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Disney’s Monorail System Goes Off Course

| December 24, 2009

Storm Clouds Over Disney's Monorail (© FlaglerLive)

Storm Clouds Over Disney's Monorail Operations

It’s not been a good year for Disney’s monorail system in Orlando.

On July 5, the pink and purple monorails collided as one of the trains was moving in reverse, against safety instructions spelled out in the manufacturer Bombardier Inc.’s 20-year-old manual (which calls the maneuver “a potentially hazardous operation even under the best conditions”). The train was moving off the Epcot loop at the end of the day. The switch that would have enabled the train to make it off the loop wasn’t on. So the train kept going in reverse on the Epcot loop, smashing into another and killing 21-year-old Austin Wuennenberg, a part-time monorail driver and college student from Kissimmee.

It’s the first fatal accident on the monorail system in 38 years.

On Dec. 13, 300 passengers riding the 15-mile link between the Magic Kingdom and the Contemporary Resort were stranded for three hours after the line lost power at 1 a.m. Disney did not call for evacuation assistance until close to 2 a.m. (The company says it was troubleshooting, as it usually does, to solve the problem before opting for the evacuation option.) The last passengers weren’t rescued until 4 a.m. Confusion reigned.

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“In monorail orange, either car five or two we have a guest complaining of chest pains,” the Disney official who finally called 911 from the monorail base is recorded as saying. ” (The recording, contrary to Florida open-record laws, blanks out the name of the woman when she’s asked to identify herself. The guest in question was a 5-year-old boy.

“Is he awake?” the 911 operator asked. “He’s thorwing up,” the Disney official replied. “Is he breathing?” Her reply: Shallow breathing.” “Is he clammy?” “I don’t know.”

Three trains were blacked out. Two trains were towed back to a station by tractors. The third couldn’t be towed, and a $250,000 scissor-lift designed for just such circumstances couldn’t reach it.

Two days later, another power glitch forced a train traveling between the ticket center and the Contemporary Resort to be towed back to a station at 6:30 p.m. The stranding in that case lasted half an hour.

Make sure you're on the right track. (© FlaglerLive)

On Dec. 23, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Disney for several safety violations, including one “serious” violation that contributed to the July 5 fatal accident. The fines OSHA proposed: $44,000. Considering that in 2009, Disney parks generated $1.4 billion in profits despite the recession (on revenue of $10.7 billion), that $44,000 amounts to the equivalent of 15 minutes’ profit (the parks rung up $160,000 in profits per hour, on a 24-hour day basis.)

OSHA is still investigating the death of Mark Priest, 47, who died after striking a wall during a performance of Captain Jack’s Pirate Tutorial in the Magic Kingdom, as well as the death of 30-year-old Anislav Varbanov, who broke his neck while rehearsing for the “Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular” in the Hollywood Studios theme park (formerly MGM).

The mother of the pilot who was killed, Christine Wuennenberg, on July 9 filed a petition in Orlando Circuit court asking that any evidence from the July 5, such as video-surveillance footage, audio communications, and “black box”-type recordings from the monorail operation be preserved. (Wuennenberg, justifiably, fears that Disney may destroy evidence.) The petition also asked that access to the evidence be ensured. Judge Cynthia Mackinnon denied the petition. Call it Disney magic.

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