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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Disneyland Signals Shift

June 16, 2002

Disneyland has a less than stellar record of providing information to the public on accidents at "The Happiest Place on Earth." In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases involving the sailing ship Columbia, the Indiana Jones Adventure and the Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin, all of which raised questions about the theme park's disclosure of data.

The Walt Disney Co.'s recent pledge to let the public in on its safety plans for theme parks should be welcomed as an important step. Its new "Report on Safety" is a slick publication, but it contains welcome evidence of the company's recognition of the paramount importance of safety at theme parks. But if past is prologue it also must be greeted with a healthy "wait-and-see" attitude. Disney's willingness to be more forthcoming than in the past is certainly a plus, but it is also true that there has been plenty of room for improvement over the record of recent years.

The company now has a comprehensive safety plan and a chief safety officer. The report also includes a commitment to comply with state inspection and accident reporting guidelines. More information is available on safety operations and guidelines. These all can be good things if indeed there is a lasting cultural shift in the Disneyland operation to openness about safety records and procedures.

Accidents at Disneyland in recent years have produced anything but full disclosure. Last year, a judge accused Disneyland of bad faith in its stonewalling on the release of brain injury records involving an accident on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride. There was a cleanup of a fatal accident scene at the Columbia ride in December 1998 and removal of evidence before police got to the site. In an accident that severely injured a 4-year-old on Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin, the company at first implied rider error. State officials stepped in and provided needed oversight of remedial work at the ride before it could reopen.

Generally the attitude at Disneyland has been to disclose as little as possible and only under duress.

But the Walt Disney Co. is nothing if not conscious of its public image, and after years of dramatic news the public is also much better informed. A host of accidents at theme parks around the country awakened consumer consciousness about safety. Some good things in the new report include new warning signs for passengers and improved child restraints, automated safety gates and new training for company employees.

Consumer and congressional watchdogs have been applying steady pressure, even as the industry has tried to deal with accidents that have been well publicized. A shift in corporate culture to more openness may be possible now precisely because the public is looking at ride safety differently.

The test will be whether good corporate intentions make a difference in cooperation with regulators and the release of important safety information when accidents do happen.

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