"I felt my face drop. I couldn't talk. And then I passed out," she said in recalling those moments outside the Universal Studios attraction Jan. 3, 2001.
Williams, then 35 and in apparent fine health, had suffered a debilitating stroke.
She sued Universal Orlando three years later, blaming her stroke on the popular flight-simulator ride. The Prairieville, La., woman's case was settled out of court about a year ago, with no admission of fault, its terms sealed from public scrutiny.
Williams' lawsuit and scores of others filed in the past five years have left no public record that might verify or debunk allegations that her injuries and those in the other cases were caused by the rides and attractions at the core of Central Florida's theme-park industry.
An Orlando Sentinel review of 477 personal-injury lawsuits filed against the region's three big theme-park companies from the beginning of 2004 through the end of last year found 101 cases in which people say they were injured by rides or attractions owned by Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando or Busch Entertainment Corp. (which operates SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens-Tampa Bay). The rest of the suits involve everything from routine slip-and-fall accidents to allegations of show animals gone berserk.
Only a tiny percentage of personal-injury lawsuits in the U.S. ever go to trial. But in the case of the 101 ride- or attraction-related suits filed against Disney, Universal or Busch Entertainment in state or federal court, none has reached a jury. Twenty-three of the suits are still pending, but the other 78 — including some that claim rides caused strokes, heart attacks, spinal injuries or, in two cases, a person's death — were either settled out of court or dismissed by a judge.
And, as is typical in personal-injury cases, many of the park-case dismissals and nearly all of the settlement agreements were then sealed from public view; the only three exceptions involved small settlements, worth $25,000 or less each.
Disney, Universal and Busch defend their safety records and policies. They note that many millions of people use their rides each year, yet injury claims are rare.
"The safety of our guests and cast members is our top priority," Disney World spokeswoman Kim Prunty said. "We design our rides in accordance with internationally recognized safety standards and host millions of guests on our attractions each year."
The three companies do not, however, discuss ride-related litigation.
"We take the safety of our guests as our highest priority," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said. "That said, we're not going to discuss our legal strategies or the details of specific cases."
Injuries reportedFlorida law exempts theme parks from the state inspections and mandatory reporting required of carnivals and small amusement parks. In 2000, the big parks signed a "memorandum of understanding" with the state in which they volunteered to start providing certain ride-injury information to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service's Bureau of Fair Rides Inspection.
Chad Emerson, an associate law professor at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., focuses on the amusement business. Emerson says the industry's limited concession was still a big step, because it gave Florida what he describes as one of the country's best injury-reporting systems. California, the only other state with several large theme parks, has stricter reporting requirements, but they don't necessarily generate better data, Emerson said.
Yet the Florida system requires theme parks to disclose only injuries that involve a person's death or an immediate hospital stay that exceeds 24 hours "for purposes other than medical observation."
As a result, only nine of the 101 ride-related lawsuits found in the Sentinel's review of 2004-08 court cases were reported to the state as accidents when they occurred, even though at least a few of the 92 other cases include allegations of serious harm.
According to Rob Jacobs, chief of the state's ride-inspection bureau, Florida's goal was to collect basic data on ride injuries, and the voluntary-reporting agreement reached with the big theme-park companies achieved that. But many injury claims don't show up in the state reports, he acknowledged, because they do not meet all of the requirements spelled out in the state agreement.
Delia Guerra's accident, for instance, never was reported. According to her 2007 lawsuit, she felt abdominal pain while riding the Kraken roller coaster during a 2004 visit to SeaWorld. But the pain wasn't severe, and she did not seek help right away. The pain grew worse, however, and as her family drove home to Georgia three days later, Guerra finally sought medical attention at a hospital emergency room in St. Augustine. A doctor diagnosed a ruptured spleen that needed emergency surgery.
The state reports also don't require much detail.