What if I told you that Universal Orlando had an attraction that had reported 113 injuries in a 13-month timespan? Injuries included everything from scrapes and bruises to whiplash and concussions. One guy even literally broke his neck. Never heard of it? There’s a reason for that.
James Bowen actually broke his neck on the attraction: Punga Racers slide at Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay in 2019. Recently, his court case settled for an undisclosed amount. Which is great news for him and his injuries (hopefully). However, what was uncovered during the trial is not only shocking, but deeply concerning.
It’s important to know that all credit for this story goes to Gabrielle Russon at the Orlando Sentinel. She has been covering this case every step of the way. The purpose of this article is not only to shine a light on the lack of safety oversight for attractions in the state of Florida. It is also to make sure to support print journalism. These kinds of stories might never see the light of day without the dedication of journalists who take the time to dig and do the research.
What’s extremely disturbing about this? 1. A man broke his neck on a slide at Volcano Bay and the public would have never known. 2. Over 113 injuries were reported internally at Universal Orlando just on that attraction. 3. We wouldn’t have known any of this if there wasn’t a lawsuit involved and the Orlando Sentinel hadn’t picked up the story.
What caused the issue? Mostly, this was due to physics. When the attraction opened in 2017, riders used a mat to “race” down the slide head first. Because the runout for the slide at the end was rather short, riders would hit a wall of water to slow them down. Depending on the height and weight of the rider, sometimes it was so sudden and quick, it would cause injury. Ultimately this is what caused Bowen’s neck to break.
I can actually speak to this issue personally as I rode Punga Racers for the first (and only) time in 2018. As I came to the bottom of the slide, my mat and my entire body flipped over and into the flume. Considering the ride was a mat slide, I wasn’t expecting to end up on my back and I swallowed quite a bit of water through my nose and mouth.
Ultimately, I’m ok. Even though it took my sinuses several days to recover. However, knowing that matts have the possibility of flipping over at the bottom of the ride, I never would have gotten on the attraction.
As recently as this summer, Universal Orlando quietly changed how guests ride Punga Racers. Gone are the mats that riders used to lay on and go down headfirst. Now, guests are required to go down feet first and mats are no longer used on the slide. Is this a coincidence?
What should really get your blood boiling is how little of this information is available to the public. More importantly, how many injuries have to happen in order to close the attraction and rethink how to operate it safely?
Did I report my issue when I flipped over at the bottom of the slide and took on water? Sadly, I did not. Why? First of all, a lifeguard saw the entire thing. They were looking at me concerned when I exited the slide, but didn’t say anything. I thought my situation was a rarity and shrugged it off on something maybe I did incorrectly.
Now I know differently and in hindsight, I should have spoken up. Which leads me to my final thought. How many other people were in a similar situation to my own? How many had a minor incident and just didn’t say anything to a lifeguard, a supervisor or to guest services? It’s hard to quantify, but it’s fair to say it’s doubtful that my experience was rare based on what I know now.
If you want to truly dig into this story, I highly recommend hopping over to the Orlando Sentinel and reading Gabrielle Russon’s entire series on this incident. Yes, she’s been covering this for months. It’s fascinating, shocking and enraging all at the same time.
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