Worst Theme Park Accidents in History
Ride malfunctions, freak accidents, passengers ignoring the rules. Amusement park tragedies don’t happen often, but when they do, the results can be terrifying.
While most of us expect a day at the theme park to be a fun, entertaining outing with friends and family, of course, we also know that there are risks involved with roller coasters and other rides, albeit minor ones. There are roughly 30,000 amusement park-related injuries each year, though fatal accidents are much rarer, with just a handful occurring over the last decade.
Should you be overly worried or skip your trip to the theme park entirely? Probably not. Indeed, an industry group that represents theme and water parks points out that the chance of being injured on a ride at a permanent U.S. amusement park is one in 16 million, compared to a one-in-700,000 chance of being struck by lightning.
Still, it's worth knowing what can happen when park rides go wrong and to exercise caution. Read on for 15 of the most frightening incidents to ever occur around the world — including some that happened on rides that remain open today.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Anaheim, California
You don’t hear of too many accidents at Disneyland, the “Happiest Place on Earth,” but they do happen. In September 2003, one man died and 10 people were injured while riding the park's wildly popular Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Things took a dark turn on the ride — which opened in 1970 — when the open-passenger train cars separated from each other and the coaster came off its tracks. Riders were trapped in their cars in a cavern as emergency personnel worked to free them.
The Aftermath: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Investigators later determined that Disney staff did not follow proper maintenance procedures, which led to the accident.
You can still ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad today, though it has undergone some refurbishments since the tragic accident.
Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin in Anaheim, California
Also at Disneyland, changes were made to the Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin ride after a 4-year-old boy fell from the moving coaster and became trapped under a car in September 2000. The boy suffered various internal injuries and brain damage and spent several weeks in a drug-induced coma after the accident.
A settlement reached between the family and Disney ensured that the victim's medical care would be covered for the rest of his life, but he ended up dying eight years later in 2009.
The Aftermath: Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin
Disney installed doors and added skirt-like bumpers to the coaster’s cars following an investigation into the accident, which also found that the ride operator first called his supervisor rather than 9-11.
With these changes in place, the ride remains open, with passengers riding in “taxis” and traveling through Toontown in search of Jessica Rabbit while trying to dodge various obstructions.
Verruckt Water Slide in Kansas City, Kansas
This one is gruesome, so if you’re squeamish, you’ve been warned. In August 2016, a 10-year-old boy died tragically while visiting the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City.
He was riding the Verruckt, a 168-foot-tall waterslide that was certified by Guinness World Records as the tallest in the world. The boy was decapitated when the raft he was riding went airborne, causing him to strike a metal rod used to hold a safety net in place. Two other passengers in the same raft also suffered injuries.
Thunder River Rapids in Queensland, Australia
The Thunder River Rapids ride at Dreamworld, the largest theme park in Australia, was meant to mimic the exhilarating thrill of whitewater rafting — but in 2016, things took a turn for the chilling when two rafts collided, causing one to flip over and trap the passengers it was carrying.
Four people died in the accident, though fortunately, two young children riding in the raft somehow managed to free themselves and escape relatively unscathed.
The Aftermath: Thunder River Rapids
Theme park executives quickly decided to decommission the ride out of respect for the victims and their families. The entire theme park also temporarily shut down during a lengthy safety review and audit process.
Since reopening, the park hasn’t had any further accidents.
Texas Giant in Arlington
You can still ride the Texas Giant at Six Flags in Arlington, Texas, despite the fatal tragedy that occurred there in July 2013.
A 52-year-old woman was visiting the theme park for the first time when she decided to ride the Texas Giant, a “hybrid” roller coaster that combines steel engineering with wooden architecture. During a steep descent, the woman was thrown 75 feet from the ride, hitting a metal support beam and then landing on a metal roof. She ultimately died from her injuries.
The Aftermath: Texas Giant
Though the ride was temporarily shut down, it reopened after the theme park’s internal investigation found no mechanical issues related to the accident (though they added new restraint bar pads and seat belts).
Six Flags also went on to settle a lawsuit with the family of the victim; though the terms were not disclosed, $1 million was sought. The lawsuit included horrifying new details, including the fact that the woman held on for “dear life” before plunging to her death.
The 14-story coaster, which reaches speeds of 65 miles per hour and has a steep 79-degree drop, initially opened in 1990 before undergoing a $10 million renovation and reopening in 2011, just two years before the accident.
Tsunami in Motherwell, Scotland
As five gondolas on the Tsunami roller coaster came around a corner, they detached from the ride’s rails and fell to the ground, striking the ride’s infrastructure on the way down. Thankfully, no one was killed in the accident at M&Ds theme park, though nine passengers — mostly children — were injured that day in June 2016.
The ride’s claim to fame was that it was Scotland’s only “inverted” coaster, meaning that passengers rode under the track, rather than on top of it.
Drop Zone in Santa Clara, California
These types of rides are everywhere: After getting strapped into a chair with your feet dangling below you, you’re pulled up to the top of a tower and released, free-falling back down at top speeds.
That was what was supposed to happen on the 224-foot-tall Drop Zone ride at Great America in August 1999 when tragedy struck. A 12-year-old boy died after he somehow slipped out of the safety harness and fell from the ride.
The Aftermath: Drop Zone
The boy’s mother filed a lawsuit soon after, saying "You don't go to an amusement park and leave without your child. You don't leave without your child and then have to plan their funeral."
Despite a robust and lengthy investigation, it’s not totally clear what caused the accident. The ride remains in operation at the theme park today, though Great America did end up installing a safety strap on it.
King’s Crown in Omaha, Nebraska
What should have been a fun day at the carnival quickly turned into a nightmare for one Nebraska family when they boarded the spinning King’s Crown ride.
They were at a Cinco de Mayo festival in Omaha when their 11-year-old daughter’s hair got caught in the ride’s machinery. The family says she spun around, attached by her hair, for several minutes, until her scalp pulled away from her head.
The Aftermath: King’s Crown
The state’s labor department launched an investigation into the ride, shutting it down during the process, but said it did not appear that the ride malfunctioned. This one may have truly been a freak accident.
The brave girl has undergone several surgeries and says her hair is starting to grow back on one side. It’s still not clear what happened to cause the horrifying incident.
Wild Wonder in Ocean City, New Jersey
Safety mechanisms fail from time to time. But for two safety mechanisms to fail? That’s nearly unheard of. Yet incredibly, that’s exactly what happened on the Wild Wonder roller coaster in August 1999.
As the coaster was being drawn up the tracks, the drag chain released the cars prematurely, sending the cars flying backward. An anti-rollback/emergency brake device also malfunctioned, so the car just kept rolling. Though the car itself stayed on the tracks, the force of the drop sent the passengers — a mother and her 8-year-old daughter — into the air, killing them both.
The Aftermath: Wild Wonder
The coaster was removed from the amusement park not long after.
The Wildcat in Tulsa, Oklahoma
The unexpected backward rolling of a roller coaster appears to be a somewhat common accident, as the same thing happened on The Wildcat at Bell’s Amusement Park in April 1997.
A 14-year-old boy died and six people were injured as a result of this tragic accident, which occurred just as the coaster was being pulled to the highest point on the track. Instead of cresting over the top, the car slid backward and collided with another car.
The amusement park was packed with people because of a 25-cent ride promotion to celebrate its opening for the season, so many people witnessed the accident.
The Aftermath: The Wildcat
"It was rickety, but then that's the way it always is,” said Wesley Harmon, who rode the same ride about an hour before the accident. "That's scary to think that it could have been one of us.''
The ride was reportedly disassembled and relocated to an amusement park in Maryland with the new name “Avalanche.”
Sand Blaster in Daytona Beach, Florida
Luckily, the derailment of the Sand Blaster coaster in June 2018 didn’t do more damage.
Six people were injured when the coaster went off the tracks, which left a cart full of people dangling in the air.
The Aftermath: Sand Blaster
Investigators later determined that the amusement park’s owners had not addressed engineering problems that had caused a previous derailment a few years earlier — if they had, the 2018 accident likely wouldn’t have happened.
The crash resulted from operator error and excessive speed, according to investigators, who found rust and chipped paint along the track and saw earlier videos that showed the coaster nearly derailing. The ride is reportedly still standing but not operating.
Rollo Coaster in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The owners of the Idlewild & Soak Zone Amusement Park made some big changes to the park’s Rollo Coaster ride after a 3-year-old boy was thrown from one of the cars in August 2016.
The boy was sitting next to his older brother when the coaster rounded a curve at its highest point. After being ejected from the coaster, he reportedly fell at least 10 feet and landed near a fence.
The Aftermath: Rollo Coaster
The boy spent two months in the hospital with a head injury. No recent news reports indicate how he’s doing today.
An investigation uncovered that ride operators failed to notice when the boy switched seats to sit next to his brother, when he should have been sitting next to an adult.
The Rollo Coaster ride remained closed for nearly two years and reopened in April 2018 with several added safety features. It got a new train with fewer seats and now has seat belts and lap bars.
Roller Coaster in Farmington, Utah
It’s simply called “Roller Coaster,” though it sometimes goes by the name White Roller Coaster. This wooden ride was built in 1921 and has been running at the Lagoon Amusement Park ever since, despite a handful of deaths and accidents.
In 1989, a 13-year-old girl died after she stood up as the coaster crested a hill. She fell forward onto the tracks and was struck by two cars before plunging 35 feet to the ground.
A 20-year-old man also fell when he attempted to stand up on the coaster in 1934, and a maintenance worker was killed in 1946 after he was struck while working on scaffolding on the coaster.
Superman: Tower of Power in Louisville, Kentucky
If you’re squeamish, this one might be tough to read about. While riding a free-fall ride called the Superman: Tower of Power at Six Flags in 2007, a 13-year-old girl suffered a freak accident that resulted in her feet being cut off.
A cord got wrapped around her feet, which severed them from her legs at the ankles. Doctors were able to miraculously reattach one foot but were forced to amputate the other leg below the knee.
The Aftermath: Superman: Tower of Power
The ride, which pulls passengers up 177 feet before dropping them at 54 miles per hour, was later dismantled. Eventually, the entire theme park closed because of financial troubles.
The girl relearned to walk and has remained optimistic throughout the recovery process. “Everything happens for a reason,” Kaitlyn Lasitter told the Vanderbilt University publication “House Organ.” “Everyone has their own life story, and mine was supposed to have this huge detail put into it at some point.”
Treetop Twister in Ripon, England
The Treetop Twister was a brand-new ride at Lightwater Valley Theme Park when a tragic accident occurred.
The spinning ride, which took passengers through various tight twists and turns, had been open roughly a month when two carriages on the coaster collided, resulting in the death of a 20-year-old university student. Three men were also injured in the accident.
The Aftermath: Treetop Twister
Faulty wiring, worn-out wheels, improper training and the actions of a ride operator reportedly caused the crash. Despite the incident, the ride remains in operation today, under the name “The Twister.”
“This spinning roller coaster gives an awesome, fun-packed experience for all the family, with passengers boarding a strange waltzer-shaped ride car and heading on an epic ascent to the treetops,” the coaster’s description states.