Thrillseekers looking for the ultimate rollercoaster won’t have to settle for a mere 205-foot drop. Hyperia, the newest and tallest rollercoaster in the UK, has been reopened after an interrupted launch. The ride had been closed after just one day of operation following “standard technical pre-opening procedure checks”.

There’s no indication that the ride was unsafe, but it was also the right decision for Thorpe Park not to take any risks. The history of theme park disasters highlights that when things go wrong, they go badly wrong—and the lapses that have to happen for a theme park disaster to occur are simpler than you might think.

The Smiler crash

There can be few people who hadn’t heard of The Smiler after its marketing blitz. Alton Towers were relentless in their promotion of the new ride, going so far as to project an advert for it onto Big Ben. The roller coaster set the world record for the most inversions on a coaster at 14, and was themed around a Joker-style gimmick, where participants would be forced into a rictus grin.

The incident in question wasn’t the first on the ride, but it was far and away the most harmful. A loaded train collided with an empty train that had stalled on the tracks at 32km/h (20mph), propelling passengers into the knee bars in front of them. The injuries for two victims were so severe that they each had to have one leg amputated.

An investigation by the HSE found numerous lapses in safety protocols. Two test trains were sent during a short period of downtime, with the first one failing. Having pushed this train back to its station, a second train was sent, which also failed. The operators were unaware of this second failure, and allowed a loaded train – which had automatically stopped when the empty train stalled – to continue towards it.

Not only were the processes for maintenance during operating hours insufficient, but critical safety systems also failed or were poorly understood. The trains were not supposed to operate in 34mph winds, but the wind speed that day was 45mph. The loaded train stopped automatically when it detected another train on the same track, but this was overridden by operators. And an alarm designed to alert them to the stuck train was not working. The result? 16 injuries, many of them life changing – and a hefty £5 million fine.

Thunder River Rapids Ride accident

The story behind Dreamworld, Australia’s biggest theme park, is worthy of its own movie. John Longhurst, an entrepreneur and theme park enthusiast, set his heart on designing his own theme park after falling in love with Disney. Buying 210 acres of land, he worked for two years to excavate the land, and employed renowned designers to bring his dreams to life. The park subsequently became a huge success, with some of the attractions being particularly familiar.

The River Rapids accident, occurring well after Longhurst had left the company, is one of the worst in theme park history. The failure of a water pump required to float the rafts along their guide rails caused the water level to drop, stranding a raft on a conveyor at the end of the ride. Another raft then collided with it, lifting the second raft and sending its occupants into the conveyor mechanism below. Four people died, with the only survivors being two children.

A detailed investigation found incredibly lax safety standards on the ride and at the park in general. The ride had frequently broken down five times in the week before the accident, with inadequate action being taken. The ride’s operator had not received proper safety training, and indeed had only been trained for their position on the ride that morning, which she did not believe gave her authority to push the emergency stop button. She also did not know whether the stuck raft constituted an emergency, and had to deal with an extremely high workload.

The emergency stop button would have stopped the conveyor, but there was no button that would stop the entire ride. Water levels were monitored by looking at the ‘scum mark’ that multiple years of operation had left on the walls of the ride. And on top of all of this, ride modifications had been undertaken with no risk assessments here or at any point, including the removal of slats over the conveyor mechanism – which may have stopped the victims falling into it. A $3.6 million AUD fine resulted, along with a multi-million settlement with the families.

Verrückt accident

One of the grisliest theme park accidents was also one of the most consequential. Like many deadly rides, Verrückt was chasing a record when it opened at Schlitterbahn Kansas City water park in 2014: the world’s tallest water slide. The 168 ft slide – named after the German word for ‘insane’ – saw rafts reach top speeds of 110 km/h (70 mph), sometimes causing them to briefly become airborne. Netting was strung across a series of metal hoops above the ride to preclude the chance of people or objects exiting the slide.

On August 7th, 2016, Kansas state representative Scott Schwab and his family were visiting the park as part of a promotion offering free entry for legislators. His son Caleb boarded the ride, and was tragically killed when the raft flew upwards as it ascended the ride’s second hill. He was decapitated as his head struck the metal hoops holding the netting above the ride, with other passengers on the raft also suffering serious injuries.

Initial reports suggested that the cause may have been improper weight distribution, with the heaviest passenger on the raft having been placed at the back, and Caleb having been at the front. While this may have exacerbated the issue, the total weight of the raft was below the stated maximum, and fundamental issues were found with the safety of the ride. Both the system of hoops and netting and the restraints used on the ride were found to be in violation of guidelines, while no upstop mechanism was in place to prevent rafts from leaving the ride.

Court proceedings alleged that the two designers – lacking any formal education in mechanical engineering – had designed the ride largely through trial and error, with some expert consultation. The process had been documented for a Travel Channel TV show, which showed early prototypes sending rafts filled with sandbags hurtling off the slide. The dangers had even been flagged by an engineering firm hired to test the ride before its opening, who highlighted the rafts’ potential to become airborne.

Scott Schwab’s position in the state legislature meant that some action was inevitable, and Kansas quickly changed the law to require state inspections of water parks, which had previously been allowed to self-inspect. The family settled with the park for around $20 million, with undisclosed sums given to two other victims. The park was closed two years later, and criminal charges were filed against the ride’s designers and the park’s operations director, although all charges were ultimately dismissed due to the use of inadmissible evidence.

Haunted House disaster

Our last disaster is an unusual one for a theme park, and one that hits close to home: a deadly fire. In 1984, a fire started inside a Haunted House attraction at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. The attraction, filled with props and populated by actors, was a winding and disorienting trip through a number of connected trailers, containing scenes from horror movies and fiction. The fire quickly overtook the structure, trapping and killing eight teenagers.

It was quickly found that the ride lacked any kind of fire protection. There were no fire or smoke detectors and no sprinklers, despite these having been recommended by the park’s own safety consultants. The precise cause of the fire is uncertain, but testimony from one survivor stated that an older boy may have caused the fire accidentally. He had supposedly been using a lighter to illuminate a corridor, which was dark due to a malfunctioning strobe light.

As well as the lack of fire protection, the ride was filled with highly flammable materials, including flammable foam-rubber crash pads on the walls. The ‘building’ was ultimately found to be in contravention of 12 existing state fire codes, and lacked a building permit or certificate of occupancy. It turned out that the structure had never been visited by state fire inspectors because – being made of trailers – it had been deemed a temporary structure, despite having operated for six years.

A subsequent criminal trial found numerous other issues, including non-functional exit lights, missing bulbs in other locations, and torn crash pads, which would have exposed the flammable foam. The air conditioning and wind conditions were  found to have accelerated the fire, while seven of the eight victims were found around a locked closet, which they may have believed was an exit door. Employees also testified that a number of previous guests had been seen using lighters or matches inside the attraction.

The disaster led to changes in safety laws in many states, with New Jersey passing strict rules for enclosed ‘dark rides’, and any ride which is designed to disorient people. Similar attractions across the state were also temporarily closed for inspection, and Six Flags Great Adventure and its parent company were indicted on aggravated manslaughter charges. The companies were found not guilty, with blame instead placed on township officials for not imposing safety rules.

Action Park

Where our other entries are about individual disasters, the whole of Action Park can be said to be a disaster. Not for many of its guests, it should be said, who loved the freedom and sense of danger the park afforded them. This freedom – encapsulated by the nicknames ‘Traction Park’, ‘Accident Park’ and ‘Class Action Park’ – came with extreme and insane risks, and led to a litany of serious injuries.

With rides designed by the park’s owner – not a qualified engineer – and a workforce reputedly consisting of poorly-trained teenagers, Action Park was something to be survived as much as enjoyed. Standout attractions included a go-karting track where the karts (with a simple modification) could accelerate up to 50mph; speed boating in a snake-infested pond; and a water slide which would routinely cause injuries and lost bikini tops – with a viewing platform built for people to watch.

The deadly rides did not include the water slide with a complete vertical loop, which reportedly decapitated the test dummies sent down it. It did however include a relentless wave pool where two people drowned, and which required 12 lifeguards, who would supposedly rescue as many as 30 people on a busy weekend. There was also a death on an alpine slide where a guest (wrongly reported as an employee) died after leaving the track and hitting his head; and one from a tarzan swing into a freezing cold natural pool, which gave one guest a heart attack.

Despite almost every ride at the park having the potential to kill or maim you – and the provision of copious amounts of alcohol – Action Park somehow lasted for 18 years before a raft of lawsuits forced it out of business. A revival by the previous owner’s son in 2014 fizzled out after just two years, perhaps because the rides were now too tame for its target audience. It’s probably a good thing teenagers aren’t in charge of health & safety legislation.

In all of these cases, a combination of oversights in health and safety rules, poor adherence to existing laws, and human factors led to unspeakable tragedy. Each is a reminder that every safe visit to a theme park is the result of untold hours of careful planning and execution, from the design and construction of rides to their operation and maintenance. Making them safe to ride requires enormous expertise, while keeping them safe is an ongoing process.

It’s an ongoing process that the vast majority of theme parks adhere to, with millions of people around the world enjoying theme parks every year. But adrenaline junkies disappointed at the closure of a ride on safety grounds shouldn’t have cause for complaint. A ride can be exhilarating and invoke a feeling of danger without ever putting its occupants at risk – and lives should never be gambled in the pursuit of simple entertainment.