The website Statista estimates that amusement parks in the United States grossed about $19.75 billion in 2021. That’s a lot of roller coaster, water slide, bumper cars (if that’s still a thing) and over-priced food.
It would be fair to say that almost everyone that you know has been to at least one amusement park. Some prefer the thrill of the roller coaster, others would rather spend the day in a lazy river, and some just come for the $10 hot dog and $30 headband shaped slightly like ears.
You’ve probably heard about the tragic accident in Orlando recently where a 14-year-old rider slipped from his seat on a ride that propelled passengers over 400 feet in the air and dropped them with a pause part of the way to the ground. This is the kind of incident that should be preventable as long as the ride attendant is properly trained and supervised and the ride itself is kept in optimal operating condition. This is a tragic incident, which should never be repeated.
This is what I would call an individual catastrophic ride failure to differentiate it from a total catastrophic ride failure.
This is not to minimize what happened, but to make a difference between a failure of a ride that causes a mass casualty situation as opposed to a failure that injures one person. If I’m being honest, I’m not all that interested in riding any ride that has had any kind of catastrophic failure, individual or otherwise.
Catastrophic ride failures are terrible and if everything was perfect and wear and tear wasn’t a thing, they would never happen. Because we live in a world where things wear out, break down, or people make mistakes these things will happen.
Yet if we look at the numbers, we realize that, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2004 there were five amusement ride fatalities. This is not good, but in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were over 36,000 fatalities related to motor vehicle crashes.
With proper training, supervision and maintenance most of those rides that people really seem to like because they make them feel like their internal organs are moving around inside them are perfectly safe. Again, when things go wrong with these rides, they go catastrophically wrong. That’s why there should be so much attention focused on them, but amusement parks have risks beside ride-specific risks.
Risks of Normal Premises Hazards
Whether you’re talking about one of those large parks where the Super Bowl MVP usually ends up, or the small park about an hour from you, amusement parks are places where people show up and stay. Whenever there are people walking around on a premises, it doesn’t matter what they are there for, there are certain risks that are a part of having property and welcoming people in.
There is the risk that someone might find something to trip over. Amusement parks have acres of parking lots and miles of sidewalks. Each person walks several miles in the time that they are in the park. All of that walking space needs to be maintained so that cracks don’t become tripping hazards. They also need to be kept clear of trash and obstacles that could become more tripping hazards.
Most parks have grassy areas with trees. Even if those areas are kept free of tripping hazards, one thing that most parks would have a hard time dealing with are the animals that don’t normally like people but are attracted to the vast amounts of wasted food and the little kids that love to feed the cute critters. Yeah. Never let your little ones feed a squirrel. Take it from personal experience. Fingers are hard to distinguish from fries when you’re a squirrel.
Whenever there is water around, there is the potential for a water-related accident. We aren’t even considering the hazards of a waterpark (although, there are many), we’re just talking about the hazards of the presence of water, including the air conditioning units that are running overtime in the little food trailers all over the park, the water fountains that dispense more water on the ground than they do into any containers, and the stray sprinkler that always seems to be pointed in the wrong direction. When you think about water, also consider the possibility that some water is not potable, and someone might try and drink it. Ick.
Risks of Interpersonal Hazards
When you have that many people in one place, even if it appears to be a happy place (or the happiest, even), someone is going to get on someone else’s nerves. When that happens, sometimes people get out of control. Things get said and one thing leads to another and suddenly it gets physical.
One note here is that most amusement parks have some security screening and signage that tells patrons that they may not bring weapons on premises, so things are unlikely to escalate too much, at least in the park.
There are several factors that lead to the possibility that something might happen between two people.
Just in case you’ve never been to an amusement park, you should know that it involves a lot of walking. The kind of walking that the majority of Americans aren’t used to. By some accounts, it appears that depending on the place you go, and the children you bring with you, we’re talking about 7-10 miles of walking in a single day. Think about that much walking when you buy the four-day park hopper pass. That much time on the feet makes one tired and makes for achy legs and feet. Those are some key ingredients in the making of an upset person.
Also, take into account the attitudes of the people that people travel with. You might think that an amusement park is fully of shiny, happy people holding hands. But it’s not always. Just let someone’s little one decide that they wanted to ride the Bubble Gum Coaster when someone else promised the other little one that they could ride the Launch into Chaos ride, and the next hour is nothing but crying, pouting and screaming. And that’s the parents.
One more small ingredient to our potential fisticuffs is the presence of adult beverages. Tired people who are dealing with unhappy people, on a hot day, attempting to quench their growing thirst with an alcoholic beverage (and no food because who can afford that) all adds up to people who don’t think before they speak or act.
The park should take this exposure into account and make sure that they take steps to mitigate it. They could provide rest zones where people can sit down and plan out what’s next. They could also ensure that those who serve alcohol know the signs of people who shouldn’t be partaking in them. It may also be helpful to have people around who are empowered to help defuse situations before they escalate.
Risks of Food Hazards
If you’ve been to an amusement park, you’ve paid $15 for a barbecue sandwich that tasted like your four-year-old nephew made it in the front yard from mulch and mud. That’s not to say that all amusement park food is bad. It’s just mostly bad for you and isn’t the tastiest food you’ve ever had (especially for the price).
Thankfully, the park will need licensure and inspections for their food operations, so there’s that.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the local health department is on site every day, making sure that every food service person is doing everything right. When you consider that most of the food vending is done in small carts or the type of food trailer that you might see at your local fair, you see that the risk is real.
Restaurants will often hire a manager in their kitchen that is certified as a food service manager, which includes food safety training. While it’s possible that someone at the park is a certified food service manager, it’s also quite likely that the people doing the food preparation and serving aren’t. They’re just filling in there because someone else had to take the weekend off. They normally work the Upside-Down Bumper Cars, not the fried dough stand.
Making food service training available for the team makes for a better trained and well-rounded staff. This would allow for more team members to know whether or not they are maintaining safe foods. Having people around who have the ability to randomly test food service areas for proper temperatures and preparation also reduces this risk.
Risks of Alcohol Hazards
We’ve already mentioned this briefly in the context of the potential of interpersonal risks, but there’s a little more to it.
The presence of alcohol increases several risk factors. This includes the possibility of people losing control of themselves and doing things that they normally wouldn’t do, including driving when they ought not. There are the risks that people are already dehydrated and aren’t eating properly, which both make the alcohol more effective in doing what it does.
This exposure needs constant care and monitoring, which may include limiting the places where alcohol is available, and intentionally limiting the number of beverages a person may consume.
Looking at the risks of an amusement park should show the opportunity that exists for those of us in the risk and insurance realm.
After all, we like to have a good time, too. We just like to do it in a way that mitigates the risks that people (including us) face. Because some of us really like that ride where you get strapped into a harness and lifted up a couple of hundred feet into the air and swing out like a bird in flight. Or so I’ve heard.