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When you evacuate an attraction, how long should it take?

The 911 tape for the heavily reported on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey evacuation has been released. On it, one of the ride’s passengers claims they had been kept waiting 15 minutes in an uncomfortable position without any notice from ride attendants when help would come.

Leaving aside how accurate the 15 minute claim was, I think the incident poses an interesting question to consider. How long is too long to wait for an evacuation? Should a theme park be required to have enough staff close at hand to evacuate a building in 2-3 minutes in case of a fire or similar problem? 3-5 minutes?

What are your thoughts? I’m interested in a serious discussion about guest safety here.

First the decision has to be made to evacuate after a ride-stop. Standard operating procedure might require a whole series of checklists to check for safety concerns before a ride operator can know if the attraction needs to be evacuated or if it can be just restarted. An evacuation at the end of the night, as this one was, is likely to make hundreds of park guests waiting in the queue very unhappy as they won’t get a change to ride before the park closes, so every effort was probably made to get things restarted without an evacuation. But how long is too long?

In a related issue, once an evacuation is decided, how long should that take? Obviously, safety of cast and guests is the primary concern. But what if there is an emergency or risk of injury? Airlines are required to affect a complete evacuation of the plane in 90 seconds. For the most part theme park attractions aren’t sitting on containers full of fuel or accelerants. So 90 seconds is probably too strict, but even smoke or burning sets can quickly make an attraction a death trap. (Aside: Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean is essentially one big tinderbox of plywood and two-by-fours.) What about ride vehicles that require external assistance to evacuate?

Once again, I’m surprised there is no official body that requires these sort of safety standards for theme park and amusement attractions.

Previously: When is it okay to call 911 when stuck on an attraction.

10 thoughts on “When you evacuate an attraction, how long should it take?”

  1. I know in California we have requirements, I do not know what they are specifically, but I do know the theme park is heavily regulated here. I never have understood why Florida’s parks aren;t regulated in a similar manner. I would think that the theme parks would welcome it, as it could limit their liability. If they are regulated and can show that they precisely followed all of the regulations (and common sense practices), then they can pass the liability off to the regulating agency.

    I do know here in California the time required to evacuate varies by conditions, for example if all or part of the building is on fire, then the time is much shorter than if it is simply a mechanical breakdown.

    That being said, there didn’t use to be as much regulation, the summer that california Adventure opened I got stuck on Grizzly River Run for about an hour (right before the unload area) for about an hour and a half. It was 110 degrees outside, I was completely dry by the time that I got off and I was soaked during the ride. All Disney wanted to do for leaving use out in the HOT sun for that time was to give a fastpass valid for one attraction of our choice. Needless to say I was upset, but was nice and insisted that this was not enough considering the circumstances (the worst part was that we could have exited safely on my own had they let me, our boat actually tried a couple of times, but unfortunately I was at the far side of the boat and thus dependent on everyone else to exit first). I remained nice, but insistent, they ended up giving me: a free ticket to Disneyland (not DCA, because it was expected to be too busy still) to bring a friend (as I had an annual pass), the afore mentioned fastpass and two free corn dogs and drinks from corn dog castle. The last bit is besides the point, the point is that they must now exit that attraction within 15 minutes when the temperatures are over 80 degrees. I do think that this might be too long still, but a lot better than an hour and half (give or take 5 minutes and yes, I timed it with my watch). I think that in higher temperatures this should be reduced to 5 minutes. And yes, I do think this is reasonable, but I do think it depends on the attraction, if it is air conditioned, then they can take longer if safety issues do not come into play, but ultimately I would say no longer than 20 minutes, as people have to be able to use the restroom at bare minimum, in addition there may be diabetics and others that may need things and 20 minutes is usually a good time when combined with ride lengths, people can plan for this.

  2. I volunteer on a local ski patrol in Washington State. Our mandate is to be able to fully evacuate a ski lift within 1-hour. That includes a 15-minute window for the maintenance crew to try to fix the lift first. It’s also interesting to note that skiers are usually not dressed well for prolonged inactivity exposed to the weather (skiing is an active sport). 1-hour would seem like a very long time to a guest stuck on a lift. In colder than usual weather, frostbite or hypothermia would be a very real concern. Furtunately, it takes a lot to stop a ski lift to the point of needing roped evacuation.

    Consequently, while I would expect some compensation, 1-hour doesn’t seem beyond the pale. I assume the guests in the most “awkward” positions would be a priority. I’d also expect guests showing signs of distress for any reason, to also be a higher priority. In our case, evacuating other ski patrollers is a priority, because they can then help evacuate guests. That might not be a consideration at a theme park.

    The decision making process is one of authority. The maintenance crew has 5-minutes to decide if a fix can be made, or the backup motor can be used to empty the lift. They have a total of 15-minutes to actually effect that fix or a powered-evacuation using the backup motor. During that 15-minutes window, the maintenance crew has complete authority. After 15-minutes, the ski patrol is in charge and ropes are thrown over the lines to begin a roped evacuation. If the maintenance crew manages to fix the problem beyond their 15-minute window, ski patrol has the final say in weather to proceed with the roped evacuation, or pull the ropes off the lines and see if the fix holds.

    It seems like ski resorts and theme parks would have similar issues in this regard.

    1. Some attractions are definitely similar to the chair-lift idea, but unlike climbing a mountain, attractions are designed. So I think design should take into account safe and speedy evacuation procedures. If 15 minutes is a reasonable amount of time to make the mechanical decision (at Disney or Universal it might take 15 minutes just for the maintenance team to arrive at the ride), another 15 minutes for evacuation to reach you is expected. That means during the first 15 minutes, the park needs to make sure there are enough cast members on hand to complete an evacuation in that amount of time.

      At HPFJ, there are a max of 132 riders on 33 vehicles. Figure out the amount of time it takes to evacuate riders from one car and then do the math. If it takes 4 minutes to evacuate each car, then HPFJ would require 9 teams of cast members to complete the procedure in 15 minutes. 5 teams would take 30 minutes, 2 teams would take over an hour.

      It looks like it’s just a matter of proper staffing levels and designing proper access for a safe and speedy evacuation.

  3. Well since you used Pirates as an example, I can tell you that (depending on the circumstances) a full evac of Pirates of the Caribbean can easily take up to one hour. There are about 4 unload zones that lead to paths that take you up some stairs and backstage before you cross the Disneyland Railroad tracks and are returned to New Orleans. Should any of the Guests have a disability that prevents them from being able to take that path, they need to wait in the boat until the CMs in waders physically push their boat back to the station (which means they have to wait for the other up-to-40 boats ahead of them to be pushed through first). When you work in Guest Relations and you hear a Pirates evac on the radio, you start preparing yourself as if you’re going into battle, because there are about to be up to 800 people screaming at you about the forty minutes they just spent listening to those pirates continuously wanting the red head.

    The thing I find suspect is the claim that they never told him when help would be coming. I’ve heard that one before, and it’s almost never true. The Guests on an attraction that has gone down usually hear numerous times over the ride audio systems whether they should “stay in your seats, you’ll be on your way shortly” or “Please remain seated, a safety team is on their way to get you” or something of the sort. I know at Disneyland there’s a recorded spiel they play in this situation, and then the CMs can also speak live over the audio system to give more specific instruction. I have a terribly hard time believing that the well-trained opening crew of this HUGE, technologically advanced attraction never played or spieled any information to the Guests stuck inside. Sometimes if you’re stuck in a slightly uncomfortable position for more than a minute or two, you stress out and overreact to the situation. I have a feeling that’s what happened here.

    And you’re also right to note that in different situations, different evac plans are in motion. I think it’s safe to assume that had Hogwarts been on fire, the evac WOULD have happened quicker. But when you rush an evac and tell confused Guests “hurry, get out of here asap”, you cause them to panic and usually create MORE injuries that way than if you can take your time making sure everyone slowly and safely exits the area. If the building is NOT on fire, I would prefer a 40 minute evac to a 10 minute one. “Comp tickets for everyone, since you’re all still alive this way. You’re welcome.”

  4. The last time I visited Disneyland, a friend and I got stuck on Space Mountain. Our car came to a complete stop, but the lights didn’t come on and the music was still blaring. We sat like that for a few minutes when my friend started to panic (since there was no announcement and we had no idea if other cars on the track had come to a complete stop as well). We were extremely thankful when they finally DID turn off the music and turn off the lights, but even then, it was still approximately 10 minutes (maybe more) before we started hearing announcements over an intercom. Total time we were stuck on the ride before being escorted off? Probably around 20-25 minutes.

    I think that it is extremely important that theme parks keep guest safety in mind – and I’m sure that they are doing that now. But, I will NEVER ride Space Mountain again. We were so afraid that we were going to be rear-ended when we were stopped. I wouldn’t have called 911, but we did start to become very anxious in those minutes.

  5. As others have stated before me, the time it takes to begin evacuation procedures depends on the reason for evacuation in the first place. At Disney World, my co-cast members and I are very careful to spiel to the guests every 2-3 minutes when our rides stop. My rides, however, are not fast-moving rides and do not involve a lot of maneuvering to get guests out of vehicles.

    When we do evacuate (in non-emergency situations), it’s usually because something has happened that cannot be fixed in a short time and it’s easier to get everyone off the ride as opposed to sitting there for an hour or more. However, we do need to check first that it absolutely cannot be fixed with guests on the ride–the thinking being: even if you’re stuck on a ride, it’s more convenient to just finish the ride after a short wait instead of evacuating only to have to come back later to ride.

    My rides’ evacuations, at least, do not require many cast members and we tell everyone, as we go through the ride, that they will be evacuating but to remain seated until someone can come and open up their vehicle.

    I have not been to the Harry Potter area of Universal yet nor have I ever worked for Universal, but in my experience on the rides I work on at Disney, we never take longer than needed before evacuations and we always spiel to the guests.

  6. We were stuck on Disneyland’s Indiana Jones ride back in March. We were about half way through when it just stopped. We didn’t know anything was up until the other people in our car said something (it was our first time on the ride!) In any case, it was probably a minute or two until the lights came on, then another 2 minutes until CM’s came around to see if everyone was doing OK (most in our car were, we just had one guy who wasn’t too happy to be in the snake section!) and if we were able to exit using a step-ladder or if we needed help. It was probably another 5-10 minutes until they came back around to let us off, where we then walked the second half of the ride, picking up each new car before continuing on. From the time the ride stopped to the time we were out was about 30 minutes. I thought they did an excellent job of keeping us informed.

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