Twists and Shouts

Elitch's doesn't want the public to know that its top ride is a real pain in the neck. But 31 customers already do.

State senator Pat Pascoe of Denver says she can't remember amusement-park inspections ever being an issue in the state legislature. She says that by requiring liability coverage, lawmakers thought the insurance carriers would enforce basic safety standards. "If they have to carry insurance, you assume the insurance companies are interested in maintenance," Pascoe says.

Liability is a powerful motivator for safety, asserts the president of a national organization of amusement safety inspectors. "Amusement parks are not in the business to hurt people," says Carl Kimble, president of the Council for Amusement and Recreational Equipment Safety. "They can't stand the bad publicity or the insurance rates. If too many people are getting hurt, the insurance company may yank their insurance."

As for Elitch's, Goodell says that the park maintains a rigorous maintenance program and is fully committed to safety. "We inspect the rides every day," says Goodell. "It takes several hours every morning."

Despite its best efforts, Goodell says there is little the park can do when riders ignore warning signs. "If someone has a back problem, that's not something we can tell by looking at them," she adds. "We'd have to give each guest a physical exam before they get on, and that's not feasible."

The 1995 debut of Elitch Gardens' $75 million downtown location didn't go over well with the public. Many people missed Elitch's 104-year-old northwest Denver home, with its towering cottonwoods and storied attractions. The new Elitch's was too hot, too barren, too generic and too expensive, complained many visitors.

Elitch's longtime owners, the Gurtler family, had grown frustrated with the lack of space for expansion at the old site. The family publicly toyed with the idea of moving to the suburbs, a prospect that horrified city officials. Denver saw the amusement park as an ideal tenant for the dusty former railyards that made up the Central Platte Valley, and the city used public funds to try to entice Elitch's to move downtown.

City voters approved $14 million in bond funding to create the roads and floodplain improvements that made the move possible. Additionally, the city gave Elitch's a $7 million economic development loan, as well as an $8.5 million subsidy from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. But the Gurtlers sold the seventy-acre park to Premier for $62.5 million in late 1996. Attendance had been disappointing, and the family was reportedly unable to raise the funds necessary to buy the expensive high-tech attractions--like the Mind Eraser--that draw free-spending teenagers.

Since then, Oklahoma City-based Premier has sunk more than $30 million into the newly christened Six Flags Elitch Gardens. New this season is the $5 million Boomerang roller coaster, a set of steel loops that shoots riders forward, backward and upside down.

Premier has become a major player in the amusement-park world and now owns 31 parks in the United States and Europe. It bought the twelve Six Flags theme parks last year for $1.86 billion. The company hopes to make its name as well-known as Disney and purchased the right to use Warner Bros.' famous Looney Tunes characters and Batman and Robin as mascots. Bugs Bunny, Tweety, Sylvester and the rest of the gang now seem to be everywhere at Elitch's, and the well-stocked gift shop has a huge assortment of Warner Bros. knickknacks.

All of this promotion has paid off. Attendance has soared, going from 900,000 in 1995 to 1.5 million last year. Premier executives have said they hope to hit 1.6 million visitors this summer and that they plan to market Elitch's to residents of adjacent states.

Much of the resurgent popularity of the park can be attributed to the Mind Eraser and the other new rides. The new coasters are heavily promoted in television advertising, which is largely directed at teenagers.

Some believe Premier will be more aggressive in fending off lawsuits than the Gurtlers were. A review of lawsuits against the park over the last decade shows that Elitch's often used to settle legal claims out of court.

"It's my sense that the Gurtlers were a little bit easier to deal with," says Shelley Don, a Denver attorney who has sued the park in the past. "They were more a part of the community. If somebody was hurt, they felt more of a sense of responsibility. What you have now is a commercial operator that pushes to make every nickel it can."

But others say that theme parks make tempting legal targets for cash-hungry plaintiffs.

"I believe there's a perception that amusement parks have deep pockets," says Boyd Jensen II, a California attorney who specializes in defending theme parks. Jensen has represented Premier in several cases, and he says the company prides itself on its safety program and may be more aggressive in court because of it. "Premier takes safety seriously," he says. "They're not going to roll over when people say they made a mistake."

The amusement-park industry insists that most injuries are the result of people ignoring the posted warnings. Susan Mosedale, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, says it's easy to view corporate-owned theme parks as the bad guy when it may be the riders' own irresponsibility that triggers accidents.

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