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Theme park fights escalate into a nationwide problem
Orange County Register - 7/28/2022
Theme parks across the United States are gaining an unwanted reputation for teen brawls and hot-headed melees following a surge in fights over the past two years that threaten to brand the family-friendly playgrounds as unsafe havens of violence, chaos and panic.
"It's something we've never really seen in our theme parks until last year," said Dennis Speigel, an industry expert with International Theme Park Services. "Guests are shorter tempered as a result of the pandemic. The most minor altercation will set something off."
The nationwide outbreak of fights since theme parks returned from COVID-19 pandemic closures finally reached Knott's Berry Farm in mid-July when multiple altercations involving teenagers caused the Buena Park theme park to close early and institute a chaperone policy.
SEE ALSO: Knott's expands weekend chaperone policy, may add weekdays
Theme park operators say increasingly rude and angry visitors with short fuses are getting into fights with other guests and employees at an alarming rate, according to Speigel.
"It's not relegated just to teens," Speigel said during a phone interview. "You're seeing adults get into fights."
The nationwide outbreak of theme park fights have happened at major players like Disney, Universal and Busch Gardens and regional parks like Kings Island, Kennywood and Waldameer.
The past month alone has seen fights break out at Knott's Berry Farm, Disney's Magic Kingdom and Universal Orlando.
Multiple teen fights forced Knott's to close three hours early and institute a chaperone policy for visitors under 18 years old. The Florida Fantasyland brawl between two families led to arrests and park bans. The Universal fight involving juveniles forced the closure of the CityWalk shopping center and a parking garage.
In late May, a fistfight broke out in the crowd waiting for the return of the "Fantasmic" nighttime spectacular that required Disneyland security guards to pull apart the brawlers.
Pennsylvania's family-owned Waldameer has had to deal with a series of fights. In early July, a fight between two Waldameer season passholders sent one to the hospital and got the "instigator" banned from the park. A year earlier, a Memorial Day weekend brawl resulted in charges for seven Waldameer visitors under 21 years old.
SEE ALSO: Knott's begins construction on Fiesta Village makeover
Last summer saw fights at several theme parks nationwide.
A verbal argument that quickly escalated into a large fight involving season passholders at Ohio'sKings Island in May 2021 led to charges against six teens.
An ongoing problem with "unruly teenagers" pushed Denver'sElitch Gardens to require chaperones for visitors under 18 in July 2021.
Seven visitors were arrested and 150 more were ejected from Pennsylvania's Kennywood after fights broke out in July 2021.
Three women were arrested after a hair-pulling fight in the Griffon roller coaster queue at Virginia's Busch Gardens Williamsburg in August 2021 that went viral on social media.
A Fright Fest fight in September 2021 at Six Flags America outside Washington D.C. that started inside the park spilled into the parking lot.
SEE ALSO: Knott's shoots down Giga coaster speculation
After each incident, the parks condemn the unruly behavior and vow to restore order and visitor confidence.
"We do not condone this type of reprehensible behavior," Disneyland officials said in a statement issued after the "Fantasmic" fight.
"This behavior did not align with our park's values and was not the experience we want any guest to have," Knott's officials said after the teen melee.
Attractions Magazine Editor and Publisher Matt Roseboom said theme park fights were "extremely rare" before grabbing headlines in recent months.
"It does seem like it's been in the news a lot lately," Roseboom said during a phone interview.
Amusement Industry Consulting owner Jerry Aldrich said the apparent uptick in theme park fights could simply be a result of increased reporting on the altercations.
"There are more fights than I can recall having a problem with," Aldrich said during a phone interview.
The ubiquity of smartphones and popularity of social media make it easier for theme park fights to suddenly become national news.
"With TikTok, it's easy to grab a video, put it up, share it and then it gets spread around more than before," Roseboom said. "There's probably been fights in the past that nobody happened to record and just didn't get any publicity."
Polls show Americans are more stressed and tense than ever after two years of a pandemic.
"People are uptight. They're on edge with COVID," Roseboom said. "They're just now getting out. This is the first full summer people are finally getting into the parks after a couple of years."
Of course, short-tempered adults and unruly teenagers aren't a problem exclusive to theme parks.
"Theme park guests as well as the public in general have changed," Aldrich said. "Our society doesn't penalize like we used to. The kids think they can get away with it and they normally do."
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, fights were rare in recent decades at American theme parks that bill themselves as family-friendly safe havens. But that wasn't always the case.
Turn-of-the-century seaside amusement parks had a reputation for drawing rough weekend crowds of drunken sailors, unsupervised juveniles and young toughs - a volatile mix that often erupted into fights, brawls and even riots.
Before building Disneyland in 1955, Walt Disney despised the amusement parks he often visited with his family - seeing them as dirty, unimaginative places filled with a rowdy element.
Southern California theme parks faced problems with gang fights in the 1980s.
A 1985 gang fight at Six Flags Magic Mountain that resulted in six stabbings and 21 arrests still haunts the Valencia amusement park to this day. The same year, gang fights erupted in a Knott's Berry Farm parking lot. A 1987 gang-related shooting in a Disneyland parking lot left a teen dead and another wounded.
But the latest spate of theme park fights don't involve drunken sailors or violent gangs.
"This is not gang oriented," Speigel said. "It's the guests getting mad at one another."
SEE ALSO: How Disneyland refurbished everything on Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
What are theme parks now doing to prevent the latest outburst of fights from happening?
Theme park operators are implementing four key solutions, according to Speigel.
1) Post more visible security, especially in crowded areas.
"They're putting security into teen areas on the rides where the fights seem to be occurring," Speigel said.
2) Hire additional staff to cut down on wait times and reduce visitor stress and frustration.
"A lot of the issues happen in the queue lines where people can wait up to an hour sometimes,"Speigel said. "It's exacerbated by the shortage of labor with people having to wait so long. It's fired up their tempers and it's just bubbled over."
3) Require chaperones to monitor minors and take responsibility for their behavior in the parks.
"There is signage in the parks now, more prominently displayed than ever before, talking about conduct," Speigel said.
4) Stricter enforcement of theme park code of conduct rules that include ejections, bans and even arrests in extreme cases.
"They're sending a message to people that if you come and create a problem, you're going to be in trouble," Speigel said.
SEE ALSO: Is Disneyland building a third theme park? Not yet
Anticipating and preventing fights can be a difficult task for theme park security.
"All you can do is be watchful and try to quell arguments and get things settled before they become a full-blown fight," Aldrich said. "That's pretty hard."
Speigel believes civility and courtesy will eventually return to the nation's theme parks.
" I hope this is a short-lived situation and that we get back to normal," Speigel said. "The only way it's going to go away is through the parks being aggressive when it does happen and sending a signal out to the marketplace."
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