Deadly Parallels

by David Koenig, contributing writer

Prompted by a third fatality at Walt Disney World in seven weeks, state and federal investigators have begun searching for common threads between the seemingly disparate accidents.

Their direct causes appear unrelated: A stuntman who landed poorly after a dive, an actor who slipped on a wet stage, a monorail track switch that didn't get flipped.

Yet the timing is troubling. During the resort's first 37 years of existence, apart from seven maintenance and construction worker fatalities, just four WDW cast members have lost their lives in the line of duty—an air show pilot who crashed near Epcot in 1987, a custodian who fell off a Skyway cabin in 1999, a costumed Pluto who was crushed by a parade float in 2004, and an Animal Kingdom ride operator who hit her head in 2007. In the span of just 43 days, that total has nearly doubled.

Officially, Disney considers all three entirely unrelated, "freak" accidents. And after weeks of analysis, dissection, and speculation that followed the July 5 monorail crash, the company tried to quickly and quietly move on when faced with the second accident—an August 6 fall near Pirates of the Caribbean that cost 47-year-old actor Mark Priest a broken neck, 55 stitches, and, four days later, his life. Normally, after a heavily publicized incident like the monorail crash, the company will issue in-house advisories on how employees are to respond to guest inquiries. Cast members say that the company issued no advisories following the Pirate show mishap.

Ignoring the latest accident wasn't an option, however, coming so quickly after the other two. Within 36 hours, Google News listed an aggregate of over 600 articles (link) about 30-year-old Anislav Varbanov breaking his neck while practicing a tumbling roll on August 17. So WDW posted a series of "talking points" for cast members:

  • The strategy is to show compassion, while distancing the tragedy from the park and the actual performances.

  • If guests ask about the incident happening during the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, cast members are to correct them: "No, it was a rehearsal the night before, and he hurt himself tumbling."

  • In addition to expressing condolences for the victim's family, they are to stress that the performer died later, at the hospital.

The location of death may be up for debate. Although Varbanov was pronounced dead at the hospital, the 911 caller said that the victim had stopped breathing and had no pulse before paramedics arrived. [Listen to the 911 call, posted at here.]

Some cast members, however, believe there may be a correlation between the accidents—particularly those who realize that the recent monorail crash could only have happened amid a culture of short-cuts and sloppiness (see Koenig's July 16 article, "Carelessness Kills: Monorail drivers lay blame for fatal crash on sloppiness and short-cuts" for more information). Several years ago, WDW's Entertainment division was folded into its Attractions division, where capacity can at times take precedence over safety. Entertainment, explained one hourly cast member, "is not an arts union. Part of the problem is you have attractions managers controlling the shows, and they are not trained in these skills."

The cast member applied to move into management, but, with a Masters degree in music and 20 years of experience in the industry, was considered overqualified. "I tried to be an Entertainment manager, and was told the characters didn't like me because I followed the guidelines and safety procedures," he said. "The guys that make managers are almost always young and have not been in the business. They will not hire experienced people, because we know what is right and what isn't."

Other workers see additional contributing factors that may tie the cases together:

  • Training requirements have been lessened over the years. (Marveled one cast member: "The poor kid in Indy was only at Disney two weeks!")

  • Management was pared down earlier this year, and as usual more experienced yet higher-earning old-timers were targeted.

  • At the same time, WDW merged Resort Development into the combined Attractions/Entertainment division, with the goal made clear: to speed things up.

  • A hiring freeze prevented WDW from its traditional beefing up of the ranks for the summer, translating into an overworked, overwhelmed workforce.

In the end, the latest accident will almost surely be chalked up as a tragic, inevitable cost of presenting an extreme stunt show like Indy. "We do these [stunts] a million times," revealed the 911 caller, quickly adding, "We always have injuries on the stage."

Indeed, the show didn't open until the weeks after the rest of the park did in 1989 because the maneuvers and effects were so tricky. And it took another three months before they logged a single show with everything and everyone working properly. Even then, the show's first months coincided with constant trips to the hospital. An Indy smacked in the face by an airplane wing. Another Indy falling 30 feet from a cable. Two others falling off 25-foot-tall ladders. A heroine falling 20 feet off a rope. A villain being caught inside a trap door.

By month four, OSHA arrived to investigate. The agency mandated several changes to the script and equipment, and incidents have been less frequent ever since. Let's pray that OSHA's current investigation results in similarly transformative recommendations.