Changing Times – Adventure Parks

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It’s not too surprising that the aerial adventure park industry, being young and fast-evolving, has attracted more than its share of innovative, opinionated leaders.

And given this rate of change, it’s not surprising that there are diverse and strongly held opinions about the best ways to build, operate, and manage adventure parks.

To help parks sift through these ideas and see the forest for the trees, we present the following questions and our panelists’ thoughts, from some of the industry’s most outspoken players.


 OUR PANELISTS:

Q1_2Adventure Park Insider: WHAT KEY ASPECTS OF THE AERIAL PARK BUSINESS MOST NEED ADDRESSING?

GERHARD: A basic understanding of what an adventure park is. If you list the aerial attractions in the genre, you will have terms like zip line tour and canopy tour, which is a misnomer, because a true canopy tour is up in the crowns of trees. Then you have challenge courses and ropes courses, which are often very similar. Those four are all guided attractions, typically with a guide or two and four to eight people.

A true adventure park is self-guided. You go at your own pace, staff monitors that everything is OK, but you are not in a group, there’s nobody talking you through, there is no peer pressure, you have to motivate yourself. So it becomes an entirely different experience.

And it needs a different design. You really need to understand how to design an adventure park that is safe. If you build an adventure park that’s similar to a challenge course, you could be creating an unsafe attraction.

DAVE: Safety. With the introduction of smart belay systems, we have seen parks cut back on staff and training. While these devices help with guest safety, they play a small role in the many aspects of safety.

Proper staff training is the foundation of operating a safe and successful aerial adventure park. For that reason, we have developed a rigorous four-day classroom and on-course training camp. Certified instructors teach our rescue guide candidates how to ascend and descend from a fixed point, tie a variety of knots, and perform rescue techniques for a variety of situations that may occur: platform rescue, mid game rescue, unconscious rescue, zip line rescue, as well as ladder and net rescues. At the end of the training camp, all rescue guide applicants must pass both a written and practical exam before being certified for the position.

The need for training applies equally to staff operational training. The inside staff who are the first point of contact with the park’s guests also play a critical role in running a safe AAP.

KEITH: Construction and inspection standards. You have lots of organizations building their own courses, sometimes just by copying others. Some lack engineering and  permits and violate additional standards.  It’s not always easy to keep track of the standards, and that points to a second issue: understanding the different standards, and when and where they apply. A third issue is understanding the constantly changing regulatory arena—that is, what is regulated where, and when will it change. Because it will change. Operational standards also need attention.

CLOE: For me, it’s key staff. They need ongoing training, because they always need to be on top of two things, safety and customer service, in that order. People come out and pay a lot of money to do an awesome activity. It should be fun. But it’s still a risky activity if you don’t follow the rules. The new equipment makes that easier; guests cannot be unclipped from the life line, they can’t fall off a platform. Still, all staff need to be on top of their game.

BAHMAN: Training, training, training. It’s most important that everybody get the correct training. Over the years, we have developed a three-day training program with two instructors. We go through written as well as a practical training.

We cover both safety and operations aspects. We have two different levels of trained staff, one that is appropriate for harnessing and monitoring in the park, and another level that is trained to assist and perform rescues. The operations aspect is very important, too, because if you want those clients to come back, you want to make sure you take care of them.

Most accidents happen because of human error. Whether it’s the person doing the assist, or the person actually climbing. So our biggest goal is to eliminate as much of the error factor  as possible.

From a safety standpoint, I feel  that we are in a very precarious place right now in the industry. With so  many parks being built, accidents are going to happen, it’s only a matter of time. And then we are going to be hit with regulations. So, we need to be proactive in developing standards  and do whatever we can to be as  safe as possible.

KEN: The big issue is inherent risk and standard of care. That’s a gray area when it comes to self-navigating courses, as opposed to amusement parks where customers expect that nothing bad can happen. But adventure parks involve some choices and active experiences in which people are engaged with you. These two worlds have different standards of care. We’re trying to create an activity that feels active, you’re engaged, but where the risk is more perceived than real. We’re trying to take care of the things that actually create a threat or risk.

SHAWN: Safety standards, operating efficiency and product selection. Parks need to ensure participant safety. As we all understand, the concept behind aerial parks is to create an environment that offers thrills and pushes the comfort levels of guests while minimizing the chances of injury. These parks can and should be interactive. They can and should test the emotional and physical limits of the guests, as this equates to a memorable, satisfying and potentially transformative experience. However, if serious injury results due to a systems oversight, the entire industry is at risk. Although labors of love in most cases, these parks and zip lines are businesses, and maximizing layout and throughput are essential. The right product selection is instrumental and wholly integrated with safety and efficiency.

Q1_2WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON HELMETS: GOOD IDEA OR NOT? IF SO, FOR WHOM?

BAHMAN: We don’t use helmets in our parks. They are a good idea in theory, but we have done research on accidents in adventure parks, and they would not have been prevented by the use of a helmet.

Of course, we have to be very careful to make sure there are no dead branches or anything that can fall onto our courses. So we bring in an arborist at least three times a year to look for and remove anything that could fall. The most dangerous thing right now is somebody dropping a cell phone or a camera on somebody else’s head below them. We tell all guests that phones and cameras have to be secured in their pockets.

Otherwise, any impacts that would occur would be a side impact, and those would not be prevented by a helmet. We also feel helmets might make people feel more protected, even if  they are not.

KEN: I like helmets. There are too many places where I’m just out there inspecting, I’m bumping my head on stuff all the time. I think it’s a good idea to wear a helmet. I expect at some point standards will have to address this issue. The lack of helmets has been kind of an old-school strategy; in the long run a lot of people will be wearing them.

CLOE: Helmets are a big issue. We don’t use them; we’ve seen they are not necessary for our parks. I know ACCT and ANSI recommend helmet use. But we are careful. Nothing is going to fall from the sky or the trees. Nobody uses helmets in Europe in adventure parks; it has been pretty well proven that they are not needed.

KEITH: For most instances wearing a helmet is the best practice, especially if operating in a forested area where a branch could fall on you or on a multiple level adventure park. That said, most commercial operations seem to not be using them.

My opinion: All kids under 16 should wear a helmet, 16 to 18 can waiver out with a parent’s signature, any adult gets offered one and can waiver out with their own signature. One way to encourage use: put GoPro cameras on them and sell memory cards so guests can record their experience.

DAVE: If parks are properly designed and built, helmets are not a necessity. However, in some parks, where there is no consistency in the height of the safety lifelines or the design of platforms, you often see guests ducking and dodging cables and platforms. In cases like that, helmets would be recommended.

Q3WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON BELAY SYSTEMS:PROS AND CONS OF VARIOUS TYPES?

CLOE: I would not go with anything other than a smart belay system or continuous lifeline, where you clip in and you’re good to go, because, in terms of insurance and safety, that’s how I sleep at night.

There are pros and cons with the smart belay systems versus the continuous lifelines. Continuous lifelines are simple for the guests; they have just one carabiner and they can go a little faster through the course. With the smart belay systems, you have two carabiners and have to lock and unlock one at a time as you move through the course. So you are more into what you’re doing, you’re more focused and engaged.

I can’t say that one is better than the other. We use a smart belay system at our older park, but we’re using a continuous line in a new park in Atlanta.

KEITH: The amusement code requires that the patron not be able to disengage from the safety system once the ride has started. This means not using carabiners that the guests can open by themselves and take both lanyards off the system. Some form of a locking lanyard system, where only one lanyard can be removed at a time, or a continuous belay system should be used.

DAVE: We build and offer both continuous and smart belays. We point out the pros and cons of each, and encourage potential park owners to do their own due diligence by participating at aerial adventure parks that offer different systems. Then, once a choice has been made, operators must spend the proper amount of time in their safety demonstrations to ensure guests are properly informed on all of the equipment.

KEN: We like the continuous and we use that in a lot of applications, especially when you look at the younger population. We have our preferences, but Saferoller is one that we like a lot, because you’re always locked in. I still like self-navigation, though. So having a smart system that doesn’t allow you to be double unclipped can be a good approach. It depends on how you operate it and what technology you  use with it.

GERHARD: We favor the Edelrid smart belay, simply because it is the most proven system on the market. It is the most common system in Europe. America has a large portion of Bornack product, which is similar. But you need additional hardware with the Bornack system, the tweezles on the cable. We have integrated rollers and the smart belay, so I don’t need another piece of equipment for zip lining. That’s another advantage. It’s the most elegant solution we have found.

BAHMAN: You can do continuous belay or smart belays. We use a locking carabiner system. Our Bornack system needs a tweezle to operate. That way, guests can only clip onto a cable that we want them to clip on, because there’s a key there. And they have to actually clip onto that key. That eliminates the possibility that guests might clip onto guide wires or ropes, for example.

Q1_2
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON HARNESSES—FULL OR SEAT?

DAVE: Both seat and full body harnesses are efficient. We’ve operated our flagship park for nine years using multiple sizes of seat harnesses. This is another instance where staff training is important. Guide staff need to be properly trained on how to correctly fit kids and adults of all sizes and shapes into the different size harnesses, and to ensure the harnesses are properly attached to the participant.

GERHARD: Absolutely full body harness. Top-heavy people, heavier people, guys with big bellies, large-chested women, they can all hang upside down, which is a rather dangerous situation. With a seat harness, they could slip out of the harness if the waist belt isn’t tight enough. Sometimes it’s very hard to tighten the belt enough if the guest has a big butt. It can be difficult to tighten without making the person uncomfortable.

CLOE: We use half for most people. Kids 10 and younger, though, we definitely go full harness, because they don’t have hips—the harness would not hold them. And larger people, heavier people, beer belly-type people, they also need full body harnesses. A seat harness can’t sit on their hips because of the belly. Then, if they go upside down, they could slip out of it. So we have three different kinds of harnesses: little kids, full body; half for regular-size adults; and then full body for large adults.

BAHMAN: Having used both systems, I have to say, we only use full body now. I have not seen any instances where you can’t use it. I have definitely seen instances where you can’t use the seat harness. Anybody with a bigger upper body has to have a full body harness. And if you use both types of harnesses, you then leave that decision to the operator or to the harness person, who may not be as versed as necessary in deciding whether that person should use one or the other. They have to be well trained and constantly vigilant, and if there’s any question, they opt for a full harness. It’s just easier from a decision standpoint to use full body. It does take a bit more time when harnessing people, though, and the cost is about double.

KEITH: Full body for sure. Seat harnesses should not be used in commercial applications. The standards are currently vague on this, and that will change. Currently staff can’t wear seat harnesses by law, and in some jurisdictions (California, Ontario, etc.) full body harnesses must be worn by guests. As more states regulate amusement rides through the department of labor, rather than the elevator department or agriculture department, as often happens now, you will see this become law quickly. Build right—start with a full body now so you don’t have to replace equipment after a year or two.

KEN: We favor full harnesses. If you go upside down in a seat harness, you could potentially fall out. A lot of this gear has been adapted from different industries and applications. Adventure parks evolved from the educational ropes course industry, and you can’t use the same systems. The general public really doesn’t understand enough to manage the complexity of the old dynamic belays and old static course strategies. We have to take some of that out of the equation and make it more user-friendly. Adventure park guests should have more perceived risk than real risk. Operators need that, too. They want throughput, they want a great user experience, and they don’t want to make safety systems complicated.

Q5“JUST SAY NO?” HOW DO YOU POLITELY TELL SOMEONE THEY ARE UNFIT OR OVERWEIGHT FOR AN ACTIVITY?

GERHARD: It’s very, very tricky to answer this question. The best example I’ve seen is at the San Diego Zoo. When you buy the ticket at the counter, you’re actually standing on a scale without knowing it. And the person behind the register can see the weight. They will call the supervisor, and they have a script that tells them how to deal with this very politely.

But it’s not just a matter of weight. If you have a 250-pound weight restriction, for example, and the guest is just a real big body builder, and he’s 270 and 6’5”—as long as he fits in a harness, I don’t care. It’s more about athleticism, because all our gear is rated for 2.2 metric tons. Even then, though, it depends on what safety system you use, and how much slack you have in your system. It’s not hard to actually reach 2.2 tons of force if someone falls. So the answer depends in part on how your course is built and maintained.

CLOE: This is the part of my job that I love the most. We have a big sign about our weight limit. Guests sign a waiver that says they are 250 pounds or less. We don’t weigh anyone, though. I’ve heard pros and cons on this as well. We are in the South; people are WAY bigger than in the North. We would lose a big, big part of our clientele if we put everybody on a scale.

But it’s not just the weight that matters. Sometimes you have 270-pound people that are super tall and very heavy. But then you have the 200-pound person with the beer belly. I just pull them aside and say, “I’m going to give you a harness that will be more comfortable.” And we make a joke, and I say, “nice to meet you.” If they don’t fit, I apologize, and say I can’t do anything.

KEITH: Eliminate the argument and weigh them in a discrete manner. We use a scale. Our policy is to accept guests from 75 to 275 pounds. We have a scale that simply shows red for under 75, green for 75 to 275, and red again if they’re over 275. This eliminates any question and/or lies about weight. On zip lines, it’s critical for landings that people do not weigh too much, and it’s critical that lightweight people do not get stuck in the middle of the line.

DAVE: Delicate issue, but common sense usually prevails. Here again, staff training is key. All participants at Outplay/TreeGo parks must complete a four-station demo course prior to accessing the courses. We find that our guests often come to their own realization that the activity might not be for them. This allows park staff to avoid embarrassing conversations regarding weight.

Q6RELEASE WAIVERS—HOW USEFUL ARE THEY? PAPER OR DIGITAL?

BAHMAN: Waivers are very important. We use all digital. We do that first to make sure that a client only signs once a year. If they come back, they don’t have to resign a waiver. Our main objective is to keep it simple for the clients.

You can do all sorts of things with the forms. You can set them up so that people have to watch a safety video first. We also ask them whether it’s OK for us to send them direct emails to tell them about our specials, or tell them about upcoming events.

DAVE: Releases and waivers are very useful, both paper and digital, and from both a liability issue and information gathering perspective. We also use the waiver form to track guest harnesses to insure they are returned after use.

KEITH: This will vary by state or jurisdictional authority. I would do them 100% of the time, as it’s part of a sound risk management policy. In some jurisdictions it will carry a lot of legal weight if an incident occurs, in others it has no real legal bearing but does help to demonstrate that risks were explained and agreed to. That can lead to a contributory negligence finding where people share responsibility in a proportional manner. Unfortunately, waiver laws change every couple of months in each state, it seems, as new case law is created.

Q1_2WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON ZIP LINE BRAKES: ACTIVE OR PASSIVE?

KEITH: I’m a big fan of passive, for several reasons: Staff get distracted, technology has come a long way in the last five years, and new brake systems are brought to market each year. Additionally, most states that are regulating zip lines have problems with hand braking. The question being asked is, “If a person is required to be the brake, and a brake needs to be tested each day before use, how do you test the brake [that is, the person’s ability to slow themselves]?” Do you just watch them once on the ground in a calm and controlled environment? Do you provide a grip strength test with a hand tensionometer?

That said, as an inspector, we don’t fail hand brake or staff-operated zip lines. The brake system has to be looked at in the context of the operational policies and the staff training and supervision.

DAVE: Passive, but we are not only, or really, in the zip line business. In our aerial adventure parks, where zip lines are one of many different elements, passive. In most AAP designs, you won’t see the 1,000- to 2,000–foot, high speed zip lines that require mechanical braking devices.

Our design strategy requires no hand braking interaction from the guest. Proper design allows for speed to be controlled, and correct platform design eliminates the risk of guests impacting the arrival area.

During our thorough safety and equipment demos, guests are instructed on proper positioning while participating on the zip lines. Prior to accessing the courses, each guest must demonstrate proper zip line technique to the guide giving the safety and equipment demo.

KEN: I think in the long run, there will have to be some adjustments in how hand braking, braking, long zip lines, all that stuff plays out. And case law will influence it. Somebody at some point will say, “this is what is acceptable, and this is not.” That has not been ironed out. But the suits are starting to play out now.

I think there are some really good vendors out there trying to do a good job. There are a few good options out there. But the systems have yet to really manage stopping in all instances and providing that fail-safe function.

ERIC: Every zip line system should include some type of passive braking system at the end of the ride, regardless of whether there is active braking or not out on the line. If there is an active braking system, this secondary passive system protects the riders from injury, if and when they do not follow the proper protocols or when there is an equipment malfunction. There should be no single point failure locations designed into any aspect of the passive braking system.

SHAWN: The quick answer is passive. We understand the customer experience gained from interactive ropes courses, as well as the fun in hand braking canopy tours. But everyone close to the industry understands (or should) the issues of active braking. As the race began for the longest, steepest and fastest zip lines, the potential risk raced right along with it. From the beginning, we’ve engineered passive braking for all of our installations, identifying the need to set the bar for safety in the industry. So we’ve designed rider trolleys that brake riders on their descent, as well as passive terminal braking systems employing triple redundancy. Our concept is simple: design zip lines that will dare and scare most folks, and build them with the level of safety of any amusement park ride.

Along with an unforgettable experience, our goal was to take the liability out of the riders’, operators’ and owners’ hands. Technology keeps improving; we’re at a point now where smaller-scale canopy tours and adventure parks can tap into some of the high throughput passive braking systems previously only available to the bigger, better-funded operations. Regulation of adventure parks and zip lines has really just begun, and it is impossible to know for sure where it will end. But the safer we make it, the more we will be able to control the future of it.

Q1_2GROUND SCHOOL:  HOW MUCH CAN YOU TEACH? WHAT’S THE BEST METHODOLOGY?

KEITH: Parks need a full demo area. That should include several transfers and a short zip, including landing. Standards are evolving right now to clarify what needs to be included during ground school.

DAVE: You can teach plenty. Show a video prior to a hands-on demonstration by staff. Then guests go through a safety demo, under the watchful eyes of trained guides. That makes for a great formula for the secure and safe operation of aerial adventure parks. This segment of the experience must not be rushed.

GERHARD: Ground school can help operators limit the human error up on the course if it’s done right. A lot depends on the quality of the staff. How well are they trained? Some parks only demonstrate what people are supposed to do, while others put guests through sample elements. These might include a mini, three-element course, one of them being a zip line. So people get a feeling for the equipment. They discover, “Yeah, I can sit down in a harness and this is how I need to position myself.” That makes way more sense than just watching a demo. We also recommend having guests watch a video while they are waiting. With all that, no guest can say, “Nobody told me how to do this, I didn’t know.” We told you to watch the video, you saw it, and the explanation is all there.

CLOE: Ground school can be effective if you have good staff. Just be sure that all the guests listen. We demonstrate everything—what to do, what not to do. We tell guests, “If you do such-and-such, this is going to happen.” Then, all guests must do a practice course. That includes the different one cable, two cables, toss and swing, and a zip line, and our guides are there on the ground to correct them and assess if they are doing anything wrong. If guests have some kind of disability, or they can’t complete the practice course very well, we send them to the easiest course. And we’ll watch them carefully. We have trails following all the courses, and we keep an eye on everybody.

 PANELIST BIOS


cloe2CLOE AMARA, Regional Director of Operations, Treetop Quests
Cloe oversees all aspects of park operations—from the hiring, training, and coaching of park managers to the marketing and sales effort—at Treetop Obstacle Course in Buford, Ga., and a soon-to-open park in Dunwoody, Ga.

bahman2BAHMAN AZARM, President, Outdoor Venture Group
Outdoor Venture Group has built 19 of the largest ropes parks in North America, and through Ropes Park Equipment, provides building and operating equipment to many others. It will operate 10 aerial adventure parks in 2015, five of them among the largest in the U.S.

eric_cylvickERICK CYLVICK, President, ZipRescue LLC and Terra-Nova LLC
Eric graduated from Clarkson University with a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1988. He worked on the Park City Mountain Resort ski patrol for 14 years and was the Lift Evacuation Coordinator/MARRS instructor. His extensive climbing, lift evacuation experience and engineering background enabled him to design and develop the most advanced lift evacuation and cable transport system available.

keith2KEITH JACOBS, President, Experiential Systems
Keith is a national provider of ropes course, adventure park, and zip line installations, inspections, and trainings. A former ACCT board chair, he is current chair of the Inspector Certification committee and a member of ANSI and ASTM standards writing groups.

ken2KEN JACQUOT, Owner, Challenge Towers
Ken founded Challenge Towers in 1993 to create unique outdoor experiences through innovative ropes course design. Ken has served on the ACCT board of directors and created and chaired the Government Relations committee.

dave2DAVE JOHNSON, Founder, Adirondack Extreme Adventure Course and Outplay Adventures
Dave and family built Adirondack Extreme in Bolton Landing, N.Y., one of the first aerial adventure parks in the U.S., in 2006. In 2009, he helped form Outplay Adventures LLC, which builds and designs TreeGo branded aerial adventure parks.

gerhard2GERHARD KOMENDA, President and CEO, Tree-Mendous Adventure Parks
Gerhard is an Austrian forester and social therapist; combining his knowledge of trees and his experience with people, he helped found Tree-Mendous to build the greenest and most innovative aerial attractions in the industry.

shawn_lernerSHAWN LERNER, CEO/President of Zip-Flyer, LLC
After completing his MBA at New York University, Shawn combined his passion for adventure with his expertise in technology and business to found Zip-Flyer. Since its inception in 2006, Zip-Flyer has designed, manufactured, and installed zip line equipment worldwide. The company currently has 11 Zip-Flyer/Zip-Runner projects underway.

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About Author

Olivia Rowan, Publisher — olivia@adventureparkinsider.com
Dave Meeker, Editor — rick@adventureparkinsider.com
Katie Brinton, Senior Editor — dave@adventureparkinsider.com

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