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Safely Engineering Theme Park Rides

Posted August 11, 2016 10:27 AM by HUSH

After this year’s string of ride malfunctions, I may not make my annual pilgrimage to one of the several amusement parks within a few hours’ drive.

I belong to an online rollercoaster forum, so I’ve seen the recent headlines. Coaster trains stuck. Coaster trains derailing. Coaster parts malfunctioning. Coaster trains colliding. More coaster trains stuck. Some estimates are as high as 45,000 injuries from amusement park rides each year in the United States.

And then, this past weekend, the tragic story of a 10-year-old boy decapitated on the ride Verruckt, located at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City, Kansas. Two women riding with the boy were also hurt. The incident occurred when the raft of the ride crested on a bunny hill, which is an unusual feature for a water slide.

Rollercoasters and other thrilling amusement park rides are meant to stimulate riders fear and excitement, but return them safely to the ground. Each ride takes substantial engineering to build and maintain, so when something goes horribly wrong, as it did with Verruckt, the ride’s engineering is closely reviewed.

Verruckt opened in 2014 as the tallest and fastest waterslide in the world. Riders are strapped into rafts that are sent down a 17 story plunge before cresting over a 50 foot hill, and finally descending to the braking pool below for exit.

Yet reports show that Verruckt’s debut was pushed back in 2014 because engineers discovered rafts loaded with sandbags would fly off the uphill on test runs (skip ahead in the video to 0:30).

At the time, Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry, who designed the ride along with the park’s senior designer John Schooley, admitted to using rollercoaster calculations in the initial design. According to Henry, essential factors such as air and water friction weren’t accounted for.

Fixes included adding trim brakes to the first drop; reducing the slope at the bottom of the initial drop from 45° to 22°; an extra five feet added to the uphill; and rubberized friction pads to slow the raft and increase friction throughout the ride. To ensure the raft made it up the hill, water blasters were added to propel rafts up the last few feet. These fixes cost more than $1 million and set Verruckt’s opening date back by months.

There are rider rumors that prior to 2016 Verruckt changed some of the slide’s braking, as trim brakes were wearing out the rafts too soon, to more friction mats.

From the very beginning, park officials and engineers knew that they were likely pushing the safety limits of this water slide. It seems like a grave error from a waterpark that had itself dubbed the slide “safe dangerous.” I would be very surprised to see Verruckt open ever again.

(By the way, this week’s Olympics post is by BestinShow: The Hottest Tech in Olympic Cycling.)

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Guru

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#1

Re: Safely Engineering Theme Park Rides

08/11/2016 9:04 PM

There is no such thing as a safe ride that is dangerous!!

There is also no such thing as a dangerous ride that is safe!

The operators should be charged with 2nd degree murder and the park closed forever.

It's like giving the riders a loaded revolver with one bullet in it and saying "spin cylinder, put gun to head, pull trigger."

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#2

Re: Safely Engineering Theme Park Rides

08/14/2016 10:46 PM

Due to the cutting edge extreme-ness of the ride the designers should have put more effort into planning the ride's design to "make it look dangerous (exciting) but actually be safe". When you start pushing the bounds of what is safe and possible, much more effort is needed in the design and safety. Early American theme parks were lethal death traps compared to modern ones.

What were they basing the calculations on, the computer game "Rollercoster Tycoon"?

Disturbing as it may be, if they posted the design question on CR4 we most likely would have pointed out the problems they missed.

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#3
In reply to #2

Re: Safely Engineering Theme Park Rides

08/15/2016 8:16 PM

I can recall back when I was a kid around 30 -35 years ago our state fair seemed to have at least one death every year to three years at most.

It was just part of life and my #1 reason to not go on rides there ever. That and most every ride just spun around in one form or another to which always made me long lastingly horribly sick so they were not the least bit fun to begin with.

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