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Disney Safe but Lacking in Crisis Response

ORLANDO -- It is the curse of Disney.

When millions of people walk through your parks every year, it is a statistical certainty that some of them will die.

When that happens on a ride, we often tell you about it under a banner headline. It becomes a worldwide story.

But if you did the math, you would find that per capita no more people die in Disney than in any other large gathering place.

If the gathering place is I-4 or Colonial Drive, I imagine the survival rate at Disney is much better.

Disney rides no more kill people than toilet seats. In fact, the latter are much deadlier because as people age, sitting on them becomes the biggest strain in their lives. Paramedics call it a "commode code."

You cannot tone down the rides at Disney to make them safe for everyone's underlying medical defects.

A 77-year-old man died after riding Pirates of the Caribbean in 2005. And all you do there is sit in a floating cart.

Given the inevitability of failing hearts and arteries, the only issue I see here is the adequacy of Disney's response. To assess that, some quick medical background is required.

During a sudden heart attack, the heart rarely comes to a complete stop. It quivers and spasms, the victim of electrical short circuits that interrupt the standard thump-thump-thump. This is known as ventricular fibrillation.

A normal rhythm must be restored as quickly as possible to get the blood flowing again.

This is where defibrillators come in. They deliver a shock that overrides the short circuits and causes the heart to rapidly contract. It is like hitting a reset button, with the beat picking back up at a normal pace.

Thanks to technical advances, there now are defibrillators for dummies. They tell you where to put the electrodes with voice instructions. They detect whether the heart is in ventricular fibrillation. If so, they administer a shock. If that's not the problem, they do not.

You can do no harm, which is why you see them widely deployed in health clubs, airports and other public areas. CPR classes now include instructions in their use.

The goal is to make them available fast because the faster you use one, the better the odds of saving a life. Getting to someone within two or three minutes is ideal, within four or five minutes less so.

At Expedition Everest, employees had no defibrillator available when the man collapsed. It took five minutes for paramedics to arrive with one. Whether a faster response would have made a difference, nobody knows.

Disney says it has 500 defibrillators around its resort. Two are at Animal Kingdom, but not at Expedition Everest or the other rides.

In addition, each park has a team of paramedics with defibrillators.

Disney is going to add 200 additional defibrillators, mainly at the public restrooms, where it says employees and the public can easily find them.

Given what I noted above about the commode code, this would seem to make sense.

But I still don't understand why, when seconds can mean life or death, Disney won't put defibrillators at the ride exit points. Trained employees could immediately deploy them rather than having to run off into a dense crowd to the nearest restroom, or wait for paramedics.

The only explanation I can imagine is the fear this somehow would increase Disney's legal exposure.

Attracting lawsuits also is part of the Disney curse.

CONTACT: Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or mthomas@orlandosentinel.com

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