Florida hasn’t reformed vague reports on theme park injuries

Nearly two years after the Florida agency responsible for amusement ride safety vowed to reevaluate rules that allow major theme parks to self-report ride injuries, the system has not changed, even as visitors continue to be hurt.

As a result, the theme parks still issue vague reports with few details and follow-ups. Experts and advocates for those injured say the system lacks accountability and puts theme park guests at risk.

“You’ve got the fox guarding the henhouse,” said attorney Ed Normand, who is representing the family of a boy whose foot and leg were crushed on the E.T. Adventure ride at Universal Orlando in January 2019. Universal called his injury “foot pain” in its report.

The larger attractions should have at least the same level of state oversight as county fair rides, which officials inspect regularly and document in state records, he said.

“If their point is, “Well, we do a great job in keeping our parks and our rides safe for our guests,’ then why not let someone confirm that?” Normand asked.

Following an Orlando Sentinel investigation on the state’s injury reporting system, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services representatives said the agency would revisit the issue with the theme parks.

These meetings occurred in 2020 and 2021 but the state agency did not disclose any details on them at the time.

Spokeswoman Caroline Stonecipher said the department discussed potential updates internally and with the theme parks over that period, but no changes emerged.

“The conclusion was that due to privacy concerns and legal issues – such as active litigation – our department is not able to receive updates to initial assessments of a patron’s condition,” she wrote in an email.

If such reports were filed with the state, accident details could be accessible via public records requests.

The agriculture department, headed by Commissioner Nikki Fried, maintains that it does not have the authority to change a separate state law allowing the theme parks to conduct their own inspections, so lawmakers would have to propose any legislative change. Fried is a Democrat leaving her office to run for governor.

Legislators say they are waiting on the department to tell them what specific revisions are needed.

State Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said she met with Fried in late 2020 to discuss the regulations. She was willing to sponsor legislation but wanted Fried’s office to lead the reform.

The agency dragged its feet, she said. Though her offer to spearhead a bill still stands, the office has not approached her to start that process.

“This needs to have a thorough review,” Stewart said. “And if it requires a legislative change, fine. I would be more than happy to propose that, as I was back in 2020.”

She said she wants the department to exercise its full power under the statutes — including reviewing theme park safety measures and identifying where change is needed — and then contact lawmakers.

“That could have been done a long time ago,” Stewart said. “… If they absolutely don’t feel they have the power, for some reason, to do what we think is necessary, then let us know. We’ll be happy to submit a bill.”

Fried’s department also says it is waiting to finish its investigation into 14-year-old Tyre Sampson’s death on the Orlando Free Fall, an attraction that is not exempt from regular state inspection, before proposing regulatory changes to legislators about any type of attraction.

“The department has been and remains willing to work with legislators to strengthen the department’s authority,” spokeswoman Erin Moffet said, echoing a recent statement from Fried, who declined to be interviewed for this story.

Moffet said the agency meets with theme parks annually to review safety programs and maintenance practices, usually in the fall.

Asked for comment, Disney spokesman Avery Maehrer repeated a statement sent to the Orlando Sentinel in fall 2020, saying the company regularly and accurately reports ride incidents to the state based on information available at the time.

SeaWorld spokeswoman Lori Cherry said the theme park’s attractions adhere to “all applicable standards and manufacturer specifications.” The company fully complies with all state requirements and demonstrates its safety equipment and practices during the yearly meeting, she said.

Representatives of Universal Orlando, Legoland and Busch Gardens did not respond to questions.

Under state law, Florida’s theme parks with more than 1,000 full-time employees and their own safety inspectors are required to file an annual affidavit with the state asserting their rides are in compliance with regulations.

Rick Kimsey, director of consumer services, told the Orlando Sentinel that though he was not involved in the statute’s adoption, he said he understood the exemption was granted because the larger theme parks had the necessary resources to conduct follow-up investigations after an accident, but smaller parks required the state to provide resources and guidance.

In 2000, the big theme parks reached an agreement with the Department of Agriculture to file regular reports about ride-related guest injuries that required at least 24 hours of hospitalization.

The state agency releases a quarterly report summarizing these injuries. Details are scarce: theme parks’ reports include only the date of an injury, the attraction involved, the age and gender of the guest, if the guest had a pre-existing condition and a brief description of the injury.

The injury descriptions can often be vague or inaccurate, the Orlando Sentinel found, such as when a tourist at Universal’s Volcano Bay water park broke his neck on a water slide in July 2019 and was paralyzed. Universal described the injury as “numbness.”

Court records from a subsequent lawsuit found at least 115 people reported injuries after riding the same water slide, including two people testing the ride’s safety.

Florida’s theme parks consistently rank among the most popular in the world, according to the Themed Entertainment Association, and guests with reported injuries make up a tiny percentage of the millions who visit these attractions annually.

But the reporting system only accounts for injuries requiring serious medical attention and prevents the public from understanding the safety protocol at Florida’s theme parks, including ride inspection history, experts say.

Brian Avery runs Event Safety Services and has over 30 years of experience in ride safety, including working as an accident investigator and safety and health specialist at SeaWorld in the early 2000s.

He is disappointed in the state’s lack of progress on updating ride safety regulations, saying it has “had a long time to get this right.”

“There’s a lot of lip service going on, unfortunately,” he said.

The more details accident reports have and the more public they are, the better operators and manufacturers can understand what went wrong, identify potential trends across the industry and initiate reform to avoid future accidents, Avery said.

The state has the ability to push for more stringent regulations and improve ride safety, he said, but it is slacking.

“We’ve got the tools, we’re just not going far enough,” Avery said.

With Tyre’s death highlighting ride safety issues anew, Democratic legislators like state Sen. Randolph Bracy, of Ocoee, and state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, of Orlando, have voiced the need for change.

Thompson, whose jurisdiction includes Orlando’s theme parks, has pledged to file the “Tyre Sampson Bill,” working with Fried to address any gaps in current legislation found during the state’s accident investigation. The investigation has already determined two safety harnesses on the ride were adjusted to open nearly double their normal range.

The bill could potentially expand the agency’s oversight of ride safety and operations that laws currently leave to ride operators and manufacturers, Thompson said. It could also propose changes to major theme parks’ ride inspection and reporting systems.

“That system appears to work, because of the low incidence of injuries or fatalities that have been found,” Thompson said in an interview. “However, in as much as we know, sometimes things are not as transparent as they ought to be.”

Avery said he would like to see the state conduct a thorough review of theme parks’ policies and procedures and rescind the inspection exemption for larger theme parks.

But first, state regulators and legislators need to be on the same page.

“We need to stop pointing the finger at each other and we need to make some real change, because we’ve already had one major incident in the state this year,” Avery said, referring to Tyre’s death. “Please don’t wait and have another.”

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