Knott's incident raises questions about ride evacuation procedures
Local firefighters last night evacuated 21 people from the Sky Cabin ride at Knott's Berry Farm, eight hours after the ride malfunctioned, trapping visitors in the cabin 125 feet above ground.
We do not routinely cover ride evacuations here on Theme Park Insider. From personal experience working as an attractions operator at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, plus my years of experience covering the industry, I know that ride evacuations happen almost daily in theme parks. Evacuations almost never result in injury, and parks work to keep visitors' inconvenience to a minimum. Heck, some people even brag about being evacuated from certain rides, as it allows them a rare, "backstage" look at the ride and its operation.
While no one was injured in yesterday's incident at Knott's Berry Farm, no one could say that the inconvenience was minimal. Riders were trapped on the attraction for eight hours — by any standard an unacceptable length of time. And evacuation itself was harrowing — requiring local firefighters to lower each individual via a rope from the cabin to the ground.
In 2013, Knott's removed its 300-foot Windseeker swing ride after two incidents the year before when riders were trapped in the air for more than three hours. The state's occupational safety agency, CalOSHA, ordered the ride closed, then later determined that the ladder system that Knott's installed after the incident did not meet state standards. At that point, Knott's parent Cedar Fair decided to remove the attraction and send it to World of Fun in Missouri, where the ladder did meet that state's safety standards.
California has the toughest ride inspection and safety standards in the nation, and Knott's Sky Cabin has been operating safely for decades, though it has been closed for long stretches since debuting in 1976. But when rides malfunction or guests interrupt normal operation, visitors should be able to be evacuated from an attraction safely in a timely manner. Eight hours is way too long to wait.
And evacuations should not require significant outside assistance, either. Calling the fire department is a legal requirement in many jurisdictions when people are to be evacuated from elevators or other elevated apparatus. But parks shouldn't lack evacuation procedures so that firefighters are left to figure out how to get people down on their own, especially with something like the rope system that had to be used last night. Knott's operators and maintenance personnel tried for three hours to lower the cabin before calling in the fire department.
Ultimately, designing a ride also requires anticipating every possible way that something really can go terribly wrong, and providing a counter measure for that situation. That's why so many attractions have complicated ride systems with backup checks and redundancies built in. And why operators are trained in evacuation procedures.
But as much as designers and parks try to anticipate every possible problem, sometimes one happens that leaves the park without a planned solution. That's what happened at Knott's yesterday.
Knott's Sky Cabin will remain closed during an investigation into what went wrong. And the ride likely will remain closed after that, until CalOSHA is satisfied that Knott's has implemented a more effective evacuation procedure for the ride.
Meanwhile, every park with a tall attraction such as the Sky Cabin needs to be asking, "could this happen to us?" And if it could, what are they going to do about it?
After the death at Australia's Dreamworld the State government recognised that theme parks being seen as having a "safety issue" would be disastrous to the economy, so every theme park in the state was hit with a complete safety audit systematically checking every ride in every park, there's three parks that pass for "A list" parks on the Australian scale, two water parks, and a couple of B-listers, so this was no small task.
I often wondered what would happen if people got stuck on Disneyland or Disney World's Monorail. Can you shed some light on that?
I didn't realize that they pulled windseeker from knotts. I rode that one there before I rode it at my home park of carowinds.
@Disfan A few incidents have happened involving the monorails. At Disney World, it was once stopped due to a mechanical issue and people were stuck in there for 2 hours. At Disneyland, a man attempting to sneak in the park was struck by the Monorail and killed
Sound like I should expect a new ride at my home park (Worlds of Fun) in the next couple of years.
While I certainly agree that 8 hours is way too long for everyone to be removed from a malfunctioning ride, I do think it is important to get all the facts straight before judging the situation. Consider the following:
"The Sky Cabin incident was not a normal breakdown, it was a major mechanical malfunction."
I'm wondering what practical difference there would be between a sensor malfunction an an axle in this scenario - presuming a faulty sensor couldn't just be overridden to allow for the ride to terminate normally.
As this ride is now over 40 years old, meeting California's current safety standards is probably very difficult if not impossible so in all likelihood it will probably be removed and relocated if possible.
Didn't this happen at Sea World San Diego not too long ago? Hershey Park too?
All rides have the ability to go into full manual mode. In this mode, the operator has 100% control over every individual component of the ride. Even if the computer detects a problem, if the operator tells it to do something it will do it. For obvious reasons, full manual mode is generally only used when absolutely necessary, as mistakes can be devastating (for example, the Smiler incident). For a ride like the Sky Cabin, however, manual mode is not a safety hazard as there is no chance of a collision.
I should hope there wont be a lawsuit. Whilst its inconvenient to be stuck up there, I think most if not all riders would struggle to show any significant damages.
Chad H, Can you imagine a mechanical fault like this on Dreamworld's Giant drop? Yikes!! I'm not sure if it has reopened yet after the TRR tragedy. It's a tough time for Dreamworld. Glad Knott's emergency didn't have anyone in harms way!
@Chad H, I'm not normally one for frivolous lawsuits, but I do wonder how many people who were trapped in a cabin for 8 hours started to go hungry or had to go to the bathroom, but couldn't do so for obvious reasons. While I don't know what Knott's did to compensate the guests, a lawsuit does not seem entirely ridiculous in this situation.
There is always a bit of risk when you let yourself get strapped into something that moves fast, or goes high, or swings your body around in unusual ways. But rides are still much safer than (for instance) the highways people take to get to the park.
I can answer the monorail question. They have a monorail tow truck positioned off to the side of the track that they can put on the track and it can go pull the monorail to a station. It's very slow, though. If you google it, you can find photos of it. I have some I took from last year when they were using it as a truck to carry workers out to work on some track above EPCOT, but I don't have the photos with me to share.
To use a comparatible attraction, Six Flags Great America has Sky Trek Tower which appears to be nearly identical to Knott's Sky Cabin.
I got stuck on Hersheypark's Kissing Tower several years ago. From what I see, it's along the same design as the Sky Tower. The Kissing Tower's normal operation was to ascend to the top, then it drops a few feet before parking in place for 3 full rotations. After the 3rd rotation, it begins to descend while continuing its rotation until it parks at the loading dock.
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