It is time for another addition to my list of “Things That Tick Me Off” — an occasional ranting about something I encounter that drives me to distraction or dismay in everyday life. This week’s cathartic event was a trip on Sunday to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia to celebrate the birthday of one of my kids. Around four, the park experienced bad weather. The rejection of the park however proved as unpredictable as the storm.
In the late afternoon, it began to rain at the park with the appearance of some dark storm clouds. The park announced that it would partially suspend operations, including rides, due to bad weather. At the same time, it announced that it was shutting down the trams to take people to their cars. Given the huge parking lots, shutting down the trams effectively means for many people being unable to leave the park. I can understand shutting down the trams for the protection of drivers and staff. However, this continued even after the sun came out and rain stopped for over an hour. We were never told that the trams and parking services had re-opened. People walked around feeling trapped in the park and staff could not say when the trams would reopen even after almost an hour of sunny weather. (The announcement system seems to be operated on a pretty casual level. The night before we were told the park was closing “in 15 minutes” when it was closing in an hour and fifteen minutes). At a minimum, people should be informed when the trams were operating again. There was a feeling expressed by many that they were at the roach motel where “you can check in but you can never check out.” I am not saying that this was an intentional act to keep people in the park eating and buying merchandise. I honestly assume no one felt they had to inform people that they could now leave by way of the trams (they could always walk on their own), but for those who are not as able to walk the long distance to their cars, it is a bit unreasonable to ask them to walk across the huge park to find out if the trams are operating.
Still I can understand the necessity of caution and, as a torts professor, I respected the need to put the safety of everyone first. After another hour of so, it began to thunder again with light rain. As lightning appeared with increased thunder, I decided to get our family out of the park and call Busch gardens a bust. It was then that my kids noticed that all of the rides had resumed. The parents were astonished. Of course, the kids insisted that the park would not have reopened the rides if they were not safe. Yet, to the amazement of the adults in our group, we watched as roller coasters like the Loch Ness and the Griffin continued to operate with loud thunder claps and visible lightning around the rides. I was flabbergasted. After about thirty minutes of lightning, another announcement was heard saying that the park was again temporarily suspending some operations due to weather. I did not hear the rides after that point but we were leaving. (By the way, the trams were again operating but we only found out by walking out of the park).
I should note that, while the birthday was a bust and we were out hundreds of dollars, I do not blame Busch Gardens. It cannot control the weather. Moreover, despite the ridiculously high prices for everything in the park, I think Busch Gardens has improved. A few years ago, we found people working the park to be pretty rude and snippy. Now, the staff is much changed and very helpful and very friendly. The park is very clean and the rides are a lot of fun.
Moreover, amusement parks still remain one of the safest recreational activities due largely to the attention to safety shown by companies. Each year an estimated 1.7 billion rides are taken by nearly 300 million people. Yet, from 1994 to 2004, we have seen an average of just four deaths per year on rides.
I also realize that roller coasters are grounded so no need to explain that even a lightning strike on a ride is not likely to kill everyone in a car.
However, roller coaster rides are the perfect lightning rods — metal objects that are usually the tallest structure for miles. Not surprisingly, they are often hit by lightning. (here and here and here and here). The greatest danger is often killing the motor or electrical system — leaving people stranded. There is also the low chance of a close hit to a car – an extremely low probability but one with a high potential for injury.
The decision to resume riding in the midst of thunder claps and lightning was a remarkably reckless act in my view for a major park. Ironically, while shutting down the trams (and thereby keeping most people in the park), the officials decided to eventually let the roller coasters operate. So, the park kept the little gondola cars grounded that take people from one area to another. Other small rides were also kept closed, but not the huge roller coasters themselves. Indeed, the big rides were closed when the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. They then resumed with the start of thunder and lightning.
Frankly, the day itself seemed doomed from the start for us. We stayed the night in a suite at the Holiday Inn Suites on Access Road in Williamsburg and woke up to find our hotel room flooded from a leak near a window. It was not a good night frankly with the wet floor and damp smell. However, it was so late that we did not call down since the kids were sleeping. When we returned from the park, the room smelled even worse like the inside of a gym shoe and the hotel had put a fan to try to dry the room. As I called down to speak to a manager to see if we could switch rooms, the manager Geoff was already knocking on the door. To his credit (and that of Holiday Inn), they moved us to a new and better room and even sent up a plate of cookies and milk for the kids. Geoff and the staff could not have been nicer. Thus, it is possible to face bad weather and still show an overriding concern for your guests. We would not hesitate to come back and stay at the hotel. (I will also note that once again the Holiday Inn offers free wifi — and free breakfasts for kids under 12 — while higher end hotels continue to nickel and dime guests for every possible convenience). We had a swim in the pool and pizza in the room and did not feel quite as bad about the Busch Garden disaster.
As for Busch Gardens, it would seem that a reexamination of basic procedures in bad weather would be in order.