Summer is almost here. No one knows that more than amusement park and theme park operators. Scores of visitors will pass through their gates, looking to experience the latest roller coasters, thrill rides, water slides, or other forms of entertainment. Security teams will be put to the test by large crowds, unpredictable behavior, and hot temperatures. Here are some key elements to look out for and a couple of tips to help get ready for the season. 

Biggest Threat at Amusement Parks? Humans

When something goes wrong at an amusement park and someone is injured, it makes headlines. It is a rare occurrence, and yet, the perceived threat of a mechanical failure or other accident is real for many visitors. For some, it is the fear of that threat that makes the theme park experience that much more thrilling. And yet, the fear is not based on fact, which is that amusement park rides are extremely safe. But there is another element that creates an all-too-real threat and yet it is one most don’t consider: humans. 

People Are the Biggest Threat to Themselves

A quick search for Amusement Park Accidents and you’ll find lists of events. A close inspection reveals that these accidents are relatively rare and that most of the accidents at theme parks are caused by people not taking the proper precautions based on their own health.  

Parks enjoy their highest attendance during the summer months when temperatures throughout the country rise to 90 degrees or more, sometimes hitting triple digits. When you combine these temps with the paved, black-topped walkways through the park, you have scorching heat that can really take a toll on park visitors, especially those prone to heart issues. And yet many people will enter a park ill prepared to adjust to the hot conditions by drinking enough water, wearing weather-appropriate clothing and taking breaks in the shade to cool off. The result is that security and medical personnel are called on often to assist people who faint, become dehydrated, or worse yet, suffer a heart attack or other serious condition.  Most, if not all, of those situations could be avoided if people heeded warnings and respected their own limits.  

People Will Sometimes Do the Wrong Thing

Several years ago, an Ohio, USA, theme park had a modest version of a flight simulator. The ride resembled a large octopus. At the end of each tentacle, there was a two-person cockpit and a joystick controller situated in between the seats to control the cockpit. When a rider pulled up, the tentacle and the cockpit went up. Pushed down, they both went down. Moved the stick to the left or the right, and the cockpit would spin in that direction 360 degrees. Riders could even spin themselves upside down if they chose.  

Once, a solo rider decided to switch seats in the middle of the ride, wriggling out of the safety shoulder harness and hitting the joystick, causing the cockpit to spin and turn upside down. With nothing holding the rider in, they fell out of the cockpit and hit the pavement below with fatal consequences. An autopsy further revealed the rider had a very high blood alcohol level.

Preparing for the Worst

While the scenario above occurs both infrequently and unpredictably, amusement park operators and their security teams must prepare for critical incidents by developing a crisis management plan for if/when they do occur. 

The first step is to identify threats by determining where the park is vulnerable to unpredictable behaviors, foul play, or at the extreme, an attack. Often a fresh set of eyes and ears can discover gaps that had long been ignored since “nothing ever happened there before,” noting that perhaps it’s an old fence that could easily be passed through or an employee identification card system isn’t being thoroughly enforced.  

As we determine the threats, we also determine the risk level by creating risk scenarios. For example, there could be a back door to a perimeter building that opens directly to the outside of the park where there is no surveillance in place. A willing employee could easily open the door to let outside accomplices into the park undetected.  

Anticipating threats and knowing what risks they pose helps to determine the priorities for which issues to tackle first. 

Practicing for Disaster

No one wants to think about what could happen if something goes terribly wrong at a theme park. No one except security teams, that is. Practicing different scenarios, perhaps like the one at the Ohio theme park example above, can be a great asset as operators train their personnel to react. Like with anything, the more you practice, the better and more comfortable you become with what it is you are practicing. Keeping teams alert by running scheduled and impromptu drills will give them the confidence they will need to respond effectively if a real situation arises. 

Know Your Local Law Enforcement Teams

Although amusement parks can appear as though they are a community all on their own, they are actually a part of a larger, local community. They operate in a town or city, and they hire local people. It is essential that operators get to know, and even support, their local law enforcement and emergency services leaders. In addition to brining revenue and tourists to their communities, amusement parks can create many stressful aspects to maintaining law and order for local police, especially during peak season when the number of incidents can rise with the influx of a large floating population. (Read more about the Pinkerton Crime Index and crime in floating populations.)  

Savvy park operators will take the time to coordinate with the local law officers who will most likely respond to emergency calls from the park, review their crisis management plans with them, and include them in practice drills.

Amusement park operators cannot anticipate every situation that may lead to an incident, especially when considering the human uncertainty element. However, updating your crisis management plan, providing ongoing training for your staff, and conducting emergency drills can help to make sure this season is a safe, secure, and enjoyable season for your thrill-seeking park guests. 

And if you find you would like some assistance, contact us. At Pinkerton, we’re experts. We know security and how to help you mitigate your risk.  

Published April 18, 2022