From neon water slides and lazy rivers to kiddy playgrounds and snazzy hot tubs, the average water park has something for everyone. But peel back the veneer of harmless hijinks and you’ll find some alarming stories that may make you think twice about hanging ten at the wave pool.
No water park in America can claim the same level of infamy as Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey, which witnessed hundreds of injuries and six deaths during 1978-1996. The attractions were as crazy as the safety was lax: Urban legends tell of employees being offered $100 to test out rides and the park having to purchase additional ambulances for the town to keep up with the mounting emergency room visits. Due to a string of lawsuits and bad publicity, Action Park was sold to new management in 1996.
Then, in 2010, the original owners decided to take another stab at it. Capitalizing on a wave of nostalgia and the growing popularity of all things analog, they repurchased the park, restored some of the old rides, reintroduced the beloved retro signage, and kitted out the gift shop with tongue-in-cheek “I Survived Action Park” T-shirts.
When they finish renovating and re-opened for business in 2014, one of the star attractions was Cannonball Falls, an enclosed, twisting water slide that culminated in riders being shot out of a narrow tube, catapult-style, followed by a 10-foot drop into a pool below. Safe to say, the Action Park founders couldn’t help bringing back their former sketchy safety record as well. The slide was forced to close only a year later after a half-dozen injuries were reported in a single summer season, which was the highest of any ride in the entire state that summer.
Since the 1977 opening of Wet ’n Wild, the first water park in the US (which will sadly shut its gates later this year), American families have flocked to water parks in droves during the dog days of summer. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) states that 83 million people visit water parks annually. And why not? Aside from being a relatively cheap and accessible way to cool off, they offer more thrills than an afternoon at the neighborhood pool, more agency than being strapped into a high-flying roller coaster, and more familiarity than other adrenaline-pumping pursuits such as bungee jumping, abseiling, and skydiving.
But beneath the pastel-colored water slides and sea creature–shaped floaties lie some pretty damning findings. While the lack of comprehensive statistics concerning water park accidents has been well-documented across various news platforms, you only have to thumb through the headlines to uncover some rather jaw-dropping tales.
So far this year, the Hawaiian Falls water park in Pflugerville, Texas was sued by Lauro Castrejon, who claims he was knocked unconscious by another slide rider and sustained head and spinal injuries. The same park is also facing a lawsuit from the family of a victim who drowned in 2014, who allege gross safety oversights and claim that another individual nearly died on the same day. In Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, another family is suing Kalahari Resorts after their son was injured on an attraction they believe the park knew was unsafe. Other water parks with recent or pending suits include Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell, Georgia, Magic Waters in Cherry Valley, Illinois, and Cowabunga Bay in Henderson, Nevada.
These grim narratives aren’t restricted to injuries sustained from water park rides alone. In 2015, 25 children were hospitalized after excess chlorine was introduced into a pool at the White Lake Water Park in Elizabethtown, North Carolina. And just a stone’s throw away in Charlotte, the US National Whitewater Center was recently forced to suspend operations after a teenage girl died of an infection caused by a brain-eating amoeba present in their water system. Yes, you read that right: a brain-eating amoeba.
An even more troubling discovery is the utter lack of federal legislation in place to govern safety and operating procedures across the country’s water parks. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) was stripped of its right to regulate the amusement park industry in 1981 after Congress decided that fixed-site amusement parks—a category that includes water parks—did not qualify as consumer products.
Instead, water parks are overseen on a state-by-state basis, leading to an inconsistent mishmash of rules that leaves much to be desired. Ten states lack overarching management regarding safety inspections, and six states have no regulations at all.
And here’s the kicker: the largest amusement parks in Florida—including those operated by Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld—operate entirely privately and have full control over the extent to which they investigate injuries and fatalities that occur on their grounds. State inspectors aren’t even allowed to set foot on the premises without the park’s consent, even if a fatal accident occurs. While industry executives may debate the value of comprehensive federal regulations, leaving water parks to their own devices creates a worrying lack of accountability that could compromise the safety of visitors.
So does this mean that we should stick to creating makeshift water parks in the safety of our bathtubs? Not exactly. Despite the shocking accounts that sometimes dominate the news, water park injuries are actually pretty rare. A report by the CPSC puts the fatality figure for all amusement park rides at 57 deaths between 1987-2002, which is an annual average of 4.4 fatalities out of the 375 million people that frequent amusement parks. The IAAPA also claims (albeit based on a voluntary survey) that fewer than 5,200 injuries occur from the 1.6 billion rides visitors take at water parks each year, which represents an injury risk of 1 in over 307,000.
So rather than fearing water parks, perhaps we can adopt a similar que será será approach to other thrill-seeking summer pastimes. After all, many of the risky leisure pursuits that some people perceive as too dangerous to undertake aren’t as deathly as we think. For example, the chances of plunging to our deaths while skydiving are 1 in 125,000, which is over double that of hurting yourself at a water park, but still relatively unlikely. White-water rafting? 1 in 250,000. Bungee jumping? 1 in 500,000. And the lifetime odds of perishing in a shark attack? A grand total of 1 in 3.7 million. Compared to that, sliding down a double-looping water slide at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour is a walk in the (water) park.
Although there’s an element of danger to the aforementioned pursuits, the chances of us dying while engaging in everyday activities like driving to the gas station, falling down the stairs, or crossing the street during a thunderstorm are actually far greater. Our perceptions of safety often boil down to a feeling of control—how familiar we are with our surroundings, how protected we feel in a situation, and how much agency we think we have in determining our fate.
Ultimately, the mere act of living carries an inherent amount of risk—but that’s no reason to bubble wrap every inch of our bodies, hole up indoors, or deny ourselves the right to live a little dangerously. Besides, if you had to choose between dying choking on a fishbone or whizzing down a water slide, wouldn’t it be better—or at least more exciting—to go out with a splash?