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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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9 thoughts on “Blink before riding: Steps to better decision making at Disney World”

  1. As I was reading this I was thinking that a minimum age was the way to go- then I saw that you agreed. I didn’t realize they had done this before at one point.
    It is obvious why the ride was opened the next day, money. The ride is a huge draw and its closure would frustrate many guests that may reflect their feelings with their pocketbook.
    Your point about something within the normal operation being the problem is extremely valid and is hopefully being addressed.

  2. 8.6 million people have ridden Mission Space. Only this child has died. Although it is a huge tragedy, it is not Disney’s fault. I don’t want to blame the parents either but who would let there 4 year old ride something that has SO many warnings posted when you enter the building, in the queue, the hallways leading to the ride, etc. This is an unfortunate event but Disney doesn’t need to do anything above what they have already done. As far as why did they re-open the ride, they have a business to run and there is no evidence that the ride is dangerous for healthy people. 8.6 million to one…

  3. A very thoughtful and interesting post over at Mellie’s blog. Here’s the response I posted over there.

    I’ve been thinking more about extended g-forces. There are a few roller-coaster rides where 4Gs are put on the body for extended periods and no ill effects (of course the height limits are higher), that is unless you already had a pre-existing condition. At which point it is the responsibility of the individual to be checked out by a doctor and know ones limitations.

    Guests who probably shouldn’t ride M:S board it all the time, some leave feeling faint or in pain and don’t report it. So the stats reported by everyone for injuries on the ride, are probably low.

    I think it comes back to this — does every guest have the information required to make the right decision at each attraction. How do you inform a family that doesn’t speak english that they’re about to experience something that could be life-threatening if you have a heart condition.

    I don’t envy the ride system designers who have to deal with these issues: knowing that it is possible someone will miss the warning signs, chose to ignore them, or have a pre-existing condition they know nothing about, and be injured or killed by the ride. At some point someone has to say, that’s enough planning and safety prepartion, we have to open this attraction. How do they deal?

  4. hi i was totally upset by this story, we were just there in april and my husband an dhis friend were very sick on this ride, i didnt go on cause i have alot of the listed problems, but my concern is there is no way out once you are on this ride you are literally trapped so if you are scared or sick that is it, and i feel terrible this little boy went on excited for a space trip and a memory of disney and has no life ahead of him. i think wether the mom was right or wrong on putting him on, a suggestion is have a way that a conductor can get someone off experincing trama, etc…a signal etc…..i dont care what the height requiremtn he was 4, still a baby and a parent should try it out oneself then determine if safe for the child. let him rest in peace.

  5. also the signal that said to me that wasnt the ride for me was there are barf bags in front of you that to me is a sign not to get on it….the technicians for these rides will check it out big deal, it is disney they still justwant their popluarity and money, safety isnt always a big concern, just my opinion.

  6. In response to christina’s comment “…it is disney they still just want their popularity and money, safety isn’t a big concern…” Are you kidding me? It is obvious that you have no idea what you are talking about. I used to work at WDW and the safety precautions taken there would make your head spin. Have you ever gone to the local fair or even amusement park? The level of safety at those types of places is a fraction of the DAILY safety protocols that Disney has in place. Just think, any little accident could cost the park millions with all the pathetic, litigious idiots out there. When are we, as Americans, going to stop blaming everyone else for our mistakes, short comings, or problems and maybe look within. As Chrissy said, the parents should have ridden the ride first perhaps? Or maybe the child had some sickness that the parents didn’t know about and the child may have died some other place, some other time. It is a tragedy, it is a shame, but why do we always have to blame someone??? Sometimes terrible things happen and only God knows why. I reiterate, 8.6 million people have ridden the ride, 1 unfortunate death. Escalators in the mall kill more people…

    1. Thank you aaron! I was reading all the posts above and thinking…”why are they blaming Disney?” I agree that it is time for Americans to start taking responsibility for their own actions and start looking within to see where the real blame lies. Or as you said maybe the child had something wrong and was just undetected up til now, therefore making it an unfortunate accident. I am not going to pretend to know anything about this ride as I have never been there. But I have been to enough amusements parks to know (including Disneyland)that there are warning signs, height requirements, and the like letting people know of the dangers of such rides. I feel bad for the child and the child’s family, it is an unfortunate thing to happen. However, Disney is not responsible for it. Maybe nobody is responsible, I don’t know…only God knows why this happened. I just don’t think Disney is responsible.

  7. I may be late to this string, but wanted to post my comments anyway. I rode M:S with my husband two days ago (Nov 4, 2005) and honestly, saw no warnings posted, other than a video message that warned guests away who might be uncomfortable in “dark, enclosed spaces,” “motion sickness”,…and “spinning.” Why were we not warned of greater danger? Ironically, because we were bypassed to the head of the line out of view of any signs or videos, because my husband is disabled and rode up in a “scooter chair.” Because of his disability, we were put in one of the capsules for 4 alone, just the two of us. I had NO IDEA what we were in for, and figured it’d be another safe WDW experience like “Soarin” we’d experienced moments before.

    First of all, the harness came down way too tight against my chest. As the G-forces ripped into me, the harness tightened against my sternum and diaphragm. I literally felt my heart squeeze. I do not get motion sickness (came to WDW from a cruise liner, in fact, where I was fine). I retched. I frantically looked around the cabin for a button to push to halt the ride, and found none — and didn’t see the barf bags either, though my husband later told me there were some. My head jittered against the back headrest as I heaved. I “ralphed” violently though did not vomit. I was faint, breathless and have never felt sicker in my life. My husband told me I was ghostly pale and clammy when I got off the ride … and I didn’t even begin to feel better for hours afterwards. I honestly have never felt as close to death as I did when I was on M:S, without exaggeration!

    Disney does have several staff who give riders many opportunities to “opt out” … which is a sure sign that this is NOT a good ride for anyone who cares about good health. I am still feeling this ride’s effects today and I will never again go on any ride anywhere again. Period. UGH!!

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