Thrilled to Death

Riders may get more than they bargained for when they head to amusement parks this summer

Even with the insurance premiums, the Texas Cyclone has been a stupendous investment for AstroWorld. By the coaster's 25th anniversary in 2001, it was still an emblem of the park, and managers decided to boost its popularity even more. They invited television cameras and threw a silver-anniversary bash for the coaster, complete with a birthday cake and disco music. They called the event the Retro Revive. Sometime shortly before or after the celebration, the park removed the headrests from the coaster cars (and with them, the ride's neck support). They were never replaced.

Standing next to a train of Cyclone cars in a peeling service shed last month, AstroWorld maintenance director Kent Maulsby explained the decision. "As [the coaster] reached a gentler form, we were able to remove the headrests," he said, "and that dramatically improved the guest experience."

Asked why the coaster was gentler, Maulsby explained the track had been reprofiled, creating a smoother ride. But questioned further, he said reprofiling has been a regular part of the coaster's maintenance for at least 20 years.

…before the magnetic brakes engage, slamming them 
to a halt.
…before the magnetic brakes engage, slamming them to a halt.

If safety went retro on the Cyclone, the coaster purists aren't about to complain. "It's just perfect," says Robinson, who has ridden it since he was a kid. "I wouldn't change a thing."

AstroWorld might have looked like a dangerous place in the early 1980s, but other parks weren't necessarily safer. At the State Fair of Texas in 1983, William Phillips boarded the Enterprise, a giant pinwheel that spun 20 cars around, first parallel to the ground, then vertically. Phillips's car snapped off, flew into the midway and killed him. Seven others were hospitalized. His family sued the ride operator and manufacturer and won $10 million.

"What we found was the ride had been recalled in Europe," says the family's Dallas attorney, Frank L. Branson, "but because there were no standards in the United States, it wasn't recalled here."

The state fair took the accident seriously and applied permanent safety changes to its entire midway. The fair now requires rides to be inspected before they're booked, once they arrive on-site, and a third time by an insurance inspector. Fair inspectors also examine the rides on a daily basis, often with X-ray machines that can detect the type of internal cracks that caused Phillips's Enterprise car to break free.

AstroWorld also maintains a detailed safety program. A full-time staff of 50 maintenance workers conducts daily visual inspections of rides. More intricate inspections are performed on a weekly basis, and once a year the park strips down major components on every ride and closely examines them.

But the state fair's safety reforms have received more attention. They earned praise from the Consumer Products Safety Commission and were copied in 12 other states, according to a 1997 story in The Dallas Morning News. The fair has even taken a pass on high-profile rides accepted elsewhere. It demanded the operators of the Wildcat roller coaster make electrical changes before opening day in 1999 and rejected the coaster when the changes weren't ready.

Of course, the state fair's inspections haven't eliminated all accidents. Based on statistics collected by the Texas Department of Insurance, since 1999, 18 injuries have occurred at the midway. But those numbers pale in comparison to the 47 injuries reported at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Especially considering that the rodeo's sole ride contractor, Ray Cammack Shows, was cited for violating the state's long-standing amusement park injury-disclosure law and has reported injuries for only the years 2002 and 2003 (see "Rodeo Hat Trick").

A decade after the Enterprise death, the state fair was arguably ahead of even many permanent amusement parks in safety. The fair had learned more from the Enterprise than the Six Flags company gleaned from the Cyclone. Instead of heeding the warning signs raised by the ride injuries, Six Flags built an even bigger wooden roller coaster at its new park in San Antonio. When the aptly dubbed Rattler opened at Fiesta Texas in 1992, it was the tallest, fastest and steepest wooden coaster in the country.

And by many accounts, it was one of the most dangerous. Fiesta Texas reported 13 injuries at the park during the 1992 and 1993 seasons. But many incidents went unreported those years: Ambulance documents revealed 80 people had complained of head and back pain after riding the coaster. A loose-knit group of 27 accident victims later sued the park to recoup money for their injuries.

"It's an infamous ride in amusement-park history," says David Adkisson, the lead attorney in the case. Adkisson argued that the Rattler's first harrowing plunge had been lengthened to preserve the coaster's record-breaking status, without enough consideration for the effects on riders. He hired Bradley, the expert in the Cyclone case, who measured 12 g's on the ride. The advertised g's were 3.5.

"They just kept trying to run it year after year," says Adkisson, who settled the cases in 1998 for $3.5 million. "They should have just torn it down and started it over again."

The original first descent on the Rattler was shortened 42 feet by 1994, reducing the coaster's speed from 73 to 65 miles per hour. But by then, roller coasters at other parks were traveling at nearly 100.

Kids would soon line up at AstroWorld for rides such as the Serial Thriller and Dungeon Drop. They were demanding more speed, bigger plunges and wilder loops. These marvels are now possible through computer modeling. But as rides at AstroWorld finally blast off, new questions are emerging about whether the human body can keep pace.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Something tells me that Sam WAS jumping up and down on his last ride on that train, why would his attorney want a warning sign advising against patrons standing six inches above their seats posted if it weren't for Sam doing it himself? Then he wants the ride shut down for everyone because he did not follow the rules? I don't think so. How many other guests have been thrown from that coaster? None? Just as I thought! When riding a roller coaster it's never a good idea to stand up and jump, come on now!!

Houston Concert Tickets