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Orange County | Dana Parsons

Drive for Safe Rides Had a Few Twists

September 07, 2003|Dana Parsons

Friday was a day at the beach in La Jolla for Kathy Fackler and her family, but the news about a death at Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland still found her and darkened things a bit. In 1998, that same ride left an indelible memory with the Fackler family; because of it, Fackler left her own imprint on California.

On a March day five years ago, 5-year-old David Fackler tried to step off the train, thinking it had stopped. It had, but only temporarily. It lurched forward and David, with his mother seated next to him, lost half his foot when it was stuck between the curb and the train tracks.

Horrifying as that was, it was only the beginning. Months later, long after the Facklers were getting on with their lives, another accident occurred at the park and Fackler heard Disneyland officials say it was the first serious accident in four years.

How could they say that? They said it because at the time, there was no requirement that amusement parks report injuries or provide anything, really, to a public that might want to know.

That set Fackler off on a mission that, to make a long story short, was credited by the sponsoring state senator with playing a key role in the passage of his bill to regulate amusement park safety. Along the way, Fackler took verbal shots from Disneyland partisans and found out how uncomfortable life can be when you shift from anonymous to public.

She stayed the course and, so, was one of the people whose opinion was sought last week when another accident -- this time a fatal one -- happened on Big Thunder Mountain.

"My first thought is: I'm so sorry for the people involved, including Disneyland," Fackler says. Yes, she's much more charitable toward the amusement park these days and the reason, she says, is that it has embraced the openness about park safety.

"I look at what Disneyland has done the last several years as quite impressive. And when you compare it to the lowering of standards in other industries -- Enron, WorldCom and some utilities -- and you see this company [Disney] quietly raising the bar, I think it's great."

It took legislation, but Fackler says the company has more than held up its end.

"I still take my kids to the park," she says. "We were just up there a month ago for an evening. I've noticed a steady improvement over the last two years in terms of child-friendly ride design. The ride operators just have more of a sense that they're enjoying their jobs, are enforcing the rules and having fun."

Fackler, 45, says she's been withdrawing from her activist days, although the Web site she created (www.saferparks.org) still exists.

"I've started to retire two years in a row," she says with a laugh. "There are still issues that frustrate me on the national level -- the lack of a coherent accident-reporting system to keep track of all this stuff, like there is for cars, planes, trains and other high-speed vehicles. The lack of consistency bothers me nationwide, but I'm very pleased with the way regulations in California are moving. They're moving slowly and that can be frustrating, but they're moving in a good direction and hopefully we're coming to the end of it."

David is now 10 and a fifth-grader. When the Facklers visit Disneyland, they still ride Big Thunder Mountain.

Sounds like a happy ending, all things considered. And how does Fackler look back on the notoriety that was thrust on her and yet willingly accepted?

"A total, bizarre experience beyond imagining," she says. "But each step of the way seemed like a logical one. For all that we complain about the problems with representative democracy, the fact that I could create enough attention to make changes like this to benefit so many people, it's extraordinary."

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Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821.

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