State Blames Cast Member, Ride System for Big Thunder Mountain Accident

Disneyland: An investigation found that the tower operator didn't follow the correct procedure for storing a train.

From David Klawe
Posted August 27, 2004 at 6:50 PM
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has released its report on the July 8, 2004 accident at Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which injured three people.

A train enterting the attraction's loading station slammed into the back of another train in the station. The injured were taken to a local hospital for treatment and released that night.

The report lays blame on operator error, coupled with a failure of the ride control system to prevent the operator error from resulting in a collision.

From Robert Niles
Posted August 27, 2004 at 6:49 PM
The tower operator blew it.

FYI, I am a former Thunder Mountain operator at Walt Disney World, and have stored dozens of trains at that ride during my time with the Walt Disney Company. Thunder Mountain has two sides to its loading station -- the main side (closest to the ride) and the spur side (the other one). The DOSH report said that the tower operator switched the ride system to put the spur side of the loading station in "storage mode" before the approaching train had entered the spur side of the station.

Storage mode closes that side of the station to oncoming trains, moving the track switch to point to the main side station. That way, the train being stored from the spur side can back up into the storage yard without being hit. But there was no train in the spur side yet, since it was still approaching from "Block Zone 4," the last segment of the ride.

With the track switch set to the main side, the approaching train entered the occupied main side station, causing the wreck.

The ride system is designed to stop a train in Block Zone 4, on a series of linear induction motors, if both stations are occupied. At Disney World, a train stopped in BZ4 would lead to a "cascade" shutdown, where the next train following would be held up on the "C" (third) lift, the train behind that on the "B" lift, and a fifth train (if running) on the "A" lift.

Apparently, from the report, a train stopped in BZ4 on the Disneyland version of the ride does not lead to a ride shut-down. The report says that the twoer operator can reset BZ4 and send a train into the loading station once he sees that a side is clear.

But once a train leaves BZ4 and heads to the track switch, the ride system has no way of stopping the train. So if the operator screws up and send a train from BZ4 when the stations are not clear, the incoming train will hit the waiting train in whichever station the trach switch was pointing to.

The report requires Disney to retrain the tower operator (speaking for myself, I'd be shocked if he weren't fired) and to "enhance the Ride Control System and/or adopt operator procedures" to assure that trains with people on them don't enter track block zones (such as the loading station) with trains in them.

So, basically, Disney could reprogram the system to not allow a tower operator to put spur station into storage mode during the time between a train leaving BZ4 and its arrival into the station. Or it could just print up a memo telling cast members "don't do that," and call that a new operator procedure.

From John K
Posted August 27, 2004 at 7:17 PM
Disneyland has some weak training procedures:

It's ridiculous how that someone is fully trained on a thrill ride after 2 days being on the job. Magic Mountain will put you at a flat ride/small attraction first and keep you there for a month. Training at MM requires 4 hours/1day minimum, or 8 hours/2days min Then you'll get moved up to a roller coaster/thrill rides. They require 12 hours of training/4days minimum.

Every time you get trained on a ride at MM, you're required to take a test. If you fail, you must get re-trained and complete all the required hours again.

One mistake you make while operating a ride and there's a great chance you'll get fired , no matter how big or small the mistake is. I got lucky, I made an error while operating Riddlers (small one); However, I got suspended; permanently removed from Riddlers, lost certfication from that ride, was sent down to a flat/small ride (Tidal wave) and was required to be re-trained on that ride. I was not allowed to go to a "major ride" (roller coaster) for three months. But was allowed to go to any other small attraction

From Jason Jackson
Posted August 27, 2004 at 10:12 PM
As a former coaster operator at Busch Gardens, I can tell you that BG does not ever store a train while the ride is motion. Storing a train requires that the ride be empty of guests prior to the train being removed from the circuit! Granted it might take a little longer, but it is safer.

From Robert Niles
Posted August 27, 2004 at 11:05 PM
When I was at Disney World, all employees had to complete two days of training and orientation at Disney University before being sent to their areas. In Magic Kingdom attractions, new hires faced two to five days of training before starting at their location. Thunder Mountain and Pirates each required a five-day, 40-hour training session.

And new hires were never sent to Thunder. Indeed, at one point while I was there, Disney management decreed that no "Casual Temporary," i.e. seasonal, employees would be allowed to work at Thunder, no matter how experienced at other attractions.

John K., since you've worked in parks more recently than I, could you share with us what the average hourly pay rates are for attractions operators at local theme parks? Anyone?

From John Franklin
Posted August 28, 2004 at 12:13 AM
When I worked at Pirates at Disneyland, I was not even allowed to do the Tower by myself or even take control of the attraction for 2 weeks (6days of 3 hours each). But, I have to say, the hardest part of doing Pirates is to learn how to load correctly so the boats don't get swamped by water as they go down the two drops and not how to run the Tower.

From Kevin Baxter
Posted August 28, 2004 at 1:45 AM
I still think the operator is getting screwed. You can't pay people low wages and expect them all to be rocket scientists. That stuff is for the computers! If Disney has something wrong in its computer program that could possibly get people injured or killed, then they need to fix the damn program, not tell a friggin' employee to watch out! Furthermore, if Disney KNOWS it has that problem, why don't they clear the ride of people before storing or unstoring new trains? I have been to dozens of parks and EVERY SINGLE TIME they need to add or subtract a train, EVERY SINGLE PERSON is cleared from the ride. I have even been to some parks where maintenance has to come over to do it. Why is this procedure so important to everybody BUT Disney?

How many times will even the Disney Dorks hear "Not our fault!" before they start realizing that maybe it IS Disneyland's fault?

From John K
Posted August 28, 2004 at 8:08 AM
well Robert if you're not familar with Six Flags Magic Mountain pay rate, let me put it to you this way, they don't like to pay their employees? Hourly rate for ride operators at SFMM is $6.75minimum wage.

I'm confused, was it his thrid day on the job? or his third day on the ride?

I read something from somewhere (I think KNBC-4 website) saying that it was third day on the job, and that all the training was finished. According to the report from Dept. Occupational Safety and Health, it was third day at the ride.

At Magic Mountain, you go through a two-day training, then you'll get placed at a ride. I don't know if it's the same way at Disneyland. I think they should require more training time for operators. Third day at the ride/Third day on the job whatever it is, that's a little too quick to be trained

From Robert Niles
Posted August 28, 2004 at 10:32 AM
John Franklin, could you tell us the pay scale for attractions operators at Disneyland?

From John Franklin
Posted August 28, 2004 at 2:23 PM
I worked at Disneland back in 1974 to 1979 and again 1n 1990. I heard that some attraction hosts got paid around $12 an hour. But that was top pay. All new hires get minimum pay.

From Kevin Baxter
Posted August 28, 2004 at 3:32 PM
Cast Members are Unionized, so they certainly make more than minimum wage, but no more than a dollar above, to start. Which we know ain't much in California.

From Andrew Swanson
Posted August 28, 2004 at 4:00 PM
I have a question or more of an invitation for a discussion from Robert and John K. My only experience working with Disney rides was when I worked in entertainment and got injured so Light Duty sent me to PotC and Fantasyland West to spend eight hours a day as a perm greeter. I occasionally went to the tower at PotC during my break, but didn't really get to learn the systems.

It seems like most parks that run continous circuits (roller coasters, flumes, etc) have a load area, the coarse of the ride and then the final brake run. Between the brake run and the load platform (or between the brake run and unload platform if it's separte from the load) there is a length of track to be used as a stacking zone.

For example if a ride can run a maximum of three trains at any given time, the stacking zone would be behind the load platform and would be as long as two trains. If train 1 was in the station and got delayed (slow moving crew, guest in a wheelchair, etc) the other two trains would finish their run then simply sit on the stacking track until the platform was cleared.

I have watched these procedures used at parks such as Various Six Flags parks, Cedar Point, IOA SeaWorld and Busch Gardens.

It seems, however that this is not the way Disney rides are operated or designed for that matter. From Robert's description, there is certianly not a stacking zone equal in length to four trains behind the station (or even 2 trains on each side of the spurs) Instead if something happens in the station the entire ride E-stops, forcing the cast to walk the guests down catwalks and slows everything down. I've also heard that this could be the reason for the most recent accident; there simply isn't enough room for the trains in the station.

I'd just like to get the point of view from Robert working at Disney and John from SFMM working on a B&M ride and how these designs and operating procedures differ. I guess my point is, if a train doesn't get out of the station in 45 seconds, you know it's going to mess up the cycle. Now that you've accepted the fact that the cycle is messed up at least mess it up in the station (or just before it) with a long stacking track instead of various points on the actual course.

Just my thoughts and a call for yours.

From John K
Posted August 28, 2004 at 6:21 PM
operators are not unionized at magic mountain, and yes we do get paid minimum wage

From Robert Niles
Posted August 29, 2004 at 11:56 AM
Disney created two loading areas for Thunder in Florida, in lieu of the stacking zone. The two dock method (also used on rides like USF's Revenge of the Mummy) allows for faster loading and better hourly capacity, as two cars can be unloaded and loaded, rather than just the one while the second waits in the stack zone.

Of course, what then happens to the third train? Or, if you stack the third, what happens to the fourth? At some point, you either limit the number of units running on the ride, or you chance having a ride cascade.

The key to preventing load area back-ups, ultimately, lies in effect loading. I'm going to write a column about these issues for Monday. But slow loaders cause ride units to stack up, even when the tower operator does everything right. That rarely results in accidents or injuries, but slow loading and stacked ride units slow down rides, lengthen queues and inconvenience visitors who've paid a lot of money to experience as many rides as they can.

(FWIW, sometimes the term "stacking" happens literally. At Pirates of the Caribbean at WDW, guests would exit downstairs, and the boats would go up a ramp in the staging area before returning to the loading dock. If the loaders were too slow, boats would back up into the staging area. And, I was told when I trained, in the days before better sensors, sometimes the boats coming up the ramp would pile on top of the waiting boats in the staging area, stopping the circuit and forcing a downtime while maintenance literally unstacked the boats.)

From John K
Posted August 29, 2004 at 3:36 PM
Whats the difference with SFMM's rides and Disneyland's rides is that Six Flags is more up-to-date with the safety technology, because most of their rides are new, the rides that have been built over tha last decade are: superman, riddlers, Batman, X, Goliath, Dejavu, Scream, Goliath Jr..that's half of their coasters right there. Disneyland hasn't gotten a roller coaster ride like Big Thunder in a long time so they need to be extra cautious since the technology is not really up-to-date. The recent thrill ride they built was Rocket Rod in tomorrow land, but that didn't last long. I was there on the opening day of the (what was called) the "new" tomorrow land and rode rocket rod after waiting in line for 3 hrs.

So that is it; disneyland is not being extra cautious about their old rides and they should

From Robert Niles
Posted August 30, 2004 at 10:29 PM
In defense of Disney, I'd point out that Disney's now-older rides boasted ride systems that were state of the art at the time they were installed. And rides such as Thunder and Pirates have seen significant rides system software upgrades since installation.

IMHO, the problem lies more with a failure to train and retain employees than in ride software. My column on that is up now, for those who want to take a look.

From Kevin Baxter
Posted August 31, 2004 at 12:36 AM
Sorry, but in a day and age where planes can land themselves, trains can zoom along at 200mph without flying off the tracks and we are thisclose to creating an elevator to outer space, I cannot accept that Disney cannot fix this #*&%ing program! I will not buy anything less than a total overhaul of this retarded computer program.

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