Disney World had rigorous safety inspections even before accident

The Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. – (KRT) – A week after a locomotive came loose from a train on Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, killing one person and injuring 10 others, investigators in California are still working out what happened.

In Orlando, technicians at Walt Disney World and the area’s other theme parks continue to check safety systems every day to lessen the chance of a similar accident happening here. (The Sept. 5 accident, which investigators suspect was caused by a mechanical failure, hasn’t changed Disney World’s approach to ride safety, said Jeff Vahle, the resort’s vice president for engineering services.

Workers in Orlando spend hours inspecting every ride every day, just as they did before the accident in California, Vahle said. “You take care of the attraction like your family goes on every ride,” he said.

According to Disney, the process at each ride starts in the middle of the night, when a shift supervisor reviews assignments and work orders. Soon after, inspectors walk the tracks and check the equipment. Engineers and maintenance workers examine ride vehicles and various parts for wear, and wheels are checked with torque wrenches.

Later, two or three hours before the ride opens for the day, the attraction is powered up and then reviewed again in checklist fashion by the operating staff. Universal Orlando and SeaWorld have similar preventive-maintenance programs, putting every ride through a series of mechanical, electrical and operational tests.

For example, SeaWorld’s inspectors start at 4 a.m., said Van Rice, the park’s vice president of operations. Besides visually inspecting the ride, employees actually climb aboard to see whether it feels OK. “We’ve got some very good safety measures in place, and we’re proud of our record,” Rice said. SeaWorld, with three rides, has reported only one serious injury since all three of Orlando’s theme-park operators began voluntarily filing accident reports with the state almost two years ago.

A 58-year-old man complained of neck pains after riding the Journey to Atlantis water ride. SeaWorld told the state Bureau of Fair Rides Inspections the pain was caused by a pre-existing condition.

Disney World reported 10 serious injuries in its parks in the first 21 months of the voluntary reporting program, including an 81-year-old woman who suffered a heart attack at Epcot’s Universe of Energy attraction in March and later died.

Universal reported six serious injuries during the 21-month period that ended June 30, including a 36-year-old woman who suffered a fractured back at Ripsaw Falls in Islands of Adventure.

Florida has some of the toughest rules in the country when it comes to the inspection and monitoring of carnivals and small amusement parks, experts say. But a loophole in state law exempts Florida’s theme parks from those rules, which include government inspections.

After a series of tragic theme-park accidents across the country in the late 1990s, Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld agreed to let state inspectors visit their properties in October 1999. Officials with the Fair Rides Inspection Bureau said those site visits gave them “a reasonable degree of confidence” in the parks’ rides.

Disney, Universal and SeaWorld later entered into a “memorandum of understanding” with the rides-inspection bureau to begin voluntarily reporting accidents that result in serious injury. The agreement defines a serious injury as one requiring “immediate admission and hospitalization in excess of 24 hours for purposes other than medical observation.”

Walt Disney Co. also issued a report last year that revealed once closely guarded details of its U.S. theme parks’ safety operations, from how rides are designed and maintained to how operators are trained.

Kathy Fackler, a ride-safety advocate who successfully lobbied for stricter laws in California, said this week that the theme-park exemption in Florida’s ride-inspection law “doesn’t serve consumers’ interests.” (Fackler, whose then-5-year-old son lost part of his left foot in an accident on Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in 1998, said Florida’s theme parks “probably do a good job of inspection” but should be held publicly accountable when an accident occurs.

In May, Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts co-sponsored a bill calling for government oversight of ride safety. “The theme park industry acts as if its commercial success depends on remaining exempt from reasonable safety regulation,” he said in a written statement, adding that 55 people reportedly had been killed on amusement-park rides since 1988. The bill is sitting in committee.

Walt Disney World’s only guest fatality occurred in 2000, when a 37-year-old St. Petersburg man on the Magic Kingdom’s Splash Mountain ride climbed out of his seat midway through the ride and was struck by another of the eight-passenger boats.

Also, Disney World was fined in 1999 after an employee fell to his death from the Magic Kingdom’s Skyway ride. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the resort $4,500 for what it called a “serious” violation of safety standards. A 65-year-old employee was swept from the Fantasyland Skyway loading platform by a moving gondola. He fell about 40 feet. Despite such accidents, amusement-park rides are generally safe, regardless of their age, said Steve Baker, owner of Baker Leisure Group, an Orlando-based entertainment consulting firm.

“At Disney in particular, safety is the No. 1 thing they pay attention to,” said Baker, a former Disney World executive. “There are four things they preach to everyone that works there, and that’s safety, courtesy, cleanliness and capacity, in that order.” Capacity refers to operating the rides and shows efficiently, he said.

A well-maintained park ride can last indefinitely, Baker said, because everything is eventually replaced over time, from tracks and brake systems to the ride vehicles themselves. According to Vahle, the Disney engineering vice president, the Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain roller coaster, for example, is practically a new ride, even though it was first built in the 1970s, because of the replacement work that occurs each year.

Baker said it’s tragic when even one person is killed on a ride such as Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, “but I would suspect a ride like that hosts 5 million people a year.”

“Disney’s maintenance organization is absolutely second to none,” echoed Steve Birket, vice president of Birket Engineering, an Ocoee company that has done safety-system work for all three of Orlando’s big theme-park operators.

Glenn Birket, his brother and the company’s president, said the accident at Disneyland was “an utter tragedy, but it’s also a pretty unlikely event.”


© 2003, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).