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My Weird Obsession With the Dark Underbelly of Amusement Parks

The addictive Youtube series Defunctland offers a peek into the dark side of amusement parks

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It’s happened at more than one party. I’m chatting with a potential new friend, a beer or two in, and suddenly we’re talking about summer plans. Maybe a beach outing here, a theme park trip there. “You want to go to Six Flags?” I say, and before I know it I’m doing, oh god, I’m doing my spiel, saying that amusement park rides are often terrifyingly dangerous, that people have actually lost limbs at Six Flags. And isn’t it, like, totally crazy that nobody in this country is really regulating these parks.

I didn’t used to be this way. As a child I lived for amusement parks, spending summers screaming at the top of creaky wooden roller coasters or speeding through the loops of a Superman-themed Six Flags ride. I loved a suburban fair Gravitron, a “Scrambler,” a pirate ship ride with bars that left way too much space and threw my little 11-year-old self out the side. These were rides all so easily breakable that they could be disassembled and trucked away to the next town over like oversized Polly Pocket compacts of hell. Not unlike our shared obsession with horror movies, my family has always loved the fleeting feeling of a highly controlled thrill. I wanted to feel my stomach do a somersault inside me while being thrown down a 200-foot drop, and then congratulate my body afterward with a neverending stream of funnel cake and cotton candy.

But theme parks stopped being fun and started seeming sus. Maybe it was a natural byproduct of aging and not being nearly as into the idea of wandering around a fake Western town drenched in log flume water in search of a $12 corndog. But the more I learned about theme parks, the more I realized how seriously freaky they are, and how flimsy the rides can be despite the cartoonish facade of fantasy and fun the parks try to cultivate. Enter Defunctland, a Youtube series that dissects the history of shuttered and retired theme park rides, from movie-themed attractions at Universal Studios to the history of the Ferris wheel. Helmed by writer and director Kevin Perjurer, the bite-sized documentary videos are astonishingly well researched and assembled, offering a peek behind what makes theme park rides succeed, and what leads to their downfall.

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There are videos on the racist history of Splash Mountain, the French’s hatred for Disneyland Paris, and the reckless, fatal rides of New Jersey’s Action Park, long before the subject was made into a feature documentary. Some of my favorite videos are about the shifting nature of Disney parks under different company leadership, and I say this as someone who has been to a Disney World twice in my life and possesses no warm or fuzzy “Disney Adult” feelings about the place. I’m still trying to shake the video about Walt Disney’s initial vision for EPCOT, a dystopian community he envisioned as an idyllic blueprint for future cities. There would be no cars, residents would constantly be subjected to changes in their homes in pursuit of Disney’s experiments with new technology, and the community would essentially be run like a mini-dictatorship under Disney, with residents stripped of municipal voting rights. And for all of the American Disney Park’s kid-friendly fare, learning about the terrifying, animatronic tour dedicated to Disney villains once set in the “dungeon” of Tokyo Disneyland’s castle gives me hope one day the park will go a little more goth.

But the grim side of amusement parks goes beyond their creepy packaging and branding missteps. There’s also the fact that the safety of American amusement parks is largely unregulated. When the Consumer Product Safety Commission was established in the 1970s, it initially regulated the safety of amusement park rides. But in 1981 the Congress decided that fixed-site amusement park rides did not fall under the jurisdiction of the CPSC because they weren’t technically products, leaving regulation of parks up to the states. There are no uniform standards regulating rides between states; some only require that a representative from a park’s insurance company check rides annually, which means parks essentially regulate themselves. The theme park injuries and deaths that make the news each year might only scratch the surface of what’s really happening at parks across the country because parks self-report data to the state. An Orlando Sentinel investigation from last year found that parks like Universal and Disney World were underreporting or mislabeling grave injuries and deaths, with no follow-up from the state to correct the record.

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Defunctland’s videos often interrogate the tamer reasons rides fail (an EPCOT ride that simulated traveling inside of someone’s body kept making people want to throw up!), but the central tension of the series is the fact that some of these rides are incorrectly put together, all while racing other parks who have higher, faster, cooler rides. Take the series’ video on Son of Beast, an ambitious wooden roller coaster at a park in Ohio with several construction problems that led to a lawsuit against the coaster’s manufacturers. The coaster, which was closed in 2009, had been subject to inspection, but by the state’s department of agriculture, which really encapsulates how messed up theme park regulation is. Or the video on Busch Gardens’ ride “Drachen Fire,” in which American manufacturers created a coaster initially based on a different, more experienced Swiss firm’s designs, leading to an unpleasant, extremely rough riding experience that caused a nosedive in the coaster’s popularity.

To a once avid park-goer like myself, the success of a theme park ride has always seemed like a relatively simple equation: make it fast, make it tall, and, a baseline requirement, make it safe. But in walking through the graveyard of abandoned and discontinued rides, the Defunctland series reveals that roller coasters are often misguided fantasies of their creators, who can sometimes privilege wild ideas and branding over-engineering and creativity. Once you know that I doubt you’ll ever be able to think about a roller coaster the same way.