There’s something fascinating about accidental deaths in theme parks. These places are meant to give us the illusion of danger while keeping us perfectly safe, but sometimes a day at the park really does turn into a life-ending nightmare.
To be fair, amusement parks are pretty safe. Only around of 4-5 people die per year in park accidents, compared to 46,000 or so who die on roadways. But just so you don’t become one of those 4-5 unfortunate people, here’s what we can learn from 1o of the worst theme park accidents in history.
Deadliest roller coaster accident in history: The Big Dipper at Battersea Fun Fair
The ‘forgotten’ rollercoaster disaster of Battersea funfair
London’s Battersea Park was the site of the most deadly roller coaster disaster in history. The Battersea Fun Fair is arguably the world’s first theme park, predating Disneyland by four years, and its biggest attraction was the Big Dipper—a huge wooden roller coaster that had been operating since 1951.
The park was crowded on May 13, 1972—UK schools had just ended their terms—so the Big Dipper was crammed with children and teenagers when the accident happened. The coaster’s train was pulled up the initial hill as it had been countless times before, but this time, just as the cars full of kids reached the top of the hill, the hauling cable snapped. The train rolled backwards down the tracks, and its emergency braking system failed. The cars picked up speed and went whipping around a curve where they derailed, piling on top of one another. Or, as one child witness put it, “most of the people on the back all got crushed up because it came down backwards.” Ultimately, five children died and 13 people were injured.
The ensuing investigation concluded that almost everything was wrong with the coaster. There were a total of 66 defects on the ride, including missing brakes, a poorly maintained haul rope, rotted wood, a misaligned track, 50 year-old coaster parts, and drunken or drugged ride operators. Both the ride’s engineer and manager were brought up on criminal charges but ultimately acquitted—a theme we’ll see repeated often in this list.
What we can learn: No one will ever be held criminally liable.
Day of death: King’s Island’s “black Sunday”
A History of Kings Island (Part One) | A Short Documentary | Fascinating Horror
Kings Island amusement park opened in Ohio in 1972, and there were no fatalities at the park in its first 19 years of operation. But luck ran out on Sunday, June 9, 1991, when death claimed three people—two guests and one employee—in two separate incidents at the park.
Everything was normal until about 9 p.m., when a park guest Timothy Benning and his friend William Haithcoat walked by a fountain near a bridge in the park’s beer garden. Benning reached toward the water in a fountain, intending to splash his friend, but as soon as he touched the water, Benning was jolted with a powerful electrical current, knocked unconscious, and fell into the shallow water. An exposed wire was just under the surface. Haithcoat jumped into the water to help his friend and was electrocuted as well. Seeing the guests in distress in the shallow pond, park employee Darrell Robertson tried to help, but some some good deeds are punished severely—especially at janky theme parks—and Roberton was electrocuted as well. The two good samaritans died shortly after, while Benning survived with serious electrocution injuries. A subsequent investigation revealed it all could have been prevented if a simple circuit breaker had been installed on the electrical pumps under the pond.
The merriment at the park continued, however, and about an hour later, Candy Taylor, age 32, decided to take just one more ride before the park closed. She chose the Flight Commander, a harmless seeming ride that lifts riders off the ground in capsules that spin around. Taylor had been drinking and was alone in her compartment, so no one knows exactly how or why she slipped from her harness and safety belt and out of the pod, but she may have been trying to get a look at the medical helicopters ferrying electrocution victim Timothy Benning to a hospital. No matter the reason, Taylor fell from the ride to the ground 70 feet below and died soon after.
What we can learn: Don’t touch people who are being electrocuted.
The Orlando FreeFall Nightmare
14 year old fell to his death riding Orlando Free Fall a 430 feet drop world’s tallest drop tower.
On March 24, 2022, 14-year old Tyre Sampson visited Orlando’s ICON Park with his football teammates, excited to ride The Orlando FreeFall. Billed as “the world’s tallest drop tower,” FreeFall lifted riders 430 feet into the air, then dropped them.
Sampson was nearly 100 pounds heavier than the ride’s posted weight limit, but ride attendants strapped him in anyway. FreeFall worked as promised, but when the car began decelerating, Sampson slipped out of his harness and fell to his death.
A guest captured footage of the accident on his phone. He immediately uploaded the clip, and Sampson’s death video was widely circulated. The investigation that followed concluded that the ride was mechanically sound, but that Sampson should not have been allowed to ride it. At 383 pounds, he was way over the ride’s weight limit, and the ride’s operator apparently loosened the safety harness to allow Sampson on and overrode the harness warning light.
What we can learn: Always read the warning and weight limit signs on rides and take them seriously. You can’t rely on the teenage operators to keep you safe.
The Haunted Castle fire at Great Adventure: the most deadly theme park accident in history
The Disaster That Changed Theme Parks Forever: Haunted Castle at Six Flags Great Adventure
The Haunted Castle at New Jersey’s Great Adventure amusement park was the site of the most deadly theme park accident in history. On May 11, 1984, at around 6:30 p.m., a fire broke out in the maze-like, walk-through attraction. Reportedly, a 14 year-old boy was using a cigarette lighter to navigate a dark corridor and set some padding on fire, although he was never identified.
When the fire started, there were 29 guests and costumed employees trapped in the burning maze. There were few exit lights, no sprinkler system, and no smoke detectors. The fire spread quickly through the plywood and foam attraction, and the entire rickety structure was engulfed in flames within minutes. Eight teenagers died in the fire.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, laws requiring sprinklers, smoke detectors, and other fire prevention methods passed across the country. There was a trial where the theme park’s representatives contended that the fire was arson, and thus further safety precautions would not have saved any lives. No one was ultimately held criminally liable for the deaths.
What we can learn: It’s human nature to lock the barn door only after the horses have escaped.
A gruesome beheading at Schlitterbahn
The Decapitation of Caleb Schwab | Amusement Park Accidents (Water Slide Deaths, Pt. 1)
Waterslides are not meant to be 169 feet tall, but that was the height of Verrückt, a waterslide at Schlitterbahn waterpark in Kansas City that dropped riders down a nearly vertical, 17-story chute at speeds approaching 70 miles-per-hour, sending them up an incline, and down another drop. They called it Verrückt, German for “crazy.”
The slide was the brainchild of Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry, who designed and built it with the help of the park’s senior designer, John Schooley. Neither man had any background in mechanical engineering, but they did have a goal: To build the biggest, fastest water ride on Earth.
After two years of construction and safety testing through a process that mostly involved trial-and-error with sandbags, the pair opened Verrückt to the public in 2014.
Maybe the most amazing part of this story is that it took two years for someone to die on the crazy contraption. The unfortunate victim, 10-year-old Caleb Schwab, met a particularly gruesome end. The raft Caleb was riding in went airborne on the rise after the initial drop. Although Verrückt featured netting to keep people from flying out of the ride, Caleb hit a metal support and was decapitated. His head and body landed in the water chute and slid down the rest of the way, coming to a stop in the pool at the ride’s bottom, where Caleb’s brother and mother were waiting. The guests riding behind Caleb suffered facial injuries, perhaps from Caleb’s decapitated head slamming into them. It was bad.
Despite the lunacy of the ride’s designers, and the fact that Caleb was the son of a Kansas state representative, no one was ultimately found criminally liable for the death. Are you noticing a pattern?
What we can learn: When a ride tells you what it is, believe it.
Terminal Velocity’s victim amazingly survives
Terminal Velocity in Wisconsin Dells at Extreme World....July 2009
Verrückt was bad, but if we’re talking amusement rides that are obviously deathtraps, Terminal Velocity at Extreme World in Lake Delton, Wisconsin may have been worse. The ride takes guests to the top of a 100-foot tower, then drops them through a trapdoor. There was no safety harness, and nothing but a net and some airbags to break the fall. Even more batshit: There was no mechanism in place to prevent someone from being dropped if the net wasn’t in place and the airbags were not full. The ride operator on top simply waited for a signal from the operator on the bottom that the ride was ready. You can probably guess where this ends up.
In July 2010, 14-year-old Teagan Marti was dropped from the tower, but due to a miscommunication between operators, the net and airbags weren’t ready when she was released. Marti plunged ten stories to the ground. Amazingly, she lived, but as you’d probably guess, the fall left her pretty messed up. Marti suffered brain swelling, severe spinal and pelvic fractures, and intestinal lacerations. It took years of rehabilitation for Marti to even walk.
In a refreshing change, the ride operator was ultimately found guilty of felony reckless injury. He received a fine. The owners of the park, however, were not charged.
What we can learn: If you’re the kind of person who would willingly ride something like this in the first place, maybe there’s nothing you can learn.
Drowning deaths in Disneyland’s river
Tom Sawyer Island & the Pirates Lair Full Tour at Disneyland
There’s a persistent rumor that no one dies at Disneyland. According to the story, in the event of a fatal heart attack or accident, vigilant Disney employees quickly shuttle the victim out of the park so the death certificate never reads “Disneyland.” But in 1973, an 18-year-old man pretty definitely died in the park.
He and his 10-year-old brother decided to hide on Tom Sawyer Island to stay after the park closed. The plan worked, but a few hours after closing, the pair decided to swim back to the park proper.
Taking his brother on his back, the man attempted to swim across the Rivers of America, but it was too much for him and he slid under the water. His younger brother dog-paddled around until Disney cast members rescued him.
In 1983, another teenager drowned in the murky waters of Rivers of America. This guest at Disneyland’s annual Grad Nite was reportedly drunk and stole an inflatable boat from an “employees only” section of the park. The joyride ended abruptly when he fell into the water and drowned.
What we can learn: I can’t find the actual width of Rivers of America, but I’ve been to Disneyland, and it’s not much of a swim. But if you’re going to attempt it, make sure you’ve trained in the pool beforehand.
Disney’s PeopleMover—of death
Disneyland PeopleMover - Complete Ride with Narration
The PeopleMover in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland isn’t the kind of high-octane thrill ride that you would expect to be deadly, but the sedate little train has taken two lives. And when you die on the PeopleMover, it’s gruesome.
The first PeopleDeath was in 1967, when the ride was only a month old. A 16-year-old boy from Hawthorne, California was jumping between cars and managed to fall onto the tracks. He was struck by and oncoming train and pulled underneath it, into the machinery. His mangled body was dragged for hundreds of feet before the ride was stopped. The train had to be disassembled to remove what was left of him.
On June 7, 1980, another teenager repeated the feat: They jumped between cars, fell onto the tracks, and were crushed by a PeopleMover train car.
What we can learn: There’s danger everywhere. Be smart and cautious even on the rides that seem slow and safe.
The real corpse found in Paris Disney’s Phantom Manor
Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris - Full Ride Experience in 4K | Disneyland Paris Frontierland 2022
The guests aren’t the only people to have died at Disney-themed parks—cast members, as Disney calls its employees, sometimes kick the bucket at the parks as well. In 2016, the body of a Disney technician was found inside Paris Disneyland’s Phantom Manor ride. The technician had apparently accidentally electrocuted himself while working inside the attraction. The corpse was discovered by Disney employees instead of horrified guests.
What we can learn: No job is worth dying for.
Drownings at Action Park
The Story of Action Park | A Short Documentary | Fascinating Horror
The employees of New Jersey’s Action Park seemed to take a perverse pride in how dangerous the place was. The attractions were unsafe, the attendants were bored teenagers, and the injuries were constant. Action Park has become a pop culture joke for its “only in the ‘80s” disregard for safety, but it’s probably not funny to the families of the six people who died during the park’s 18-year run.
Two of the most tragic deaths happened at the park’s wave pool, which employees called the “Grave Pool” for a reason. Park lifeguards constantly pulled drowning people from its chlorinated depths, sometimes as many as 30 in a weekend. Staying afloat in a deep pool with huge waves is a test for even a strong swimmer—chlorinated water isn’t as buoyant as ocean water—and panicking guests often grabbed nearby swimmers and pulled them under too. Plus, the waves were big and tended to push guests toward the deep end.
To make it worse, Action Park targeted its advertising at nearby Philadelphia’s city kids, who were less likely to have access to pools or oceans, and thus less likely to know how to swim than shore-dwellers on the other side of New Jersey. It’s miraculous that only two people—George Lopez and Gregory Grandchamps—ultimately drowned in Action Park’s death pool.
What we can learn: The 1980s were messed up in many, many ways.
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