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Disney Changes Its Attitude

September 14, 2003

It's probably little comfort to the family of Luan Phi Dawson, the 33-year-old Washington state man killed while he waited to board Disneyland's Columbia sailing ship, but their tragedy resulted in extraordinary changes that now benefit all who attend California amusement parks.

Those changes were evident this month, when another accident at the park, on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster, killed a 22-year-old Gardena man and injured 10 others. Four Anaheim city paramedics were on the scene within two minutes, closely followed by investigators from the Police Department and the state. Disneyland Resort President Cynthia Harriss was on hand, answering what questions she could, offering condolences and, most important, referring investigation-related questions to the public agencies involved. Her actions gave a clear message: Disneyland now understands that ride safety is a matter of public concern.

The amusement park operated on the opposite presumption for most of its nearly 50-year existence. After the 1998 Columbia accident, park officials had the gall to keep city investigators away from the scene for more than four hours. During that time, employees cleaned up the area, and the park paraded its own selected witnesses before investigators in a meeting room.

The Columbia accident was investigated more impartially than any previous incident at the park. A Disneyland worker also had been injured, which invoked an examination by Cal-OSHA. That led to safety fixes at the park and a public awareness that private amusement parks generally inspected themselves, kept information about most of their accidents to themselves and investigated their own problems -- and that this alone wasn't the best way to ensure safe practices.

The aftermath of the accident propelled into law previously unsuccessful legislation that required parks to publicly report serious accidents and gave the state powers to investigate accidents and order safety changes. The public embarrassment of the Anaheim police for taking directions from Disneyland officials led to an agreement that placed city paramedics and police on park grounds for quicker, unimpeded responses. In the most recent accident, Anaheim police and state investigators combed the scene, keeping Disneyland inspectors at bay. That's the way it should be.

The value of outside investigations by empowered public agencies became obvious after a 4-year-old boy was left mentally crippled by a 2000 accident on the Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin. While Disneyland officials whispered to reporters they thought the boy had been misbehaving on the ride, state investigators found design flaws and ordered such simple changes as a door to keep tourists inside the cars. To its credit, Disneyland overhauled the ride beyond expectations. But such change would have been much less likely without regulatory force behind it.

The cause of this month's accident is unknown. What is clear is that the public will get an impartial answer and, if necessary, action to fix it.

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