to be a maintenance issue with defective linear brakes, bad actuators or something else maintenance-related That system design is fail safe from a control system standpoint.

I was an engineer (Imagineer) in the ride/show design group from 1980-83 during Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland, then a consultant and employee during the EuroDisney Project. I know that software and the PLC hardware by heart down to lines of code.

Those trains run based upon block zones. Nothing, and I mean nothing, allows cars (trains) to get past brake units that physically block the train behind another train from proceeding forward without sensing that the forward train is out of the way. Those brakes are normally closed. A power failure, a sensor blocked, a slow actuation of a mechanical part causes the system to keep those brakes closed. Any train which could even possibly be approaching an already occupied zone, will become captured in the brake and stopped before any collision can occur. The sensors and sensor sequence is also timed and redundant. A faulty sensor, even an intermittent problem shuts down the ride. An operator error is simply not allowed. Any wrong hit of the dispatch button or violation of the sequence shuts down the ride. The operator simply allows dispatch, he can not cause a train to enter an occupied station, regardless of what he does at the operator console.

Every failure, every event is logged and kept.

I have tested and ridden those trains hundreds of times and looked at that code and the control system many times, Unless the now sleepy-brained Imagineers mucked with the system through upgrades, or changes in philosophy on how that fail-safe system works, I just don't see how this could have happened at all. There are two PLC (computers) running in tandem also. If there is any anomaly with slow sensors, slow mechanisms, glitches, etc., those computers will not allow the block zone brakes to open to let trains collide. Period.

But then again...all the good maintenance people, and all the good engineers, left the company, or got laid off after the mid-nineties during the Eisner cost cutting measures.

Geez. Thanks Disney, for making us former Imagineers feel like you tossed all of our work down the drain for the sake of lightening the payroll for quality and maintenance.

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