How Safe Are Carnival Rides, Really?
Nothing much had changed at the Strawberry Fair since I was a kid -- except for the addition of a booth selling fidget spinners in the center of the fairgrounds.
The Strawberry Fair is an annual tradition in Oceanport, New Jersey. My hometown. Every summer growing up, I'd spend several nights here, breaking the rules on the Gravitron (riding upside-down is not encouraged), climbing aboard nausea-incubators like the Ring of Fire, and trying (unsuccessfully) to get carnies to buy me beer.
I'd made this jaunt back to my old stomping, riding, and eating grounds in June to research a story about the current state of traveling amusement parks -- a dreamy slice of Americana that's still surprisingly thriving in New Jersey and fairgrounds across the country. The Strawberry Fair's rides are schlepped around the States via Amusements of America, the world's largest purveyor of mobile rides. After eating my weight in funnel cake, failing to win any jumbo Rasta bananas, and getting a scenic view of the beachy sprawl from the ubiquitous Ferris wheel, I finished my reporting and was set to publish my personal, sentimental look into this enduring summer tradition.
Then, as most of you probably know, a ride called the Fire Ball malfunctioned on July 27 at the Ohio State Fair, injuring seven people, and killing one man, Tyler Jarrell. Several victims remain in critical condition. The incident was determined to have been the result of "excessive corrosion on the interior of the gondola support beam," according to the ride's manufacturer, the Netherlands-based KMG. But the machine itself was brought to the Ohio State Fair by Amusements of America, the same company that facilitates the miniscule-by-comparison Strawberry Fair in Oceanport, as well as hundreds of other state fairs and local carnivals all over the Eastern United States.
A mere 10 days before this incident, Dominic Vivona Jr., the CFO of Amusements of America, granted Thrillist an interview about the enduring allure of their traveling amusement park rides, and why these quaint mechanical diversions continue to appeal to the masses. State and local fairs, and by extension, rides like the Fire Ball, do seem like a remnant of another era. Perhaps one day, we'll look back on the hydraulic-powered, LED-bedazzled mobile rides that entice thousands of fairgoers to climb aboard every summer in the same way we marvel at old cars without seat belts, and ask ourselves, "How the hell did we ever think this was safe?"
With peak carnival season in full swing, and in the wake of the tragedy, it's worth asking: Are these rides actually safe? Was the Ohio State Fair a horrific, "freak" accident, or a dire warning that indicates a larger problem? The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. But there are more than a few things you should know before you get on another mobile amusement park ride -- whether this summer or beyond.
Where do these rides come from originally?
While there are other companies -- such as the more Midwestern-centric North American Midway and the New England-localized Fanelli's -- that specialize in providing mobile rides for state and local fairs, Amusements of America is the largest and most prominent in the country. Alongside a caravan of petting zoos, food stands, midway games (that simply must be rigged, there's no way I'm that bad), and other diversions, Amusements of America owns hundreds of mobile rides, which it schleps across the country at a rapid clip. According to the company's site, its route "... stretches from across the eastern seaboard and Midwestern United States from Miami to New York, Ohio to Tennessee, and the Carolinas South," and if you've gone to a fair anywhere in this area, there's an extremely good chance it was facilitated by Amusements of America.
Vivona says the company's roots in providing traveling amusement dates back nearly 80 years. "After the 1939 World's Fair in New York, my grandfather asked the people who owned the Ferris wheel there what they were going to do with it once the fair was over," Vivona told me. "They basically said to him, 'I don't know -- why, do you want to buy it?'"
Eventually, Amusements of America grew into the "world's largest traveling amusement park," and now it owns come rides sourced from all over the world -- Germany, France, the Czech Republic, to name just a few countries of origin. "There's an international convention for amusement park owners in Orlando, Florida, every November, where ride-makers from all over the world show off their new idea," Vivona said. "And everyone comes. From us, to the people at Disney World, this is where we buy all our rides, sometimes right on sight."
Following an internal investigation, KMG has released a statement that details what went wrong with the specific Fire Ball used at the Ohio State Fair. It says that the ride was 18 years old -- or the same age as Tyler Jarrell, who was killed by the machine's malfunction. When I reached back out to Amusements of America for a comment after the accident, a third-party PR company responded: "The decision to shut down similar rides around the world and reopen the Ohio midway indicates that this is an issue with a specific ride and not the ride operator or inspectors. There is no evidence that operator error played a role in the accident. We continue to keep those affected by this tragic accident in our prayers and work cooperatively with the ongoing investigation."
While companies like KMG manufacture the rides, it's up to operators like Amusements of America to put them together, following each state's safety protocols. That's why Amusements of America has been named in the lawsuit filed by one victim's family. So, despite the cause having been determined, questions about the accident still abound.
Who puts the rides together?
For many, myself included, one of the most (seemingly) alarming aspects of rides like the Fire Ball is that, because of how they are transported, they are taken apart and reassembled almost every week as they move to across the country to various events.
"It takes us about two to three days to get everything set up, and then a couple of days to pack it all up," said Vivona. "It's hard work, but we've become pretty efficient at it." Burn-out is commonplace in the industry, he says. "It's extremely hard to retain people for this kind of work. To be honest, we aren't home a lot. We spend nine to 10 months on the road, living in trailers, working every day 'til 11pm," Vivona says. "It's a hard life. We can't pretend it isn't. But this is what we do."
Despite the never-ending chain of assembly and disassembly, Dr. Kathryn Woodcock, a professor at Ryerson University and specialist in human-centric design for amusement attractions, believes that this isn't a significant factor in ride safety. The idea that permanent ride installations are "safer" than carnival rides is also a misconception, she said.
"Ride safety standards and manufacturer's requirements are the same regardless of whether the ride travels or stays in one location," she told me via email. "The portable ride industry would point out that regular assembly and disassembly obliges them to have hands on the entire ride every time they relocate, and the same ride in a theme park would have the same list of required inspections and service procedures.
"Portable ride operators who travel from jurisdiction to jurisdiction are inspected by a variety of different regulators each of whom will bring different points of emphasis, which is a valuable redundancy in the safety oversight network," she added. But this is where things get a little complicated, as the safety-inspection regulations these carnival rides need to follow are almost never the same across state lines.
Safety inspections vary vastly from state to state
The governmental department responsible for inspecting amusement park rides varies from state to state. In Ohio, these rides are regulated and inspected by the Department of Agriculture. In a press conference, Michael Vartorella, chief inspector of amusement ride safety for the organization, said that all the fair rides are inspected by him and four other inspectors. They signed off on all of the rides -- including the Fire Ball -- prior to the State Fair. (There's even B-roll video of them inspecting the ride this year). Officials are still investigating what went wrong and who, exactly, is to blame.
Joseph Filoromo, supervisor for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture's Department of Amusement Park Safety couldn't speak to what happened in Ohio, since the incident is still under investigation, but he did share his state's overall procedure on ride inspection. "In Pennsylvania, our main advantage is having over 2,000 licensed ride inspectors, while other states might only have 10 or 20," Filoromo told me over the phone. "We have a system of checks and balances in place, where we have inspectors from the company who provides the rides, inspectors from insurance companies, inspectors from the state, and even from third-parties that give routine as well as surprise QA tests on the rides."
In Filoromo's opinion, Pennsylvania's systematic approach to ride safety -- which applies to both traveling amusement parks, and permanent installation in theme parks like Kennywood -- is the industry standard, in large part due to the sheer number of inspectors. For what it's worth, Ohio has employed the same number of statewide inspectors (eight) since 2009, despite the number of overall rides given permits in that state increasing by 23% during that timeframe.
Still, there's no way to know what your state's protocol is, without specifically looking into it. For example, New Jersey's ride operation is overseen by the Department of Community Affairs. In Colorado, it's run by the Division of Oil and Public Safety. In Missouri, it's the Division of Fire Safety. In Oregon, it's the Building Codes Division.
The big question: Are these rides safe, going forward?
The horrific tragedy that occurred in Ohio cannot be trivialized, and emotions are still raw. But at the same time, the summer fair season is in full swing across the country. And while the operation of all Fire Ball rides has been ceased as investigations continue, the majority of planned fairs -- even those facilitated by Amusements of America -- will still happen, with functional rides in tow.
"No activity can be guaranteed to be 'safe' in the sense of zero risk of harm," Woodcock said. "This instance is neither a 'freak accident' nor a sign of a larger problem. The possibility of mechanical failure exists in every machine. We should not be surprised when machines break. Obviously we try to prevent failure, and we maintain and inspect and attempt to catch the early indications of failure. Unfortunately, very rarely, a failure might progress from an undetectable defect to complete failure in less than the time between inspections. We may be disappointed but we cannot be surprised if we truly understand risk."
"The possibility of mechanical failure exists in every machine. We should not be surprised when machines break."
The odds of being seriously injured on "a fixed-site ride" is a staggering 1 in 16 million. But, the data on the probability of being injured on mobile rides is wildly inconsistent and difficult to peg down to a specific number, for a few reasons. Often, there is no separation between "fixed site" rides and mobile rides -- so some of the data in the "fixed rate" portion actually include mobile rides like the Fire Ball. And other attractions get lumped in, as well.
"One study I published noted that 40% of the reports used to create these statistics were amusement 'attractions' not 'amusement rides,'" said Woodcock. "They were from things like corn mazes, hayrides, ball pits, obstacle courses, and grocery-store coin-operated horsies. Unfortunately, a single code is used for 'amusement attractions (including rides),' but it is not only rides, as we are discussing. At hospitals, it's all classified under the same category, without much distinction."
To add to the confusion, many of the injuries chalked up to amusement rides have more to do with riders being inattentive or careless, rather than mechanical failures. For example, two of the recent recorded deaths caused by amusement parks rides were separate incidents where guests hopped fences to retrieve hats they'd lost while on the rides, yet those accidents remain part of the data. On the other hand, so do legitimate accidents -- as when three riders fell more than 15 feet from a Ferris wheel at a fair in Port Townsend, Washington, mere months ago.
The future of traveling amusement
In my interview with Vivona -- again, it is important to note this was 10 days before the incident at the Ohio State Fair -- we spoke about why fair and carnivals continue to be so popular, given that they have barely changed in the past few decades.
"I don't think the appeal of these carnivals will ever go away," Vivona said. "Right now, even something like virtual reality isn't the same as actually feeling the wind in your face on a ride, or eating a funnel cake. It's Americana. It's nostalgia. Fairs like this happen all over the country. You came here as a kid, to the Oceanport fair, right? So you want to bring your own kids here, too."
There's no way to measure the effect that the Ohio accident may have on the popularity of these fairs moving forward. Attendance the Ohio State Fair only went down 14%, despite the death and injuries that occurred on the fairgrounds. For what it's worth, representatives from the Oceanport fair have confirmed to me that they will continue with next year's fair, as planned, with rides supplied by Amusements of America -- as always.
As previously mentioned, the family of the man who was killed by the Fire Ball is pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit. And while KMG, the ride's manufacturer, has determined the cause of the problem, officials have yet to determine who needs to be held accountable for the incident, and investigations on the matter continue. As does the American tradition of the traveling carnival -- with no discernible end in sight.