Safety vs. thrills: Child's death highlights theme-park problem
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Disney's dilemma Safety vs. thrills: Child's death highlights theme-park problem Each day, thousands of visitors to Walt Disney Co.'s theme parks ride pulse-pounding attractions that propel them into space, plunge them multiple stories and send them racing along tracks at stomach-churning speeds.

For the most part, visitors ride without worrying much about the risks, especially when the attractions are backed by a trusted, family brand like Disney. But it takes just one headline-grabbing accident -- like the recent death of a 4-year-old boy on the Mission: Space attraction at Disney's Epcot park in Orlando -- to raise questions about safety and whether Disney has pushed the envelope too far when it comes to thrills. Such accidents also inevitably bring new calls for tougher regulation.

The Mission: Space incident illustrates a difficult dilemma for Disney: even though its rides are usually not as extreme as parks owned by Six Flags Inc. -- where some roller coasters top 450-foot heights and go from zero to 128 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds -- Disney's family-friendly reputation puts it under a harsher spotlight when things go wrong. "Disney is the happiest place on earth," says author David Koenig, who has written a number of books independently about the company. "Nobody can get hurt at Disneyland."

Indeed, many Disney theme-park customers still carry expectations of the world that Walt Disney first conceived for the original Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., in the 1950s. The late Mr. Disney sought to create rides the whole family could enjoy together. But under pressure from faster, bigger and scarier rides at other parks, Disney has introduced more intense attractions in recent years.

Disney insists it's not in the business of extreme rides and offers a balance of attractions that are more about telling stories than providing thrills. In an effort to reassure visitors, the company in recent years has launched an aggressive campaign to publicize its safety efforts for the first time. "Thrill rides are not what Disney is about," says Eric Jacobson, vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering's creative division, which masterminds Disney's theme park rides. "The ride is not the driver for the experience. It's just a device to help us tell a broader story."

Still, Disney's attractions have gotten a lot more daring than the days of Snow White's Adventures, the company's not-so-thrilling attempt at a darker attraction in the original Disneyland -- it was later renamed Snow White's Scary Adventures. As rival parks raced to outdo each other, Disney took its rides up a notch in the 1970s with attractions like the roller coasters Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It later followed with The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, in which an elevator free-falls 13 stories; the Aerosmith Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, which goes 0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds; and Test Track, in which cars take corners at 65 mph.