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Who regulates amusement parks? In some states, it’s the park itself

Guests scream with excitement as they ride the Cannibal at Lagoon in Farmington on Monday, June 15, 2020.
Guests scream with excitement as they ride the Cannibal at Lagoon in Farmington on Monday, June 15, 2020. They are incredibly rare. But when an accident at an amusement park does happen, the stories are horrifying.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

They are incredibly rare. But when an accident at an amusement park does happen, the stories are horrifying.

“Death of 6-year-old girl at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park under investigation” was the headline out of Colorado’s Post Independent this weekend after the girl, who was vacationing with her family from Colorado Springs, was killed on the park’s Haunted Mine Drop ride.

The deadly accident came just days after a man in Utah sued the Lagoon amusement park in Farmington alleging devastating injuries to his foot, and less than a month after a man died in a fall from Lagoon’s Sky Ride.

The Glenwood Caverns incident is still under investigation, and according to Colorado’s Fox8, the ride was intentionally designed without shoulder restraints. However the Colorado Division of Oil and Public Safety, the state agency that inspects amusement parks, has yet to determine whether that conflicts with state regulations.

And while there are federal regulations, there is no federal oversight for amusement parks.

The American Society for Testing Materials, an international organization tasked with developing a range of standards that are adopted across numerous industries, does set guidelines for amusement parks. But the inspection and enforcement of these standards are left to the states.

Some states have regulatory bodies specifically for inspecting rides. In other states, the responsibility is passed on to public safety departments, fire marshals, or even the department of agriculture, as is the case in Pennsylvania.

Some states — like Utah — don’t have oversight at all.

But it will soon. Passed in 2019, HB381 designated Utah’s Amusement Ride Safety Committee, which falls under the Utah Department of Transportation. Still in its fledgling stages, the committee is currently setting minimum qualifications for both fixed amusement parks and rides you might find at the Utah State Fair. For the most part, the qualifications adhere to what insurance companies, fire departments and the American Society for Testing Materials are already looking for.

The committee will not officially inspect rides until April 2023. The Passenger Ropeway Safety Committee, also under the umbrella of UDOT, inspects chairlifts — like those at most ski resorts, or Lagoon’s Sky Ride. The health department inspects water features and food venues. And local fire departments conduct fire inspections on all buildings.

But as far as regulating the actual rides, the burden falls on the park itself.

“The validity of an amusement park is how safe it is,” said Adam Leishman, spokesperson for Lagoon. “It’s in the best interest of the owner-operator to operate as safely as possible, otherwise the park just wouldn’t work.”

Each of Lagoon’s 55 rides are inspected three times every day, and the wooden roller coaster is undergoing a fourth by a carpentry crew, Leishman said.

“We have our own engineering department, that’s the beginning of the inspection,” he said. “From that point it goes to the operations department, which would be ride manager. Each ride operator then conducts a third, final inspection every day.”

Lagoon also contracts national inspectors for a third-party annual inspection.

Leishman says the inspection process speaks for itself. In August, a man died after falling from Lagoon’s Sky Ride, and according to a police statement, the ride did not appear to malfunction. The last fatal accident at the Utah park was in the late ’80s, Leishman said.

Lagoon is currently being sued by a Salt Lake County man who alleges a park employee failed to properly secure his lap and leg restraints before riding the Wicked roller coaster. Matthew Christensen, who is a paraplegic, says the mistake led to his foot being “shredded.” Leishman says Lagoon is unaware of any litigation, and the company has yet to be served legal documents.

“It’s an industry that has a pretty good track record,” said Jesse Sweeten, director of Utah’s Amusement Ride Safety Committee “It does have quite a bit of self-regulation and insurance companies are going to require a certain amount of inspection to insure them as well.”

In 2019, there were 1,299 park attendees injured nationwide, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. About 6%, or 78, of these cases resulted in hospitalization for over 24 hours.

Considering the country’s top 19 amusement parks saw 155.4 million visitors that same year — Florida alone accounted for 88.9 million — the chances of being involved in one of these accidents is slim — .0008%, to be exact.

And the chance of ending up in a hospital for more than a day? .00005%.

These statistics shouldn’t invalidate tragedies like what happened in Colorado over the weekend. But the shocking — and often gruesome — nature of these accidents attract a flurry of media attention.

“I think when people go to an amusement park they know that there is risk involved, but at the same time you go to have fun, you don’t expect to have something serious like this to happen,” said Sweeten. “It’s the same thing with a shark attack, it would get a lot of media attention because it doesn't happen that often.”

The regulatory board is currently made up of representatives from Lagoon, a ski resort (The Park City Alpine Slide will be inspected by the committee), the Utah State Fair, an amusement park operator, a nationally recognized expert and a representative for the public, someone who Sweeten says “is looking out for the interest of the state.”

Once the Utah Amusement Ride Safety Committee can put inspectors in the field, they will be looking for things like rusty bolts, pinning in material, faulty safety restraints or loose parts. They’ll observe the ride operating through a cycle, sometimes more. And they’ll review paperwork that proves the proper maintenance is being done.

It’s a process that mirrors what inspectors at Lagoon and the state fair are already doing. One that Sweeten, someone who enjoys roller coasters, has faith in.

“I don’t go on as many as I did when I was younger,” he said. “We’ve gone to several of the big parks as well as Lagoon. It’s something that we enjoy.”