A 12-year-old boy died after riding the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Disney-MGM Studios in Florida last week. A grieving Tennessee family will never be the same. The initial autopsy report claims that the boy had a congenital heart condition, but that's obviously no consolation to the parents facing this insurmountable loss.
It's also not going to be any consolation to Disney
The timing is lousy for Disney. It's bad enough that high fuel prices had some families scrambling to hit regional parks closer to home this summer. Now Disney has to cope with the fallout of this latest horrific episode.
Giving numbers their due
If you play the percentages, you know these kinds of things are going to happen. In Florida alone, Disney's four parks drew an estimated 42.8 million guests last year. Compare that with the 12.7 million turnstile clicks that Cedar Fair
Billing itself as "the happiest place on Earth" does not exempt a company from the grim realities of human mortality. After all, how many folks have died in car accidents on the way to Disney? How many have simply expired in their hotel rooms?
This doesn't mean I equate someone dozing off at the wheel or passing away in mid-slumber to the shock and magnitude of dying after going on a park ride. My point here is that vacationers punch out all the time. The media just glosses over those occurrences to dive in to more graphic in-park deaths.
The realities of Fantasyland
Is Disney too good at what it does? On our lively Disney discussion board, theories have abounded about the unusually high number of fatalities on some of the park's signature thrill rides lately.
One school of thought claims that Disney is so well entrenched as a "family entertainment" brand with a proven pedigree in tame rides that folks don't expect the g-force extremes that rides like Rock 'n' Roller serve up.
The problem becomes compounded by Disney's mastery of themed elements. Go to a regional park, and the steel and wooden scream machines are visible for miles. The thrills are as obvious as they are naked. But at Disney, some guests may not be aware of quick-launching coasters or a space-themed spinner with lots of centrifugal force -- things that get wedged between much tamer diversions.
Disney also draws a much wider base of overseas tourists than traditional amusement parks do. Translations are tricky in those cases. Expectations are varied. Still, that is probably not much of an argument in this case, since most of the publicized cases have befallen stateside victims.
All of this theorizing may be for naught. It's more than likely that these unfortunate riders would have still ridden identical rides in a non-themed, non-Disney environment. And that prompts one final question: should Disney stop building thrill rides?
A passing grade for e-ticket attractions
The impact of a new thrill ride is undeniable. Animal Kingdom had been an attendance dud since it opened, yet folks have been turning up in droves since the animal park opened its state-of-the-art Expedition: Everest coaster three months ago. Likewise, Epcot has seen healthy upticks in attendance after adding Mission: Space and Soarin' to its once laid-back lineup.
You can't skimp on thrills, but Disney seems to be hoping that technology and its recent acquisition of Pixar will help it provide the appropriate turnstile catalysts. Two -- possibly three -- Disney World attractions in development feature Pixar characters in high-tech dark ride experiences.
Technology has evolved to the point at which high-tech rides such as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal's Islands of Adventure or Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin at Disneyland and Florida's Magic Kingdom ignite the same kind of "let's get in line and do it again" fever that you see at the most daring of coasters.
Riding through a shooting gallery may be merely scratching the surface, as parks respond to jaded teens who prefer staying home and playing video games over a day at the park. The Internet may change that. Regional park operators are already turning to companies such as Cygnus to facilitate online ticket sales, but the World Wide Web is a better tool for pulling instead of pushing. What happens when parks allow guests riding the new wave of virtual shooting gallery attractions to have their scores -- and running averages -- posted online?
The young crowd that thrill rides normally attract are flocking to photo-sharing sites such as CNET's
The prospects are bright for the industry. Ride safety is the current concern -- and rightfully so -- but it's all the more reason for the industry to embrace tomorrow a day early. In the future, parks will be far more interactive than they are today.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a kid at heart, but he doesn't mind borrowing the perspective of his two young sons from time to time. He owns shares in Disney and Cedar Fair. T he Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.