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Missouri rules open door for new thrill ride at Worlds of Fun

Updated: 2013-09-09T04:14:15Z

By KAREN DILLON

The Kansas City Star

The backstory of why a 300-foot-tall swing carousel is coming to Worlds of Fun:

California, where the carousel is now, requires some ladders that Missouri does not.

The story is actually a little longer than that but not much more complicated.

Cedar Fair, which owns several WindSeeker rides, announced a week ago that it would move the ride from Knott’s Berry Farm near Los Angeles to its sister park in Kansas City, more than 1,600 miles away.

The ladder issue occurred after the WindSeeker, which will be renamed the SteelHawk in Kansas City, broke down twice last year, leaving riders dangling in the air once for more than three hours and another time for an hour.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration ordered the ride to shut down until Cedar Fair installed a number of safety features. Some of those were made, including a metal cage attached to the ride’s shaft in March to allow riders to be escorted down if malfunctions occurred.

But the state also wanted new ladders to be fixed to the inside and outside of the carousel tower for employees to climb while repairing a stalled ride.

“We never got past the ladder issue,” said Stacy Frole, corporate spokeswoman for Cedar Fair.

California required more than a single rail with rungs attached to it. The ladders must look like traditional home ladders, with two sides and the rungs placed between them, making it more difficult for workers’ feet to slip off.

Instead of replacing the current ladders or seeking a variance, Cedar Fair decided to simply move the ride.

“Yes there is a cost for moving it,” Frole said, but if the company’s investment stayed in California, it was unknown when it would be allowed to operate. Cedar Fair’s plan now is to have the ride up and twirling at Worlds of Fun in 2014.

Missouri does not have any such requirement for ladder safety, said Mike O’Connell, spokesman for the Missouri Division of Fire Safety, which oversees amusement parks and carnival rides. The state also doesn’t have its own OSHA division.

O’Connell said he was surprised that a state’s regulations on amusement park ladders would be so detailed.

“It’s amazing that there would be that level of specifics,” O’Connell said.

(Federal OSHA rules do get to that level, banning many uses of the single rail ladder, but no OSHA officials responded to questions about whether the bans apply specifically to amusement rides.)

The three-minute WindSeeker ride features 64 seats that rise up around the tower from the ground, spin in a circle and dip at a 45-degree angle. The rides were introduced by Cedar Fair in 2011 at parks in California, two in Ohio and one in Ontario. Two more opened in North Carolina and in Virginia in 2012.

Last year, all the rides had some type of problem except at Kings Island in Ohio, according to news reports.

On Sept. 21 last year, Cedar Fair announced all WindSeekers would be temporarily shut down. All have reopened but the Knott’s Berry Farm ride.

Just six weeks ago, the North Carolina WindSeeker left 64 riders stranded for more than an hour.

But Frole said that no one has been hurt, and when the ride stalls it means its state-of-the-art safety features are working.

“In all circumstances, this ride operated as it was designed to,” Frole said. “This ride has a very robust safety system. I would refer to it as a check engine light on your auto. It doesn’t mean the engine is broken, it’s just a warning.”

It’s not surprising to see states treating the WindSeeker as differently as California and Missouri, said a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has pushed for federal oversight of amusement park rides.

“Because there isn’t any federal oversight, it’s just left to a confusing patchwork across the United States and can result in a situation like this,” said Markey spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder.

Missouri and Kansas laws are less stringent than those of some other states, according to saferparks.org, which collects amusement park data and reports.

The reports show that about half of the states have “comprehensive” government oversight, while Kansas and Missouri are listed as having “partial” government oversight.

That means in Missouri that instead of a state employee inspecting rides, the company is allowed to hire someone to inspect the rides. O’Connell said, though, that the state does do spot inspections.

Missouri also requires the park owner to report only severe injuries, injuries of three or more, and death, and it doesn’t require the owner to report major equipment damage.

The disparity in rules leads to a major disparity in the number of accidents reported to states. For example, New Jersey, California and Texas report thousands of accidents each year because those states require reports whenever a rider seeks medical treatment.

In five years, Missouri has had only three reported accidents.

But Chad Points, a Houston attorney who specializes in amusement ride accidents, said riders need to be aware that rides, no matter how safe the parks say they are, can still have accidents. He said with the problems the WindSeeker has had, he would not ride it, nor would he allow his children to.

“We just have a really, really lax enforcement scheme.”

O’Connell, though, said that his office vigorously enforces Missouri rules and that the WindSeeker “will meet the standards of the state before it is put in operation.”

Frole said Kansas City will like its new attraction. She said she and her family rode it recently at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, at the foot of Lake Erie.

“My whole family loved riding the ride and seeing the view,” Frole said. “It’s a great ride. You guys will love it.”

To reach Karen Dillon, call 816-234-4430 or send email to kdillon@kcstar.com.

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