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Father says carnival put daughter, 5, in danger

Midway owner says girl was too young for the ride

ROCK FALLS – A Rock Falls alderman has filed a formal complaint with the state against a carnival operator after, he said, his 5-year-old daughter almost fell from a ride Sept. 21 at the St. Mary’s School Centennial Carnival on the Rock Falls riverfront.

John Watts, who represents Ward 4, filed the complaint Sept. 23 with the Illinois Department of Labor’s Amusement Ride and Public Safety Division. A Freedom of Information Act request showed it was the only complaint from the past 5 years on file against the Peoria-based Wilsons Family Show.

According to Watts, his 5-year-old daughter and her 10-year-old sister were riding the Orbiter, a ride whose center spins riders in one direction as cars attached to the center spin riders in the opposite direction, and Sophie began to slip under the restraint bar.

Kevin Wilson, owner of Wilsons Family Show, said the girl was slouching in her seat, not falling from the ride, and the operator stopped the ride when he noticed it, which is the company’s policy.

Watts, however, said that the restraint bar was at his daughter’s chest and she was “clinging to it” while her sister was grabbing her. He said he yelled to the ride operator, who then saw what was happening and motioned for the ride to stop.

Wilson said his operator noticed the situation and stopped the ride as soon as possible. Immediately halting that kind of ride can be dangerous to the riders and the machinery, he said.

Wilsons Family Show does safety checks of its rides every day of a carnival, Wilson said, and the ride in question was last looked at by a state inspector the week before the incident. There was “no evidence that anything malfunctioned,” he said.

The Department of Labor’s investigation can involve re-inspecting a ride, reviewing operator or company records, and taking witnesses’ statements, said Anjali Julka, a department spokeswoman.

In an email from the Department of Labor, Watts was told:

“The investigation into this company will likely be on-going until next spring due to the fact that the company is now out of state. The Department will continue to investigate the training records of the individual operator in question that night and to ensure that they have the proper posted height requirements for the ride.”

The company is currently in Florida, where it often travels during colder months in the Midwest, Wilson said.

If the state determines Wilsons Family Show was somehow at fault, it will file a report, but can’t directly fine the company, said Division Manager Ryan Culton, adding that the report could be used in a civil lawsuit.

Watts said he hasn’t considered filing a lawsuit.

When investigating the formal complaints, Culton said “it’s hard to make a lot of determination about what happened and what didn’t,” unless there is video or law enforcement witnesses to the incident. 

The Department of Labor can only issue a monetary penalty against a company for operating a ride without a permit, Culton said. But it does issue a “stop operation order” if a ride is determined to be unsafe.

Both Watts and Wilson agree that their discussion after the incident became heated, but they don’t agree on who first became angry and started yelling. Neither party said the confrontation became physical.

The rides have no age restrictions, only height requirements that come from the manufacturer, Wilson said. He said that although Watts’ 5-year-old met the 48-inch height requirement, Watts should not have let her on the ride, which Wilson described as “an extreme adult ride.”

“She shouldn’t have been on the ride,” Wilson said. “She did make the height requirement. As a parent, he should have said, ‘No.’”

Watts said he hopes Wilsons Family Show re-evaluates its protocol for similar situations in the future and looks at height requirements for rides. He also wants parents to be aware of their role.

“I’m hoping just to make parents more aware that even if you put your child on the ride and they meet the requirements, that you still have to be mindful of their safety,” he said.

Wilson said rides are stopped for slouching riders or riders trying to stand up “maybe 30 times” at state fairs. He defended the actions his employees took.

“I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” Wilson said. “My guys did things by the books.”

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