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President and Chairman (ret), Allied Specialty Insurance

This year, more than 300 million people in the US will visit an amusement park, traveling carnival or other entertainment venue to have a little fun.  They may satisfy their sweet tooth on some cotton candy, take a ride on the Ferris wheel, test their luck at an arcade game or dare to go down the steepest of water slides.  In the US alone, there are more than 30,000 entertainment venues from which they could choose.    

The fun all started back in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition, aka the Chicago World’s Fair.  A celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, the fair aimed to educate and impress the public, showcasing contemporary technological innovations, including early prototype of technological products like the dishwasher and fluorescent light bulbs were on display. 

Thrill Seeking

The fair also had an area named the “Midway Plaisance” which was devoted to free entertainment attractions, side shows and another new invention from a Pittsburgh-based bridge builder and steel magnate, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.   Ferris’ invention intended to rival the Eiffel Tower, which was built for the Paris Exposition of 1889.   It was a 264-foot-tall wheel that could fit 2,160 people at a time, and cost 50 cents to ride which was twice the price of a ticket to the fair itself.  

The success of the World’s Fair and its midway attractions, particularly the interest in the Ferris Wheel, spurred the growth of traveling carnival companies that began touring the US.  In 1902, there were 17 traveling shows in the United States. The number grew to 46 in 1905 and by 1937 there was an estimated 300 traveling shows touring the country.  Today, amusement parks and attractions generate $20 billion in revenues, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). 

Amusement Advancements

Virtual reality and high tech thrill rides have replaced some more traditional rides but the draw of the Ferris wheel continues to attract crowds and have become fixed attractions in many cities.  After the 443 foot, London Eye opened in 2000, many cities soon looked to compete.  Currently, Las Vegas’ High Roller, which opened in March 2014, is the world’s highest Ferris wheel.  New York is currently constructing the 630-foot New York Wheel in Staten Island and in Dubai, a 689-foot one.

Why so high?  Quite simply, visitors seek out attractions for the thrill.  Hence the challenge for the amusement and entertainment industries is to constantly create new thrills – a higher, faster, and wilder, but, of course, safe experience.   

Advances in technology have helped.  Launch technology is allowing roller coasters to reach higher speeds in a matter of seconds. Riders also find themselves in many different sitting positions from below tracks on ski lift-like inverted coasters or even face down in a Superman-like flying position. 

Lights, and lots of them, are a big part of the amusement experience today, adding new thrill to familiar rides. LED light strips, for instance, help park operators create changing visual effects for coasters, Ferris wheels and other spaces.   

Likewise, technology has also helped improve safety.  For instance, rides now incorporate redundant safety mechanisms to provide backup in case of a power outage or a primary system fails.  Fireworks shows, a nightly staple in many amusement parks, are performed with the help of computer systems, not by hand, and in many instances, they are situated further away from the crowds like on floating barges.    ​Insuring Fun

As an insurer of carnivals, fairs and other entertainment venues, we are well aware of amusements’ potential risks.  Most injuries are “slips, trips and falls” and not actual ride operations. Of course, the few serious injuries that occur at amusement venues often grab headlines.  As both industry and independent statistics show though, these are the exceptions and not the norm. 

According to IAAPA, the chance of being seriously injured on a fixed-site ride at a U.S. amusement park is 1 in 16 million.  Government statistics also back them up.  An analysis of emergency-room data from hospitals across the country by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission  states less than one percent of people injured on an amusement ride require overnight hospitalization. 

While many might think the twisty-turning roller coaster to be the mostly likely ride to result in injury, it is not.  Most amusement park ride injuries occur on the more simple, slower rides like the merry-go-round.  In a study published in the journal of Clinical Pediatrics in 2013, researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, analyzed emergency-room visits between 1990 and 2010 related to amusement rides. There was an average of 4,423 such visits each year, with an annual injury rate of 6.24 injuries per 100,000 children. About 1.5 percent of injuries required hospitalization.  More than 20 percent of injuries occurred on a carousel, compared to 10 percent on roller coasters and 4 percent on bumper cars.​

...Technology has also helped improve safety.  For instance, rides now incorporate redundant safety mechanisms to provide backup in case of a power outage or a primary system fails.

Safety Conscious​As an insurer, we’re equally aware of rigorous safety efforts that amusement operators undertake.  Consider traveling carnivals which are often family run and passed on generation to generation, these operations are their livelihood  Therefore, providing a safe experience has to be a priority to protect it and they work hard to incorporate the effective safety protocols and employee training.       ​To properly assess the risk of an operation before we even provide insurance coverage, we must inspect the rides and other parts of the operation.  We also look at an operator’s safety inspection procedures.  Most operators inspect on a daily basis.  For fixed site venues, we typically inspect annually using inspectors who have considerable amusement experience.  For traveling shows, an inspector visits every time a show is reassembled at a new location.​Some states also inspect carnival rides every time they are set up in a new location, while others only inspect them once a year. Therefore, each ride is inspected, sometimes multiple times, before a fair or carnival opens for business.​Human Factors

Often risky human behavior is the root cause of accidents at amusement venues.  ​Many problems that arise at theme parks come from people not taking the proper precautions based on their own health, standing up on a seated ride, rocking a capsule or seat, or hanging a limb out of the ride. That is why we also encourage our amusement operator clients to enforce, and reinforce, rules and regulations to visitors as much as possible.  Industry groups like the IAAPA offer a variety of training seminars to help too.   Some states have even created Rider Responsibility laws which place a greater degree of culpability on the guest. 

IAAPA also created a list of amusement ride safety tips for guests:​

  • Obey listed age, height, weight, and health restrictions
  • Observe all posted ride safety rules, and follow all verbal instructions given by ride operators or provided by recorded announcements
  • Keep hands, arms, legs and feet inside the ride at all times
  • Secure all loose articles, including wallets, change, sunglasses, cell phones, and hats
  • Do not board a ride impaired
  • Remain seated in the ride until it comes to a complete stop and you are instructed to exit
  • Always use safety equipment provided and never attempt to wriggle free of or loosen restraints or other safety devices
  • Parents should make sure their children can understand and follow safe and appropriate ride behavior
  • Never force anyone, especially children, to ride attractions they don’t want to ride
  • If you see any unsafe behavior or condition on a ride, report it to a supervisor or manager immediately


    Final thoughts

    Bright lights. The rides that spin us, drop us and thrill us. Cotton Candy, corn dogs and funnel cakes. Firework Spectaculars. The fun with friends and family. Few would want to risk an entire summer going by without spending some time at an amusement park, county fair or carnival. Amusements have come a long way since the 1893 World Fair. The amusement industry continues to push new innovations to keep new thrills and exciting experiences coming. But, keeping it a safe experience, that’s up to all of us.


    About the Author Mary Chris Smith is President and Chairman of Allied Specialty Insurance. She has been involved with the amusement industry her entire life, with family roots stemming back to the early 1900’s.  Allied, an XL Group company, is the leading provider of property and casualty insurance coverage for the amusement and entertainment industry through its specialty insurance company, T.H.E. Insurance Company, its specialty insurance agency, Allied Specialty Insurance, Inc. and its independent brokerage channel. Allied’s 3,000 clients include carnivals, concessionaires, amusement parks, waterparks, fairs and festivals, firework events and family entertainment centers.

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