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( Courtesy of the Orlando Sentinel) The roller coasters and other rides at Legoland Florida, the theme park scheduled to open in Polk County next month, won't have to undergo any state safety inspections.
State officials agreed last month to spare Legoland from safety oversight because the Winter Haven theme park will qualify - albeit barely - for a 22-year-old exemption that was initially written into Florida law for Walt Disney World and other big theme parks.
The move makes Legoland parent company Merlin Entertainments Group the fourth park owner in Florida to operate free of state ride-safety regulation. The others are the Walt Disney Co.; NBC Universal, which owns Universal Orlando and Wet 'n Wild; and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, which owns SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
"Within our industry, it is common practice for the theme parks to govern themselves as far as ride inspections go," Legoland spokeswoman Jackie Wallace said Tuesday. "We are following suit."
To be exempt from the state's inspection-and-permitting requirements, Florida law requires a theme park to have a minimum of 1,000 employees.
Legoland is not there yet. It currently has 994 workers - "with offers out to the last six," Wallace said.
If Legoland's employment falls below 1,000 at any point, state officials say, the park would become subject to regulation by theFlorida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The law requires exempt parks to employ full-time, in-house safety inspectors and to file annual affidavits with the state certifying that each of their rides has been inspected. Legoland Florida, whose approximately two dozen rides range from the relatively tame Big Rig Rally - a semi-truck ride for toddlers - to the more extreme Flying School - a suspended, steel roller coaster that promises kids the "thrill of flight" - said it has 28 people in its rides division whose duties include inspections.
Boosters of self-regulation say theme parks already have ample motivation to take safety precautions, as accidents can spark negative publicity and public backlash. They also say the biggest parks design ride systems and safety protocols that are far more sophisticated than anything that would be mandated by the state, which focuses in large part on traveling fairs or carnivals and smaller attractions.
Jim Miller, Legoland's director of maintenance, said the park's in-house inspections - some of which are conducted daily - will go beyond what would otherwise be conducted by the state. "I think we have more expertise. We surpass what the state is asking for as far as inspections," Miller said. "We feel like we go above and beyond when it comes to the safety of our guests on the rides."
Legoland also plans to contract with a third-party company, Recreation Engineering Inc., which will conduct certain types of tests and submit required documentation to the state. In addition, Legoland has agreed to abide by the terms of an existing "memorandum of understanding" between the other big theme parks and the Florida Bureau of Fair Rides Inspection, in which the parks submit quarterly reports with basic details of injuries that occur on their rides.
Some argue that Florida's voluntary reporting requirements are insufficient. Barry Novack, a California lawyer who has been involved in a number of personal-injury lawsuits against parks, say records produced from some of those suits show that parks frequently underreport the number of injuries suffered on their rides.
He said the situation is particularly acute in Florida - home to eight of the 11 busiest theme parks in the U.S. - because parks have to report only injuries that result in an immediate hospital stay of more than 24 hours "for purposes other than medical observation." "What they [the theme parks] say is very few have been injured compared to the number that ride. It's not that very few have been injured, it's that they've only disclosed very, very few," Novack said. "It's really a farce."
Whatever the reason, reported injuries are rare.
SeaWorld Orlando and its sister water park Aquatica, which drew an estimated 6.6 million visitors last year, haven't reported an official guest injury since the second quarter of 2008, according to state records. Busch Gardens and sister water park Adventure Island, which drew an estimated 4.8 million visitors last year, haven't reported an official injury since the second quarter of 2006, according to the records.
Disney World, whose four theme parks and two water parks drew 51 million visitors in 2010, has reported 87 injuries since the second quarter of 2008. Universal, whose two parks drew 11.2 million guests last year, reported 14 injuries over the same period. Wet 'n Wild, which drew 1.2 million, has reported five.
A spokesman for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment said the company takes injury reports seriously and goes as far as to alert the state even to medical conditions that occur on a ride but are unrelated to the ride's operation.
"Each of our rides is inspected daily to ensure all components and equipment are operating within manufacturer-recommended specifications," spokesman Fred Jacobs added. "Each ride is subject to a rigorous schedule of preventative maintenance and nondestructive testing according to ride-cycle parameters, as specified by manufacturer specifications, state and local requirements, and internal SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment standards. Our rides-maintenance teams remain in contact with ride manufacturers for ongoing support, parts and service for the life of the attraction."
Disney World noted that it employs more than 1,000 "engineers, mechanics, safety professionals and specialists" who are dedicated to the safety of guests and workers.
Supporters of the current system also say it fosters a culture of collaboration, because the parks annually consult with state regulators on best practices and safety trends. Universal Orlando recently hosted a session during which it showed inspectors new portable, emergency-shut-down units it has given to employees working three big thrill rides: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, and Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges.
"No one cares more about the safety of our guests than we do. No one knows more about how to keep our guests safe than we do," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said. "We are always willing to discuss ways to enhance our industry's strong safety record, but more government programs and regulations are not the answer."
(By Jason Garcia and Sara K. Clarke)