Wednesday, September 17, 2003
by Mike Scopa, MousePlanet staff writer
An unfortunate accident occurred at the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
attraction at Disneyland recently. The accident took the life of a guest
who was in the front car of the runaway train. Several other
guests sustained injuries in the accident.
I was even more shocked to find out which car the guest had been riding
in when the accident occurred. I myself had ridden in the first car behind
the locomotive at the Walt Disney World Big Thunder attraction this past
A tragedy like this always raises concerns of guests, especially parents,
as to the safety of any theme park attraction; more importantly the safety
level of the thrill rides.
How many times have you heard someone quip, I'm not worried 'cause
it's Disney! Have we heard that phrase for the last time? Does Disney
go to great lengths to make sure the safety of its guests?
Let's explore some of the known facts about Disney safety precautions
at their largest resort, Walt Disney World.
The Magic Kingdom
The first thing that comes to mind regarding theme park safety is the
integrity of the rides themselves. How secure are they? Is everything
in working order? What about the effect of nature's elements on these
attractions? How about heat, humidity and the worse culprit of them all
Over time, water can be detrimental to the structure and workings of
an attraction. In the Magic Kingdom, many of the attractions that co-exist
with water receive special attention, especially Splash Mountain. Any
part of the attraction that touches the water receives extra scrutiny
to make sure that the integrity of the attraction, specifically those
factors that contribute to the safe operation of the attraction, have
not been compromised by moisture build-up.
How tough is water on attractions? Water was a big factor in the dismantling
of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at the Magic Kingdom. The
maintenance cost for that attraction kept rising every year and it soon
became too costly to maintain the attraction, especially replacement part
Disney theme parks have been known in the past to employ a tag system
to ensure the completion of daily inspections on its attractions. Simply,
boards hold tags, which represent specific areas of the attraction. Cast
members inspecting the attraction would transfer tags as inspections were
completed. For instance a cast member, responsible for section A of the
ride would remove that tag and take it with him while inspecting that
section. Once the inspection was complete, he would place that tag on
the finished board. Thus at the end of an inspection shift
one board would be completely empty while the other board would be full,
indicating that all inspections were complete. This system makes sure
that all portions of the attraction would be covered.
Space Mountain goes through rigorous inspections all the time. An attraction
that has been around for a while and has logged an incredible number of
ride sequences is prone to metal fatigue. Thus Space Mountain is inspected
frequently (with the lights on, of course) to ensure guest safety.
Getting back to Splash Mountain, one of the last areas worked on were
the friction points, which allowed the logs to drop freely, but also controlled
how the logs stopped. It's just as important to safely bring ride vehicles
to a stop, as it is to provide a safe takeoff.
A few years back, a child was injured in the Spaceship Earth loading
area. It was obviously a case where the child did not comply with the
safety precautions. The child was part of a family from outside the United
States who were visiting the resort. When English is a second language
or guests do not speak English at all, meeting safety levels become even
more of a challenge.
One of the most popular Epcot attractions is Test Track. With cars traveling
at such high speeds every precaution was taken to make sure that the Test
Track vehicles provide safe transport for guests. One of the concerns
was the breakdown of the vehicles. Could they stand the wear and tear
of the extreme conditions? Even more important were the tires for these
vehicles. Much trial and error went into these last phases of the attraction
before allowing guests to enjoy its thrills. It took a while for everything
to measure up to safety standards
time well spent.
Mission: Space has had a rough introduction to park guests. During the
first 90 days of operation (soft opening and tests) many who tried the
attraction suffered dizziness, nausea, and headaches. Early on, one in
three guests would suffer such symptoms.
Eventually this ratio has been reduced to 1 in 30. However, for such
rides as Mission:Space, some responsibility needs to fall on the shoulders
of the guests.
Mission: Space has numerous warnings about the attraction's forces, and
give guests ample time to determine if these warnings apply to them. Guests
who are physically prone to injury due to a pre-existing medical or health
conditions should think long and hard regarding any attraction displaying
The first thrill ride for Disney-MGM Studios (with apologies to Star
Tours) was the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. This attraction went through
several design phases, and a prototype was built to test the attraction.
One story circulating several years back was that the Imagineers were
excited one day to have some top Disney execs try out the attraction.
As the story goes, the elevator did not have seats and that these execs
stood, did not stand, as the elevator descended. Apparently there was
some tweaking in order as a few of the execs soiled their
A few years back, a cast member mentioned how the elevator cables in
the tower were frequently replaced to avoid the allowance of stretching
and snapping over time. There is a strict schedule that calls for replacements
every few weeks.
The objective is to avoid problems before they even start, another move
to achieve the safest conditions.
There are also several backup systems in place in case of a cable snapping.
How about Rock 'N' Roller Coaster? Disney has obviously learned that
the more they can control their attraction environment, the safer the
attraction will be for the guests.
In the case of Rock 'N' Roller Coaster, there is a remarkable similarity
to that of Space Mountainspecifically, that it is indoors and in
One difference between the two is comfort. Rock 'N' Roller Coaster has
big cushy padding and rather unintrusive harness. Space Mountain remains
somewhat uncomfortable to some guests, primarily the taller ones.
These two attractions are prone to metal fatigue and receive the utmost
scrutiny every 24 hours.
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Disney's Animal Kingdom has slowly been getting its share of thrill rides.
The old Countdown to Extinction now known as Dinosaur has gone through
a bit of a change since it first opened. Some guest had complained that
the ride was too jerky for them to really enjoy the overall theme of the
attraction. Guests with back and neck conditions were forewarned regarding
the attraction's excessive movements. The Imagineers tamed the attraction
a bit while still providing thrills to its guests.
Dinoland USA has added Primeval Whirl and Triceratops Spin, which are
basic amusement park rides. These last two attractions are exposed to
the elements so extra care is taken to make sure that they are in top
safe operating condition.
Kali River Rapids may seem not so much of a rough ride, but similar rides
have seen the raft topple over. Recently, WDW invoked a new rule for this
ride: guests must now wear footwear.
The new Yeti ride will certainly get some safety scrutiny, as it, too,
will be yet another one of Disney's famous mountain rides.
Let's not forget water parks. Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon have
their own unique attractions and lifeguards are aplenty. I have often
heard cast members say that the most difficult cast member job in Walt
Disney World is to be a lifeguard at Typhoon Lagoon's Big Wave Pool.
The reason for this is that during the course of a big wave and aftermath,
the lifeguards must be able to determine whether guests are having fun,
fooling around, or are actually in some sort of distress.
Lifeguard duty at a Disney water park is serious business.
Theme park industry responsibilities
The theme park industry recognizes that if guests lose their confidence
in the industry's ability to provide safe and reliable attractions, their
bottom line will certainly suffer. Also, in these tough economic times,
the leisure dollar is not so plentiful, which is an even greater motivation
to pay attention to safety.
The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA)
will be meeting in Orlando next month and there are at least nine sessions
scheduled to discuss park safety.
Among the topics being discussed are attraction safety as well as safe
food operations and security.
The organization has developed a book entitled Amusement Facility
Incident Guidelines, which discusses how to improve safety standards
and how to investigate accidents which the overall objective of preventing
them from happening again.
Earlier this year, several studies were made on the amusement industry.
The results concluded that the industry is indeed focused on safety. The
Brain Injury Association of America, Exponent Failure Analysis, the American
Association of Neurological Surgeons and the University of Pennsylvania
conducted separate studies. The results of these studies will be discussed
in Orlando as to how the findings can be used by the industry to further
improve guest safety.
One key session in the upcoming Orlando conference will focus on Best
Practices in Safety Management and will be presented by Jerry Aldrich
who is a former General Manager of maintenance at Walt Disney World. Mr.
Aldrich serves on IAAPA's Safety & Maintenance Committee and consults
to the industry on safety related issues.
Joining Aldrich will be R. Wayne Pierce an attorney at Miles and Stockbridge
P.C. who provides advice and expertise to the industry on rider responsibility
laws and other safety related issues. This session will focus on how best
to mange safety, how to help guests understand how their behavior contributes
to their safety, safety for disabled guests, and safety improvement measures
The industry takes a serious attitude towards safety. They try to do
their part. So should we.
Our responsibilities as theme park guests
So what should we do to help ourselves stay safe in theme parks? Here
are a few guidelines:
- Listen to the ride operators. It's their job to keep you safe. Help
them help you have a safe and fun ride.
- Sit back in your seat. Don't stand up, and don't leave the vehicle
until it comes to a complete stop.
- If you have children in your party, never let them chew gum while
hopping off and on an attraction. Little throats have little openings
and even gum can choke a child.
- Pay attention to any warnings, rules and guidelines for specific attractions.
That is your responsibility.
- If the ride has a harness, make sure it is snug around you. Hold onto
anything there for stability: a bar, or even the harness itself.
Every day when we emerge from our beds, we roll the dice. Every time
we turn the ignition, we venture into possible danger.
Theme parks are no different. Every attraction may have some potential
danger for guests. Who's to say that a lighting fixture wouldn't fall
from the ceiling of a theater?
Who's to say that a carrousel horse wouldn't jar loose during the ride?
Finally, how safe are those monorails?
As you read these words there, is a Disney cast member somewhere checking
for wear and tear on some track, making sure bolts are tight on some ride
vehicle, and determining whether a ride component is up for replacement.
Somewhere else there is a parent who is trying to decide whether or not
to let his or her 10-year-old on Space Mountain.
For the cast member if there is some doubt as to whether a portion of
an attraction is safe, he will replace, repair, or tighten what's needed
to erase that doubt.
For the parent, if there is doubt to the safety of a ride, should that
doubt strike that ride from the day's events? Perhaps that will be the
rule and not the exception for the next few weeks.
Instead of us hearing, If it's a Disney ride, then it's bound to
be safe, we may be hearing, Even if it's a Disney ride, it
may not be completely safe.
However, you can be sure that Disney, as well as Universal Studios, Busch
Gardens, Sea World, Six Flags, Cedar Point and others understand that
their safety records have a direct effect on their bottom line, and that
they are doing everything they can to evoke the highest level of confidence
in their safety standards by the guests.
That's about all we as consumers can ask of these entertainment giants.
Are they perfect? No. But who is?
By the way, when was the last time you had your brakes inspected and
your house smoke/fire detection system tested? Probably not as much as
the amusement park closest to your house.