Theme parks are some of the safest places in the world. Guests pass through security screeners, bag checks and metal detectors, while cameras monitor key areas.
Staff are trained to handle anything from lost tickets to lost children, weather delays to ride issues with calm efficiency.
But there’s one element that can make theme park executives nervous because of it’s unpredictable nature:
You and your social-media-connected, camera-equipped smartphone, more specifically.
This issue so concerns the amusement-park industry that dozens of his peers paid extra during the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) trade show to learn how Village Roadshow Theme Parks (VRTP) in Australia is handling it with an innovative series of videos.
Bob White, VRTP chief operating officer, presented “Image Management in a Transparent Age” at the IAAPA trade show Nov. 13.
Gone are the days when a technical difficulty with a ride is handled quickly and quietly, and everyone gets on with their day after minimal delay and little comment.
Now, when riders on a stalled carriage can whip out their phones and livestream their plight to their social- media platform of choice, the traditional media — broadcast TV, radio and print — take notice immediately.
All Australian parks had a difficult time after the tragedy at Dreamworld in Queensland, where four people died on the Thunder River Rapids Ride in October 2016. Media coverage and the prevalence of social media had slowly raised awareness and concerns about ride safety for years before that.
In March 2015, a problem at WB Movie World’s Green Lantern coaster required extraction of 14 riders by emergency crews.
In Mid-2016, the Storm Coaster at Sea World on Australia’s Gold Coast experienced a technical fault, resulting in a stoppage. Social media posts by park attendees, even from those stuck in the cars on the ride, tipped off traditional media.
Kids stuck on the ride pulled out their phones and livestreamed the experience, while moms on the ground took photos and video of their children waving from the stranded cars.
White showed clips of the news coverage during his talk.
In October 2016, the park’s own research “showed a growing awareness of ride safety issues,” according to one slide in White’s presentation.
The Dreamworld incident in October 2016 brought ride safety to the forefront of media coverage. Traditional media, fueled by social media posts, covered most any stoppage at any park in the country.
“They were responding to legitimate interest in the community,” White said to an audience of his peers at IAAPA, gathered to hear him speak.
“It’s not like we blame the media,” he said. “It is what it is, and we had to learn to deal with it better.”
Another time, a power outage in the region got coverage. Broadcast media, in reporting the event that was beyond the control of the theme park, would then refer back to other incidents at other parks.
Because of the increased awareness, a short stoppage on one ride caused a woman to panic, sure she was in danger when the boat she was in paused for a minor issue.
“This one set the record for the most galling thing,” White said.
The panicked woman caused a longer stoppage when she had to be offloaded from her boat.
The park later experienced a problem on its inverted coaster Arkham Asylum: More social media posts caused more coverage on TV and in print.
“Clearly, we had to do something about it,” white said.
So, working with a PR firm, they did in-depth stories with local TV stations and newspapers to explain their safety procedures. VRTP executives determined what they wanted to communicate about regular stoppages and ride safety. They used staff from their in-house art studio to make a series of safety videos.
“If you’re down 5 percent, you’d probably run that by your lawyers,” White said when asked about legal issues. “When you’re down 30 percent, you really don’t care what they say.” The audience laughed at that.
Eventually, traditional media started referring back to these videos in later stories done by reporters. Other them park companies started producing their own videos. His parks have done several other short videos now on other topics, designed to go straight to the public.
They took care with their language — using “stoppage” and “offloading” instead of “evacuation” and other, more dramatic terms. Executives even discussed, but did not enact, a proactive approach to stoppages by sending a staff member to record and report from the site of a stopped ride to put their videos on social media first.
“Our goal is for our guests to understand that these stoppages are essential to ride safety and not evidence of the opposite,” stated one slide in White’s presentation.
The company is still evaluating the statistics to see if this initiative is working to reduce concerns about ride safety.
Staff training makes sure employees are aware that “every phone in every guest’s pocket can live stream events anywhere in the world.” Videos use the men and women who work at the parks, not actors, and provide real numbers about how many people attend the parks and enjoys the rides annually — millions.
“At first, you have to be safe,” White said, “above all things. And then you can be transparent about it.”