Scary Roller Coasters and Other Theme Park Perils

Roller coasters are like relationships. LOL.

They are also like relationships because they are not always what they seem to be.

The more then threaten you…or the more thrills you get…the happier it makes you.

But at the same time, you don’t expect to get really hurt…or God forbid…die during a ride, do you?

And yet people are scared of them.

You might have ridden enough of them, or read enough about the risks, so that you are not really afraid of them.

What are you so scared of, anyway?

They don’t always go up and down, you know.

And the real questions about them are not really about danger.

Better questions:

Why are you so scared at rides that often move along at a speed far less than the slow lane on a country road…at least at Disney and Universal….and often don’t reach birds-eye-view heights but inch along at ground level?

How do they do that anyway?

More on that later…

Today, there’s a lot of hype about the thrill of new and existing rides. And that is expected to continue when the new Fast and Furious ride becomes a reality in Orlando.

Exaggerated claims about the best and fastest and most dangerous are hardly new to the industry.

Looking back just a little…a so—called “Top Thrill Dragster” once was the tallest roller coaster in the world. It was 420 feet high.

Here’s what they said about it:

“Zero to 120 MPH in less than 4 seconds. A few seconds later, you’re 420 feet in the air. In the race for pure adrenaline thrills, there is one winner: Top Thrill Dragster. Nothing else compares to this high-horsepower shot into the sky. From a standing start you’re launched forward, then straight up, then straight down and back to the finish line. The ride may be over in 17 seconds, but it’ll stay with you forever.”


Promoters hyped it so convincingly that terrified riders kept asking operators the same question:

“Am I going to die today?”

They were told the ride really was safer than being in a bathtub or worse, riding there in a car.

It was at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.

That’s not you, of course.

And anyway, we are more concerned here with Orlando, Fl.

But here’s what you should know about roller coasters…

And getting back to why they scare you…

The answer is often special effects and ride design.

Let’s start with Disney coasters. Far less intensive and scary than you know who.

Moving thunderously along at 36 MPH

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad has a top speed of 36 miles an hour. But that’s nine miles per hour faster than Space Mountain. The canopy of darkness is the key to Space Mountain. Elements of surprise also make it seem scarier. The bumpiness also helps.

Big Thunder feels slower, most riders think. The click-clack effects of lifting, however, is a highlight.

For greater thrills: Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster has speeds up to 57 miles an hour, launched in 1.8 seconds.

To be more scared, most riders would also vote for the Tower of Terror. At 120 feet in the air, at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, it is one of the world’s tallest and fastest rides.

As for Universal, perhaps you knew the Simpsons Ride barely moves more than a few inches in any direction. It uses motion-based seats that move in sync with the action projected onto a huge domed screen.

Most riders would agree the result is harrowing but not quite life-threatening.

You have to go back a few years for that.

Modern roller coasters had their start, in a way, with Ferris wheels.

The original one was introduced in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair. It was a symbol of the Windy City’s worldly image, much as the Eiffel Tower that was introduced in Paris a few years earlier.

The first Ferris wheel

Chicago’s Ferris wheel was enormous: 284 feet up carrying 2400 riders at a time. Admission was 60 cents.

Riders had obviously not seen anything like this and before it began operations, no one really knew how well it would work.

Records show that no one was injured.

That came later.

And often at a much higher price in more ways than one.

There was a so-called human catapult at the Middlemoor Water Park in the United Kingdom.

Would you pay $66 to crawl through a medieval-style catapult, then be flung at speeds up to 60 miles an hour through the air?

You ended up in a net.


Mishaps led to broken bones and a handful of deaths.

The park closed in 2002 after a teenaged daredevil missed the net. He died.

Closer to the US, a ride at Six Flags reached speeds of 128 miles per hour in just 3.5 seconds. It gave rise to the term “vomit comet.”

But it was a New Jersey park that became famous as the world’s most dangerous.

If you wanted real scary, you have to go back to Action Park in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Action Park in New Jersey was known as the most dangerous park ever. It was said to have the world’s scariest roller coaster.

“The rides were literally death-defying, and the water slides were likely to leave you with cuts and bruises, at least,” according to one newspaper account.

Not so different from today’s parks, it had three different lands: Motorworld, Waterworld and The Alpine Center.

While Waterworld was one of the first-ever modern American water parks, all three of those lands are best known for the injuries and even deaths of visitors and staff that occurred there. Most thrill-seekers in the NYC area were familiar with the risks (one former guest even referred to a visit as similar to a game of Russian Roulette). But that didn’t hold back the tide of lawsuits that ended up playing a part in shutting down Action Park. It later acquired the name “Class Action Park” before closing in 1996.

Its water slide was the most famous ever. Passengers hopped onto single-person sleds (similar to snow sleds), then zoomed down a steep concrete and fiberglass track. Unlike today, when even bicyclists have to wear helmuts, many passengers only wore swimsuits.

The ride began at the top of a hill

To get there, riders had to take a ski lift to the top. This lift went directly over the Alpine Slide’s track, allowing passengers to watch riders zoom down the track below. Ski-lift riders were also known to taunt–and even spit on–riders below. The hill was also heavily populated with enormous high-voltage power towers.

That was not the only threat, however.

The sleds going up the hill were hard to control or slow down. And if the vehicles went too slow, other sleds with speed-happy riders at times crashed riders from behind.

Compared to that, today’s parks are wimpy.

But there are some dangers.

And some riders are truly afraid of them.

After one rider was killed at Six Flags over Texas in Arlington (She fell out of the Texas Giant coaster) and six other riders were treated for minor injuries after a boat at Cedar Point’s Shoot the Rapid water ride flipped over, the response was immediate.

“The fact that woman fell from the six flags roller coaster & died makes me never want to ride one again,” said a Twitter followers.

“I have to say what happened in TX and in Cedar Point makes me really worried about going on the coasters now,” was another comment on Cedar Point’s Facebook page.

After every injury report, however, there are often statistics showing the dangers from coasters and other thrill rides are slight.

Some articles point out that most injuries are from small children riding alone, without parents beside them.
In one recent year, there were an estimated 1,415 injuries on amusement park rides in one year, according to a report prepared by the National Safety Council Research and Statistical Services Group for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). Park visitors took 1.7 billion rides that year.

“Horrifying accidents draw lots of attention, especially because so many people frequent amusement parks,” Dennis Speigel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services, told The New York Times.

The same attention as airplane crashes

“And that’s understood,” he says. “People come to a theme park to have a good time, not to get hurt.”

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) points out that deaths caused by theme park attractions are extremely rare. They claim the chance of being seriously injured on a ride at a fixed-site park in the U.S. is about 1 in 24 million.

While the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates portable rides like those you find at state and county fairs, there is no federal oversight of fixed rides at theme parks.

 While theme park rides are regularly checked by state and local inspectors, the industry is largely self-regulated, according to news reports.

Now statistics don’t lie, or do they?

Ask litigation experts or lawyers. And you’ll get a different picture.” target=”_blank”>Shares

The danger, that is (though some believe the danger is really greater from lawsuits than from injuries).

Legal issues are far from uncommon

Lawyers cite examples of when nearly two dozen riders were stranded in midair for hours after a fallen tree branch derailed a roller-coaster ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain Amusement Park in Valencia, Calif.

Minor inconvenience maybe (but worth a lawsuit).

“Amusement park horror stories like these are a perennial summer ritual that raise the question of whether roller coasters and other thrill rides, which are faster, taller and more extreme than ever, have also become more dangerous,” says one attorney site.

“Roller coasters that hurtle riders at extreme speeds along precipitous drops should not be exempt from federal safety oversight,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “A baby stroller is subject to tougher federal regulation than a roller coaster carrying a child in excess of 100 miles per hour. This is a mistake.”

Safe or not: A relative term

The fact is that no one knows for certain whether the rides are getting safer or more dangerous, according to news accounts.

There is no single federal agency responsible for collecting data or enforcing standards. The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates portable rides like the ones at county fairs, but the most popular amusement park rides are the so-called fixed-site rides, which remain outside the agency’s jurisdiction. So government regulation varies.

Federal regulators were repeatedly failed to pass stricter regulations.

But amusement park officials insist they are very good at giving people a sense of danger without actually putting them in danger, points out The New York Times.

They repeatedly make the point that the dangers of car accidents or even hit by lightning are far more frightening and real than riding a roller coaster.

Newspapers that have done studies of accidents found that almost all lawsuits that led to financial settlements were decided out of court, almost always with the details sealed from public knowledge.

“Sadly, in Florida the big theme parks are legally allowed to keep most ride related injuries forever secret even when the injuries are sustained in the normal operation of the ride and even when the warning mentions nothing of the known prior injury,” points out one Orlando law firm.

The parks intentionally withhold from the public information about ride injuries and instead go to great lengths to keep the data secret, the firm says.

Some of these suits involved rider errors as well.

Extremely overweight people who rode above the stated weight limits, to cite just one example.

So to answer the question of safety:

No easy answer, though almost all objective observers and non-legal persons wouldagree they are generally safe.

Meanwhile, we can expect rides to continue pushing the limits.

Getting scared, no matter what the risk…

…That’s all part of the fun. ###