OT-A Safer Magic Kingdom Op/Ed - LA Times

December 6, 2003
A Safer Magic Kingdom

Times Headlines

Learning that sloppy roller-coaster maintenance at Disneyland caused Marcelo Torres' death won't bring about a Disney-style happy ending for the 22-year-old man's family. But because the state finally has some regulatory power over amusement parks, the finding will lead to changes that might save other lives.

Once upon a time, the Magic Kingdom reigned over its rides with virtually no oversight. Accidents, including fatal ones, were investigated by Disneyland officials and were invariably found to have been the rider's fault. Injuries were kept from the public's eye. Park officials were so certain of their authority that after a fatal 1998 accident at the Columbia sailing ship, they kept police away from the accident scene for four hours while employees mopped up the site.

But Disneyland couldn't make a fairy tale out of the Columbia accident. A man standing on the dock had died when a metal cleat flew off the ship, hit him and injured his wife and a park employee. This time "the rider" could not have been at fault, and the amusement park couldn't keep the investigation to itself. With an employee injured, the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health probed the accident. Its report led to safety fixes ? and impelled the Legislature to pass a previously unsuccessful bill that required all amusement parks to report serious accidents and gave the state the power to investigate and demand safety changes.

The bill's value became sadly clear in 2000, after a 4-year-old boy fell out of the Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin ride. This time, the scene was left intact for investigators. But Disneyland officials whispered to reporters that they thought the boy ? left mentally crippled by the accident ? had fallen because of his rowdy behavior. The state squashed that notion, finding numerous design flaws in the ride. To its credit, Disneyland overhauled the ride beyond what the state asked. Similarly, under state order, Knott's Berry Farm replaced seat belts on its Perilous Plunge ride after a woman fell to her death in 2001.

In September, after a crash on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad killed Torres and injured 10 others, park officials answered what questions they could. They deferred to state and police investigators concerning the accident's cause. Recently, the report found that Disneyland workers didn't understand some basic maintenance procedures and that mechanics would routinely sign off on work they hadn't been involved in at this and other roller coasters. Disney officials say they're already making state-mandated changes.

The park is learning its lesson, but at a tragically slow pace. Marcelo Torres' death, no matter what it taught Disneyland, should not have happened. But because legislators withstood industry lobbying and passed a regulatory bill, tourists will ride more safely and no longer will believe the fantasy that amusement parks are devoid of danger.