Amusement-park executives are chasing FST — the fastest, scariest and tallest rides. And sometimes, the thrill can kill.
On March 25, Tyre Sampson, 14, fell to his death, after slipping out of his seat on the FreeFall, an attraction at ICON Park in Orlando, Fla., that drops riders from a 430-foot tower at speeds of 75 miles per hour. The safety harness, according to employees, “was still in a down and locked position when the ride stopped.”
Though amusement-park fatalities are rare, the incident is far from isolated. In 2016, according to the most recent statistics from US Consumer Products Safety Commission, there were 34,700 emergency room visits per year due to injuries occurring on amusement park rides.
Some experts say it’s, at least in part, a result of theme-park operators seeking new superlatives of FST — and it’s an ever-moving target
“You have rides competing against each other in an amusement park arms-race, which, really, is a G-force race,” a former Capitol Hill staffer who had focused on issues related to dangerous thrill rides, told The Post. “Fastest, tallest, scariest are effective marketing gambits. But the question is this: At what cost in terms of safety? My concern is that the G-force race can lead to higher safety concerns.”
Superlatives are the name of the game in amusement park competition. Everyone wants to brag on a billboard or TV ad about having the tallest, fastest attraction (right now, that’s Kingda Ka at Six Flags in Jackson Township, NJ, reaching 456 feet high and 128 mph).
But competitors are always racing to catch up. Six Flags Magic Mountain, in Valencia, Calif., announced plans for the world’s tallest single-track roller coaster: Wonder Woman Flight of Courage, set to open this summer, will run on a 3,300-foot track and treat riders to an 87-degree plunge.
Saudi Arabia’s Six Flags Qiddiya hopes to steal the speed crown in 2023 when Falcon’s Flight takes its maiden ride, achieving a record-setting 155 miles per hour and a drop of 525 feet.
Pantheon in Busch Gardens Williamsburg (in Williamsburg, Va.) opened March 25 to thrill customers via a 95-degree descent, albeit at a relatively calmer 73 miles per hour.
According to “Theme Park Safety Failure$” author Jeffrey P. Stoneking, “The arms-race has been going on since the 1970s. It keeps moving in the direction of bigger and faster. But there are consequences.
“Top Thrill Dragster [at Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio], for example, has a cable that launches the ride to 120 miles per hour in three seconds. [Once,] the cable faded during the launch and people were hit with metal shards.”
That happened in 2004. More recently, an L-shaped bracket attached to the back car came loose and smashed into the head of theme-park patron Rachel Hawes. It had her “fighting for her life,” The Post reported at the time of the 2021 incident.
Recalling the cable mishap, Stoneking stated, “An attorney said it’s not the first time a piece fell off the ride. It’s the first time a piece hit somebody.”
Of course, that is better than a human appendage dropping off of a ride.
“At Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, on the Superman Tower of Power [which stands 325-feet-tall and descends at 55 miles per hour], a 14-year-old girl lost her foot,” said Stoneking. “It got caught in the cable going up and was cut off when the ride came down. She was screaming but nobody paid attention. [The operators] wanted the highest ride they could get.”
And then there’s the speed angle. Last year, Dawn R. Jankovic reportedly fell victim to the thrill-ride arms-race when she went unconscious after taking a spin on the Voyage, a wooden roller coaster that reaches speeds of 67 miles per hour at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind. She died at a local hospital, suffering internal bleeding. According to the Dubois County coroner, an artery tore due to the coaster’s force and led to rapid blood loss.
Zipora Jacob, a retiree in Los Angeles, was luckier. She remains alive after a discombobulating 1995 session on Indiana Jones Adventure at Disney Land.
“The ride ended and I felt like my head was going to explode,” she told The Post. “I started walking and had projectile vomiting. I got taken to urgent care, was misdiagnosed and released. The next morning I did not wake up and got taken to the hospital. I had three brain surgeries, there’s a shunt in my head, I’m treated with medication and I still have anxiety. The ride shakes you; it was like I had shaken baby syndrome.”
Operators also crave the gravity-crushing intensity of G-forces. Riders on Tower of Terror at Gold Reef City theme park in Johannesburg, South Africa, endure the most thrill-ride Gs in the business: 6.3. In America, Shock Wave, at Six Flags Over Texas, reaches 5.9 Gs for brief periods of time.
G-forces are measurements of acceleration based on the push of gravity. During a Formula One race, drivers endure as many as 6Gs while speeding through a turn. While 6Gs endured over a long period of time (an average of 43 seconds) on a head-to-toe axis could cause one to pass out, thrill rides — on which the Gs last for fewer than three seconds — are designed to prevent that from happening.
Still, the potential for problems is acute enough that an article in Journal of Emergency and Trauma Care advises that doctors dealing with inexplicable brain injuries ask patients about theme park visits, noting that symptoms can take two months to appear.
In light of such advisories — and the fact that brain injuries on rides are rare, though they do happen — the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a self-regulating organization for the amusement park industry, states online: “Blackouts and other health issues associated with Gs require exposure to G-forces which are either greater in magnitude or of much longer duration than those achieved by today’s amusement rides.”
While two medical and engineering studies, commissioned by Six Flags in 2003, did not find medical evidence associated between thrill rides and brain injuries, other experts are skeptical.
“At the bottom, you get squished by all of this G-force … there’s a very small range between the thrill and the kill,” Orly Avitzur, a Tarrytown neurologist who is president of the American Academy of Neurology, told US News and World Report. “One of the scariest things that can happen is that the arteries in the neck can dissect” — leading, possibly, to a stroke. “There aren’t that many case reports of these. But there are enough to make you pause and think about that risk factor.”
And yet, amusement park rides are not federally regulated. The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission investigates accidents but not does not inspect or regulate the rides. According to the IAAPA, the rides are regulated and inspected by state agencies. Sometimes, Stoneking told The Post, the state agencies do it as a sideline.
“The Ohio Department of Agriculture looks for structural integrity,” he said. “Their line is that they do not know anything about roller coaster technology. But you have roller coasters that stand 400-feet-high.”
The federally run Consumer Products Safety Commission regulates traveling rides — like the ones for carnivals held in church parking lots — but permanent attractions in parks follow standards laid down by IAAPA. “There is an inherent conflict of interest when industries self-regulate,” said Mark Bayer, president of Bayer Strategic Consulting. “It’s like the fox guarding the henhouse. Industry players can change the rules as they see fit and the public may have to pay the price.”
Beyond that, here’s also the potential for human error. CBS has reported that Sampson, whose father has said he weighed 340 pounds and was six-foot-five, may have been too large to ride securely. The network pointed to an operations and maintenance manual for the ride, which states that the maximum passenger weight should not exceed 286 pounds.
“This is going to be an issue of a lack of supervision and a lack of training,” Bob Hilliard, the attorney representing Sampson’s mother told CBS. “A straight-up negligence case.”
Despite the raft of civil charges, criminal charges often go unfiled against ride operators and park owners. In a case last year, after a six-year-old girl fell to her death from a ride at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in Colorado, criminal charges were not filed due to prosecutors not finding suitable evidence against the park and its employees.
The highest-profile, most spine-tingling rides, according to Stoneking, tend to be designed and built by just a handful of engineering firms. Often dreamed up by theme-park executives, they “are contracted out with several manufacturers that come up with designs based on what the park wants; then the park makes a choice.”
But in some cases, non-pros take it upon themselves to design the seemingly simple rides at smaller parks. Such was the case with a gigantic, 17-story water slide at Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City, Kan. — which was certified by Guinness World Records as the world’s tallest waterslide.
In 2016, Caleb Schwab, 10, was decapitated when his raft rose skyward and he smashed into a metal hoop that helped to hold up a safety net.
That ride was designed by the park’s co-owner Jeffrey Wayne Henry and his design-partner John Timothy Schooley — neither of whom, according to an indictment, possessed the skills to build such a thing. In 2018, they were both indicted on charges of second-degree murder. One year later, a judge dismissed the criminal charges due to “improper evidence and testimony displayed to the grand jury.” Nevertheless, a former theme park executive who worked elsewhere opined that safety took a backseat on the waterslide.
“It was all about making it a tall slide,” the former exec told The Post. “The kid became airborne and the attraction was not built for somebody to go so high.” (A receptionist said the water park is currently closed but declined to say why.)
As to whether or not risky rides will get belted in following events such as the recent tragedy in Orlando, Stoneking thinks not. He points out that theme parks possess buffers: “They have insurance policies. Remember that. If there is an incident they have insurance to cover it. That is the bottom line.”
https://nypost.com/2022/04/08/amusement-parks-in-race-for-fastest-scariest-tallest-rides/ Amusement parks in race for fastest, scariest, tallest rides