Buckle Up for Safety: The Rides Are About to Restart

Buckle Up for Safety: The Rides Are About to Restart

By | March 8, 2021

After a year of staying home, social and physical distancing, and not getting to do some of the things we normally like to do, there’s an understandable pent-up demand to get off this roller coaster ride of a year and return to our normal, everyday lives.

And perhaps start riding some roller coasters again.

While not everyone is champing at the bit to start congregating in large groups, especially with COVID-19 variants lurking, some people are ready to venture out and start making in-person plans again. With vaccines slowly becoming more readily available, it’s reasonable to assume that more people will be ready to go out in the coming months than we’ve seen in the past year. And a walk in the park—or through a thrill-ride-filled theme park to be precise—could be on the agenda for many people who are ready to rekindle their love of amusement parks or at least satisfy their kids’ appetite for entertainment.

“As consumer confidence returns, so will spending, with ‘revenge shopping’ sweeping through sectors as pent-up demand is unleashed,” McKinsey & Co. recently wrote. “That has been the experience of all previous economic downturns. One difference, however, is that services have been particularly hard hit this time. The bounce back will therefore likely emphasize those businesses, particularly the ones that have a communal element, such as restaurants and entertainment venues.”

So, it’s possible demand for entertainment could reach heights we haven’t seen in quite some time, and amusement parks shuttered by COVID-19 will have to staff up quickly and train workers efficiently as they reopen to meet demand and expectations.

Of course Safety is always top of mind, so it’s not surprising that, for example, PGAV Destinations—which does an annual “Voice of the Visitor” survey—found that most people said Safety is their No. 1 requirement when deciding to visit an attraction in 2021. The previous year, Safety came in at No. 14. In this year’s survey, many respondents focused on precautionary measures such as requiring people to wear masks in the parks, deep cleaning on surfaces, limited capacity, etc.

We’re big advocates for those, but Safety, of course, can mean two different things, especially during a pandemic: COVID-19 Safety (i.e., health-related Safety) and traditional park Safety (rides, attractions, etc.).

In 2019, there were 182 accidents at theme park amusement rides that occurred in 38 countries, according to a report that appeared in Science Direct, of which 51 were fatal. The majority of the incidents involved mechanical rides and roller coasters from accidents involving malfunctions, ejections and misoperation among other things. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) says the chance of experiencing a serious injury on a fixed-site ride is 1 in 15.5 million. For comparison, the incident rate for the airline industry in 2019 was one fatal accident for every 2 million flights, according to the Aviation Safety Network.

It’s clear both are overwhelmingly safe industries. Even so, we should never be comfortable talking about acceptable incident rates when it comes to injuries and fatalities.

Amusement parks are constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. The Formula Rossa in Abu Dhabi, for instance, is considered the fastest coaster in the world going a reported 149 mph/240 kmh and the Kingda Ka coaster in New Jersey, has the biggest drop at 418 feet (127 meters). Still, faster coasters and ones with bigger drops are planned in the coming years.

Companies spend millions of dollars each year to ensure the safety of their rides; that’s never in question. But as amusement parks slowly begin to open en masse, it’s important that operators are extra vigilant to ensure rides are as safe or even safer than they’ve ever been.

New York’s Coney Island, for instance, will reopen on April 9 after being closed all of last year. Surely, people are clamoring to hop on the Cyclone rollercoaster, which has thrilled riders for almost a century, and the other rides, too. (Incidentally, the first roller coaster in the Unites States was a “switchback railway” that opened in Coney Island in 1884; it thrilled riders with its adrenaline-pumping 6 mph [10 kmh] performance.) Of course, with COVID-19 still a major factor in any group setting, the park will only be able to accommodate 33% capacity. Masks will also be required, and attendees will have to make reservations rather than buy a ticket at the gate.

Similarly, Hong Kong’s Disneyland just recently reopened in February. It was the third time the park reopened since COVID-19 began, and employees will be required to get tested every two weeks. Additionally, visitors will have to scan their “LeaveHomeSafe” QR code, which is special to Hong Kong  Currently, most Disney parks have reopened except Disneyland Paris and the original Disneyland in California that both were still closed as of this writing, but Disneyland could reopen as soon as April 1 on a limited basis.

To be clear, we’re not saying these parks are unsafe or should be scrutinized more or less than any other amusement parks, but it’s important for any large operation to do thorough Safety checks before reopening. While following local Safety guidelines, amusement companies should pay close attention to deterioration, fractures, weaknesses in joints and the structural integrity of equipment when doing their risk assessments, and through their ongoing maintenance and inspection activities, said Narenderpal Marwaha, Sphera’s principal architect for Operational Risk Management.

A Ride Through the Regs

Of course, every theme park must follow certain regulations, but in the United States at least it falls to state oversight. The federal government removed the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC’s) jurisdiction for amusement park rides in 1981, but the CPSC still keeps track of amusement ride incidents in the United States. While this might seem counterintuitive—and some have argued that they should be federally regulated—the changes made in 1981 could at least partially be explained as manpower issues. There just aren’t enough people in the CPSC to inspect every ride at every park. On a similar note, the Federal Aviation Administration allows airplane manufacturers to do risk analysis on their planes as it, too, has resource issues.

As recently as a decade ago, then-Rep. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) sponsored the National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act of 2011 seeking to reinstate CPSC oversight of amusement park rides to address the so-called “Roller Coaster Loophole,” but the bill “died” in committee. The IAAPA says a panel concluded that “it is unlikely that a federal agency could match the effectiveness of the current system.”

Still, there is some guidance available. The ASTM’s Committee F24 on Amusement Rides and Devices meets twice a year to discuss things like the standard practices for design, operating procedures, etc. The recommendations are voluntary and not binding, of course.

According to the IAAPA, 44 of the 50 states regulate amusement parks with Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah offering no state oversight. In states like Florida, which of course has many theme parks, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has the right to inspect theme parks with 1,000 employees or fewer. Larger theme parks are allowed to inspect themselves, but, as the statute says, “[P]ermanent facilities must file an affidavit of the annual inspection with the department on a form prescribed by department rule. The department may consult annually with the permanent facilities regarding industry safety programs.”

Across the pond, the European Union published its safety of amusement rides and amusement devices standards (EN 13814), which was last updated in 2019, to ensure the safe design, manufacture and installation of personal leisure equipment, including roller coasters, swings and Ferris wheels.

How Times Have Changed

When the first Ferris wheel first made its star turn at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in June 1893, the operators had to have the massive 264-foot ride complete a few revolutions just to show would-be thrill-seekers that the ride was safe.

Then and now: The first Ferris wheel from Chicago’s Columbian Exposition
and Australia’s Melbourne Star Observation Wheel

After all, it was enormous, it was novel, and it was scary—and nothing like a more-conventional carousel ride where you never got too far off the ground.

The Jacksonville Daily Illinois Courier reported at the time that Robert Hunt, who was president of the Ferris Wheel Co., said he had never seen such an enormous machine operate “so smoothly and without a hitch” than when George Washington Ferris’ invention took its first spin for the public.

It was a magical engineering feat that brought excitement and joy for the 1.4 million people who experienced the wheel back then for 50 cents a ride (about $14.50 in today’s dollars).

Today, Ferris wheels are still attractions, but they are not considered the daredevil rides they were in the late 19th century. Even so, there are many rides that offer cool twists on the original Ferris wheel concept, like the Melbourne (Australia) Observation Wheel—which looks more like a revolving tram—and the Big O in Japan, which is a centerless Ferris wheel. When the Melbourne Ferris wheel first opened in 2009, it almost immediately ran into problems. It was originally thought that extreme heat caused cracks in the steel, but it was later determined to be a design problem. The ride didn’t reopen until 2013.

We are all for innovation when it comes to amusement parks, and we, like many of you, enjoy a day at the park. As people return to amusement parks post-COVID-19, they will expect a fun, safe experience. So when it comes to reopening, it’s more important than ever for park operators to buckle up for Safety and not just be along for the ride.

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