Occasional riders get off Mission: Space queasy or short of breath, get over it and move on. But as often as once every other day, a rider is sick enough that someone calls 911. In the past three years, at least 12 people were hospitalized. Two died. Two weeks ago, the family of a 4-year-old Pennsylvania boy who died after getting off the ride sued Disney." />
Walt Disney World news

Thrills, chills on Mission: Space

Leah Zanolla | Posted: Jun 25, 2006 | Updated: Oct 19, 2014 - 9:25:27 AM
Orlando Sentinel - Walt Disney World is finding that it's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Perhaps no attraction fools the brain's natural sensory-perception systems in more ways than Mission: Space, Epcot's controversial 3-year-old spaceflight-simulator ride.

Therefore, it's no wonder so many people report getting sick, experts on simulators say.

Occasional riders get off Mission: Space queasy or short of breath, get over it and move on. But as often as once every other day, a rider is sick enough that someone calls 911. In the past three years, at least 12 people were hospitalized. Two died. Two weeks ago, the family of a 4-year-old Pennsylvania boy who died after getting off the ride sued Disney.

Simulators simply make many people ill, causing reactions similar to but distinct from ordinary motion sickness, experts say. They've found simulators can bring even seasoned military jet pilots to their knees.

But millions who ride Mission: Space feel fine and love it. The signature attraction, which opened in 2003 at a cost of more than $100 million, drew about 3 million people in the past year.

Military and NASA researchers have studied the problem for almost 50 years, calling it "simulator sickness." Yet they still don't know for sure who might get sick.

For some, such as Tania Zorrilla, 53, of Longwood, Mission: Space is too much. After she and her cousin, a doctor, rode in December, Zorrilla says they struggled to breathe and "felt funny in the head."

"It was a very bad experience," Zorrilla recalls.

Who is at risk?

Daudi Bamuwamye, 4, died June 13, 2005. His autopsy found a rare heart disease. Two weeks ago, his family sued, charging Disney knew the ride is hazardous.

Hiltrud Blumel, 49, of Germany, died April 12. An autopsy report is due any day. A preliminary report said she had severe high blood pressure and died of a stroke.

Simulator experts don't blame the deaths on simulator sickness, saying people with such serious health problems are at risk anywhere, anytime.

In the year after Daudi died, through June 13, 2006, paramedics were called to Mission: Space to treat 194 people, according to Reedy Creek Fire Department records. The most common complaints were dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Yet 25 people passed out, 26 suffered difficulty breathing, and 16 reported chest pains or irregular heartbeats.

Disney is seeking more answers. The company has hired a leading expert, University of Central Florida professor Robert S. Kennedy, to analyze data on Mission: Space riders.

Disney officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

In a written statement, spokeswoman Kim Prunty said, "A great deal of research and testing goes into the development and operation of our sophisticated attractions, including those that are simulator-based. We are not able to provide the information you are requesting because it is proprietary."

Because of his contract, Kennedy can't talk about his Disney research but discussed his five decades of study, much of it at the former Naval Training Systems Center in Orlando.

Mission: Space is unique among theme-park rides because one version mixes several illusion techniques, including spinning, which creates centrifugal force, increasing the gravitational pull on the body to 2.3 times normal.

But it's not the G-force that makes people sick, at least not directly, researchers say.

The problem involves fooling the inner ears.

The inner ears' semicircular canals and otolith organs use different methods to measure body movement. Normally they're highly reliable and always agree. When they don't, or if they together send different signals than vision, hearing or muscle senses are reporting, the "sensory conflict" sickens some people.

Disney got a heads-up before opening Mission: Space. Ride designers went to the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Pensacola, where military and NASA research is done.

Navy Capt. Angus Rupert, a medical doctor and neurophysiologist there, says he cautioned Disney about the likelihood of people suffering simulator sickness.

"That's what I expressed would be a problem, across the population . . . and that the control for it was having a short-duration ride, and not having multiple exposures," Rupert says.

Early on, Mission: Space became the resort's first (and only) ride with sickness bags. Last month it became the first to offer two versions: the "orange" full experience and a "green" less-intense option that does not involve spinning.

Unexpected reaction

Theme-park operators such as Disney use the same tools as the military and NASA to simulate flight and weightlessness: tilt, undetectable movement of front to back or left to right, spinning, surround-sound audio and video.

Kennedy and other researchers find that many people immune to other motion sicknesses can be floored by simulators.

"It would be really nice if you are resistant to motion sickness in one setting, you'd be resistant in another setting, but that's not the case," says Robert B. Welch, a research psychologist at NASA's Ames, Calif., Research Center.

Take Adam Szeleczky, 29, from Hungary. Szeleczky says he has ridden the world's most thrilling roller coasters with no problems. But after riding Mission: Space in February, he says, he was overwhelmed with dizziness and sickness.

"For the first time in my life, I had to sit down and recover after a ride," Szeleczky says.

Any simulator illusion can lead to sensory conflict.

People don't even have to be moving. An Imax movie or a virtual-reality experience, such as Aladdin's Magic Carpet Ride at DisneyQuest, can cause an illusion called "vection": The eyes convince the brain that the body is moving, but the inner ears and the muscle and skin senses protest.

Partly because of that, some people may get sick on simulators that don't spin, such as Universal Studios' Back to the Future, SeaWorld's Wild Arctic or Disney-MGM Studios' Star Tours.

When the body tilts one way, but the head tilts another, the canals and otoliths disagree, creating a conflict called "cross coupling."

"The otolith is signaling that your skull is going one way, the canal is signaling your skull is going another way," researcher Fred E. Guedry Jr. wrote in a 1987 Navy report, "and the brain is trying to figure out how to keep the skull together."

Simulators that spin can create a third sensory conflict, called "G-excess."

Engineers and scientists haven't figured out yet how to fool the canals, otoliths and eyes at the same rate at the same time, Rupert says.

As senses conflict, subconsciously, the brain may panic, setting off the body's equivalent of fire alarms and sprinklers.

"It can affect nearly every system," says Deborah L. Harm, head of the neuroscience lab at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "It affects a lot of the autonomic [nervous] system. And the autonomic system is controlling all the rest of your systems."

In the book Handbook of Virtual Environments, edited by UCF professor Kay M. Stanney, Harm explores what can happen next. Adrenal, pituitary and sweat glands fire. Blood-pressure, heart and breathing rates change. Blood starts moving into the muscles and skeleton and away from the skin and other organs. Pallor sets in. So does nausea. The brain attempts to reinterpret conflicting signals to try to make sense, and that throws off balance and coordination.

Common symptoms

Kennedy's research groups common symptoms into three categories. Disorientation includes dizziness, vertigo (extended loss of balance) and ataxia (loss of coordination). Ocular motor includes difficulty focusing eyes, eyestrain and headaches. Nausea includes vomiting, loss of appetite and stomach distress.

Other known symptoms include rapid heart rate, changes in blood pressure, pallor, cold sweats, difficulty breathing, fainting, depression, reduced concentration and flashbacks.

Normally, few people throw up because of a research or training simulator -- less than 1 percent of those who suffer simulator sickness, Kennedy's research found.

At Mission: Space, from June 14, 2005, to June 13, paramedics were called to treat 28 people for vomiting and an additional 45 for feeling nauseated or generally ill. Blumel was reported only as "feeling sick."

Available Reedy Creek records rarely indicate whether a patient actually rode Mission: Space. People could have been stricken while waiting in line or while just being in the area. Paramedics frequently respond to people everywhere in the parks who might be stricken by overheating, exhaustion or other factors, says Deputy Fire Chief Bo Jones. He said he could not determine whether Mission: Space was the scene of any more such responses than anywhere else.

In addition to the 25 people who fainted at Mission: Space, six patients reported feeling as if they nearly fainted or complained that they could not stand. Paramedics were summoned to treat 57 others who felt lightheaded, dizzy, shaky, weak or disoriented.

Less-commonly reported problems included seizures, falls, sweating and headaches.

Most patients reported multiple symptoms, such as nausea and dizziness.

Researchers say symptoms usually are mild -- a little dizziness or nausea perhaps. And normally they wear off in a few minutes. Yet they see rare cases when symptoms last days or months.


And there are flashbacks. Simulator operators have reported people who, hours after an exposure, suddenly fell off a couch or had trouble driving. Kennedy says he knew of one woman who rode a research simulator, then later became so disoriented that she poured a Coke in her ear.

"There have been those kinds of reports ever since the first simulator sickness," Kennedy says. "They only happen in a very small percentage of the total sample."

Kennedy doubts that a four-minute ride, as on Mission: Space, could cause flashbacks, because they appear to happen once the brain has suffered enough sensory conflict to reprogram how it deals with conflicting senses. However, Navy Capt. Rupert, who has ridden Mission: Space himself a couple of times -- and liked it -- says it's conceivable with hypersensitive riders.

"Individual differences: That is the single biggest problem with all of these things. It varies so much from person to person," Rupert says. "What you're really concerned about is that rare person who has a problem."

He's intrigued by Paul Borne, 57, a Massachusetts salesman who said he passed out twice flying home from Orlando, the day after riding Mission: Space in February. Two days of tests in a Boston hospital found no explanation, Borne says, and he suffered with vertigo for weeks.

Typically, 8,000 to 12,000 people a day ride Mission: Space. Disney posts numerous signs and broadcasts several messages warning away people with heart, back or neck problems; high blood pressure; or issues with spinning, simulators, tight, dark spaces or motion sickness.

NASA's Welch lauds the warnings.

"I think they ought to put up every possible sign. That probably would scare away a few people, but that's all right," Welch says. "It should."

Still, none of the experts contacted by the Sentinel, including Welch, was personally intimidated by Mission: Space.

"That must make a great ride," he says. "I'd really like to get out there and do it."

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