Death of 14-year-old Tyre Sampson on Orlando, Florida, amusement park ride highlights consequences of deregulation, lax oversight

The horrific death of Tyre Sampson last Thursday night at Orlando, Florida’s ICON Park, where the 14-year-old fell to a gruesome death while riding the Orlando FreeFall drop tower, has shed light on the hazardous and deadly character of amusement parks in the United States. Sampson is only the latest victim in a long string of ride-related accidents and injuries, many fatal, from a profit-driven and vastly deregulated attractions industry.

The two companies at the center of Thursday’s tragedy, Funtime Thrill Rides, the manufacturer of FreeFall, and Slingshot Group of Companies, the ride operator, are facing immense backlash in light of demands that those responsible for flaws in the ride’s design along with improper safety protocols and training be held criminally accountable for the boy’s death.

A child enjoys a ride after the seasonal opening of the Coney Island amusement park area, Friday, April 9, 2021, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Representatives of ICON Park, which acts as a landlord for the drop tower, announced Monday that FreeFall and another of its rides produced by the Slingshot Group of companies, Orlando SlingShot, would remain closed indefinitely “until such time as a thorough investigation by the appropriate authorities has been completed and all parties are satisfied that the rides are safe for the public.” The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) and the Orange County Sheriff's Office have opened investigations into the accident and death.

Following the death of Sampson, the Dollywood amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee announced Sunday it has temporarily closed its Drop Line ride, which was also developed by Funtime Thrill Rides. Dollywood said in a statement that it was halting operation of the ride “out of an abundance of caution.” The email read: “Although Dollywood does not have the specific ride involved in this tragic incident, the safety of our guests is our top priority.”

Although the investigation into Sampson’s death is in its early stages, the likelihood of a result which whitewashes the criminal recklessness of the companies involved is high given the refusal of state authorities in prior cases to criminally prosecute, or administer any significant punishment, to companies deeply implicated in deadly accidents involving young people and other ride-goers.

Six-year-old Wongel Estifanos died in September last year from blunt force injuries after falling from the Haunted Mine Drop ride at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The District Attorney’s office investigating the incident decided to file no criminal charges against Caverns Adventure, despite state investigators admitting the girl’s death was the result of “multiple” operator errors, most notably that Estifanos had not been properly buckled in, and, in fact, was sitting on the ride’s seatbelt.

District Attorney Jefferson Cheney declared at the time that any potential crimes committed were either criminally negligent homicide or manslaughter, but his office concluded it “cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt any one person or entity acted with criminal negligence or was criminally reckless beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Estifanos family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the park, alleging two prior incidents had been documented which saw riders almost plunged down the ride without having their seat belts buckled in. The lawsuit filed by the family says that Estifanos’ uncle “specifically observed” the child as ride operators interacted with her. It goes on to say he “trusted” they were properly securing her. However, when the ride reached the bottom of the mineshaft, the lawsuit says Estifanos’ uncle was “stricken with terror” to not find the child in her seat.

In a public statement, the family declared the parents of Wongel were “shocked and outraged by the decision.” In one public statement the parents wrote: “Once again our daughter’s life has been treated as cheap and meaningless. First by the amusement park and now by the DA. We never wanted the people who killed our daughter to go to jail. But for the DA to let them off with nothing says our daughter’s life was worth nothing.”

The statement continued: “Our little girl should matter as much as a big corporation. What a terrible message to send. That in Glenwood Springs someone can recklessly kill a child and not even get a ticket. The DA tells us he knows the killing of Wongel was a ‘gross deviation from the standard of care’ but that he can’t prove which of the operators did it. That doesn’t make sense to us.”

The aftermath of Estifanos’ death represents one of the more egregious examples of the blatant indifference shown by state authorities, who deem the safety of not only workers but consumers as inconsequential in order to defend the interests of private profit.

State authorities and regulatory agencies invariably greenlight the operation of amusement and theme park rides despite major safety issues concerning their construction and make concerted efforts to shield corporations from any legal consequences for horrific accidents involving riders. As with workplace deaths, the outcome of any criminal investigation, if there is one, is nothing more severe than slap-on-the-wrist fines and settlements that barely make a dent in profits.

The ending of any serious nationwide oversight over ride and park safety had begun in 1981 with the election of Ronald Reagan, which saw the Republican president, along with Democrats and Republicans in Congress, spearhead a reactionary campaign of deregulation and the slashing of federal funding for social programs to facilitate a massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the super-rich.

The policies of the government found a vile expression in the infamous decision to redefine ketchup as a vegetable in order to justify the cutting of federal funds for school lunch programs. This process entailed dismantling any program that served as an impediment for corporations to reap massive profits, including federal oversight over park attractions.

In 1972, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) was established to protect the public’s safety from consumer products that could cause unreasonable risk of injury or harm. The agency immediately began regulating both amusement parks and smaller, mobile amusement destinations like traveling carnivals and fairs. By 1981, however, Congress had stripped the CPSC of its jurisdiction over “fixed site” amusement rides through an amendment to the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA).

The consequence of this shift was that amusement rides “permanently fixed to a site”—such as Orlando FreeFall and Haunted Mine Drop—became subject to voluntary standards written by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), which spends millions of dollars every year lobbying Congress against regulations for amusement parks at the state and local levels.

The CPSC now only has jurisdiction over “mobile” amusement rides (those transported from location to location), which represent a fraction of the size of larger rides where accidents are far more likely to occur. The only official mechanism for gathering and documenting statistics on theme park accidents, injuries and deaths is done so through the National Safety Commission, which surveys IAAPA members, but the vast majority of incidents go unreported as most companies refuse to share their data.

An IAAPA annual safety survey from 2016 showed that there were 1,146 injuries among people who went on rides on fixed sites in 2014. This number rose to 1,508 in 2015, a 32 percent increase. Even this statistic amounts to a severe undercounting. According to the CPSC, emergency rooms saw a staggering 30,900 injuries associated with amusement attractions nationwide in 2016 for both mobile and fixed park sites.

David Mandt, executive vice president of the IAAPA, told the Insurance Journal in 2016 that a federal oversight agency for amusement parks would “cost taxpayers millions” while claiming that injuries from attractions are rare. “We believe strong local and state regulation is the most effective government oversight for the industry,” Mandt said. “The states need the flexibility to create and enforce laws relevant to the attractions in their state, and that’s what they have done.”

The concept of “strong and local regulation” amounts to a hollow phrase in Florida, a state where the largest and most profitable amusement parks, like Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and Busch Gardens, are completely exempt from any sort of investigation from state officials simply for having more than 1,000 employees or their own in-house full-time inspectors. Similar conditions exist for the vast majority of states which either do not require any oversight over theme parks or maintain loopholes that allow companies to circumvent state regulation.

Smaller amusement rides in Florida, such as FreeFall at ICON Park, are subjected to semi-annual inspections and investigations from the FDACS. On December 20, 2021, FDACS conducted an initial inspection of the FreeFall drop tower and concluded “no deficiencies were noted at the initial permit inspection,” according to a statement by Democrat Nikki Fried, head of FDACS. Fried is aiming to challenge Republican incumbent Ron DeSantis in the 2022 gubernatorial election.

Fried maintains close financial ties to the amusement industry, undermining the narrative parroted by the Democrats that all accidents and injuries on attraction rides and theme parks are the fault of policies implemented by the Republicans. Since Fried took office in 2019, her Political Action Committee has received $25,000 from Universal Studios and a park tour valued at $4,500. Walt Disney Co. has given Fried’s PAC nearly $45,000 worth of food and drinks for events and a $10,000 donation, according to state campaign disclosures.

The Democrats and Republicans alike are dedicated to serving the corporate interests responsible for designing and operating amusement attractions that result in hundreds of casualties every year.