Ensuring a Smooth Ride: September 11 Drove Home the Need for Good Contingency Planning and Caused Many Theme Parks to Review Their Emergency Preparedness Plans. (Theme Parks)

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IN MAY, WORD CAME OF A suspected terrorist threat to the Orlando, Florida, water supply, which serves a district that includes Walt Disney World and other area theme parks. Officials increased security at the eight facilities treating water for the city and its major theme parks, and they found no evidence of tampering. However, the incident was a reminder of the difficult challenge facing theme park security directors in an era of heightened risks.

Unlike many government and private office buildings that can react to increased security concerns by limiting public access, theme parks welcome everyone onto the property. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, U.S. amusement parks hosted nearly 320 million guests in 2001. And from a business standpoint, the goal is to increase that number, not curtail it.

What's more, theme parks sell fun and can't afford to let security measures create a negative aura. "Theme parks strive hard to provide a place for people to come and be happy," says Chris Rogers, senior consultant for loss control at the Aon Corp.'s National Entertainment Practices Group in Los Angeles. An overemphasis on security or potential threats may threaten that ideal, he says. So parks must strike a balance between behind-the-scenes security and the need to present an inviting environment to guests.

Threats. Experts interviewed for this article indicated that most parks had already performed a risk assessment and developed an emergency action plan before the September 11 attacks. But September 11 drove home the need for contingency planning and caused many parks to review their existing emergency preparedness plans.

"Theme parks have always maintained a strong sense of security," says Rogers. "What has probably changed, though, is...9-11 heightened everyone's awareness to this issue and showed us we are vulnerable."

At Paramount's Great America in Santa Clara, California, for example, the response to the terrorist attacks included specific measures, like replacing wands with stand-up metal detectors at park entrances and initiating targeted training for security officers, including instructions specific to biological threats, such as anthrax, says Cory Roebuck, the facility's safety manager.

Mike Glennan, senior vice president of administration for Alfa SmartParks, headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, the owner and operator of nine theme parks and water parks across the country, says his parks hired two different consulting groups to do a thorough security assessment of all the company's parks following the terrorist attacks.

As a result, Alfa SmartParks instituted a corporatewide policy for all of its parks, mandating consistent security procedures, such as the use of magnetic-stripe picture ID cards for employee access to the parks; the cards allow management to know which employees are in the park at any given time.

In addition, Glennan says, all of the parks have reviewed their perimeter and parking lot security, adding more personnel and patrols in some cases. The two most visible changes in policy from the public's perspective have been to tighten up access to the parks and to restrict items that guests can bring (such as picnic baskets).

While terrorism is a new consideration, more traditional and more probable threats range from ride malfunctions and medical emergencies to fires and random acts of violence. Weather is always a concern as well, although the specific threat varies from one geographic region to another: parks on the East Coast must contend with hurricanes, the Midwest is prone to tornadoes, and those on the West Coast are at risk for earthquakes.

Threat assessments also change over time. For example, last summer, parks in California had to deal with the threat of rolling blackouts caused by power shortages. …