Theme Parks Are Facing More Regulation As Accidents Are Publicized

Posted by gary on April 19th, 2010

If it seems you’ve been hearing more about theme-park accidents in the past two years, you have.

California’s amusement-ride safety law, which took effect Jan. 1, 2000, requires amusement parks to report any serious accidents. According to the state, Walt Disney Co.’s two Anaheim parks and Knott’s Berry Farm led California with the most accidents.

That’s to be expected. The Orange County parks draw about 17 million visitors a year. And, state officials say, Knott’s and Disney might be more diligent than others in reporting incidents.

Still, a string of recent park accidents has put operators in the spotlight. In the past year, both Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm came under scrutiny when patrons were seriously injured or died after accidents on park rides. In October, a wrongful-death suit was filed against Knott’s after a woman fell from Perilous Plunge, a water ride, and died.

“Any accident impacts the industry worldwide,” said Susie Storey, communications manager for the International Association of Amusement Park Attractions, an industry trade group. “Any incident is one too many.”

The apparent increase in injuries and deaths at theme parks has led to more scrutiny of amusement rides and proposed federal legislation.

The good news for park operators is that accidents don’t seem to dissuade park-goers.

“We don’t see a huge drop in attendance or in-park spending that can be attributed to an accident,” said John Robinette, a Los Angeles entertainment consultant.

Just the same, park operators generally are skittish about discussing the issue, concerned that the public might start to fear amusement parks.

“A sticking point with the amusement industry is that they can’t generate 100% safety but the (park) guest expects to walk out the same way they go in,” said Mike Robbins, senior vice president of American Specialty Cos., which provides insurance to amusement operators.

Some government officials, such as U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), believe federal regulatory power would help reduce theme park injuries.

While the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission tracks accidents, the agency was stripped of oversight of fixed parks such as Disneyland and Knott’s in 1981. That’s left up to states and the parks themselves. Markey has introduced legislation that would restore the commission’s oversight of permanent amusement rides.

The proposal doesn’t sit well with many industry players.

“No one’s saying it, but trial lawyers are behind (the legislation), and that’s probably something we should speak out about,” said Jack Falfas, general manager of Knott’s Berry Farm and vice president of its parent company, Cedar Fair LP. “They’re the ones profiting.”

Falfas, who spoke to the Business Journal before the Perilous Plunge death, said he favors legislation that focuses on preventing injuries. He said he fears current proposals would create another layer of bureaucracy without improving safety.

But Kevin Skislock, an Irvine entertainment analyst, said Markey’s legislation might not be all bad for theme parks and the public’s perception of them.

“Minimum standards are probably a good thing, regardless of who does it,” he said.

Even so, Skislock said, consumer perception depends mostly on how the amusement companies themselves confront the issue of safety.

For Walt Disney Co., that includes trying to foresee problems when rides are designed.

In a recent Web interview, Paul Press-ler, president of Walt Disney Att-ractions, said that is sometimes a tough call.

“We try to anticipate as best we can all the possibilities that can happen at atheme park, but it is unrealistic to think that you can think of all the possibilities,” Pressler said.

At Knott’s, Falfas had safety activists such as Kathy Fackler, whose son was injured at Disneyland in 1998, speak to employees about safety.

“I honestly believe it’s good business to work toward safety,” he said.

Park operators have a vested interest in safety. Insurance costs already can run into the millions, and reports of an injury or death on the 6 o’clock news aren’t the kind of publicity parks are after.

“Liability insurance costs are staggering,” Falfas said. “Deductibles are unbelievable. And rates go up if we have a bad year. We build profit penny by penny. One mistake wipes it out by hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Still, Robinette said, cost isn’t a factor in safety expenditures.

“Safety has to be there,” he said. “It’s part of the product.”

About 6,000 people were injured at amusement parks last year. The odds of dying on an amusement park ride are about one in 23 million, according to International Association of Amusement Park Attractions.

David Milton, a spokesman at Markey’s office, contends that injuries could be prevented if there was more regulation.

“Regulations vary from state to state,” Milton said. “If an accident occurs in one state, information needs to be shared with the others.”

But while lawmakers, consumer groups and industry officials debate regulation and whether thrill rides cause brain injury, the question remains whether the number of injuries warrants all the fuss.

Boyd F. Jensen II, an Orange County attorney and founder of the International Amusement and Leisure Defense Association, doesn’t think so.

“If anything, the number of injuries has gone down,” Jensen said.

At issue is the accuracy of injury data provided by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which compiles injury reports using data from about 150 hospitals across the U.S.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were 6,523 injuries on fixed-site (permanent) amusement rides in 1998 and 7,629 in 1999,an increase of 15%. But in 2000, injuries dropped back to 1998 levels, even as attendance grew 6% to 317 million people in the two-year period.

Last year, the commission’s report was roundly criticized when it changed the hospitals it sampled but used the data for year-to-year comparisons. The CPSC later revised the report, but its methods continue to come under fire.

“There are so many more rides and more people going to parks, it’s better to look at the percentage of injuries (than the actual number),” Falfas said.

Jensen, a member of the industry’s main safety committee, said everyone in the industry knows that the safety commission data has its limitations, but they are the best available. And that raises some eyebrows. A recent Reason Foundation report said the commission’s margin of error runs as high as 25%,a figure that led one foundation official to call the commission’s data a “wild-ass guess.”

Markey spokesman Milton thinks that’s enough reason for reform. He called the consumer safety commission numbers a “proxy” for real data that he claims the industry refuses to provide.

“There is no database that is reliable. And there’s no database because there’s no regulation,” he said.

But more regulation,coupled with studies recently undertaken to determine the link between thrill rides and brain injuries,could change the face of amusement parks in the future.

“It’s possible (operators) would back off on thrill rides,” Jensen said.

In what he thinks is a worst-case scenario, Jensen said people eventually might have to sign waivers to go on some rides,or even to get an entry ticket for an amusement park.

Robbins doesn’t think it will come to that, calling it “inconsistent with amusement park philosophy.”

Still, he acknowledged that risk management is the most significant challenge for amusement operators today, with rider responsibility not far behind.

That means more health warnings and rider rules are likely to start popping up at parks. Some parks have already begun to post warnings about the risk of thrill rides for people with aneurysms. And since the recent death at Knott’s in which the rider’s weight may have been a factor, there is speculation that size and weight limits might not be far behind.

But none of that means that virtual reality will ever dominate the amusement park scene.

“People want the thrill to be the real thing,” Falfas said. “Take a look at the American people in general. People are surfing, mountain biking. We’re a society that likes to participate.”

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