Road Warrior

Ahhh! Park rides getting a little too thrilling

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It hasn't been a good week in the thrill ride world.

After a high-profile derailing, testing mishaps and an overseas fatality, some parkgoers are wondering if the high-adrenaline rides they love are starting to get too dangerous.

And while many theme park experts write the recent events off as coincidence, some note that there is a growing risk.

"I think (parks) attempt to do everything they can to avoid dangerous scenarios, but when you look at high-energy rides ... you're at the edge of extremes," said Robert Swint, CEO of ATA Associates, an accident reconstruction and forensic engineering company that works with theme parks and other industries. "The rides are safer, but there's more danger, and if something goes wrong, it's more significant."

The past week has seen two considerable incidents at fixed theme parks—the industry term for permanent parks (versus traveling shows, such as state fairs). On Monday, the Ninja high-speed roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California hit a fallen tree branch and derailed, injuring six people and leaving some stranded for hours.

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Also on Monday, a teenager was thrown from a roller coaster called Hell at the Terra Mitica theme park in Benidorm, Spain, after an apparent failure with his safety harness. He survived the fall but died of cardiac arrest while being transported to the hospital.

Theme park experts say the accidents are regrettable but do not indicate a systemic problem.

"It's more of an anomaly than anything else," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a management and consulting company that has worked with nearly two dozen theme parks around the world. "It's important to understand that when you look at theme parks, they're one of the safest places to be on the planet."

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the trade group for amusement parks, agreed, noting that its statistics show that the likelihood of being seriously injured (i.e. those that require overnight hospitalization) on a fixed theme park ride in the U.S. is 1 in 24 million.

"Based on the preliminary information we have seen, the recent incidents at Six Flags Magic Mountain and Terra Mitica are two very different, completely unrelated situations involving two different rides," said Colleen Mangone, media relations director at the IAAPA.

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The fixed theme park industry is, to a certain degree, self-regulated, Swint noted.

While there have been pushes for federal oversight in the past, they've all fallen flat. Though the Consumer Product Safety Commission does oversee mobile amusement rides, it does not regulate fixed parks. That's largely done by state authorities, though the CPSC notes that eight states and the District of Columbia do not have state-administered inspection programs for fixed-site rides.

In the states that do oversee parks, officials' authority varies, but the parks generally only require an annual inspection. Parks, of course, do their own inspections and safety tests much more frequently in an effort to ensure the safety of visitors. Sometimes, though, those tests can be more frightening than the rides.

At Schlitterbahn Park in Kansas City, for example, testing of the new Verrückt water slide—a 17-story structure that features a 50-foot drop on which riders move at speeds of up to 65 mph—raised eyebrows when sand bags on rafts were launched into the air. (The park says it has corrected the issue and the slide will open to the public Thursday.)

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Safety's not the only reason for the regular testing and tweaks, though, says Swint. Lawsuits from injured visitors often result in changes to rides.

"Litigation is what drives much of this testing," he said. "Much of the modifications to rides is because the litigation can be significant....(However,) you won't find the results as to what those people receive. Those are very well kept secrets, and modifications to rides are kept secret, too. What they do is they learn by mistakes or by failure and they will modify the rides and improve the safety of the rides."

Keep in mind also that the definition of a thrill ride varies from location to location. And parks in family-focused areas, like Orlando, Florida, tend to have slower rides than other fixed theme parks. Walt Disney World's Space Mountain, for example, might seem fast in the dark, but it only boasts a maximum speed of 35 mph. Even the Aerosmith Rock & Roller Coaster, at Disney Hollywood Studios, tops out at less than 60 mph.

But if you hop on Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, you'll face speeds of up to 128 mph—and the dangers that go with that.

In many cases, however, it's not the theme park or the ride manufacturer that's directly to blame for injuries. Too many guests ignore safety guidelines about age, height, weight or health restrictions.

"Warnings don't seem to be taken seriously by people who have traveled a long distance and want to ride a ride," Swint said.

"Safety is a partnership between an amusement park and its patrons," Mangone added.