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What you can do to stay safe in a theme park, and what theme parks can do to help keep you safe, too

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Published: July 21, 2013 at 7:23 PM

Last week's horrible events in Texas and Ohio remind us of the ever-present struggle to keep theme park safe. With tons of equipment moving at high speeds, opportunities for danger abound at theme parks. Yet much simpler hazards claim the most victims in parks each year — sunburns, overheating, pedestrian collisions, and such.

You've got a greater chance of getting seriously hurt in a car accident on the way to a theme park than you do of being hurt on a ride while there. But, obviously, accidents do happen. You can minimize your chances of getting hurt at a theme park — from dangers great and small — by following the advice in our theme park safety tips.

Pirates of the Caribbean operator at Disneyland ParisTheme park visitors can do much to keep themselves safe in a park. But, at some point, we rely on parks to ensure that they've provided safe facilities and operations for us to enjoy. The rise of the Internet has helped to ensure that the days are over when people got hurt in theme parks without anyone hearing about it. Too many fan communities are watching what's happening in the parks on a daily basis. When I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, an accident at Pirates of the Caribbean led to one visitor being seriously injured and hospitalized. But the local newspaper an TV stations never reported it. Disney's own EMTs responded, and no one needed to report the incident to outside authorities or law enforcement. The local reporters simply had no way of knowing what had happened.

That's not how things happen today. In addition to oversight from thousands of daily visitors using social media to publish to the world, states such as Florida and California are now recording injury accidents at theme parks. With so much more public attention paid to safety, perhaps it's not a coincidence that parks are working even more aggressively to implement new safety procedures. A generation ago, you didn't see gates at the loading platforms on most Disney rides as you do today, for example.

But while mechanical innovation can help improve safety in the parks, it's the operators who provide the final line of defense for visitors. Great theme park attractions operators prevent accidents. Poorly trained and inexperienced operators don't. An experienced operator can sense when visitors are uncomfortable getting on a ride — whether it's a child who's about to cry or an adult on the verge of a panic attack. Great operators know how to intervene in a way that keeps the ride running, the line moving and all visitors out of harm's way. I've joked about my method of asking women riders if they were pregnant, but that's the type of pro-active approach operators must take to prevent accidents from happening.

Great operators become great through one thing — experience. Training helps, but operators need time on the job to learn how to see problems before they happen. But operators can't get that necessary experience if they can't afford to stay on the job long enough to get it. The cost avoided in damages and increased insurance premiums by a single fatal accident prevented can pay for the extra pay and benefits that can entice many operators to stay on the job longer, becoming more experienced and better operators as a result. But park managers and corporate leaders need to recognize that connection for it happen.

Over the next many weeks, those of use who continue to follow the story will learn more about what happened late last week in Texas and Ohio. But as we return our attention to theme park safety issues, let's not limit the discussion to lap bars, restraint and ride systems, and other mechanical elements. Let's start talking more about what parks can do to ensure that they're offering visitors a well-trained, experienced crew of operators to help keep them safe, as well.

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Readers' Opinions

From Jacob Sundstrom on July 21, 2013 at 8:04 PM
Good stuff.

Disneyland was, in my experience, very good about helping cast members spot potential danger situations before they arose. This came, primarily, from experienced cast members passing information down to the newbies on the job.

Like you said, placing the proper value on theme park employees is key to the retention of good ones. It's tougher at theme parks that only operate seasonly and thus can only employ part time workers; so the idea of a full time ride operator is a luxury parks like Disneyland have that others do not.

From Anon Mouse on July 22, 2013 at 7:46 AM
"But while mechanical innovation" And also smart phone camera innovation.
From Lori Schueren on July 22, 2013 at 9:06 AM
I've never worked at a theme park, but I can imagine that they keep a close eye on how many riders are riding per hour. I'm sure the higher the number, the better. This was evident to my husband and myself on a recent trip to King's Island. We rode one of our favorite coasters, Diamondback, several times. Each time we were waited in line for the front seat, which gave us a lot of time to watch how the ride operators were handling themselves. They were moving SO fast that it actually worried us a bit. They seemed so rushed. The operator in the booth actually kept coming over the mic with what sounded like statistics of how many trains they got through in a set amount of time. I get that those statistics are important to them, but it made my husband and I a little uneasy.
From Bobbie Butterfield on July 23, 2013 at 10:57 AM
Robert's point about experienced ride operators is well taken. They make all the difference in the world, and as has been pointed out, with seasonal operations and consequent turnovers it isn't always easy to get them. On my first visit to Six Flags Great Adventure this year, most of the ride ops appeared to be foreign exchange students, which did not give me a great deal of confidence.

I find it interesting that most ride ops do not secure the restraints to the max. As long as the lap bar is locked and the seat belt, if applicable, fastened, they have done their job. Although it's highly unlikely that anyone will fall out of a ride with the lap bar locked, on occasion I have asked ride ops "Could you possibly push this down a little more?" and they invariably can and will. I feel more comfortable with the lap bar pushed down all the way, even if it means that I can't move.

It wasn't until recently that I discovered that the lap bars on Nitro at Six Flags Great Adventure can be made to fit tightly. I survived over 50 rides on this coaster with the restraints at the minimum snugness necessary to keep riders in their seats. On my last visit, the ride op pushed the lap bar down so that it fit me tightly, without being asked. Later in the day, a completely different ride op also pushed the lap bar all the way down. The beginning of a new trend? If so, it's a good one.

A continuing problem at theme parks is ride ops trying to accommodate guests who are simply too large to safely fit into the restraints. I have watched ride ops, sometimes in pairs, exert as much force as they possibly can in trying to push a lap bar into locking position on people who really don't fit under the lap bar.

From 92.7.134.50 on July 26, 2013 at 9:46 AM
Having spent several years as an operator of thrill rides and roller coasters I can confirm that your comments about experience are spot on. I have dealt with a guest who had a stroke, another who broke their back because of an existing condition, several severe panic attacks and hundreds of people trying to sneak children who were too small on the ride. Not to mention dozens who jumped into restricted areas to retrieve mobile phones. An eagled eyed operator who can react calmly in an emergency can save lives. I had years of experience, a great deal of training and had passed numerous tests and yet what was I paid? The minimum wage of course!

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