The recent death of a Kansas boy on what Guinness World Records has deemed the world’s largest water slide has brought new attention to the safety of our nation’s big amusement parks. A closer look reveals that there’s surprisingly little regulation over parks that play host to several millions of visitors a year.
In the case of the boy, a 10-year-old son of a Kansas lawmaker, the tragedy occurred at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City, which has a water slide called “Verrückt” that is 168 feet, seven inches tall — 17 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and a foot taller than Niagara Falls. Visitors wishing to ride the water slide must climb up 264 stairs to reach the top. Once riders are in their raft, two nylon seatbelt-like straps, one crossing the rider’s lap, the other stretching across the body like a car seatbelt, secure the riders in. These are held in place by Velcro-style straps, not buckles, as noted by the Los Angeles Times. Riders are then dropped 17 floors in mere seconds, according to Slate.
An investigation into the incident is ongoing, but a source told the Associated Press that the boy was decapitated. Meanwhile, a Kansas City television station reported that some park-goers claimed that the ride’s harness wasn’t working properly that day.
Big Parks Are Often Self-Regulated
With more than 400 amusement parks across the country that receive more than 335 million visitors per year, it may be surprising to discover that no federal agency exists to regulate these parks, according to the National Safety Council. At the state level, the framework is often a patchwork of regulation that doesn’t always extend to big parks.
Recently, on CNN, NSC head Deborah Hersman said the parks aren’t required to report their injuries — and much of this is handled at the state and local level with varying degrees of oversight.
Kansas does have some regulations with respect to things like serious injury. In Florida, home to the famous Disney World, Universal Studios and Busch Gardens, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is only responsible for regulating small parks and carnivals. The big-timers are exempt.
Why? This is because such parks have more than 1,000 employees and employ full-time, albeit in-house, inspectors, according to the Dept. of Ag. The Dept. of Ag does say that rides must go through annual inspections, including water-related amusement rides. However, government regulators have no oversight and so the parks essentially inspect themselves.
Amusement park safety regulations have faced a tug of war in Congress since 1973, when the newly established Consumer Product Safety Commission assumed authority over the country’s amusement parks. But owners were not pleased with federal oversight, and forced Congress to pass legislation in 1981 that repealed the CPSC’s power over “permanent” rides, and instead only allowing them to monitor temporary rides such as those at seasonal carnivals and fairs, according to Slate. And for riders looking for industry accident statistics, they are out of luck. The Kansas City Star found that in a survey conducted by the lobbying group International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions 79 percent of its members “see that state regulations as the biggest threat to their businesses.” IAAPA relies on self-reporting for accident statistics for this annual safety and injury survey, but because some parks do not supply the lobbying group with accident data, a comprehensive report fails to exist.
While some amusement parks report over 1,000 injuries every year, most major cases often end in a confidential settlement, according to the New York Daily News. And while rides continue to be regulated by a hodgepodge of state regulations, the Daily News claims that it will be close to impossible to get “the full picture of park perils.”
We empathize with those who have endured amusement park accidents and are available to provide help to those who need it. To learn more, visit our reference page that discusses how to hold property owners accountable for injuries.