Head games

Can a thrill ride be too thrilling?

That's what many industry observers are wondering after the death of 28-year-old Pearl Santos. Earlier this month, the Fontana, Calif., woman was found slumped in her seat after having ridden "Goliath," a roller coaster that's been operating at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif., since February 2000.

A preliminary coroner's investigation suggests Santos' death may have been caused by the rupturing of a pre-existing aneurysm. The report goes on to state it's possible the rupture may have been brought on by the stresses Pearl was exposed to while riding "Goliath," a 26-story-tall steel coaster that reaches speeds of 85 miles per hour during its three-minute-long run.

Of course, Six Flags' PR staff insists their Magic Mountain attraction is safe and there's "no evidence that the triggering stress Ms. Santos might have been experienced at `our` amusement park was significantly different than any other common stressful events."

It's easy to understand why they moved so quickly to protect the reputation of the park, which Six Flags promotes as "the Xtreme Park," home to "More Roller Coasters Than Anywhere Else on the Planet!" Revenue will dry up if the public stops coming because it perceives the park's attractions aren't safe.

And the rest of the theme-park industry is watching what happens. Particularly the Walt Disney Co., which currently finds itself embroiled in its own ugly injury debacle.

In a civil case currently on trial in Los Angeles Superior Court, former San Diego resident Deborah Bynum claims she suffered a brain hemorrhage after riding Disneyland's "Indiana Jones Adventure" back in November 1998. Disney insists that millions of people ride this attraction every year and very few are seriously injured.

Or at least that's what they used to say. But papers filed by the Mouse earlier this month tell a different story. They reveal that some 313 people have claimed neck and back injuries as a result of this same ride. Disney also named eight people who reported brain-bleed injuries similar to Bynum's after riding Disney attractions. Seven of these allegedly occurred at Disneyland, the eighth at an unnamed Disney World park.

Mind you, the Mouse didn't give up this info willingly. Judge Madeline Flier had to impose a $2,500 fine and publicly accuse the Disney Co. of "willful bad faith" before Mickey coughed up the records. Disney's legal staff said it was just computer coding errors -- not an attempt at stonewalling -- that prevented the corporation from passing along the appropriate papers to the court.

That explanation might be easier to swallow if this was the first time Mickey had been fined for failing to turn over documents in a timely manner. But a similar suit was filed in 1996 on behalf of Zipora Jacob, who claimed "Indiana Jones" left her with a torn brain stem in July 1995. In June 1999, the two parties reached a confidential settlement -- but not before Disney was whacked with $7,050 in fines for failing to turn over company records the court had requested.

Why did Disney drag its heels? Is "Indiana Jones" really unsafe? Millions of people have ridden this Adventureland attraction without injury since it opened in February 1995. The ride -- which recreates a rough Jeep trek, full of sudden stops, sharp swerves and drops -- is one of Disneyland's most popular.

But Disney apparently has lost its enthusiasm for the attraction. Though the corporation had once announced that it intended to build "Indiana Jones" clones at all of its theme parks (indeed, if Disney's Imagineers had stuck with their plan, Disney/MGM Studios would have had its own Indiana Jones land), once word about the injuries reached Burbank, Disney put these plans on hold.

When Disney's enhanced-motion vehicles finally rolled into Orlando in the spring of 1998 on what is now called "Dinosaur -- The Ride" at Animal Kingdom, it was in a watered-down format. Mind you, "Dinosaur" is still rough. But not as rough as "Indiana Jones."

For now, the only place Disney dares to build another "Indiana Jones" ride is Japan, where Disney's lawyers suggest the local citizenry hasn't yet embraced America's lawsuit-happy mentality.

Still, it's worth noting that Tokyo's "Indiana Jones" ride -- intended to be one of the signature attractions of Tokyo DisneySea when the $3 billion park opens in September -- is now called "The Temple of the Crystal Skull." And while it's been reported that Disney has made numerous adjustments to increase rider safety, one has to wonder: Will this include issuing helmets to all who board?

Wouldn't want to crack your head on the Crystal Skull, would you?

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