Haunted Hayride Safety by Randy Bates
With insurance prices skyrocketing, and law suits looming, Haunted Hayride safety is an increasingly important issue. I have been operating a successful haunted attraction, including our haunted hayride, for 14 years, and I still am finding new ways to make sure my guests remain safe throughout their visit to our farm. There is a lot more to it than just safety chains and new tires. Most of the accidents that plague this industry could be avoided or eliminated completely by following simple safety guidelines. Run away wagons, guests bouncing out on the ground, and actors being run over are just some of the incidents happening around the country. We, as an industry, cannot afford to allow these types of safety issues to drag us down. We need to be proactive in the pursuit of safety. The following article details the safety issues and guidelines that work for my attraction and me. And it starts when the cars pull into our parking lot.
Parking and traffic control:
Start with a well lighted entrance. Directional signs telling your guests where to go are a must. If you have long lines, or traffic congestion at your entrance, consider hiring fire police or professional traffic controllers to guide the cars off the road and into your parking area. Designate a separate area for drop-offs and pick-ups; make sure this area is safe for people waiting for their ride. Hire enough parking lot attendants to control the vehicles streaming onto your location. We provide flares for the traffic police, and 2-way radios, fluorescent vests, and flashlight wands for all parking staff. A security vehicle patrols the parking lots and helps with traffic flow. If you hire professional traffic police, make sure they have proper insurance.
Make sure there is a logical flow to your lot. Light and sign all entrances, exits and pick-up areas.
When it comes to crowd control, signs and fencing work the best. My guests are corralled from the parking lot to the ticket booths, to the hayride cues, to the loading area, etc. We always keep the customers under control. Parking lot attendants point the way to out ticket booths. Security personnel direct the flow of guests through the ticket areas and into the waiting cues. Ticket takers direct people towards the hayride loading platform and loaders help them onto the wagons. We use post and rail fencing for cue lines, and barricade fence for directional movement. Plastic barricade fence is easy to install, inexpensive and highly visible. People know where they are supposed to be. Always check walking areas for any tripping hazards such as rocks or slippery areas. Fence in the areas where the wagons and tractors will be moving. This occurs at both our loading and unloading areas, and will minimize the chance of a guest walking in front of a moving tractor.
Install "do not enter" signs in locations where you do not want the general public to go. Post security officers to oversee any critical areas and to direct the guests. As your crowds grow, so should your security staff.
Loading and unloading:
Loading areas should be a well-lit, flat area that allows guests to walk onto your wagons with little effort and in complete safety. Make sure you have support staff to assist people getting on and off. They should be equipped with a 2-way radio and flashlight. As the wagons are being loaded, the driver should have the tractor/truck in neutral, with the parking brake engaged. If you load with steps attached to your wagons, the loader should assist the guests onto it, then, make sure the back gate is properly latched. We use a large loading dock, which allows us to load 45 customers onto a wagon in about 1 minute. If you use this setup, make sure the guests stay off the stairs until the wagon has come to a full stop. Loaders should tell the guests "watch your step" and "walk, don't run, the straw is slippery" Once the wagon is full, our loaders also will recite the rules of the hayride. These basic rules are repeated several times to our guests. They first see signs posted in the hayride cue line. While waiting in line, they watch our giant screen video which includes the rules. The loader repeats them again, then our onboard audio system give the rules once more while the wagon makes its way to the hayride entrance. Rules are as follows:
- Do not smoke in or around the wagons
- No lighters or matches
- No Flashlights
- No cameras or camcorders
- Laser pointers will be confiscated
- Keep arms and legs in the wagon at all times
- Do not touch the actors or props
- Do not throw straw
- No food or drink allowed on wagons
- No alcohol allowed
Over the years we have trained our guests to obey these rules. The actors and management staff in the woods help to enforce them. If a customer refuses to comply, security is notified and they handle the situation.
We unload our wagons in a different location from our loading spot. Therefore, we need additional un-loaders. These staff members make sure the wagon arrives close enough to the dock, tells the driver where to stop, and assists the guests off the wagon. They are equipped with radios and flashlights. The un-loaders are also responsible for checking the pins and safety chains on the wagons, looking for lost items such as keys and cell phones, and eyeballing the tires on both the tractors and wagons. The un-loader gives the driver the go ahead sign after all guests have exited and the inspection is completed. One of our un-loaders is also our onboard audio technician and he makes sure the MP-3 systems are functioning properly.
Trail grooming and inspection:
Proper conditioning of the hayride trail is critical to safety. Our trail consists of gravel over a large stone base, and has been packed down over the years. As the season progresses, the trail gets rutted in certain areas. This can cause the wagons to grab hold and jerk, bouncing your customers around. It can also make steering difficult and is dangerous for the actors who cross the trail. We use a York rake and a roller to groom the trail before each night's performance. Loose rocks and debris is moved away from the sides of the trail to remove any tripping hazards to the actors. The last thing you need is to have an actor trip and slide under the wagon's wheels.
We light our trail with low voltage ground lights so the drivers can navigate the twists and turns of our hayride. These lights are located to specifically spot any hazards such as rocks or trees that are close to the edge of the trail. Actors are asked to check these lights located in their scenes, during the course of the night. They report any problems to the maintenance person. The hayride manager always does a pre-ride inspection, which includes testing props and automation, checking lighting and audio systems, and making sure all actors are in their spots and ready to rock.
If your hayride trail goes thru a wooded area, check trees for dead branches that might fall on the trail or into a wagon. Make sure the trail is safe, especially after hard rains.
Another important aspect of trail safety is emergency vehicle access. We cut parallel trails behind our sets that can accommodate an ambulance or fire truck. If an injury occurs in the deep, dark part of the forest, you better have access for emergency vehicles. These separate trails are important if you are running multiple wagons. The emergency trucks can circumnavigate stopped wagons and drive up to the right location. These trails are also great for maintenance vehicles and management.
One of the most important safety features of any attraction is a reliable communication system. In the event of an accident or breakdown, it is critical to have instant communications with emergency personnel. The best kind of communication is private band, UHF 2-way radios. We use over 70 radios, spread out over every aspect of our operation. Any scene in our hayride is able to communicate with management, security and EMT staff. Each unit is signed in and out every night and we have a communications manager who is responsible for all radio returns as well as charging them. Our parking attendants are on a separate frequency, but can contact management or security on a separate frequency if needed. The hayride manager can communicate with the actors in the woods and let them know of any problem wagons or delays. The actors can communicate among themselves to notify others about specific customers to watch out for; "the guy on wagon 8, the back left side, in the red sweatshirt is throwing straw". This gives our actors a big advantage and makes the work environment safer.
We use a series of managers for every aspect of our attraction. The parking lot manager keeps the cars moving smoothly; the security manager oversees security staff, the hayride manager keeps the hayride functioning and running like a well oiled machine. We have a manager for the concessions stand, one for the corn maze and one for the Bates Motel, our haunted house. There is also an actor manager.
All managers communicate with their specific realm and each other. When there is a safety issue, everyone knows their job, and responds accordingly.
We hire off duty police officers to work as our security. We provide them with yellow staff jackets, 2-way radios with headsets, and flashlights. The security manager has a list of posts where security officers are supposed to be. He is responsible for scheduling personnel, posting officers and overall security of the attraction. Though the security officers are there to keep peace, they also help direct guests, and answer questions. We use 4-6 officers during the week, and up to 12 on the weekends.
One of the most important safety positions you can have is on site emergency medical technicians. If a guest is injured on your property, immediate medical response is a must. It not only helps the guest, but adds a sense of professionalism to your attraction. This shows your guests that you really care about them. It also helps to avoid lawsuits, or at least limit liability. Our EMT's carry a first responder bag, as well as an AED, an automatic electronic defibrillator. This device can save a life in the event of heart failure. We also provide professional first aid stations, manufactured by Dee Zee. They contain a large assortment of bandages, ice packs, and medicines most frequently used at this type of event.
There is a lot of emergency and safety training available to you and your actors. The local Fire Marshall or fire company will usually offer fire extinguisher training for free. They will help with evacuation plans and emergency protocol. The fire department also has CPR courses available and can provide training on site, with all of your actors and support staff. The local police will offer training sessions on how to handle unruly customers or drunks. They can also discuss inappropriate touching, and sexual harassment as it pertains to your show. This training looks great to your insurance company, and will increase your level of professionalism.
All of our staff goes thru training each year, before we open. A letter of completion goes to our local municipality as well as the insurance company. Another aspect of training is the employee handbook. This document is designed to provide the staff member with all the necessary information he or she needs to work for you.
As many actors get hurt each year as customers. Therefore, actor safety guidelines need to be addressed. In our employee handbook, actors are given a set of operating procedures that they must abide by. Keeping their scenes clean and free of debris is important. Removing tripping hazards like rocks, sticks, props and other items, will reduce falls and slips that could lead to an injury. Stipulate how close they are allowed to get to the wagon. Absolutely forbid them to walk between the tractor and the wagon, or stand on the wagon's tongue. Lay down your guidelines on paper and make the actors sign that they have read it and understand it. Keep the signed copies for your records.
Another safety feature for the actors is the speed of the wagons. We run our hayride at one speed; slow. Our wagons run at walking speed throughout our ride. The speed is timed by our soundtrack, and the drivers are instructed to follow it. I expect my drivers to treat my customers like they are riding in a limo; smooth and slow. Since the wagons all go at the same speed, the actors know exactly how to time their attacks. They know they will not be bumped or knocked over by the wagons. Another important safety tip is the use of a red light to "tag" certain groups or wagons. If a mentally handicapped group, a wagon full of drunks or group of people you feel may be dangerous, is about to enter the hayride, we hand the driver a small, red, blinking light and then radio the actors in the woods that a red light wagon is on the way. The actors are instructed to be aware when they see a red light wagon. They are to come out and perform their skit or scene, but stay back from the wagon. This idea was born after a mentally handicapped 25 year old, named The Hitter, decked one of our actors as he attacked the wagon. The Hitter thought he had saved his friends, not knowing the monster was just an actor.
Tractors and trucks:
We use John Deer tractors to pull our 10 hay wagons through our hayride trail. I prefer tractors over trucks because you can control the speed better, and you can haul more people in bigger wagons. Maintaining the tractors is critical to a safe hayride. We perform a complete service prior to the start of our season. This involves changing the oil, and all filters, checking fluid levels, brakes, tires and battery. There is nothing more frustrating than equipment breakdowns right at the beginning of the night. Make sure the tractors are fueled and ready to go well before start time. Each day, when the wagons are hooked up, we perform a visual inspection of the tractors. Check tires, fuel, audio systems if you run one, as well as lynch pin and safety chain. All wagons must be equipped with a safety chain, connecting the wagon's front axle to the draw bar or rear axle of the tractor. Don't just hook the chain together, bolt it! We assign one person to the task of checking all tractors and wagon hook ups, every night. Our un-loading staff also makes visual checks as each wagon passes by.
All tractors should be equipped with fire extinguishers and flashlights. Drivers should have radio communications as well. Drivers need to be trained to run the tractors. Try to keep each driver on the same vehicle each night, if possible. We train drivers first during the day, then at night with lights on. Finally, we have a dress rehearsal where the drivers run without lights, and have all automation, props, actors and audio running. Make sure that you teach the drivers how to brake properly, and how to use the differential lock, in case they start to slip. Attach notes on each tractor designating the gear and rpm that it should be in to maintain the proper speed. It is better to use throttle control to slow the tractor than it is to use the brakes, especially on a hill. Our drivers are instructed to drive slowly and smoothly, so that our guests are not bumped and banged around. In all, drivers need to be familiar with all basic functions of their tractor. The best drivers you can hire have their own tractors that you can rent as well. They understand the operation and are familiar with them.
We run wagons with 8 ton running gear, 8' wide and 24' long. They have 12" sides and our guests sit on the floor of the wagon. This setup gives the actors easy access to scare the guests, but makes it very hard for the guests to fall out. We attach safety chains to all wagons by wrapping one end around the axle, feeding it thru the tongue, and attaching the other end to the tractor. We bolt the chains so they do not come apart during the ride. Always check the tires before each night, and have spare tires available. Murphy's Law states that you will get at least one flat on the busiest night.
We use loose straw spread out on the bed of the wagon. We also make sure that our wagons have fresh, dry, straw available for each night. Wet straw is slippery and tends to mold, which can cause health problems. Inspect the wagons each night for splinters, exposed nails or screws, and loose floor boards. If your wagons have onboard steps, check them as well. If you have changed any tires lately, check the lug nuts; they can loosen over time if not properly tightened.
Animatronics, scares and scenes:
When you design a scare, always think in terms of safety, and what could possibly go wrong. If you use overhead scares such as falling spiders, flying bats and witches, or actors swinging across the trail, make sure that the support cables are of proper thickness and are clamped as per the manufacturer's specifications. Cable clamps must be installed in a certain manner for them to hold properly. Once your scare is set up, and working, add a backup cable in case the primary cable breaks or comes loose. If you have a falling billboard or building that drops toward the wagon, build in mechanical stops so that it can not drop all the way down. Make sure it is physically impossible for these types of sets to cause harm to your actors or guests. As the season progresses, you should make visual inspections of all the moving parts and cables. Look for wear, slippage, frayed cables, and worn pulleys. Lubricate tracks and mechanical parts that need it. Maintain all props so they work properly for the entire season.
If you use fire, explosions or flash pots, be certain the devices you use have a U.L. listing. If not, hire a certified pyro technician to set up and run your fire stunts. Several companies sell flame systems that include automatic valves, switch or sensor inputs and safety shutoffs. Sigma Services, located in Florida, and Studio Tek-FX located in California, carry these products. These are professional systems that have been certified for use in the entertainment industry. Theatre Effects, located in Maryland, sells flash pots and flash powder. These can also be dangerous if you are not properly trained to use them. Make sure you have plenty of fire extinguishers handy in any set that you will be using open flames. Make sure the actors in that scene are trained to use them. Clear the area around the fire scenes to limit the chance that the fire can spread. Avoid flammable liquids such as gasoline or kerosene. They run a much higher risk of causing an accident. Propane or natural gas is easier to control, and is less likely to cause problems.
The best way to keep your attraction safe is to think through every possible scenario at each part of your ride. Plan for the worst, and figure out how to make it safe. When designing a new set, always try to imagine what could go wrong then reduce that possibility by eliminating that problem. Always have a backup safety plan for every prop and stunt, and follow up with physical checks throughout your season. Hire a certified electrician to perform all wiring. Get it inspected. Use proper products and equipment. All these thing will help reduce the chance of an accident, and make our industry safer.
Randy Bates is the owner of Bates Motel near Philadelphia, PA. For more information about Bates Motel visit their website at www.thebatesmotel.com