Theme parks and water parks are supposed to be fun. They’re supposed to provide a way for guests to experience the thrills and excitement of riding on rollercoasters, sliding down waterslides, freefalling, and rafting on manmade rivers without fearing for their safety. For most people, theme parks deliver as promised. But when park operators and manufacturers cut corners or ignore safety standards, it is parkgoers who ultimately pay the price.
Amusement park accidents are rare, but when they do happen, they shed light on an industry that has a history of putting profits above safety. Looking at several recent accidents can help us understand why they happened, who was responsible, and how they could have been prevented.
Orlando Free Fall Fatality at ICON Park: Orlando, FL (March 24, 2022)
In March 2022, a teenager lost his life after falling from the Orlando Free Fall, a ride advertised as the “world’s tallest free-standing drop tower,” at the ICON Park in Orlando, Florida. The Orlando Free Fall drops its passengers nearly 400 feet at speeds reaching more than 75 mph. The 14-year-old, a middle-school student and football player from Missouri, died after slipping out of the ride and falling more than 100 feet to the ground below.
An investigation into the tragic incident revealed that the teen exceeded the recommended weight limit for the Free Fall attraction. He was more than 6 feet tall and weighed 383 pounds, but the maximum weight for the ride is 287 pounds. The teenager’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against ICON Park and other defendants, alleging that there were no posted weight restrictions at the ticket counter and that no park employee advised the teen that he may have exceeded these restrictions.
What’s more, a forensic engineering firm hired by the state found that the seat sensor on the ride had been manually adjusted to allow it to operate with a larger gap between the seat and the safety harness. This manual adjustment meant that the safety lights illuminated and the ride was able to function – even though it was unsafe. The teen slipped through that gap while the ride was in operation.
Fall from Haunted Mine Drop at Glenwood Caverns: Glenwood, CO (September 5, 2021)
A six-year-old girl lost her life at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in Colorado after falling from a ride called the Haunted Mine Drop. The tower-style ride, which was advertised to “drop 96 feet per second” and claimed to be the “world’s first and only underground drop,” officially opened in 2017. After the September 2021 fatality, the ride was closed indefinitely. The park operator has since stated that they would completely overhaul the ride before reopening.
Officials from the Colorado Division of Oil and Public Safety, Department of Labor and Employment - Amusement Rides and Devices Program investigated the incident, releasing their findings in a report detailing the critical errors leading up to the young girl’s death. The investigation revealed that the ride operators, who were tasked with fastening and checking the two seatbelts per passenger on the six-person ride, had not noticed that the girl was sitting on top of the belts in her seat. The ride’s control system recognized the error, however, preventing the ride from moving and signaling that there was an issue with the safety belts. Instead of removing the passengers from the ride, checking the belts, reloading the passengers, and ensuring all were properly secured, the ride operators reset the seatbelt monitors and dispatched the ride.
The young girl fell from the Haunted Mine Drop and died.
Raging River Drowning at Adventureland Park: Altoona, IA (July 3, 2021)
In July 2021, an 11-year-old boy drowned on the Raging River ride at Adventureland Park near Des Moines, Iowa. He and his family, including his parents and three siblings, were on the ride when their raft began taking on water and then capsized, trapping them underneath with their seatbelts still on. The 11-year-old died as a result of drowning, his brother was in a month-long medically induced coma, and his father was seriously injured. No park employees came to the family’s immediate aid because the raft had gone around a bend and was not visible to ride operators.
An initial investigation into the horrifying incident did not reveal a specific cause, although one former ride manager told investigators that Adventureland kept rides afloat with “duct tape and bubble gum.” A later inspection revealed at least 17 safety violations, including the use of improper parts not approved by the manufacturer, and using the wrong type of product to fix leaks in the rafts.
This wasn’t the first fatality at the Raging River ride. In 2016, a park employee lost his life after falling and striking his head as he was unloading passengers from the ride. The Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Adventureland $4,500 in connection with the incident, which was the maximum fine for that type of safety violation.
Water Slide Fatality at Schlitterbahn Waterpark: Kansas City, KS (August 7, 2016)
Verrückt, which means “crazy” or “insane” in German, was a 168-foot water slide at Schlitterbahn, a water park located in Kansas City, KS. Verrückt was the world’s tallest water slide when it opened in 2014, but it permanently closed 2 years later after it claimed the life of a 10-year-old passenger on August 7, 2016.
The water slide featured two drops. The first was the full height of the ride, at 17 stories. The momentum from the first drop then sent the 3-person raft up and down another 5-story drop. The rafts were meant to carry a combined weight of 400 to 550 pounds to prevent them from lifting off the slide.
The young boy who lost his life weighed 74 pounds and was riding with two women, who weighed 275 pounds and 197 pounds. With a total weight of 546 pounds, their raft was within the recommended limit, but the 10-year-old had been allowed to sit at the front of the raft instead of between the two women, which would have allowed for better weight distribution.
The raft went airborne at the ascent of the 5-story midsection. It struck a metal pole that was supporting the emergency netting, fatally injuring the boy. The other two passengers were seriously injured as well.
It was later discovered that at least 13 people had suffered nonfatal injuries on Verrückt after hitting or being thrown into emergency netting as their rafts went airborne on the second drop.
Several factors have been blamed for this tragedy: the design of the water slide, a lack of safety restraints, improper rider age and weight restrictions, and a lack of an up-stop mechanism that would have prevented the rafts from going airborne.
The boy who died on Verrückt was the son of a Kansas state representative. After losing his son, his father spearheaded legislation that changed the law that had allowed Schlitterbahn to self-inspect Verrückt. Now, all amusement park attractions in Kansas are subjected to regular state inspection.
Ride of Steel Fall at Six Flags Darien Lake: Buffalo, NY (July 8, 2011)
On July 8, 2011, a U.S. Army veteran died after falling from the Ride of Steel at Six Flags Darien Lake in Buffalo, New York. The 29-year-old was not properly secured in the ride because he was a double amputee, having lost both of his legs in the Iraq War.
The Ride of Steel is a steel roller coaster that is 208 feet tall and features a 205-foot drop and a maximum speed of 73 miles per hour. It features a T-bar lap restraint that locks into place over the riders’ legs, and it has a height limit of 54 to 76 inches.
The veteran did not meet restraint or height requirements to get on the Ride of Steel, but ride operators allowed him to board anyway. He was seated at the front of the ride.
According to reports, the ride was traveling at about 50 miles per hour when the man’s hat flew off. He went to reach for it and was ejected from the ride.
This was not the first tragedy involving the Ride of Steel. In 2004, a 55-year-old man fell out of the Superman Ride of Steel at Six Flags New England in Agawam, Massachusetts. An investigation into the matter revealed that his restraints had not been properly checked. Because of his large size, the lap restraint had not been pushed down far enough to lock into place, and he fell to his death.
The ride is still in operation at both Six Flags Darien Lake and Six Flags New England.
Terminal Velocity Fall at Extreme World: Wisconsin Dells (July 30, 2010)
On July 30, 2010, a 12-year-old girl fell more than 100 feet to the ground on the Terminal Velocity Ride at Extreme World in Wisconsin Dells. A net was supposed to catch her at the bottom, but the ride operator “blanked out” and released her before the net was in place and an all-clear signal was given. She fell directly onto the concrete below, suffering brain damage and breaking her back and pelvis, but she survived.
Park Operators Are Responsible for the Safety of Their Guests
Amusement parks are subject to strict safety regulations, which are meant to protect guests and employees alike. The truth is that there are no excuses for the “accidents” that happen at theme parks. They are preventable.
Park operators are responsible for the safety of their guests. This includes maintaining walkways to avoid slip and fall accidents, providing adequate security to prevent visitors from accessing unsafe areas or being the victims of crimes, maintaining rides, and training employees on how to operate attractions correctly. If a ride malfunctions or a guest reports a safety issue, it should be addressed. For example, two years before the tragedy at Glenwood Caverns, another guest reported that they were not properly fastened, but they brought it to a park employee’s attention and were properly buckled in before the ride took off. The passenger alerted the park of the incident via email, saying, “I urge you to look into this, otherwise you could have customers who will get seriously injured or even worse, dead.”
Their warning went unheeded, and a little girl lost her life as a result.
Then there are the incidents at ICON Park and Glenwood Caverns. In both of these cases, ride operators manually overrode safety systems that were in place to protect guests from harm. The investigation into the 6-year-old girl’s death at Glenwood Caverns revealed that the two ride operators were not properly trained on the ride’s safety mechanisms and did not know what the safety belt alert meant when they saw it. The 14-year-old’s harness at ICON Park had been manually adjusted for his size.
Ride manufacturers are also responsible for designing and building rides that are safe to operate. They must have fail-safes in place that can protect riders even when a ride operator makes a mistake or is inexperienced. There is no excuse for ride malfunctions, restraint failures, cars going off tracks, or rafts overturning in the water. There should not be ways for ride operators to manually override safety mechanisms that allow weight limits to be exceeded or a ride to take off when a seatbelt isn’t properly fastened.
There are no excuses – theme park accidents are entirely preventable.