It was over 20 years ago, but the memory is still vivid. I was 11-years-old and the setting was a water park in Georgia. The park was huge and featured everything from gentle kiddie rides to nightmarish water slides with drops that would make your heart shoot up into your throat.
At the time, my 10-year-old cousin and I were considering one of the latter heart-attack-inducing thrill rides. Fear pumped through my veins, but I wasn’t about to let that show. My cousin, on the other hand, had fear etched all across his face and it permeated his body language. As we stepped toward the line, he finally cracked.
“I aint doing this,” he said. “Forget that.”
“Come on, it’s just a ride. It can’t kill you,” I replied.
It can’t kill you. With that response, and a little more cajoling, I was able to convince him to take the plunge. And he did not die.
When I told my cousin he could not die, I really meant it—and I really believed it. I honestly didn’t think it was possible to die on a water slide or any amusement park attraction.
I saw amusements parks as heavenly gardens of pleasure where I was meant to frolic and gorge myself with funnel cakes and Slurpees. I believed nothing could go wrong there. But over the years, I became disillusioned and realized amusement parks can sometimes be bastions of sickness and death.
Everyone was tragically reminded of the dangers amusement parks pose by the recent death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab—who was decapitated on a water slide at a Kansas City water park. As heartbreaking as Caleb’s death was, it obviously wasn’t the first fatality or serious injury to occur on a park ride.
May 2016: Eleven-year-old Elizabeth Gilreath was on a ride called King’s Crown at a carnival in Omaha, Nebraska, when she slipped off her seat and her hair became tangled in the spinning instrument of the ride. As the machine jostled her around, Elizabeth’s scalp was ripped from her skull. She was taken to the hospital in critical condition, suffered a fractured skull, and has undergone several surgeries on her continued road to recovery.
April 2016: A female teenager was killed and another injured when they were ejected from ‘The Sizzler’ carnival ride at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. The teenager died after slamming into a metal barricade.
July 2013: Rosa Ayala-Gaona Esparza was thrown from the ‘Texas Giant’ roller coaster at a Six Flags amusement park. Her body was found partially severed and strewn across a roof, according to reports.
Water parks can also serve as breeding grounds for illnesses:
August 2016: Over 100 people in Phoenix, Arizona were sickened in an outbreak of the diarrhea-causing parasite cryptosporidium parvum. County officials identified more than 20 recreational water facilities—including splash pads, water parks and public pools—that may have been contaminated.
August 2016: Spring Valley Water Park in Blountsville, Alabama was closed for a weekend after the parasite cryptosporidium was detected in the water. It appears that the parasite was detected and the water was treated before anyone became ill.
July 2016: At the Ohio water park Zoombezi Bay, at least 19 people contracted a diarrheal disease that is commonly transmitted through water. An infected individual who already had diarrhea likely spread the parasite at the water park. According to the CDC, the cryptosporidiosis (cryptosporidium) parasite caused the outbreak. Cryptosporidiosis is protected by an outer shell that allows it to survive outside the body for long periods of time and renders it tolerant to chlorine disinfection. It can last for nearly seven days in chlorinated water.
June 2016: Lauren Seitz, 18, fell ill and died after a day of whitewater rafting at the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Multiple samples of water taken from the facility contained traces of the amoeba which killed Lauren. The amoeba is known as Naegleria fowleri. Lauren died of primary amebic meningoencephalitis.
June 2015: About 40 people, mostly kids, became sick after visiting Prewett Family Park in Antioch, California. Officials believe people were exposed to an unusually high level of sodium hypochlorite, which is a form of chlorine. One witness reported that he heard a child screaming and complaining of a burning throat and a number of children began vomiting.
According to WebMD, more than 2,000 recreational water illnesses occurred because of water system failures between 1999 and 2000. The average person has about 0.14 grams of feces on their buttocks, which can contaminate recreational water when rinsed. If a swimmer has diarrhea, he or she has millions of germs that can contaminate water if he or she has an “accident” in the pool.
Considering all of this, I’ve been forced to accept that death or serious illness (which could lead to death) are possible outcomes whenever I choose to visit one of these places of amusement. This puts myself—and anyone else who loves amusement parks—in a bind. We must ask ourselves if the joy of water slides, wave pools, roller coasters, and other thrilling attractions is worth the risk.
Of course, these concerns go beyond ourselves. More than anything, we must consider the safety of the children in our lives.
I want my children, nieces, and nephews to experience the same bliss I experienced at theme parks. But I also have to acknowledge that I’m putting their delicate lives at risk by allowing them to partake in these activities. That’s a hard pill to swallow because putting my own life at risk is one thing, but risking the lives of children is something else altogether.
However, we must be rational and remind ourselves that theme park fatalities are extremely rare. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), there were an average of 4.5 deaths per year related to amusement rides from 1987 to 1999.
Injuries, on the other hand, are more common. The CPSC reports that in 2000 there were an estimated 10,580 injuries treated in emergency rooms related to fixed-site and mobile amusement parks.
According to a study published by Clinical Pediatrics, nearly 93,000 children under the age of 18 were injured and treated in hospitals due to amusement ride incidences from 1990 to 2010.
The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) claims the threat of injury is very low but, clearly, they have a vested interest in purporting the safety of amusement rides. According to the IAAPA, about 297 million people visit amusement parks in the US each year and take 1.7 billion safe rides. They contend that the chance of being seriously injured at a fixed-site park in the US is about 1 in 24 million. They also claim that fewer than 5 percent of the injured wind up in the hospital.
The point is, there’s always a chance that something could happen at an amusement park, even if it is unlikely. But if there’s a chance that we could be injured or killed by a particular activity, does that mean it should be avoided altogether?
Based on that logic, no one should drive cars because the chances of being involved in a car accident are far higher than the chances of being hurt on a roller coaster or water slide.
While that may be true, here’s the caveat: people drive because they have no other choice. On the other hand, riding a roller coaster is not something anyone is required to do. So even if the chance of being harmed at an amusement park is minuscule, a person has the option to reduce that risk to zero by avoiding these rides altogether.
Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to make ourselves feel free from danger when visiting these recreational establishments. I was once under the impression that it was safer to attend large, well known parks. But there are no statistics indicating that mobile “pop-up” carnivals are any more dangerous than large parks. There’s just no way to predict where or when things will go wrong.
Making matters worse, theme park regulation is spotty.
Pop-up, portable rides—like those at county fairs—are regulated by the CPSC. But the CPSC has no jurisdiction over the fixed-site rides featured at the most popular amusement parks in the US. Oversight of those rides is inconsistent and left to a mishmash of state and local authorities. In some jurisdictions, the labor department is responsible; in others areas, local building inspectors have oversight.
Some states have no regulation at all and amusement parks are not subject to any federal regulations.
In the absence of consistent, strict regulations and inspections, customers are left exposed. Sure, we can perform basic safety checks—like making sure lap bars are secure—but we don’t have the ability to check the most important aspects of ride safety: build quality, mechanical stability, and design integrity.
This point was made apparent by Caleb Schwab’s ghastly water park decapitation; there was absolutely nothing he or his parents could have personally done to prevent or predict what happened. Like most of us, they probably had faith that water park officials and inspectors had performed copious due diligence to ensure everything was safe at Schlitterbahn water park. They learned, in the most tragic of ways, that theme park safety measures are inefficient.
Despite the concerns noted in this article, the risk of fatality at amusement parks is very low and, consequently, people will continue attending them in droves. Though, all of that could change if masses of consumers begin getting the impression that park owners and governmental officials aren’t doing enough to prevent people from being disabled, disfigured, dismembered, or forced into an early grave.