Longform

Twists and Shouts

Page 5 of 5

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.

"We do know that the majority of incidents that happen at parks are the result of patrons not following the rules," says Mosedale. "A lot of times, the park is portrayed as negligent when it's clearly error on the riders' part."

Elitch's has had its share of tragedy in the past. In 1944, six people died when the Old Mill ride, a romantic tunnel of love, burst into flames. In 1965, Starr Yelland Jr., son of a popular television personality, was thrown from a roller coaster at the park and battled for his life for the next two and a half years before he died. And in 1997, an employee of the amusement park died after falling from the Sidewinder roller coaster. Even though the woman was legally drunk at the time, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Elitch's $32,500 for failing to require the use of safety harnesses by ride operators.

Today, though, with crowds surging through the gates and record revenues, Elitch's owners see nothing but good times ahead. The park's main problem may even be its own success: Just four years after moving to a site that's twice as big as the old park, Elitch's is running out of room. Premier wants to install even more high-tech thrill rides, but it could have a hard time finding the space.

"Six Flags has been known for great thrill rides," says Goodell. "This is our first season as a Six Flags property. We have a ways to go to rise to that standard."

Goodell says park officials may remove the picnic pavilion and the maintenance area behind the Twister to make room for more rides. "It's a relatively small piece of property," says Goodell. "We're landlocked."

The problems of success are a far cry from the potential economic crisis Elitch's faced after its move to the Central Platte Valley. With the Pepsi Center and Colorado's Ocean Journey soon to be its next-door neighbors, Elitch's future as a destination attraction looks secure.

But that's no consolation to Deborah Benagh. Her fun evening in the park led to years of pain, and she wonders who draws the line that determines where the thrills end and the danger begins.

"No one is really looking at the people who've gotten hurt, because no one knows about it--it's not visible," says Benagh. "Unless something very visible happens, they have no incentive to change.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers