Four days before a preschooler died after passing out on a popular space ride last Monday at Walt Disney Co.'s Florida park, the company's top theme park executive and two lobbyists had visited the Capitol Hill offices of Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).
The three wanted to make the case that the kind of federal safety oversight the congressman was proposing for the industry was unnecessary because theme parks are safe and already regulated by most states.
Now, 4-year-old Daudi Bamuwamye's death has abruptly put Disney and other theme park companies firmly on the defensive. The cause of the Pennsylvania boy's death, and whether the Walt Disney World ride had anything to do with it, may not be known for weeks. But the death is galvanizing consumer advocates and safety consultants, who view it as example of why the kind of federal regulation Markey proposes is needed.
"There may be something we can learn from this incident," said Ken Martin, an independent ride inspector and consultant based in Virginia. "But we can't because there's no federal investigation."
Federal officials lack authority to investigate incidents such as the one last week because of an exemption Congress passed in 1981. It allows the Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate carnival rides because, moving from state to state, they otherwise could escape oversight. Fixed rides at theme parks, however, are exempt.
Disney parks spokeswoman Leslie Goodman said the Burbank company's appointment with Markey was not to specifically lobby against his bill. She described the session as an informal "meet and greet" between Markey and Jay Rasulo, head of Disney parks and resorts.
But, she said, Disney has joined the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions trade group in opposing Markey's legislation.
Goodman said Disney has always complied with existing inspection and accident reporting rules while actively working with regulators and with other theme park operators to make them better. Markey's bill, she said, is excessive regulation.
"We are always open to a discussion of ways we might improve reporting but are not convinced that another layer of regulation from Washington is the best answer," Goodman said.