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Water Park Safety

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream; then came the water park explosion. The good old days; sunbathing at the beach, a picnic by the lake or swinging from a tire hung by a rope down by the river or floating down stream on that old inner tube from the trunk of dad’s 56 Buick. Simpler times but one of the first water parks as we know their existence today did not venture too far from its roots and those past time activities of days gone bye. This park chose a natural and a casual setting to amuse their guests providing fairly uneventful slides, tube chutes and a beach area overlooking a lake. This concept caught on quickly and soon thereafter a new industry was born; the water park.

The water park industry provided an alternative to the beach, lake, or river and turned the laid back picnic of yesteryear into a highly physical and interactive adventure. The water park ride is generally gravity propelled using water as a carrier and/or lubricant. Think of a roller coaster when you think of water rides except the slide path is the track and you become the train. Water rides do not offer restraints, over-the-shoulder harnesses or lap safety belts to help you maintain postural control; the thrill is between you and the ride and where and how you slide.

Today’s water parks offer a full menu of choices including water slides, a variety of tube rides, a variation of bodies of water, wave pools, slow moving rivers, and rapids style elements. More recent water rides have borrowed a little “physics” from the hard rides side of the house and created excitement in an arena that mirrors extreme rides.

It did not take very long for industry personnel to realize existing and potential problems associated with the development and operation of this emerging industry. Resource manuals and safety related materials for the water park industry were non existent in the early years. Engineering principles were applied to these concept rides but in many instances failed to address the rider’s ability to maintain proper riding postures and the rider’s variable body profiles. Operational safety situations presented that included training issues. Initially, much of the safety processes and procedures were borrowed from the hard rides parks and many of the operators had backgrounds as life guards and water skiers. The problem was that this industry was a little bit of everything that had the word water attached to it and few if any had real experience in an industry that for all practical purposes did not exist thirty years ago.

The water park rides being developed brought a period of trial and error and continuous operational adjustments. As the water park industry moved forward an internal language developed I refer to as the buzz words and it includes words like but are not limited to: surface contact, lift, surface separation, lubricity, gallons per minute, splash pool, shallow and deep water life guards, etc. These buzz words offered insight into the many accidents occurring and created a dialog between operators that begin to ultimately identify problem areas and reduce some of the serious hazards.

As the water park industry has grown so has the race to offer a wider variety of experiences.  Speed slides, tube rides, mat rides, drops, swirling rides, and children’s interactive play areas are all examples of water park amusement rides or devices. Standards and regulations have not maintained pace with the water park industry due in part to the ever changing characteristics. Each new generation of a water park ride can offer a previously unidentified hazard that can surface during the operation that may require an adjustment. Solving problems can include operational changes, design changes and/or a combination of both. Fundamentally, the riding population will become the final testing phase that will determine what if any safety gaps remain after opening to the public.

Generally pre-opening inspections are more skewed toward being one dimensional and may be limiting in identifying all the possibilities for exposures. Typically, early phase testing may only reveal a glimpse of what the riding population may be exposed to under all operating conditions. Body types and specific characteristics are as unique as personalities and the potential variations are virtually infinite. Different body size and shapes can have an affect on the rider’s experience. Most people who encounter water rides will have a safe and fun experience but there will be a percentage of the riding population that will sustain an injury.

A continuing problem associated with many water rides is the rider’s inability to maintain postural control during the course of the ride. Losing postural control can reposition a rider’s body and change the intended dynamic experience placing the rider in harms way that can lead to an injury. There are a number of more common scenarios that can increase the rider’s likelihood for an injury. These can include but are not limited to; high side wall oscillations, stretched out riders, elevated speed, weight, height, splash pool depth, length of pool run out, collisions, inner tube separation, and many more. A combination of the aforementioned possibilities increases the potential for injury.

Each time an individual rides a water park ride their experience may be different. There are a variety of factors that influence the riders experience that may include one or more of the following: body surface contact with slide path, tube air pressure, ride position, displaced water, water flow rates, contact with other riders, splash down entry position, speed at run out, head first, etc.

Following the ride rules and instructions is a guideline for safe operation and does not guarantee you will not be subjected to injury. When a body is in motion a potential for injury exists.

Water Park Safety Tips

These are basic water park safety tips to make your experience near the water safer.

  • Learn to swim. The best thing anyone can do to stay safe in and around the water is to learn to swim.

  • Always swim with a buddy; never swim alone. The American Red Cross has swimming courses for people of any age and swimming ability.

  • Be sure the area is well supervised by lifeguards before you or others in your group enter the water.

  • Read all posted signs. Follow the rules and directions given by lifeguards. Ask questions if you are not sure about a correct procedure.

  • When you go from one attraction to another, note that the water depth may be different and that the attraction should be used in a different way.

  • Before you start down a water slide, get in the correct position - face up and feet first.

  • Some facilities provide life jackets at no charge. If you cannot swim, wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Check others in your group as well.