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Mike Scopa

Theme Park Safety in Walt Disney World

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 summer.

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… water?

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 costs.

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.

Epcot

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 warnings.

Disney-MGM Studios

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 clothes.

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 Mountain—specifically, that it is indoors and in the dark.

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.

Water parks

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 for equipment.

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.

Be safe.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Scopa first visited Walt Disney World almost 30 years ago. Planning a trip was simple back in the 1970s, with only the Magic Kingdom and a few Disney-owned resorts in Orlando.

Over the past 11 years, Mike has been perfecting his WDW trip-planning skills as he has hosted chats and bulletin boards about Disney for a Fortune 100 company.

Mike brings his experience to MousePlanet in a series of lessons to help you with all the phases of planning a WDW trip.

Mike pays special attention to all the details that ensure your family has the best possible time at the Happiest Place on Earth.

You can contact Mike here.

OTHER LINKS

Here are trip reports that Mike has written that are part of MousePlanet's archives:

Michael Scopa -- August 1999 -- Walt Disney World (CSR)

Michael J. Scopa -- July 1997 -- Walt Disney World (WL/CBR)

Mike Scopa -- July 1994 -- Walt Disney World (WL / CBR)

Also, don't miss Lani Teshima's column, “The Trip Planner” for more travel planning information.

Get the latest info about the resort at “Park Update: Walt Disney World.”

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MousePlanet® is not associated in any official way with the Walt Disney Company, its subsidiaries, or its affiliates. The official Disney site is available at www.disney.com. This MousePlanet Web site provides independent news articles, commentary, editorials, reviews, and guides primarily about the theme park resorts of the Walt Disney Co. All information on this site is subject to change. Please call destinations in advance to confirm the most up-to-date information.