ORLANDO, Fla. — The public often doesn’t know what happens when someone is hurt at a theme park, in a system where parks self-report visitors’ health problems to the state.
State regulators plan to talk with Florida’s biggest theme parks about making their visitor injury reports more accurate after an Orlando Sentinel investigation revealed that Universal Orlando had disclosed a tourist’s broken neck as “numbness” and a child’s broken foot and leg bones as “foot pain.”
“It’s not giving a true picture of what’s happening at the theme parks. That has to change,” said state Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando. “If they can’t come up with an agreement, then the Legislature needs to get involved.”
The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will bring up the issue in January with Disney World, Universal, SeaWorld, Legoland and Busch Gardens, spokesman Max Flugrath wrote in an email this week.
Under state law, those major theme parks are exempt from state ride inspections, although the agriculture department consults with the parks annually, which is when the conversation will come up, Flugrath said.
“During this year’s consultation, which has been pushed back from usually being held in September or October due to COVID-19, our team had planned to open up a conversation about how to get more complete information on injuries park visitors sustain from rides. This is an issue which our team has been considering for over a year,” Flugrath wrote.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who took over the office in 2019, has declined several interview requests with the Sentinel for reports on the parks’ injuries, including for this story.
The department had previously declined to discuss whether it should change its long-standing agreement that outlines how parks self-report injuries.
Flugrath didn’t respond when asked why the planned January meeting with the theme parks wasn’t revealed earlier.
Universal was sued at least three times in 2019 by people who had been hurt at the parks and who described their injuries in their lawsuits as more serious than how Universal self-reported it directly to the state.
An 11-year-old crushed his foot on the E.T. Adventure ride, breaking all his toes and some of his leg bones, according to his lawsuit. Universal reported the incident as “foot pain.”
A 47-year-old man broke his neck and lay paralyzed at the end of Volcano Bay’s Punga Racers slide, his lawsuit said. Universal disclosed it as “numbness.”
Universal said a third man injured on a different Volcano Bay water slide experienced “back pain.” Court documents showed the man injured his back but also had a graphic groin injury that eventually required him to get a penile implant.
In December 2018, Universal was also sued by a family after the 38-year-old father with a prior heart condition rode Skull Island: Reign of Kong and then had a fatal heart attack a few minutes later while sitting on a bench.
His 2016 death wasn’t reported on the theme park injury report at the time since Universal, and the other major parks, only agreed to report injuries that occur on the rides that lead to at least 24 hours of hospitalization. The family’s attorney told the Sentinel he believed ethically Universal should have disclosed the man’s death.
At Disney World, a teenager said in court documents she had a stroke after riding Hollywood Studios’ Tower of Terror in 2005. Disney said she “felt ill.”
In California, the big theme parks disclose more injuries because they are required by law to reveal all injuries that go above basic first aid as well as all deaths. California also investigates the visitors’ accounts, but in Florida, the agriculture department’s agreement with the parks says visitors’ names and contact information should not be given to the state.
“I have no doubt theme parks want to keep people safe because it’s in their best interest to do so,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “At the same time, there needs to be stronger accountability standards in place.”
Eskamani called it a “recipe for disaster” for corporate businesses, like the Comcast Corp.-owned Universal or the Walt Disney Co., to self-report visitor injuries and “set their own guidelines on reporting.”
“We need to build public policy around safety,” she said. “There needs to be more oversight.”
The fastest way for change would be for Fried’s office to revise its “memo of understanding” with the parks versus the Legislature passing a new bill, Eskamani said.
State Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, also agreed the easiest path would be for the agriculture department to make changes internally before lawmakers push new bills.
“Whenever someone loses their life or has a severe medical issue at a theme park or anywhere else that rises to that level, it’s concerning,” said Plasencia, adding “more data is better than less” when it comes to informing the public.
Plasencia also said the issue needs to be studied deeper by the state. He said he wanted to hear from the parks directly and also understand the history of theme park regulation to know “why laws are the way they are.”
Stewart said she wants Fried’s office to retroactively update the state theme park injury reports that are inaccurate or misleading for the record so the public has more accurate descriptions of what happened. She said she disputed the parks’ stance that it was difficult to follow up with injured visitors and get correct information on their diagnosis.
“Of course they can,” Stewart said. “They can call and check on the person who got hurt and make sure it’s not a serious incident.”
Stewart said if Fried’s office doesn’t make changes, she would be willing to sponsor a bill although she also acknowledged what could be an uphill fight with the theme parks because of their political influence.
“They are the big elephant in the room. I’m hoping they can come to an agreement in January,” Stewart said.
Asked to comment, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a Democrat, sent a statement saying the city supports “our theme parks following state regulations and self-reporting requirements. … we are confident that if there are changes that need to be made to reporting requirements, that our state and our state legislators would outline any of those such proposed changes.”
The Sentinel previously reported Disney has spent at least $3.27 million, including about $602,000 on free hotel rooms and park tickets as well as food, drinks and venue space for politicians’ fundraising events on this election cycle. Universal and its parent company have spent at least $1.77 million, including $328,000 for in-kind donations, state records showed.
Fried, a Democrat, has also benefited from the theme parks’ giving.
Her political committee has received $25,000 from Universal or its owners and a Universal park tour valued at $4,500. Walt Disney Co. has given Fried’s PAC nearly $45,000 worth of food and drinks for events and a $10,000 donation, according to state campaign disclosures.
Last week, the agriculture department released the latest theme park injury report from July through September on its website, which again, showed descriptions of injuries that were vague and lacking details.
A 59-year-old woman had “hip/pelvis pain” on Volcano Bay’s Ohno Drop Slide on Sept. 5.
On Aug. 28, a 49-year-old woman felt “illness” at SeaWorld’s Journey to Atlantis water coaster.
During Disney World’s July reopening, a 68-year-old woman with a pre-existing condition suffered a stroke on the less intense version of Epcot’s Mission: Space ride. The report doesn’t indicate what her condition is.
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)