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A Cedar Point amusement park visitor placed a frantic phone call to police: The woman feared riders, who were just thrown off the park’s water ride Shoot the Rapids, were injured.
She was right.
One of the ride’s boats had come off the track, rolled back into the water, and sent riders flying out of their seats, injuring seven.
Such occurrences are rare at Ohio’s major amusement parks. More than 6 million people visit Ohio’s Cedar Point and Kings Island a year. Since 2010, Cedar Point reported seven accidents that resulted in a rider being admitted to a hospital, according to the state’s ride-safety agency. Kings Island reported no such accidents during the same period.
“Your chances of being in a wreck or having a problem are greater driving down Interstate 75 than riding a roller coaster,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based industry consultant.
But when accidents or malfunctions do happen, it’s also rare for state inspectors to punish the roller-coaster operator.
The Dayton Daily News analyzed the state’s investigation reports showing 10 accidents at four of Ohio’s major roller coaster and water amusement parks since 2010. Accident reports were reviewed for the state’s two biggest fixed-amusement park operations, Mason’s Kings Island and Sandusky’s Cedar Point, as well as two other popular destinations: the Beach Waterpark in Mason and Coney Island in Cincinnati.
Cedar Point and Kings Island are owned by Sandusky-based Cedar Fair LP.
Not once did the state issue violations or fines as a result of any of these accidents. Inspectors did, however, issue three separate violations against these parks for operational failures such as water quality during the three years analyzed.
Amusement-park safety isn’t federally regulated, and several states have no safety laws that regulate ride safety. That Ohio has any program in place at all means that it has a more rigorous inspection process than many other states.
Still, Ohio doesn’t require more common minor injuries, such as headaches or dizziness, to be reported or tracked as does amusement park mecca California.
Federal oversight would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, said Mr. Speigel, a former manager of Kings Island and Coney Island.
“The industry as a whole is very self-policing,” he said. “If we’re not safe, people won’t come back.”
The Ohio Department of Agriculture Division of Amusement Ride Safety licenses nearly 4,000 attractions and rides — including inflatable bounce houses, go-kart tracks, rides at the state’s 94 agriculture fairs, and amusement parks every year. The office runs on a $1.175 million annual budget, self-sustained by licensing fees and fines, according to the state’s chief ride inspector, Mike Vartorella.
During this time of year, the office’s seven ride inspectors are spending hours examining the state’s fixed-location amusement parks. Inspectors, for example, will spend five weeks examining each of Cedar Point’s 72 rides this year.
“[We aren’t] just going to walk up to this thing and say, ‘oh man, this looks good, let’s go,’ ” Mr. Vartorella said. “Every square inch is looked at, trust me.”
Ohio inspectors conduct planned and random inspections throughout the year.
And, when someone at the park is injured so badly that they’re admitted into a hospital, it’s the state investigator’s job to travel to the park, investigate, and inspect the ride. The state, however, only has the authority to investigate accidents that involve an injured rider who either is admitted to or stays overnight in a hospital.
Sometimes that means the state won’t inspect the most serious amusement park mishaps — like what happened on Shoot the Rapids last summer. None of the riders injured in that accident was admitted to a hospital. The state never opened an accident investigation or issued a citation over the event.
Shoot the Rapids malfunctioned as the chain pulling the boat came off the track. The boat slid backwards into the water, Mr. Vartorella said.
Cedar Point officials and Ohio inspectors are completing a review of Shoot the Rapids, said Bryan Edwards, Cedar Point spokesman, in an email. The ride never reopened after last July’s mishap, but the park plans to reopen it this season, he said.
“We go to great lengths to ensure the safety of everyone here at the park,” Mr. Edwards said. “Cedar Point experts conduct a comprehensive set of maintenance, safety, and operations inspections every operating day.”
Kings Island was never cited, either, for problems involving the Son of Beast wooden coaster. One woman — who reported feeling like her ‘brain was shaking’ on the ride in 2009 — was found to have a broken blood vessel in her brain afterward. Three years before that, the ride was under fire after more than 20 people were injured. (Cedar Fair bought Kings Island from Paramount Parks on June 30, 2006.)
During a jury trial in 2009, a state investigator testified the Son of Beast had issues, claiming the park used “Band-Aid-style” fixes for structural problems with the ride. One of the injured riders was awarded $76,000 in compensation for pain and suffering damages.
Kings Island shuttered the ride in 2009 and this year unveils a new attraction in its place. The state never ordered Son of Beast to close permanently.
Parks are required to shut down rides automatically when a serious injury or death occurs.
Mr. Speigel, the industry consultant, said amusement parks have financial incentives to maintain a good safety record. Park operators want to grow attendance and minimize exposure to lawsuits. And park owners’ insurance rates are based on safety records, he said.
“I can tell you this without hesitation. If there’s a problem or an issue on a ride, the park shuts it down,” he said. “They’re not going to operate something that’s knowingly unsafe.”
Mr. Vartorella said his inspectors focus more on finding operational violations, caused by human error, throughout the state. The office typically avoids issuing fines unless an inspector finds repeat violations. Violation fines range from $200 to $5,000.
Of the violations found in the Daily News’ analysis, the state issued two against Cedar Point, one for improper chlorine levels on the Choo Choo Lagoon last year, resulting in a $500 fine. Another $500 fine was issued in 2012 when a park attendant failed to strap a boy into his seat before the ride took off.
The Beach Waterpark was cited last summer when a lifeguard was missing from a section of the ride.
Roller-coaster industry insiders say while they can regulate the safety of their rides, they can’t regulate the riders. Last year, a rider who had chronic heart disease and hypertension died days after suffering a medical condition while riding Cedar Point’s GateKeeper, state records show. The year before, one man died of a heart attack while riding the park’s train.
Of the 10 accidents reported to the state at the four parks, roughly half appeared to be the result of a medical condition unrelated to the ride itself, according to state investigations. Pregnancy, high blood pressure, and back, neck, or heart problems should disqualify visitors from even getting in the seat of some rides, especially high-intensity ones, said Tom Dillingham, manager of Kings Island’s rides, mechanical, and automotive maintenance.
State inspectors check to ensure medical warning signs are posted at ride’s entrance. But riders often walk right past those signs, said Dave Lipnicky, spokesman for American Coaster Enthusiasts, a nationwide group that promotes roller coaster preservation.
“A lot of people either flat-out ignore the warning signs or safety signs on rides,” he said. “Or, a lot of times, they do pay attention and then purposely ignore.”