Fun and fatalities: How British theme parks continue to open in the face of adversity

In an industry tainted by horrific accidents, operating in a society increasingly frenzied with health and safety, British theme parks continue to thrive. Not only that, but their reach is expanding; new parks are in the pipeline for both Rotherham and Kent. Grace Holliday takes a look at how these establishments continue to function.

 

It’s been quite the year thus far for announcements of new British theme parks.

Back in February we learned that South Yorkshire will be getting a new Rotherham theme park, Gulliver’s Kingdom. However, the planned budget of just £37 million pales in comparison to the £3.5BN that Kuwait investors on Friday said they hope to plough into a new Kent-based theme park. Whatsmore, while those in the north have to wait until 2030 for the Rotherham park to finish taking shape, the new Kent park could be ready as soon as 2022.

Already touted to be the UK’s very own Disneyland Paris, it will be double the size of its French competitor, at 872 acres. Official plans for the park, which will have the theme of Paramount movies and BBC TV shows, will be submitted later this year.

Built on a landfill site on the Swancombe Peninsula, north Kent, a boat from central London may be made part of the attraction. More than 50 rides and 33,000 jobs will be on offer at the park, which hopes to attract 50,000 visitors each day. A full-price adult ticket is said to be around £57.

While entry can often be steep without vouchers and deals, the UK has quite the legacy for successful theme parks. While the Midlands has Alton Towers and Drayton Manor, the North smaller offerings like Lightwater Valley and Flamingo Land. However, it has been the case for a while now that the South gets the big boys; Thorpe Park, Chessington and Legoland are all within a 40-minute drive each other.

But in a society where Health and Safety is King, how do these parks continue to function so successfully? And how do investors and developers ensure that their park won’t one day make a big splash for all of the wrong reason?

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According to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance; “Fairgrounds and amusement parks have been shown to be relatively safe compared to such activities as driving a car or riding a bicycle.” However, each of these parks has had their fair share of casualties and in some cases, fatalities.

Alton Towers hits the headlines hard last year when its Smiler rollercoaster malfunctioned and crashed. While it can normally reach speeds of 53mph, the prosecution in the subsequent court case likened the incident to a “90mph car crash”. Five people were gravely injured, including 18-year-old Yorkshire girl Leah Washington. Her leg was subsequently amputated.

The park owners, Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, were prosecuted by The Health and Safety Executive under an allegation that they breached clause 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. They plead guilty, and were fined £5 million. Lawyers also estimated a £14 million loss of revenue as a result of the crash. A “catalogue of failures culminating in the tragedy that day” was cited by Paul Paxton, who represented eight of the injured.

Incidents like the one at Alton Towers on that June day are rare. More than one billion rides were taken in the UK last year, and only 35 people were hospitalised as a result. On modern steel rollercoasters, only one fatality has been recorded since 2004, when a 16-year-old girl fell 100ft at Oakwood Park. An inquest later found that the ride controller had only received 20 minutes of supervised training on managing the ride.

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The record of Yorkshire-based theme parks is less blighted; Flamingo Land has never suffered a fatality, while Lightwater Valley hasn’t had a fatality since 2001. Then yet another young South Yorkshire woman died from severe injuries to her head and spine when her rollercoaster car collided with another. The ride manufacturers were fined £120,000 while the park was fined £35,000 and an electrician £2,500.

Public interest was renewed in the wake of the Alton Towers crash last year, and many parks jostled to release statements reassuring park visitors. Drayton Manor Operations Manager, David Bromilow, said that their rides underwent ‘rigorous daily safety inspection’.

The official HSE guidance adds: “The most important steps to managing health and safety are the policy, organisation, planning, monitoring, auditing and reviewing.” Even still, accidents still happen; some through a manufacturing fault, some through wear and tear, and others through what is legally termed as ‘an act of God’.

The President and CEO of The International Association of Amusement Parks (IAAPA), Paul Noland, last year said: “One injury is one too many in our industry. Delivering the highest levels of safety is fundamental to our industry’s existence and is a part of everything we do.”

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While fatalities do sometimes spoil what should be a fun day, and injuries continue to seem inevitable, the general risk of being hurt at a park is low; around 1 in 9 million according to IAAPA. It can only be hoped that as awareness, training and technology improves, the numbers of those let down by their park decreased.

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