DURING THE LAST FEW sunny days of August, residents of our soggy state will be heading out to catch some last-minute summer fun at carnivals and amusement parks. And while we think of big corporate amusement parks like Disneyland as safe operations, a fly-by-night reputation can cling to the small-time amusement park rides that tour festivals and county fairs, prompting the question of whether these roller coasters and Tilt-a-Whirls are dangerous.
A review of amusement-ride inspection records shows that just two companies in Oregon are responsible for 70 percent of inspector concerns during the last two years.
In Oregon, ride operators need to present the state with proof that their machines have been inspected during the past 90 days in order to get a license. But the state office that regulates rides, the Oregon Building Codes Division, has a limited oversight role and basically just processes paperwork, according to Director Pat Allen. His agency doesn't check up on the work of inspectors, doesn't certify them, doesn't track accidents, and will only deny a permit if the inspections find that a ride is clear hazard—a situation Allen says is rare.
Despite the minimal inspection of rides that challenge both gravity and stomachs, state records show that mom 'n' pop parks in Oregon are relatively safe. The Portland Mercury obtained a massive database of public records containing inspectors' comments from March 2009 to June 2011 on amusement rides throughout the state.
First off: the good. A September 2010 inspection of Portland's beloved Oaks Amusement Park found only minor issues with two of its 26 rides: The Round-Up and Scrambler had "low-priority mechanical issues." Family- and stoner-friendly Enchanted Forest, near Salem, also had two minor concerns among its nine rides when an inspector stopped by in April 2010, including a bad light bulb in an exit sign.
"We try really hard," says Susan Vaslev, chief operations officer for the homespun fairytale park (and also its harpsichord player).
Funtastic Rides, which has 80 rides and has run the entertainment at the Rose Festival for the last seven years, had no problems noted by inspectors.
"We spend weeks going over the machines before the inspections," says Funtastic President Ron Burback.
Other operators have less than perfect records. Since spring of 2010, inspectors have made 102 comments on the safety of rides across Oregon. Two companies, Davis Shows Northwest and Davis Amusements Cascadia, Inc., made up 70 percent of those comments. The records show that Davis Amusements Cascadia owns an estimated 55 rides, and Davis Shows Northwest operates 40 at events around the region.
Davis Amusements Cascadia had problems with lap bars on its Tornado and Orbiter rides, the harnesses of their Moonraker ride, and had issues with the weld on the company's Octopus II machine. Davis Shows Northwest had 16 comments noted "urgent" by an inspector, including a broken weld on its Loop-O-Plane. The two companies had a combined total of five problems with seat belts on their rides. According to records, though, all problems with both companies' rides have been fixed.
Davis Shows Northwest and Davis Amusements Cascadia both put on carnivals throughout Oregon and Washington and are operated by related families, but only Davis Shows Northwest owner Pat Davis returned calls for comment. He downplayed the significance of the state inspectors' concerns, saying that his company has routine inspections by an independent inspector and their insurance company inspector.
"[The records are] a paper trail of maintenance on machines," says Davis of state inspectors' comments on his rides. "They were all repaired."
California-based Butler Amusements, Inc., which runs rides at fairs in Washington and Clark Counties, also had problems. Those included lack of coverage on electrical control cabinets, lap bars that could trap fingers, and that its "Looney Tooter" train might derail. Inspectors noted that the rides were still "satisfactory."
One ride that many in the amusement ride industry agree is in sore need of more oversight: inflatable "bouncy castles." All across the country there have been reported incidents of these being blown over by a strong gust of wind or falling over because they weren't tied down correctly, resulting in hospitalizations and deaths.
"If it were up to me, I'd ban the damn things," says James Barber, spokesperson for National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials.