Whose job is it to keep your family safe in a theme park?

December 29, 2018, 1:11 PM · When you visit a theme park, how much of the job to keep you safe belongs to the park versus belonging to you?

Since you are reading this site, it's probably safe to assume that you have some interest in theme parks and are at least trying to take some responsibility for your vacation. So you are unlikely to pick a park and go on its rides with no concern for safety, ignoring every warning along the way. Not everyone behaves that way, however, so parks have a legal responsibility to provide as safe an experience as they can.

But no one wants to spend their vacation sitting in a ergonomic chair, waiting quietly inside a bubble-wrapped room. Okay, maybe 10 minutes of that might be a nice break — or 20 if you get to pop the bubble wrap. My point is that most people want to go on vacation to do something fun and out of the ordinary and that many of those unique experiences come with some inherent risk.

You could twist an ankle walking on a trail. You could get sick (or worse) eating something you're allergic to. You could damage your hearing at a pop concert or auto race. You could blow out your knee on a bunny slope at a ski resort. (No, as a matter of fact, I never will get over that.) Or... you could aggravate an injury or medical condition on a theme park thrill ride.

You're on your own to judge the risk on natural attractions such as trails. As man-made attractions, theme parks typically post warnings on rides that are not accessible to everyone regardless of age, size, or health considerations. You can find warnings at ride entrance, just before the loading area, and on the park's guidemap. In the United States, theme parks also publish separate guides for people with disabilities, providing guidance on accessibility or alternate experiences.

But is that enough? The family of a Guatemalan man who died after riding Skull Island: Reign of Kong in 2016 is suing Universal Orlando, since the ride's warning signs were published only in English, which the man could not read.

Kong ride warnings

The 38-year-old father of a 8-year-old boy apparently suffered a heart attack, and the family is seeking in excess of $15,000 in damages. An autopsy noted coronary disease, but even if a heart attack was inevitable at some point, if the ride experience exacerbated the man's condition, Universal could bear some liability.

That's why parks warn people with heart conditions not to go on thrill rides. But the family contends that Universal's warning didn't help them because it wasn't in Spanish.

Let's not blame the family here. They've suffered the devastating loss of a loved one, and I don't fault them for exploring every potential avenue to recover some of the financial cost of the death and burial. My heart goes out to them as a fellow theme park fan. I also want to acknowledge that it's tough for me to analyze their claim impartially since I am coming to this story from a position of privilege as a native English speaker and an especially well-informed theme park fan.

As the official language of international aviation, English enjoys a privileged position around the world, so I often encounter English-language signs when I travel to countries where English is not the local native language. And as someone who studies theme parks, I could probably tell you the warnings on any ride system just by looking at it, without ever having to read the sign myself.

Theme parks absolutely bear a responsibility to communicate warnings to their guests, regardless of those guests' ability to comprehend them. That goes for people who can't read English... or any language at all. But that's why Universal uses internationally-recognized graphics on their warning signs, as well as English text. That's also why it publishes guidemaps and accessibility guides in multiple languages, and employs people who speak multiple languages to assist guests.

Given the make-up of international visitors to Orlando, one could make as strong an argument for adding Portuguese to warning signs as Spanish. (Portuguese, not Spanish, is the native language in Brazil.) But adding warnings in 10 different languages won't help someone who doesn't know that he has the health condition that the ride's sign is warning against.

Everyone who visits a theme park deserves to leave that park in as good a health condition as they entered it. But I wouldn't trust even the best and most careful theme park in the world to take full responsibility for something as important as my health and safety. At some point, it's up to us as theme park visitors to protect ourselves.

Replies (14)

December 29, 2018 at 1:30 PM

Just pulled out my universal ticket from my last trip and the fine print says to comply with all safety rules and are cautioned to head all warnings. Since they have maps in most languages, legally I think seems like it’s the guest’s responsibility to read and understand the restrictions in the map guides before going on the attractions.

December 29, 2018 at 4:07 PM

Ultimately, I do not care about legal liability after the fact. What I do care about is that no one dies in a theme park. And that no one gets injured seriously, either.

But if we are to achieve the goal of zero serious injuries and zero deaths in theme parks worldwide, theme park fans are going to do their part - both in steering clear of parks that make no real commitment to safety and in taking personal responsibility to provide that last percentage of defense against harm in all other parks.

That's why I've been so vocal about promoting safety since I started this site, and why I hope that this horrible tragedy helps inspire both parks and future park visitors so that we don't ever have to read this type of story again.

December 29, 2018 at 6:12 PM

Warnings mean little if no one bothers to read them in any language. The deceased had a known, preexisting heart condition. There are indeed Spanish language free guidebooks that actually translate these warnings. The staff includes a large percentage of fluent Spanish speakers. The ride in question is by no means a thrill ride- that family likely had a faster and rockier ride to IOA. And their first sign that the father wasn't feeling right led to them leaving him alone on a bench while they went to ride another attraction. Hard not to fault the guests in this instance. Especially when their bigger complaint revolves around how timely the ambulance response came when they finally did notify the IOA team to their situation. That man lost precious time while they were off riding without him. May not like blaming the deceased and his family- but even your original post comes to precisely that conclusion! I literally have worked in every Central Florida theme park for decades and have been translating Spanish for guests on-stage at all of them- none of us can offer help if we're not approached or asked.

December 29, 2018 at 6:53 PM

I’m sorry the family is suffering but of all the attractions at universal Orlando resort, claiming that ride caused the heart attack is pretty far fetched. There’s not even restraints.

I understand that a language barrier exists and that English is typically catered too around the world but I do think *some* responsibility falls on the rider to educate themselves on attractions. I’m considering visiting some international theme parks in 2019 and I’m a pretty large overweight guy. I’m doing a lot of research on international Disney and universal parks to read about restraints and seat sizes before I go.
I want to know what to expect and if they are worth the effort for me to go under my special circumstances. Everyone should feel this way if they have a special need!

December 29, 2018 at 7:13 PM

Its extremely unfortunate that this man died after riding, its a terrible situation.

However let's be serious there is no way posting signs in Spanish would have saved this guys life, no one reads those signs, they are basically there to cover the parks butt for legal reasons. If they were so concerned about what the attraction does they could have looked at their Spanish park map or read online about the attractions before they visited the park. There are only two ways to prevent an accident like this, 1: the rider takes a little time to educate themself about the attraction is AND decides not to ride it, or 2: theme parks remove all thrill rides and don't build any anymore. How are they are supposed to know if someone has a pre-existing condition?

They would be suing even if there were signs in Spanish, the signs not being in Spanish is just what their lawyer thinks is his best shot against Universal. All the family knows is that he rode a ride and now he's gone. What they don't realize is that Universal isn't stupid they know this can happen and they have their butts covered. It really sucks that this is the case for the family but legally speaking Universal has no legal obligation to pay for anything.

December 29, 2018 at 7:39 PM

To answer the Headline without reading the article... Safety is always EVERYBODY's job... Whether Guest, Staff, or otherwise if you see something that doesn't look right you should speak up. If you have conditions then you should be aware of your limitations, and the park should communicate in a clear way where what issues might be aggravated by a ride (after all, on many modern rides its often not possible to see the ride before boarding, much less know innately whether or not a ride is right for you.

That said, it's clearly not reasonable for a ride to have signs up in every language a guest might speak, especially an International-destination class park. The Local primary Language is clearly one that should be there, and English in any Park that might attract an international visitor (given ride documentation is probably produced primarily in English anyway, it's probably not much of a burden for even a bush-league park to do this).

Any sort of park that specifically markets to international guests needs to have some sort of provision to service those guests, and that provision must include communicating safety information. In my view, at the very least, at an A-Class park (that is, those parks that are just below the Universal/Disney "Destination park" tier), that should be a free-of-charge park map which explains what each of the symbols means in at least 6-12 languages depending on the expected guest mix Including at a minimum French, Spanish, Mandarin or Cantonese, Japanese, and Arabic; Even if they're not the primary language of the guest, you're likely to hit on a secondary language with this sort of mix. The map should also have the symbols again next to the ride descriptions.

As always, it's for international destination parks to push the envelope, and take what A-Class parks do but do it better in new and exciting ways. Interactive App-Maps in a variety of languages, interactive kiosks that replicate app functionality and warnings for those who don't have or aren't bringing their phone, Multilingual staff, etc.

December 29, 2018 at 7:39 PM

To answer the Headline without reading the article... Safety is always EVERYBODY's job... Whether Guest, Staff, or otherwise if you see something that doesn't look right you should speak up. If you have conditions then you should be aware of your limitations, and the park should communicate in a clear way where what issues might be aggravated by a ride (after all, on many modern rides its often not possible to see the ride before boarding, much less know innately whether or not a ride is right for you.

That said, it's clearly not reasonable for a ride to have signs up in every language a guest might speak, especially an International-destination class park. The Local primary Language is clearly one that should be there, and English in any Park that might attract an international visitor (given ride documentation is probably produced primarily in English anyway, it's probably not much of a burden for even a bush-league park to do this).

Any sort of park that specifically markets to international guests needs to have some sort of provision to service those guests, and that provision must include communicating safety information. In my view, at the very least, at an A-Class park (that is, those parks that are just below the Universal/Disney "Destination park" tier), that should be a free-of-charge park map which explains what each of the symbols means in at least 6-12 languages depending on the expected guest mix Including at a minimum French, Spanish, Mandarin or Cantonese, Japanese, and Arabic; Even if they're not the primary language of the guest, you're likely to hit on a secondary language with this sort of mix. The map should also have the symbols again next to the ride descriptions.

As always, it's for international destination parks to push the envelope, and take what A-Class parks do but do it better in new and exciting ways. Interactive App-Maps in a variety of languages, interactive kiosks that replicate app functionality and warnings for those who don't have or aren't bringing their phone, Multilingual staff, etc.

December 29, 2018 at 8:47 PM

side note, i find the amount to be interesting. $15,000. It's almost as if they think Universal won't fight this because it will cost them

December 30, 2018 at 12:58 AM

The way I see it, the park is responsible for...

-Ensuring attractions are operating as designed and that no components are defective in a way that affects the safety of the ride.
-Ensuring that guests are properly seated and restrained on all attractions.
-Providing adequate warning to guests about what sort of conditions may be problematic on a particular attraction and attempting to screen out those who may be at risk by riding.
-Making sure guests are informed of the safety rules for each ride, and enforcing those rules at all times.

The park is not responsible for...

-Injuries sustained due to a guest deliberately choosing to disobey safety rules.
-Injuries sustained due to guests choosing to ride an attraction despite having one of the warning conditions on the sign (particularly if it isn't visible).
-Incidents resulting from an unknown condition that neither the park nor the guest had any knowledge of.

There's definitely a limit to what parks can do, and in my opinion 99% of parks are doing as much as they reasonably can. The one area I'd like to see improvement is enforcing park rules, particularly those related to loose articles on rides, as that is something that the parks can actually control. When it comes to medical conditions, there isn't much a park can do other than warn guests about what might be problematic. Should the signs have been in Spanish as well? If a significant minority of the park's visitors (say 10+%) have that as their first language, perhaps, but as long as the information is easily available to guests (guide map, translation book, multilingual employees, etc.), I don't think it's a necessity.

December 30, 2018 at 3:52 AM

Theme parks could take away every ride, only serve heath food and nothing else but that would be a boring park, right?

When I learned I had osteoporosis I asked my doctor if I could ride a roller-coaster with 7 loopings. Guess what, I can't. I probably break every single bone in my body and won't be alive when the ride ends. No safety regulation states specifically osteoporosis. So I said I hart felt goodbye to The Hulk, shed a tear and moved on. After many years of injections and medications my condition improved. I now have osteopenia (something between normal bone structure and brittle bones). I explained the Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride and my doctor said I would be okay to ride it. I can do Mummy or any low impact coaster. Again taking responsibility for myself and my own condition (whee so much fun!).

Unfortunately I now have a hart disease, cardiomyopathy. My version of the disease is deadly but it's in an early stage so there are things that can be done and could help (fingers crossed). Knowing what I have I tweaked my lifestyle a bit (it was already quite good). But before I go to a theme park I will ask my doctor about what he advises me. I will take that in account but in the end I will be responsible for my own choices, not a theme park.
And I'm from the Netherlands and there is no information in Dutch. My English is fine but not everyone from the Netherlands is able to read English. Does ignorance is a theme parks problem? Is a theme park responsible for selling fat, sugary and salty foods resulting in a huge amount of nasty diseases or is it us the consumers?
It's us, we should know or we should ask and in doubt don't do it. Universal, Disney nor any other theme park, restaurant or horror movie maker should stop to excite, serve unhealthy food and scare us just because I may have a medical condition and don't care to inform myself.

December 30, 2018 at 4:03 PM

I fail to see how a sign not being in English can be considered as being negligent on the part of Universal(or anyone else). The prevalence of smart phones has meant that almost everyone has an instant translator on their person at any given moment. Add that to the fact that there is a warning sign clearly displayed that they could have asked to have translated or looked into further and it really does fall on the family.

To me, a theme park's responsibility is to ensure that the rides operate as expected and that any foreseeable risks are minimised. A sign not being in a person's native language doesn't free that person from any responsibilities or obligations expected of them. It's that person's responsibility to ensure they are aware of those obligations.

December 30, 2018 at 6:11 PM

The thing is Coopers, you need to know the significance of the sign before you can be motivated to translate it.

January 1, 2019 at 10:33 AM

First Chad H. You sound like a Safety Professional. I agree with you as Safety Professional that "Safety is everyone's responsibility". Everyone has heard Safety is the 1st priority. Well is it really. What is the number one priority for the Theme Park? My guess would be money as without that there would not be a theme park. Second Should be Quality/Customer Service because with out that the theme park would not make money. So where does Safety come in well maybe 3rd, 4th or 5th. While it is important it is not the top priority. Also, priorities change constantly. As I tell employees and others. Safety should never be a priority but rather a way of life.
So who's responsibility is it for your safety? You and you only. Yes we expect you to provide a safe environment for your children like making sure they follow the rules.
Now for the true answer that I think makes sense. It is sad that a family lost their loved one at an amusement park. Unfortunately those things happen. It may have been the ride or it may have been the stress of the vacation or any other reason that the person had a heart attack. I have seen people have a heart attack while sitting at a show at Disney. CPR performed and all that person did was walk around the park for a little while and then sat down for a show. So Robert your goal of not having any deaths at a theme park is impossible unless the park never has anyone at it including live employees. It is a defect with humans, we die and sometimes at the most inconvenient time. While I appreciate your goal it is impossible to achieve until we as humans do not die.With that being said injuries on the other hand are 99% preventable. The 1% is saved for the meteor falling out of the sky or large piece of hail hitting a person on the head. But take that with a grain of salt also. If we want to be completely injury free you would have to be a non-person a nobody, you know never been born.
Now with that lets look at the case a little closer. A person died at a theme park that is well known has a really good track record for making money and very few major issues. They have the appropriate warning signs in place, there are multiple language guide maps available, I would also believe that there is interpreter services available as well. The warning signs are printed in English with the INTERNATIONAL Warning symbols prior to the English text. An adult ignores these warnings and dies on an attraction presumably because of his heart condition, not because of some devastating malfunction of the ride. Now the family is suing because the warning signs were only in English. Now let's take a look at other theme parks around the world. After viewing pictures of other theme parks around the world. Many are single language and do not have international warning symbols, while there were some that were in the native language and english. Putting more text on signs further confuses people and make them unreadable as there is only so much room on the signs. I don't advocate that a tourist needs to know the language of their destination, but they should have a basic grasp of important things. While $15,000 does not seem to be a lot to us it is a lot of money for the family in Guatemala.
Now for my final rant from an old guy. In this day and age the individual taking responsibility for their actions are null and void. It is this "it is someone else's fault" and "I am owed this" attitude that has made going and doing things not all that enjoyable. This has also driven a culture that they make things so safe that they become unsafe again. Unfortunately this is the case with the older woodies coasters. instead of the older bench seat, which gave you room to move with the bumps and vibrations, the newer seat design has you crammed into a tight seat with out any give and now you see people that are coming off these rides "injured". The change was made because it is "safer". Just saying.
Now that I have upset a few people I will leave well enough alone now and I hope that everyone will think about this. I have a lot more on risk and safety but this is enough boredom for everyone today.

January 1, 2019 at 7:44 PM

Um isnt this why there are pictures next to the written warnings?

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