KANSAS CITY - With more than 400 amusement parks across the country competing for a slice of a $12 billion per year industry, park operators find themselves in an arms race: to attract new customers they must build bigger, higher, faster thrill rides. But as new rides test the boundaries of engineering and human courage, they also come with safety questions would-be riders want answered before they buckle in.
The premiere parks in the Kansas City metro, Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo., and Schlitterbahn in Kansas City, Kan., are each debuting towering new arrivals this summer season, and each raises unique safety questions.
Worlds of Fun and the “SteelHawk”
In August of 2013, Worlds of Fun trumpeted the planned arrival of a 300-foot tower that would change the park’s skyline, and, hopefully, drive ticket sales in the summer of 2014.
“SteelHawk will be a spectacular showpiece that will be seen for miles,” Frank Wilburn, the park’s general manager said in a statement at the time.
But 41 Action News quickly uncovered that the SteelHawk had a troubled past . Previously, the ride had operated as the Windseeker, one of six such rides owned by Cedar Fair Entertainment, the parent company of Worlds of Fun, and several other parks around the country.
In 2012, the Windseeker at Cedar Fair’s Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California malfunctioned stranding riders 300 feet in the air for hours . It was a PR disaster for the company, which closed the ride indefinitely once the riders were safely returned to the ground.
At other Cedar Fair Parks, too, the Windseeker had problems, documented extensively by 41 Action News sister-station WEWS in Cleveland.
All but the California Windseeker were quickly reopened. The ride there had drawn the attention of CAL/OSHA, which regulates rides in the state. Even with the mechanical problem that caused the stranding incident identified and fixed, CAL/OSHA demanded expensive fixes to an exterior ladder on the ride used only by maintenance workers.
Cedar Fair determined it made better business sense to relocate the ride, rather than fight California regulators, and the SteelHawk was born.
In April, Wayne Meadows, Worlds of Fun’s director of maintenance and construction, defended the move to Missouri as a sound financial decision in the amusement park world.
“It’s cheaper than buying a new ride. I know that. It’s up there, but I think it’s well worth it, and it’s in the line with other rides that are moved quite regularly from park to park,” Meadows told 41 Action News.
Worlds of Fun has even taken advantage of the ride’s notoriety, placing billboards that say the ride defies both gravity and common sense.
“There's a number of thrill-seekers out there that we've seen on social media,” Meadows said, speaking of the ride’s reputation, “And I think it’s actually a draw.”
Meadows said he would put his own children on the ride and said he’s confident it is perfectly safe in its new form. In Missouri, it’s easy to find out why Meadows’ confidence is so well-placed.
Engineering firms and fire inspectors inspect every ride in the state yearly and file reports that can be obtained through the state’s Amusement Ride Safety Unit. 41 Action News pulled three years of inspections for Worlds of Fun rides and found each ride consistently rated “satisfactory,” the highest level . Inspectors check stairs, structures, maintenance logs and much more.
No inspection report for the SteelHawk exists, yet. Trucked from California this spring, the ride remains under re-construction at Worlds of Fun. Meadows said sandbags would ride it before humans, and the park would extensively test the ride before its grand opening, and again each day before the park opens.
“This ride is safe,” Meadows said. “It’s got a lot of redundancy built into it to make sure that when the guests are riding it they're going to go up and they are coming down.”
The World’s Tallest Water Slide at Schlitterbahn
Across the state line at Schlitterbahn in Kansas City, Kan., park operators are preparing to open the world’s tallest water slide, officially certified by the Guinness Book of World Records at 168 feet, seven inches – taller than Niagara Falls, or the Statue of Liberty when she’s off her pedestal. The previous record-holder was the Kilimanjaro slide in Brazil, which kept the title for a dozen years .
The “Verruckt” – that’s German for “Insane” – straps up to four riders into a raft for an 11-second ride with speeds expected to top 60 miles per hour. That’s if they don’t turn around after climbing 264 steps to the top of the ride, and taking in the view.
“From an economic development perspective, Schlitterbahn and this Verruckt are a huge win for KCK and our whole state,” Kansas City, Kansas Mayor and Unified Government CEO Mark Holland said at the slides’ unveiling.
Already, the park trumpets a $2 million economic benefit from the slide’s pre-opening publicity. Its design and construction costs are a closely guarded
secret. So too, is how it was designed and tested, at least until a Schlitterbahn-sanctioned Travel Channel documentary airs this summer.
Terri Adams, who has spent 37 years with the Texas-based company and currently serves as its Chief Operating Officer, says most of the design and safety testing is done by the outside group that designed the slide. That testing included building a 100-foot scale model in Texas, and running it first using sandbags, and then real people.
Park officials will run their own tests before the Verruckt opens on May 23.
“They have some pretty stringent test and design and they work with people and engineers who come in and help them do those things,” Adams said in an interview at the park.
Schlitterbahn chose to locate their boldest attraction in Kansas for several reasons, park officials said. Three of their four Texas parks are in hurricane zones, making construction of such a tower impractical. The Kansas park, which opened just as the national recession began, also lacked a marquee attraction. Building the Verruckt here addressed both issues. A park spokesman also said the company found Kansas easy to work with, with restrictions and regulations minimal and simple.
Indeed, in Kansas, water park inspections are done by third-parties hired by the parks themselves. The parks even keep the records, which are not made public. Inspectors from the state may visit at any time and request the records, but the public never sees them.
A labor department attorney rejected 41 Actions News’ request for Schlitterbahn’s 2013 inspection reports. Neither the COO Adams nor a park spokesperson could provide the name of the specific engineering or consulting firm inspecting their rides. Adams said only that there were a “variety of professionals and engineers” looking at the park’s rides.
To ride, or not to ride
Safety officials from both parks proudly proclaim they will be among the first riders on their new attractions when they open later this month. Both Meadows, at Worlds of Fun, and Adams at Schlitterbahn said they would put their own children on the rides as well.
“I've got two kids and I'd have them on it immediately,” Adams said emphatically.
The chance of being seriously injured on an amusement park rides hovers around one in 24 million rides. A person is far more likely to be injured simply driving their car to an amusement park than on one of its rides, a fact Meadows used as a selling point for the SteelHawk.
“You take risk anywhere you go, from driving in a car to flying on an airplane,” Meadows said. “We don't see that risk, you riding this ride, to be any greater than you coming out here from the city.”