Inspectors and safety experts are in the tourism mecca this week to get certified in the latest standards for ride inspections in a state that gives theme parks few rules regulating ride safety.
The Amusement Industry Manufacturers and Suppliers (AIMS) International annual safety conference has attracted 370 students and 120 instructors from 12 countries to the Doubletree by Hilton Orlando. Many of the instructors are from Central Florida’s biggest theme parks — Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, Universal and Merlin Entertainment, which owns LEGOLAND.
“Our mission is to improve safety through training and education,” said Karen Oertley, executive director of AIMS International. “All of the big parks are super concerned about safety. They really take safety seriously and train their employees extensively.”
Students will receive certifications through Greenville Technical College in ride inspection, maintenance, operations and aquatics. The American Society for Testing and Materials approves certifications, which develops international voluntary standards for the design, manufacturing and operation of attraction rides.
Standardization is the key, since many attraction rides are not made in the United States, which has a hodgepodge of state regulations on inspecting attraction rides. It’s similar to car inspections, some states require them and some, like Florida, don’t.
Before anyone is allowed on, the state of Florida sends inspectors to make sure every carnival ride is safe; but theme parks use their own employees as inspectors. The theme park industry has significant clout, and there’s no indication that Florida’s lawmakers will change the 1989 law that exempts attractions that employ more than 1,000 people from state regulation.
That puts the onus on theme parks to protect their guests.
Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando and LEGOLAND all refused to reveal details about how many inspectors they employ and how often rides are inspected. However, each sent a prepared statement that said ensuring their guests’ safety is a top priority.
“We have a strong commitment to safety and rigorous protocol that guide our operational decisions worldwide, and we’re continually evaluating and implementing new technologies and integrating best practices into our safety program,” according to the statement from Walt Disney World.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates the safety of all portable U.S. rides but fixed rides are exempt. Nine states — Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming — have no government oversight on attraction rides.
Rescuers spent eight hours evacuating 21 people trapped on the Knot’s Berry Farm Sky Cabin ride in Buena Park, Calif. Dec. 30. Orange County fire officials didn’t have a ladder long enough to reach passengers, so they used a rope system to bring down riders one at a time. The ride is closed now but was inspected daily in a state that has the toughest ride inspection and safety standards in the country.
Not only do Florida theme parks have their own inspectors, but the state also has a lax system for reporting attraction injuries. Florida theme parks are required to report injuries quarterly, but the reports are superficial at best with few important details.
New Jersey, California and Texas report more than 80 percent of ride accidents, according to Saferparks, a nonprofit that keeps a database of attraction injuries. This is due to: the high number of amusement parks and carnivals that operate in those states; strong consumer laws that require public reporting of all medically-treated injuries; and government regulations that make public safety records available on request.
“If Florida did not exempt theme park companies from compliance with mandatory accident reporting laws, its reports would account for a far larger slice of the pie,” according to the Saferparks website.
Amusement rides regulated in Florida include temporary amusement rides, which are regularly relocated, and permanent rides. All temporary rides are inspected each time they are moved or set up at a new location, while permanent rides are inspected semiannually. All amusement rides are required to be permitted annually by Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (FDACS), undergo testing for structural integrity and must have an annual inspection by a professional engineer or qualified inspector.
Aaron Keller, press secretary for FDACS, sent the state statute outlining inspection rules and referred all questions about investigations back to the individual theme parks.
“Whether we set out to build Orlando’s tallest, fastest, longest roller coaster like Mako, or a family-friendly ride like Cobra’s Curse, we remain uncompromising on guest safety,” SeaWorld’s statement reads. “Safety is our highest priority, and we meet or exceed all safety guidelines set forth by state agencies, industry organizations, as well as our ride and slide manufacturers.”
SeaWorld added that each ride has a posted safety warning sign at the entrance. Guests should review these safety requirements, based on manufacturer guidelines and park safety protocols.
Of course, it is to the theme parks’ benefit to inspect and maintain their rides.
“It is important to understand rides undergo multiple layers of inspection,” said Colleen K. Mangone, director of media relations for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), the trade association for the industry. “The parks inspect rides for safety each day before any guest steps onboard. Those inspections typically involve mechanical, electrical and operational inspections.”
Theme parks are a tough industry to regulate because many of the rides are unique, made specifically for each park. Attractions officials don’t go into a store and buy the ride off a showroom floor. However, each manufacturer specifies inspection guidelines and safety procedures for their rides.
Universal spokesman Tom Schroder sent this statement: “Safety is always our most important priority — and we have a rigorous and obsessive approach to safety across our entire destination. Inspections are certainly an important part of what we do to keep our attractions safe.”
LEGOLAND spokesman David Brady also said safety and security are their highest priority.
“In our more than five years of operation, we’ve entertained millions of guests from around the world and ensuring their safety has been — and will continue to be — our No. 1 responsibility, according to the LEGOLAND statement.
The National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials (NARSO) will offer inspection certification classes beginning January 30 at the Sheraton Orlando North in Maitland. More than 350 people have registered for the classes sponsored by the nonprofit.
“It benefits everyone in the industry to maintain and operate their equipment at the highest standards,” said Laura Woodburn, spokesperson for NARSO.