Safety standards at theme parks worth a closer look

The four year old who collapsed and died after experiencing a ride at Disney World’s Epcot Center certainly received some media attention. The death has raised concerns over the safety of not only the ride on which the incident occurred, but also about America’s theme parks in general. While it is important not to over-react, closer inspection of safety rules may be in order.

Ever since Walt Disney opened Disney World, California, in the mid-50s, theme parks have become icons of America’s way of life. Since then audiences have craved faster and more elaborate thrill-inducing rides.

Rides now often carry up to several thousand visitors a day. Some accidents, such as bumps and bruises, are therefore bound to happen sooner or later and in most cases, the riders themselves are to blame. But it is important that such accidents, as well as security regulations in general, are not simply brushed aside to attract a few more customers.

Tampa’s Busch Gardens is no exception to this. By opening SheiKra, one of America’s most extreme roller coasters, the park was hoping to attract up to 15 percent more customers in the first year of its operation. But the ride is also one of those cases where thrill was prioritized over safety, at least in the first days the ride was in operation.

Succumbing to pressure from parent company Anheuser-Busch, the ride opened on the promised date even though landscaping and buildings surrounding the new ride were not ready. The city of Tampa even waived some requirements, including fire code and other building requirements, in order for the ride to be opened on time.

The safety of the ride itself was assured, but clearly the city was banking on the extra economic boost tourists visiting the attraction would bring to the area and overrode any safety concerns accordingly.

More troubling though was the way in which Busch Garden’s Rhino Rally ride opened in Spring 2001. The ride takes visitors on a safari-like tour in Land Rovers. When training began for the drivers who were to be the “tour guides” on the ride, park employees raised concerns over a bend they had to take with the fully loaded vehicles. The concerns over a vehicle tipping over while attempting to make this turn were brushed aside. Within months of the ride’s opening day, this is indeed what happened.

Most parks are very secretive about what accidents occur inside their borders as they fear a public relations disaster like the one Disney World is now experiencing. Most of the parks also take security of their customers very seriously. But maybe an independent investigation of just how safe such rides are is in order, especially considering that future thrill rides are going to push the limit even further.