Freefalling puts new spin on rides
Soaring and dropping is the latest thrill for fun-seekers
Go into your kitchen. Nudge your toes up to the edge of a row of tiles, right to the very edge . . . maybe even over the edge a bit. Now bend forward as far as you can and touch the floor.
Nothing to it?
Now try it at the edge of the roof of a 13-story building.
Most people would recoil at the thought. Caution, if not abject fear, of heights is a universal condition. And thrill-ride designers for Central Florida theme parks are getting better at exploiting it.
For much of the past century, the big thrills at amusement parks have come from roller coasters, with their speeding twists, turns and dives.
But, in recent years, some of the most scream-inducing rides have been those that go in just two directions: up and down -- only very high and very fast. Rides like Dr. Doom's Fearfall at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure.
Other rides in Central Florida, such as Epcot's Mission: Space, have succeeded by using simulators and centrifuges to trick riders into thinking they're falling or soaring.
Reports of illness and a death on such rides this year have raised questions about the forces they impart on passengers. The fast, vertical rides employ a twist not typically found in roller coasters -- substantial "negative G's" that give riders momentary feelings of weightlessness or flying, a FLORIDA TODAY examination found. And centrifuge rides exert acceleration-like force in one direction much longer than coasters.
But those rides don't reach the peak G-forces that roller coasters do and don't sustain them long, test data showed. The rides comply with industry standards crafted to protect riders' health, data showed.
Instead, a combination of fear and existing health problems most likely triggered troubles for riders, health studies and
medical examiner reports show.
For park visitors, safety is a matter of trust.
Marni Jordan of Cocoa Beach said she never has been concerned about the safety of rides.
"With Disney, especially, I'm not concerned," said Jordan, who has been a regular visitor to Orlando-area parks -- especially Disney -- over the years with her 9-year-old son, Alex.
"I just assume they are safe."
Soaring, falling over Orlando
The Orlando-area theme parks have two "free-fall" rides: Dr. Doom at Universal and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney-MGM Studios.
Both rides play on fear of heights, in opposite ways and with different themes. But they have similar effects on their riders:
The ride creates a sensation of weightlessness, as riders look down on Orlando's rooftops and highways. Passengers go from 1 G at rest to 3 G's and then negative 3.8 G's in about 2.5 seconds.
Although terrifying to some, the G-forces conform to guidelines for safe rides developed by the industry and mandated by the state.
"Our rides are specifically designed to be both entertaining and safe," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said.
The car pauses in pitch darkness. And then the ride plunges down. And back up. And back down. And down more -- subjecting riders to forces as high as 3.1 G's and as low as negative 0.9 G's in about 30 seconds.
Meanwhile, a door opens at the peak of each bounce, offering riders a glimpse of the park's skyline, emphasizing how high they are.
The forces are within state-allowed guidelines. And doctors say those forces shouldn't pose any problems for healthy people.
But a 16-year-old girl, Leanne Deacon of Britain, suffered cardiac arrest and blood on her brain after leaving the ride in July. She was still in critical condition when she was flown overseas in August.
"We would never want to minimize any tragedy, but, given the sheer size and scope of our operations, events like these can occur from time to time," said Disney spokeswoman Lissette Campos. "Our thoughts continue to be with her and her family. A thorough evaluation and inspection of the attraction determined that the ride continues to operate properly."
Centrifuges: Movement and imagery
In June, a 4-year-old Pennsylvania boy died from heart failure after riding Disney's newest twist on a thrill ride, Epcot's Mission: Space. The ride uses a centrifuge and computer imagery to simulate a mission to Mars, including the G-forces astronauts feel during a rocket launch.
Riders experience about 1.5 G's pushing on their chest for about 15 seconds. It's the highest sustained force felt from forward acceleration of all rides and roller coasters tested by FLORIDA TODAY.
But it's less than the 3 G's astronauts withstand for several minutes.
The highest combined G-forces riders feel -- including the force of movement along three axes and the force of gravity -- is about 2.2 G's on Mission: Space.
Still, the movement, combined with the imagery that simulates such things as dodging through a meteor field and crash-landing on Mars, has enough of an effect on some riders that Disney includes motion-sickness bags on the ride.
Several riders have complained of chest pains after riding Mission: Space.
A state report lists nine other incidents of fainting, chest pains or severe nausea on the ride since 2003.
The most serious incident came this past summer, though, when 4-year-old Daudi Bamuwamye collapsed after riding Mission: Space with his mother and sister. He later died of heart failure. An autopsy showed that Bamuwamye had a congenital heart defect.
"People with this condition are at risk for sudden death throughout their life due to abnormal electrical heart rhythms," according to a Nov. 15 report by the medical examiner for Orange and Osceola counties. "This risk could be increased under physical or emotional stressful situations."
Said Campos, the Disney spokeswoman: "Our sympathy is with the family during this difficult time. In regard to the report, we believe it speaks for itself."
Industry officials point out that the number of people injured or who die after amusement park rides is tiny, compared with the millions who visit amusement parks each year.
Source : Florida today