Disabled visitors' access to roller coasters left to parks' discretion

Seven years ago, a man who sells prosthetic limbs for a living was barred from getting on the Montu roller coaster at Busch Gardens because he wore a prosthetic right leg.

Cary Frounfelter of Seminole sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He settled out of court for an amount that barely covered his lawyer fees. But amputees wearing prosthetic limbs above the knee are still not allowed to ride the 60-mph roller coaster on which riders' legs dangle freely.

"If you go there now, there are signs up at the front of the lines," Frounfelter said Monday. "Those signs are there because of me."

Lawsuits like Frounfelter's have forced amusement parks to balance access to rides by the disabled with safety.

Last Friday night, an Iraq war veteran who lost both legs to a roadside bomb was ejected from a 208-foot-tall roller coaster at a theme park outside Buffalo, N.Y. Sgt. James Thomas Hackemer died. His sister has said she does not believe he was wearing his prosthetic limbs.

The accident has brought scrutiny and perhaps more regulation of the industry. There is no federal oversight of amusement park rides. Now, a Massachusetts congressman said he is planning to introduce legislation that would require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to inspect the country's 400 "fixed site" amusement parks. Right now, only traveling rides are inspected. This means many parks come up with and apply their own rules.

James Barber of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials said most major parks have rules regarding disabled riders. For example, ride attendants at many parks are not required to pick up someone out of a wheel chair and carry him onto a ride.

"I know they can deny access if it's determined the person cannot be properly restrained on a ride," Barber said. "That's allowable under ADA rules. Each park takes their stand on it and it depends on whether their attendants believe a person is able to ride the ride."

At the theme park where Hackemer, 29, died, two other roller coasters required riders to have "upper body control, two legs and complete use of at least one hand," according to the park's website.

The Ride of Steel, from which he fell, secures riders with only a lap bar and a seat belt. It has a height requirement of 54 inches. After losing all of his left leg and most of his right in 2008, Hackemer was only 36 inches tall.

In May 1999, a 400-pound man was thrown from the same ride when it was owned by another company. He suffered only minor injuries, but he won a $4-million lawsuit against the park. The jury found the park was negligent in its failure to properly train employees on how to assess a rider's risk.

"Nobody wants a lawsuit but unfortunately that's the country we live in," said Dennis Speigel, an amusement park consultant in Cincinnati. "If you tell them they can't get on the rides, they sue. If there's an accident, they sue. It's a difficult situation."

In Florida, amusement parks are inspected by the state's Bureau of Fair Rides Inspection at least twice a year. The major theme parks, however, such as Busch Gardens and Walt Disney World, get a visit but they are exempt from the inspections by state law, said Allan Harrison, bureau chief.

"We don't regulate them," Harrison said. "Each ride is looked at by a qualified engineer" — hired by the park, he said — "so there is some oversight, but there are not inspections."

At Busch Gardens in Tampa, people with physical limitations are urged to visit guest services to find out what they can and can't do at the park. Access to the rides is governed by such questions as whether riders can hold on with two functioning hands, whether they can brace themselves with one or two functioning legs, whether they have control of their upper torso, whether an amputation is above or below the knee.

A park employee will plug the parameters into a computer and it will spit out a list of allowable rides, said Jill Revelle, a spokeswoman for Busch Gardens.

When Frounfelter went to the park in July 2004, he was with his 10-year-old daughter and he said there were no signs to tell him that he could not wear his metal prosthetic leg on the ride. He waited in line for an hour and the attendant only pulled him aside after his daughter got on the ride. Then she had to ride it on her own without him.

Though he didn't really win his discrimination lawsuit with Busch Gardens, and people wearing their prosthetic limbs (above-the-knee only) are still not allowed on the major roller coasters, Frounfelter, 44, said he doesn't let that stop him.

He has a prosthetic limb that looks real. He said he's slipped onto dozens of roller coasters, including Montu. The ride attendants never know.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and Times wires contributed to this report. Staff writer Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or 727-893-8640.

Disabled visitors' access to roller coasters left to parks' discretion 07/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 12, 2011 12:10am]

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