Too Many Thrills?

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Disney World officials turn away visitors at the closed Rock 'n' Roller Coaster after a 12-year-old boy died on the ride on June 29, 2006

Are we fast enough, high enough, scared enough yet? Are we pulling enough G's? Following Thursday's death in Orlando of a 12-year-old boy who collapsed after riding Walt Disney World's Rock 'N' Roller Coaster, the answer may finally be yes. In a scenario that will raise a cold sweat among epinephrine junkies who live for escalations in the theme-park roller coaster arms race, industry insiders are starting to predict that fear will not be the driving factor in the next generation of rides.

"Nobody's going to want to take the chance," says Steve Baker, a theme park consultant in Orlando. "The envelope's pushed as far as they're willing to push it now."

By itself, the death of Michael Russell of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, who was vacationing at Disney with his parents and younger brother, would have been simply a tragic loss for a grieving family and friends. But this was the third time in little more than a year that a Disney guest has died after riding one of the resort's signature attractions, including Mission: SPACE. All three victims were found in autopsies to have suffered from either undiagnosed heart defects or pre-existing life-threatening conditions that could have been exacerbated by the stress of the ride. "It's happening too frequently and that's going to weigh on people's minds," Baker says.

Even the industry's most diligent critics, like Kathy Fackler, who maintains the website, acknowledge that the odds of injury on a thrill ride are low. Millions of people rode the 7-year-old Rock 'N' Roller Coaster without serious incident before this week. But short of conducting echocardiograms on every child who wants to ride, says Dr. Arno Zaritsky, of the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville, there is no way to know who has a hidden heart defect that might not withstand the ride's quick 0-60 mph acceleration, stomach-churning corkscrew turns and blaring rock-and-roll music.

"These rides subject people to forces and experiences beyond anything that we've ever been exposed to before. And in kind of Darwinian terms, there's no way the body has had time to evolve into this," Fackler says. Baker says the future of rides lies in more interactive innovation. That's fortunate for Disney, which, despite appearances as a result of the rash of tragedies, has never sought to be a competitor in the bigger, faster, scarier race, but rather has staked its claim to the highly immersive, story-telling experience.