Accidents happen at amusement parks, from skinned knees to serious ride malfunctions. But theme parks have a number of safety measures in place to ensure that your family's time there is fun and incident-free. In fact, state inspectors and regulatory agencies are in charge of "fixed rides," such as the roller coasters you find at large amusement parks, and the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) keeps an eye on "mobile rides," which move with carnivals, fairs, and other traveling attractions. But you don't have to leave your crew's well-being solely in the hands of these regulators. Follow these nine simple tips to be at the helm of your family's safety at amusement parks of all types.
1. Follow Park Rules
This may seem like a no-brainer, but parents would be surprised to learn how often theme park accidents happen because a child or teenager tried to flout park rules by climbing a fence, attempting to overload a ride with friends, or ignoring warnings from park employees. The posted signs and employee-stated rules are not there to put a damper on your fun -- they're there to keep you safe. So read them, follow them, and then have a great time!
2. Keep Your Eyes on Your Kids
Knowing where your children are in a park is a basic but essential safety practice, says Jarrett Arthur, founder of the Los Angeles-based parental self-defense program Mothers Against Malicious Acts (M.A.M.A.). Just as vital is to have a plan for what to do if you get separated. "As soon as you arrive, point out safe places, like a park info kiosk, and safe people, like park security, that can help your kids if they get lost," Arthur says. Set a designated meeting place that everyone can easily find if separation occurs. Don't just watch your kids, Arthur advises; look out for those who may be watching them. "Equally important is watching for adults who might try to approach and speak to your child," she says.
3. Respect the Power of Water
If your family is visiting a water park, there are additional safety precautions to keep in mind. The most crucial thing is to know your child's swimming ability and be cautious about allowing them into attractions such as wave pools without a life vest if they aren't strong swimmers. Many parks lend free vests to visitors, and lifeguards can help your fit your child with the right one, says Aleatha Ezra, a spokesperson for the World Waterpark Association. Ezra also advises parents to reapply sunscreen after water activities, teach kids not to swallow chlorinated water, and stay within an arm's length of children so you can respond if they get scared, disoriented, or overwhelmed on a water attraction.
4. Take Breaks Between High-Speed Rides
High-speed rides take a toll on young bodies (and older bodies, for that matter!), with the extreme gravitational forces they exert, the significant vibrations that ricochet through the body, and the sudden, jerky movements that can strain necks and other joints. Ryan Coates, M.D., a pediatric neurologist at Loyola University Health System in Chicago, advises taking a 10- to 15-minute break between extreme rides -- or any ride where a child is jostled around. This simple step "allows your body to adjust and equilibrate," Dr. Coates says.
5. Be Smart With Food and Drink
Staying hydrated with good old H2O is key, especially during summer trips to amusement parks when all the excitement makes for a sweaty day. Dr. Coates also recommends avoiding caffeine and candy, and doing your best to eat regular meals. If sugary or fatty snacks are in the offing (and let's be real -- at a fair or park, they often are), Dr. Coates recommends waiting a while before getting on a ride, particularly one that spins you around; if you don't, it may put a damper on everyone's fun. "I did this when I was a child and they had to shut the ride down to clean the seat I was in," he recalls.
6. Choose Age-Appropriate Rides
Safety advocates advise parents to go on rides with children until they are absolutely sure the kids understand and can follow all safety rules. This is particularly important on slower rides, which don't always require safety restraints. Teach your kids to ride "eyes front" to protect their neck during sudden, jerking movements. If you aren't sure a ride is age-appropriate for your child, err on the side of caution, advise safety experts at the public advocacy website SaferParks.org. And if a child seems frightened for any reason, even once you've boarded the ride, alert the operator before it starts so you can get off safely and find another ride.
7. Strap, Belt, Bar, or Latch Carefully
On most rides, an attendant will walk down the line and make sure everyone is properly positioned and latched in before the ride begins. Double-check your safety gear yourself, and be sure you maintain your seated position until the ride comes to a final stop. SaferParks.org recommends keeping all body parts inside the ride, securing all belongings in zipped or buttoned pockets so they don't fall and cause an injury, and never standing up on a roller coaster or rocking a vehicle that's not controlled by riders. Make sure kids understand that if a ride stops temporarily for any reason, they should stay seated with their restraints in place until the ride starts up again or an operator gives instructions. Finally, be extra careful in fitting straps properly on small, thin, or obese riders, especially on rides that have only lap restraints; these riders may face a higher risk of being ejected from their seats.
8. Know the Signs of Injury
Parents should bring their kids to a first aid station immediately if they start to show "a sudden onset severe headache or significant nausea or vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, or numbness and tingling," Dr. Coates says. These are the biggest warning signs that something might be wrong. If symptoms quickly resolve themselves, the child can continue to enjoy the park, Dr. Coates says. But, he adds, "parents know their kids the best, so if they feel their child is not at their [acting right] they should keep him off any rides until the symptoms have subsided. If the symptoms don't resolve or worsen, parents should take him to the first aid station for evaluation."
9. Have an Emergency Escape Plan
"Scared or startled crowds are dangerous, especially for kids who can easily get trampled," M.A.M.A.'s Arthur cautions. Discuss a plan to get your family out of the park in case of an accident, outbreak of violence, sudden weather, or some other scenario that could cause park-wide chaos. Your plan should include an exit strategy that avoids main entrances, which quickly get clogged with people during an incident. Instead, find out where the park's other fire exits are and choose one to meet at in the event of an emergency. "If you can't find auxiliary exits, try to move perpendicularly to the flow of people and get to the perimeters of the park," Arthur says.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi writes the Parents News Now blog for Parents.com.