You have a far better chance of getting hit by lightning than being injured on a theme park ride in Central Florida.
You also have a better chance of getting hit by lighting than finding out just how safe those rides are.
Such information is wrapped in a cocoon of privacy granted decades ago by the Florida Legislature. It allows amusement parks with more than 1,000 employees to inspect their rides, regulate repairs and report accidents.
This from a state that inspects everything from tattoo parlors to RV parks to vending machines, and meticulously documents violations.
A restaurant inspection will report details down to the number of rat droppings under a sink. But if a tourist is paralyzed on a water slide, theme parks can report the condition as “numbness.”
That is sheer dumbness.
Florida’s regulations are built on the premise that theme parks are hugely motivated to keep customers safe for humane and business reasons. There’s no debating that, but there’s also no question consumers deserve a system that doesn’t leave them hopelessly groping for safety information.
The Legislature needs to overhaul the system, starting with reporting requirements. Large theme parks only have to report ride-related accidents and illnesses every three months. And those are just incidents that required the victim to be hospitalized for at least 24 hours.
There were 47 such incidents in 2019 at Disney World, Universal, SeaWorld and Legoland. That’s out of about 75 million tourists who came to Central Florida.
The actual odds of getting injured at a theme park are one in 18 million, according to an industry study. And those odds of getting hit by lightning? One in 500,000.
There’s not a safety crisis at hand. The problem is, no one knows how many people were actually injured on rides or what the theme parks do about it.
Most amusement ride injuries are treated at the parks, or victims reported them later from home. If someone sues over an injury, a judge could dismiss the case since many incidents are due to rider negligence.
Most other cases are settled out of court with no admission of fault and the terms are sealed. All that makes it virtually impossible to know how many injuries there really are and how theme parks handle safety procedures. But a couple of recent lawsuits gave a peek behind the curtain of privacy.
In one, a tourist named James Bowen sued Universal over injuries suffered riding the Punga Racers water slide at Volcano Bay. Despite being sealed, the case documents were briefly available on the Orange County Circuit Court website.
According to those documents, Bowen’s head snapped back when he slid into the pool at the bottom of the ride last July. He lost feeling in his extremities and needed extensive rehabilitation to relearn how to walk.
A Universal spokesman told the Sentinel 1.5 million people have ridden Punga Racers and Bowen was the only “reportable” injury. That’s because he was the only rider who spent more than 24 hours in a hospital.
Documents show at least 114 other visitors reported injuries on Punga Racers, and that the ride has undergone a series of modifications to lessen risks since opening in 2017.
Another lawsuit was filed by the insurance company for ProSlide Technology, which built Punga Racers and other rides at Volcano Bay. It showed 73 injury claims were filed on a variety of rides at the park.
That list includes Bowen’s paralysis, which Universal reported as “numbness” in the quarterly report filed with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees ride safety.
Another visitor’s injury was reported as “back pain.” He actually had a fractured pelvis, a torn abdominal muscle and scrotum injuries that eventually required him to receive an inflatable penile prosthesis.
In the court documents, ProSlide said theme parks typically contact it immediately after accidents so the company can help address safety issues. ProSlide said Universal waited two years before notifying it of any claims.
The kicker here is the smaller amusement parks don’t have three months to report accidents to the state. When a guest is transported to the hospital, the park has four hours to call in the accident and 24 hours to file a written report.
Theme parks say the injury descriptions on the reports are imprecise because they are written almost immediately after the incident. But the reports are filed every three months. That should be ample time to note that the initial “back pain” was actually a fractured pelvis.
The system cries for reform. At the very least, large parks should have the same reporting requirements as smaller ones.
Injuries that don’t require hospitalization should be recorded. The state doesn’t need to completely take over inspections, but it needs more oversight into safety operations.
“We regularly communicate with Florida’s largest theme park companies, always encouraging maximum possible accountability, transparency, and safety,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried told the Orlando Sentinel in an email.
Mathematically speaking, riders don’t have much to worry about. It’s the accountability and transparency that needs to change.
When it comes to amusement ride safety, the public has been riding in the dark long enough.
An editorial from the Orlando Sentinel.