The risks of amusement parks ensuring the happiest places on earth

The Statista website estimates that amusement parks in the United States brought in around $19.75 billion in 2021. That’s a lot of roller coasters, water slides, bumper cars (if that’s even a thing) and overpriced food.

It would be fair to say that almost everyone you know has visited at least one amusement park. Some prefer the thrill of a roller coaster, others prefer spending the day in a lazy river, and some come just for the $10 hot dog and the $30 ear-shaped headband.

You’ve probably heard of the tragic Orlando crash recently, where a 14-year-old pilot slipped from his seat on a ride that launched passengers more than 400 feet into the air and dropped them with a break on 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 peak operating condition. This is a tragic incident, which should never happen again.

This is what I would call an individual catastrophic failure to differentiate it from a total catastrophic failure.

This is not to minimize what happened, but to differentiate between a failed ride that causes a mass casualty situation and a failure that injures a person. If I’m being honest, I’m not at all interested in riding a ride that has experienced some sort of catastrophic failure, individual or otherwise.

Catastrophic drive 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, those things will happen.

Yet if you look at the numbers, you realize that, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2004 there were five fatalities in amusement rides. It’s not good, but in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were over 36,000 deaths related to motor vehicle accidents.

With proper training, supervision, and maintenance, most of these rides that people seem to really like because they make them feel like their internal organs are moving inside are perfectly safe. Again, when things go wrong with these rides, they go catastrophically wrong. That’s why there should be so much attention paid to them, but amusement parks have risks in addition to the risks specific to rides.

Risks of normal premises hazards

Whether you’re talking about one of those big parks where the Super Bowl MVP usually hangs out, or the little park about an hour from your house, amusement parks are places where people show up and stay. Whenever there are people walking around a premises, no matter what they are there for, there are certain risks that are part of having a property and hosting people.

There is a risk that someone will find something to trip over. Amusement parks have acres of parking lots and miles of sidewalks. Each person travels several kilometers while in the park. All of that walking space needs to be maintained so the cracks don’t become tripping hazards. They should also be kept clear of trash and obstacles that could become tripping hazards.

Most parks have grassy areas with trees. Even though these areas are free of tripping hazards, one thing most parks would struggle to deal with are animals that normally don’t like people but are attracted to large amounts of wasted food and small children who like feed the cute creatures. Yeah. Never let your toddlers feed a squirrel. Take it from your personal experience. Fingers are hard to tell from chips when you’re a squirrel.

Whenever there is water around, there is a risk of a water-related accident. We don’t even consider the vagaries of a water park (yet there are many), we just talk about the vagaries of the presence of water, including air conditioners working overtime in small food trailers a everywhere in the park, the water fountains that dispense more water on the ground than in any container, and the wandering sprinkler that always seems to be pointed in the wrong direction. When you think of water, also consider the possibility that some of the water is unsafe and someone might try to drink it. Shit.

Risks of interpersonal dangers

When you have so many people in one place, even if it seems like a happy place (or the happiest, even), someone is going to piss someone else off. When this happens, sometimes people get out of hand. Things are said and one thing leads to another and suddenly it becomes physical.

One note here is that most amusement parks have security checkpoints and signs telling patrons they can’t bring weapons onsite, so things are unlikely to get too out of hand, at least in the park.

There are several factors that lead to the possibility of something going on between two people.

Just in case you’ve never been to an amusement park, know that it involves a lot of walking. The kind of walking most Americans aren’t used to. From some accounts it seems like depending on where you go and what kids you bring with you, we’re talking about 7-10 miles of walking in a single day. Think so much walking when you buy the four-day park pass. This time spent on the feet makes you tired and makes your legs and feet sore. These are key ingredients in making an upset person.

Also consider the attitudes of the people people are traveling with. You might think an amusement park is all about bright, happy people holding hands. But it’s not always the case. Just let someone’s little one decide they wanted to ride the Bubble Gum Coaster when someone else promised the other little one they could ride the Launch into Chaos ride, and the next hour is only tears, sulks and cries. And these are the parents.

Another small ingredient in our potential punches is the presence of adult beverages. Tired people dealing with disgruntled people, on a hot day, trying to quench their growing thirst with an alcoholic drink (and no food because who can afford it) all add up to people who don’t not think before speaking or acting.

The park should consider this exposure and ensure that it takes steps to mitigate it. They could provide rest areas where people can sit and plan what’s next. They could also make sure those serving alcohol know the signs of who shouldn’t drink it. It can also be helpful to have people around you who can help defuse situations before they escalate.

Food hazard risks

If you went to an amusement park, you paid $15 for a barbecue sandwich that tasted like your four-year-old nephew made it in the front yard with mulch and mud. That’s not to say that all amusement park food is bad. It’s mostly bad for you and not the tastiest food you’ve ever had (especially for the price).

Luckily, the park will need permits and inspections for its food operations, so there you have it.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the local health department is on hand every day, making sure every food service person is doing everything right. When you consider that most food sales are in small carts or the type of food trailer you might see at your local fair, you see the risk is real.

Restaurants often hire a manager in their kitchen who 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 highly likely that the people preparing and serving the food aren’t. They just replace there because someone else had to take the weekend. They normally work the upside down bumper cars, not the fried dough backing.

Making catering training available to the team results in a better trained and well-rounded staff. This would let more team members know whether or not they are keeping food safe. Having people who are able to randomly test catering areas to check for proper temperatures and preparation also reduces this risk.

Alcohol-related risks

We’ve already touched on this briefly in the context of the potential for 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 they normally wouldn’t, including driving when they shouldn’t. There are chances that people are already dehydrated and not eating properly, which makes alcohol more effective at doing what it does.

This exposure requires constant attention and monitoring, which may include limiting where alcohol is available and intentionally limiting the number of drinks a person can consume.

Examining the risks of an amusement park should show the opportunity that exists for those of us in the business of risk and insurance.

After all, we like to have a good time too. We just like to do it in a way that mitigates the risks people (including us) face. Because some of us really like that ride where you’re strapped into a harness and lifted a few hundred feet into the air and swinging around like a bird in flight. Or so I heard.

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