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Twists and Shouts

Page 4 of 5

After a Texas girl was killed and two others seriously injured last year when they were ejected from a carnival ride known as the Himalaya, the CPSC issued a national alert to amusement ride operators and conducted an investigation. The agency found that several other people around the country had been injured on the ride because of a faulty safety bar. (Just last week, a New York girl was killed and eight others injured when a Himalaya ride malfunctioned at Coney Island.) The CPSC said it would work with the manufacturer to alert operators about potential problems; however, the commission has no authority to actually inspect rides or oversee maintenance. Decisions about how to regulate amusement parks and carnivals are left up to the states.

Colorado only mandates state inspections for traveling carnival rides. Amusement parks are simply required to maintain at least $1 million in liability insurance coverage. The insurance companies have to report all claims filed by patrons against amusement parks to the state labor department. Those records show 47 liability claims were filed against Elitch Gardens in 1998, and 54 claims in 1997. The claims covered everything from slips on sidewalks to a cervical spine injury. (A smaller number of claims were filed against Lakeside Amusement Park, probably because that park attracts fewer patrons.)

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.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers