At Disney, Mission: Space spurs most complaints
Even before a second tourist died this week, Mission: Space was emerging as Walt Disney World's most hazardous ride, with more than twice as many reported illnesses and injuries as any other Disney attraction.
Tragedy struck the Epcot ride for the second time when Hiltrud Blümel, 49, of Schmitten, Germany, died Wednesday, a day after she fell ill following a spin on the spaceflight simulator. A 4-year-old boy, Daudi Bamuwamye, died in June after the ride.
Blümel's death renewed questions about the safety of the $100 million attraction that simulates a rocket blastoff and landing.
But plenty of people were eager to experience the ride, which reopened Thursday morning after an inspection late Wednesday by Disney and state officials. Many of the visitors did not know a tourist had died the day before.
Alex Espinoza, 17, rode Mission: Space four times and wasn't worried.
"My voice is destroyed from yelling all day," said Espinoza, who was on a trip with his high-school band from Ohio. "It was really, really fun. They warn you numerous times before you get on the ride. We even had a lady step out before we got on because she was just like, 'I can't do this.' "
In addition to the two deaths in the past 10 months, 10 people have reported serious illnesses or injuries since the ride opened in the summer of 2003, according to reports Disney filed with the Florida Bureau of Fair Rides Inspections. That's the worst record of all the Disney attractions and doesn't include more than 130 other Mission: Space riders who sought medical attention, according to ambulance records.
Second-worst were Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom and the wave pool at Typhoon Lagoon. Each had reported one death and four serious injuries or illnesses since 2003, according to state records.
On Mission: Space, riders are met with 13 signs warning of motion sickness, dark and enclosed spaces and spinning.
Just before people are loaded into the ride capsules, they are shown a video explaining the ride and are again given a chance to exit the line.
All of the warning signs and the video are in English, though Epcot brochures are available in multiple languages at the park's entrance. The brochures briefly describe Mission: Space as the "most thrilling attraction in Disney history" and warn that it may cause motion sickness.
"As with any thrill attraction, Mission: Space is not for all guests," said Disney spokeswoman Kim Prunty.
Prunty said Thursday that no changes have been made to the ride since the Pennsylvania boy's death last summer, and no further review is planned.
There also has been no move to post the warning signs in different languages, she said, but those issues are often reviewed.
A ride worker first called 911 to report Blumel's illness at 1:19 p.m. Tuesday, saying that "she seems pretty bad" but was alert. The ambulance arrived 12 minutes later, and she reached Florida Hospital Celebration Health at 2:04. She died Wednesday.
The Orange County Medical Examiner is expected to perform an autopsy on Blumel today.
Blümel's family asked Disney not to release any information, though Disney reportedly told state authorities that she may have suffered from high blood pressure and other health problems, according to one state source.
Robert A. Samartin, a Tampa attorney representing Daudi's family, said their "hearts go out to the family" of Blümel.
"They certainly understand how they can go from having a wonderful family vacation to just horror," Samartin said. "It's very tragic."
Daudi's death was eventually attributed to a previously undetected heart condition.
Since its start, Mission: Space has developed a troubling reputation for making some people sick. A few months after it opened, it became the only Disney ride offering motion-sickness bags.
The nonfatal incidents reported to the state included three men and a woman who all complained of chest pains and one man who fainted.
Still, millions of people have ridden Mission: Space in three years, and many rave about it as one of the park's top thrills.
Not everyone who gets sick makes a formal complaint.
Paul Borne, 57, a Norfolk, Mass., sales representative, didn't but said he wished he had, after getting sick following a Feb. 28 spin on Mission: Space.
He said he left dizzy, then developed a bad headache that night. The next morning, on the plane home he got sick, tried to head for the lavatory and passed out in the aisle. The flight crew put him on oxygen. When he tried to get up later, he passed out again, and after they landed an ambulance took him straight to a hospital, he said.
After two days of tests the doctors agreed with his assumption that the ride probably was to blame, he said.
"The ride itself? It was wild. It was dizzy. They had puke bags. I would never have gotten on it if I knew it had puke bags. They give you warnings and stuff, but all the rides have warnings," Borne said. "This thing, they gotta close it down."
Mission: Space uses centrifugal force, video and other special effects to make riders feel as if they are in a spaceship blasting off, traveling to Mars and landing. Riders experience four periods, of up to 20 seconds each, when the G-force ranges between 1.6 and 2.3. A G-force of 2 is twice that of gravity.
Under Florida law, Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay are responsible for their own ride safety, with no direct state oversight. Bureau of Fair Rides inspectors confer with the theme-park-ride officials annually but only inspect rides when invited.
Terence McElroy, spokesman for the state bureau, described Wednesday night's inspection as "top to bottom."
"Now understand, we don't regulate them. We're not experts on that ride. We don't routinely look at it. So their engineers and safety personnel and inspectors were the ones who actually did it. We did observe that. There did not appear to be anything, to us, that appeared to be out of the ordinary," McElroy said.
Disney officials pride themselves on having what they consider the best ride engineers, inspectors and safety authorities in the country.
However, that doesn't bring much comfort to advocates of public ride inspections such as Kathy Fackler, founder and president of an organization called SaferParks, which pushed for and got California oversight of theme-park-ride safety in 1999.
"All we're asking for is someone who doesn't have huge liability to step in and conduct an independent investigation, and let the public know," she said.
The lines for Mission: Space on Thursday -- in the midst of the busy Easter vacation season -- were much shorter than those at Epcot's other two big rides, Soarin' and Test Track.
One family debated whether to go on.
"We knew it was one of the most popular rides, and I heard about one person who died on it," said Darrell Lipski, who was vacationing from Peoria, Ill., with his wife, Lynette, and their three sons.
Lynette Lipski added, "One person we know went on it and was sick all day."
The couple were unsure whether they would let their family ride, especially their 7-year-old.
"I don't think we want to put him on it," Lynette Lipski said.