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Trainer’s death jars safe world of adventure

A roller coaster jumps the track. A tiger leaps out of its pen. A killer whale attacks a trainer. In a world where “safe” danger is marketed to tourists, things occasionally go wrong.
A SeaWorld trainer performs Saturday with a killer whale during the first show after an orca killed a trainer at theme park three days earlier in Orlando, Fla.
A SeaWorld trainer performs Saturday with a killer whale during the first show after an orca killed a trainer at theme park three days earlier in Orlando, Fla.PHELAN EBENHACK / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It is billed as a leisurely boat tour. The shark surfaces, its fin slicing through the water.

The boat's captain, armed with a grenade launcher, blasts away at the bloodthirsty monster. Nearby gas lines explode and a column of fire erupts into the blue sky. We feel the heat from the flames, hear the shark's body churning in the water. A child hides her face in the crook of her mother's arm and whimpers as chilly water sprays everyone on the boat.

Of course, it isn't real. It's the "Jaws" ride at Universal Studios in Orlando, an attraction that runs hundreds of times a day.

Just miles away, officials at SeaWorld are holding a news conference to explain the death of Dawn Brancheau, a trainer who died when she was dragged underwater by a killer whale named Tilikum.

Orlando is billed as a nonstop adventure capital, ground zero of thrills and chills and action-packed fun — all during family friendly hours and with a $3.99 breakfast buffet to get you going.

There's Congo River Golf — which takes one of the world's most dangerous countries and turns it into a putt-putt course. At Disney's Animal Kingdom, you can "climb" Mt. Everest in a rollercoaster car. A little ways away, for the really adventurous, there's indoor skydiving.

And it's not just Orlando; across the globe, manufactured thrills entertain and amuse.

Yet every once in a while, something goes wrong. A roller coaster jumps the tracks, or a tiger leaps out of its pen, or a killer whale attacks a trainer, and that sense of safety is shattered.

"An event like this really shocks people," said Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University who has studied fright reactions to entertainment. "We say, uh oh, we didn't have control over this like we thought we did. It's a loss of control in this fantasy world. In our entertainment experience, we don't want reality to interfere. It's not something we bargained for."

When danger is packaged for our consumption, what does it do to our perception of reality? What happens when there's a real instance of tragedy in the safe tourist cocoon of Orlando?

In the words of Kelly Vickery, a young Tallahassee mother who was ushered out of SeaWorld on Wednesday because of the trainer's death and back at the park on Thursday to see the shark tank: "It feels weird."

It sure does.

"One of the nasty images implied by the media coverage of the trainer's death is imagining sitting there in that entertainment format and having this happen," Sparks said. "That really captured people's attention, and it goes right to heart of this tension between fantasy and reality."

Orlando specializes in fantastical, magical storytelling. During Saturday's first killer whale performance at SeaWorld since the trainer's tragic death, the audience was treated to a memorial of Brancheau — and the choreographed show "Believe," about a boy who encounters a killer whale in the wild and becomes a whale trainer himself. Soaring music, leaping whales and a trainer placing a whale tail necklace around the neck of a little girl from the audience complete the inspiring story.

Meanwhile, over at Universal Studios in Orlando, we're implored to "Jump Into the Action," to "Live the Adventure." And that's before we even walk out of the parking lot.

As we stroll into the park, grand music fills the air from invisible speakers. We imagine that we are entering our own movie — and that's exactly how we're supposed to feel.

Just being in the park's faux "neighborhoods" of Hollywood, New York and San Francisco breed a sense of security: trash is whisked away, bathrooms are spotless and no one is homeless. Everything is a sparkling, fantasy version of life.

But the things that the parks are best known for — thrill rides — also allow visitors to court danger. Safely.

"For most of us, our lives are predictable," said Lou Manza, professor and chair of the psychology department at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. "We like to be entertained a bit, but we don't want to really put ourselves in real danger. We want to sit and watch whales but we don't want to dive into the ocean and play with whales."

Maybe all this isn't surprising in a world where on-demand entertainment is not only available but expected, where a few keystrokes and a mouse click can call up video on just about anything — including a clip of the final moments of an Olympic luger, or the topic "killer whale trainer death."

Take the "Twister" adventure at Universal, for example. It's supposed to allow visitors to "experience what it's like to be a real storm chaser, looking a tornado right in the eye and braving the worst nature can throw at you."

Waiting in line, you shuffle past piles of cinder blocks, stacked to look like rubble. You can read about the Fujita tornado scales, and figure out that an F5 tornado is the worst Mother Nature has to offer. People with heart conditions and those with a sensitivity to "fog effects" are ominously advised not to participate.

Overhead TVs show video footage of real tornadoes — and note that only two states see more tornadoes than Florida.

The video doesn't depict what happened in 2007, some 50 miles from Universal. That's when three very real tornadoes hit central Florida, leaving 21 people dead.

The theme park adventure is entertaining enough. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, the stars of the movie "Twister," come on a video screen to talk about shooting the movie, then everyone shuffles to a sound stage to watch a tornado rip through an Oklahoma town. Trees split. Telephone poles topple. Wind rattles the roof, and a few people jump.

On Universal's Web site, there's a photo and quote from a family from Miami: "Twister was the experience of a lifetime. Thrilling! Unbelievably realistic; for a second you forget that it's a ride. Twister (equals) a heart pounding experience."

Then there's the nearby Revenge of the Mummy ride, which combines a roller coaster, total darkness and the undead.

"You're all doomed," said the young guy directing folks onto the roller coaster car.

People in the car whooped and squealed as the mummies lurched toward the car. "Now that was a good ride!" one man declared at the end, then promptly walked into the adjacent gift shop, past the blinking beer mugs for $9.95.

It begs the question: why do we want to be scared by fake, rotting mummies yet can't handle watching more than a week of Anderson Cooper's coverage of the Haiti earthquake?

"People don't quite understand the reality of things," said Manza. "You see stuff all the time on YouTube, on TV, on the Internet that you never had access to before. We've kind of conditioned ourselves to get that way."

And speaking of earthquakes, there's the quaint "San Francisco" area of Universal Studios. The fake neighborhood is packed with replicas of buildings in Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. Families sip cappuccinos at sidewalk tables outside a small pastry shop, and one is tempted to try to buy a loaf of only-in-San Francisco sourdough bread at the bakery.

Over hidden speakers, Tony Bennett belts out "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" a few times a day.

Sandwiched among all of this is a ride — "Disaster." The description on Universal's Web site sets the scene:

"You'll experience a cataclysmic earthquake that causes the ground above you to open up and rain down huge chunks of concrete debris. Pillars crumble, trucks crash and explode in flames, a runaway train heads right for you and 65,000 gallons of water flood the underground station."

But on a recent, normal sunny day in Orlando, Disaster was closed — for renovation.

Evidently death, like just about everyone else in theme-park Orlando, was taking a holiday.