On Friday, I visited the local theme park here in Shanghai. Happy Valley is the largest theme park chain in China, with several around the country, although the one here is the largest. And, by largest, I mean it’s massive – you will walk for hours and see virtually no one in many areas of the park (unless you go during a national holiday). It covers an area that’s nearly 3 times the size of Disneyland in Anaheim, with a number of guests about 80% below Disneyland.
This place terrifies me. I could write an entire post on any of the rides we went on:
- The 4D dark ride with one out of 6 3-D screens operating properly.
- The water park that didn’t bother with anti-slip flooring so they have a pathway of mats through the entire park. I guess people walking on the rest of the concrete are responsible if they fall.
- The water coaster that had one half closed because some padding had come loose the day before and no one bothered to fix it, plus the run-out for the raft was evidently too short because an employee had to catch the guests when they came down, then pull the raft to the side so they didn’t run into the wall.
Oh, and the fact that the maintenance staff had a couple of beers waiting for them when took a break from painting the dock…
I’d list more, but at least 50% of the attractions were closed at any given time, even though this is the peak summer season. One of Happy Valley’s more baffling operational decisions is that rides only run for a brief portion of the day. This means that the rides that DO run have wait times of 90 minutes or more, because customer choices are severely limited at any time. The park’s water chute ride (floating boat with a splash down) was only open from 1pm – 5pm on a day that topped 90°.
The two parts that fascinated me most were a complete contrast in theme park operations safety.
On the one side, there was an archery range. Not some arcade style archery range. Real bows and arrows, with attendants selling 10 arrows for about $3. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s like having a shooting range with live ammo in the middle of a theme park.
On the complete flip side was the other of Happy Valley’s baffling practices. Rather than implement safety procedures and ensure all the right positions are staffed, they appear to run at bare minimum levels to minimize their potential for issues. Basically, instead of safely using your car to drive to work, you just use it to back up and down your driveway a few times a day so you don’t risk getting into any accidents. It might work, but you’re kind of missing the point.
A brief explanation:
Roller coasters are amongst the more complicated attractions to operate – a high capacity roller coaster typically has many sensors and redundant safety systems built into it, so you can have multiple trains on the track at once – usually at least 3. One loading guests in, one unloading guests and one running on the track at any given time. Some very high capacity roller coasters have trains leaving every 30 seconds.
With two of Happy Valley’s larger coasters out of commission, there were only a couple left in operation – including a large wooden coaster. It looks like it was built in the 1940s, but the park has only been there since 2009. They were only running one train on the track. Not one loading and one on the track, but a single train. It finished a loop, pulled in, unloaded, then loaded, then pulled out for another loop.
In a situation with a limited number of roller coaster cars, it’s a priority to make sure it loads and unloads quickly to be ready for the next run. The goal is to safely ensure that as many people get to enjoy the ride as possible. In Happy Valley, however, the train spent 2 minutes 20 seconds on the ride itself and then 4 minutes to unload and load its next 24 guests. Without a doubt, it was one of the worst operating practices I’ve seen in a theme park. At most, 220 people an hour could get on this ride, which had a 2 hour wait posted all day long. As a point of reference, well-run theme parks have roller coasters that regularly achieve hourly capacity above 1200 per hour and some get up to 2000.
Why only one train? Is the coaster not programmed to handle more than one car? Doubtful for a coaster that’s no more than 5 years old, but possible, I suppose. Did the other trains have maintenance issues and they didn’t want to spend the money to refurbish them?
Or did they just not spend enough for staff to operate the ride properly? That point is true, in any case, because with only one train operating, adding a few more staff people to assist guests should have had that train out of the loading area in less than 90 seconds, not 4 minutes.
I’d love to say that maybe they were just erring on the side of safety by eliminating the possibility of a collision by physically removing the potential, rather than operating well. But any pretense of a safe operation disappeared when I saw their employee crossing the track in front of the train, blowing right past one of the cardinal rules of safe roller coaster operation.
Theme parks in China have very strict mechanical inspection processes. A lot of the attraction closures noted above are for weekly and monthly inspections, which are done in the middle of the operating day with assigned government officials. Unfortunately, there’s not quite the diligence for ensuring the operation is inspected the same way.