Blink before riding: Steps to better decision making at Disney World

It is difficult to speculate exactly what happened yesterday to cause the sad death of a young boy at Walt Disney World. Eventually the autopsy will reveal whether the attraction had anything to do with the death. It may not have. I do not mean to accuse the family or Disney Management of misdeeds, but I do wonder what a 4-year old was doing on Mission Space (M:S) at Epcot.

M:S is one of the most intense experiences available to guests visiting Walt Disney World. So what would lead a family to want to take their young child on it? Which warnings did they see and which did they miss? How can we give a family more information before they make their decision to join the queue? All questions that need to be answered to make the Disney World experience as safe as possible for all guests.

Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror probably qualifies as the most intense experience availabe to guests at the four Walt Disney World themeparks. Not only does the name imply its intensity, but as you approach the attraction to ride you can see exactly what happens to guests already on board as they plummet faster than gravity and then are jerked back up only to be pulled back down again repeated times. If the visual clues aren’t enough, the screams of terror is another signal. Those with weak constitutions know by these indicators to stay away. Parents with questions can see what happens during the ride and can judge if their child is appropriate for the attraction. At least that should work in theory.

When Mission Space first opened many riders were getting physically ill on the attraction, often to the point of fainting and vomiting, while others experienced no ill effects. In something that sounds like a story out of Malcolm Gladwell’s "Blink," rather than change the ride systems to make it a gentler ride (a change that would have decreased the verisimilitude dramatically), engineers and management decided to better educate the guests. Guests ‘pre-loaded’ with expectations for a more intense experience, experienced fewer incidences of vomiting and fainting then guests who saw fewer warnings and knew little about the rides mechanics. Disney maintains they didn’t have to change the attraction ride system at all, just add more and more accurate warnings, and voila fewer guests getting sick.

Warning! For safety, you should be in good health and free from high blood pressure, heart, back or neck problems, motion sickness, or other conditions that could be aggravated by this adventure. Expectant mothers should not ride. May cause motion sickness. Please see Cast Member at the attraction for further cautionary information.

Still, unlike Tower of Terror, at Mission Space, nothing about the experience is apparent until you reach the inner queue. At which point all you see are warning signs (text above) and a computer generated film explaining that M:S is a spinning ride with high g-forces that simulate launch and space flight. Some guests even get to skip most of those warning signs by using a ‘fastpass’ ticket or going through a
single rider queue.

So what other information does the average tourist use to make their decisions. I think it is safe to say that the typical tourist arrives at Walt Disney World with little or no in-depth knowledge of each attraction. They know in general what to expect from a Carrousel versus a Roller Coaster but other then that they are often confused. And with good reason, many Disney World attractions are unique to Disney (which is a big draw for the huge crowds).

One way Disney attempts to help is by providing a free map which contains a short description of the attraction. Here is the one for Mission Space from the Epcot map:

Prepare for some of the most out-of-this-world experiences of your life!

Time to find out what it really feels like to be an astronaut. Strap in and get ready for launch aboard the most thrilling attraction in Disney history! Be the Pilot, Navigator, Engineer, or Commander on this white-knuckle mission to Mars. May cause motion sickness. Please see Cast Member at the attraction for further cautionary information. Minimum height 44" / 112cm.

That, together with the signage and attraction exterior, is really all the typical guest has to go on when making their decision to ride.

This tragic incident reminded me of something I had been thinking about recently. That in the days of easy access to information, perhaps there needs to be some more useful criteria available to the guest while in the park. More signage, more preshow, or more indepth handouts should all be considered.

Don’t forget that too much information might overwhelm a guest leading to bad choices. So when they add more information, it needs to be exactly the right stuff. For example, Disney could bring back a piece of information they once provided for their more intense attractions… a minimum age. Today that might be presented as a rating similar to the movies (G, PG, PG-13, etc.). This could come in handy at other attractions include the Great Movie Ride where there are definitely scenes that are too intense for young children (the Alien Scene, for one).

Whatever they decide it won’t bring back this child.

My heart goes out to the family that lost a loved one this week. Based on the information that has been released to the public, I am left to wonder why Disney chose to open the attraction the very next day; well before the autopsy had even been completed. If Disney Management already knows the cause of death, and that it was unrelated to the attraction, then that is one thing and they should say so. But to open the attraction before hearing the exact cause of death exposes them to charges of insensitivity and operating in an unsafe manner.

Yes, Disney’s engineers and ride systems experts examined the attraction and found that everything was operating within normal parameters. But what if something within normal parameters is what killed this child. The attraction is up and running exactly as it was yesterday and there is nothing to prevent any other 44 inch tall 4-year old from getting on the attraction today. There are no additional guidelines to help parents make a decision before entering the queue that this may not be the right attraction for their youngest ones. And in Florida, there is no independent oversight to make sure any of this is considered. And that concerns me.

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