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Theme park crime: Counterfeiters prefer Disneyland; shoplifters like Universal Studios Hollywood

Disneyland’s 1955 opening was plagued by snafus, including the widespread distribution of counterfeit tickets.

More than 60 years later, security agents at the Anaheim theme park are on the lookout not only for phony tickets but for bogus money, too.

Police reports show that crime rates at Southern California theme parks are extremely low, but each park wrestles with unique crime problems such as shoplifting at Universal Studios Hollywood and car burglary at Knott’s Berry Farm.

At Disneyland, reports of counterfeit money are more common than incidents of grand theft or credit card fraud. 

The problem with bogus money at Disneyland is among several findings that came from a Los Angeles Times analysis of more than 3,700 police reports for four Southern California theme parks from 2014 through the first six months of 2016.

The analysis found that crime rates at Southern California theme parks are dramatically lower than in their surrounding cities.  

At the Disneyland Resort — composed of Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, the Downtown Disney shopping district and three hotels — the rate of violent crime was about one crime (1.41 to be exact) for every 1 million visitors in 2015. That figure is a tiny fraction of the crime rate in the city of Anaheim, according to FBI crime statistics. 

The number of visitors to the park is estimated each year by Aecom, a Los Angeles engineering and consulting firm. Violent crimes are defined by the FBI as aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder.

At Universal Studios Hollywood, the violent crime rate in 2015 was also about one (1.27) incident for every 1 million visitors, small by comparison with the surrounding city of Los Angeles, which had 6,348 violent crimes per 1 million residents last year, according to FBI crime statistics.

But even the likelihood of being a victim of a property crime, such as purse snatching or theft from a car at the parks, is a fraction of the rate in the surrounding cities.

In 2015, the Disneyland Resort had a rate of 10.3 property crimes for every 1 million visitors while Anaheim’s crime rate was higher by a factor of 2,000.

“We work in close collaboration with local law enforcement and are vigilant in protecting our guests while delivering a memorable guest experience," Disneyland spokeswoman Suzi Brown said.

Experts on security at large public venues say theme park managers keep crime low by giving all employees, including janitors and food vendors, the responsibility of keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior.

Also, theme parks rely heavily on technology, such as closed-circuit cameras and two-way radios, to spot and alert security officers about crimes that take place. The challenge becomes more daunting during the holidays and peak travel periods when crowd numbers surge.

“Everybody has got their eyes out looking for things,” said Paul Wertheimer, a consultant on crowd safety and founder of Los Angeles-based Crowd Management Strategies. “You also need great communications for instant response.”

The parks have developed a reputation of cracking down on even minor mischief and wrongdoing, creating an atmosphere that makes troublemakers think twice before acting out inside the park, security experts say.

James Kollar, a former Secret Service agent who headed security at the Disneyland Resort for two and a half years, said he has seen tattooed gang members enter Disneyland only to behave in the most civil way. 

“When you go through the security process to get into the park, it already puts a mind-set that you are being watched,” he said. “That’s basically how it’s successful.” 

There were no homicides reported in the four parks during the 30-month period analyzed, but police reported five rapes (two at Universal Studios Hollywood, two at Knott’s Berry Farm and one at Six Flags Magic Mountain) and 156 aggravated assaults (118 at Disneyland Resort, 32 at Universal Studios Hollywood and six at Knott’s Berry Farm) during that period.

Crime is a sensitive topic for theme park executives who want parkgoers to feel safe. Park representatives are reluctant to discuss specific crimes or security procedures in detail.

At most theme parks, security agents and police officers keep a low profile.

At the Disneyland Resort, security officers are dressed in white shirts and wear white brimmed hats but carry no guns or batons. The Anaheim Police Department operates a substation in the shopping district adjacent to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. Uniformed police enter the parks only when summoned by Disney security.

“You want to create a pleasant patron experience without creating an overzealous police state,” said James DeMeo, a consultant at Unified Sports and Entertainment Security Consulting in Austin, Texas. 

But the increasing threats facing crowded tourist attractions may explain why Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood installed metal detectors in late 2015 to screen guests despite the low crime rate at the parks.

“We want our guests to feel safe when they visit our theme park, and this is a natural progression for us as we apply best practices for security in today's world,” Universal Studios Hollywood spokeswoman Audrey Eig said.

Disney also announced several other moves to increase security, including a ban on visitors carrying toy guns and a ban on people over age 14 wearing masks or costumes that conceal their identities. The park also stopped selling replica guns.

In December, Disneyland expanded the resort area where guests are screened to include its shopping district.

James Hogan, a San Diego doctor who has visited Disneyland up to four times a year since the 1980s, said he has always felt safe at the park and doesn’t mind that metal detectors have been added to screen visitors.

“I think it's totally necessary,” he said. “It’s remarkable something hasn't already happened in the parks. Disneyland is a very happy place for millions, and a shooting or some other tragedy could change that forever.”

The most common offenses at theme parks are property crime such as purse snatching, pickpocketing, shoplifting and theft from cars, according to The Times’ analysis of crime reports. But some crimes occur with more frequency in some parks.

At Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, one of the most frequent crimes is the theft of backpacks and purses that guests leave unsecured on roller coaster platforms. (Riders are urged to put valuables in lockers that can be rented by the day.)

“The problem we see is that they just throw their backpacks down and leave their phones and by the time they get off the ride to get their stuff, it’s gone,” said Shirley Miller, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols the park.

At Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, car-centric crime is most prevalent: stolen vehicles, theft from cars and theft of parts from parked cars, according to Buena Park crime statistics.

At Universal Studios Hollywood, petty theft, such as shoplifting, accounts for more than 40% of all crimes at the theme park. The adjacent shopping district, Universal CityWalk, has been particularly hard hit by shoplifters, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. Robert Wiard said.

At the Disneyland Resort, more than one-third of all crimes reported in the two-and-a-half year period analyzed by The Times were petty theft, such as shoplifting and pickpocketing.

Crime reports for the Disneyland Resort also included 106 attempts to pass counterfeit money at food and retail vendors. The reports of counterfeit money outnumbered misdeeds such as stealing from parked cars and credit card crimes.

“There is a certain amount of counterfeiting that happens” at parks worldwide, said Jason Freeman, chairman of the security task force for the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions. “People travel from all walks of life so we do experience small amounts of counterfeiting.” 

But at the Disneyland Resort, phony bills show up more often.

FBI statistics show that counterfeiting and fraud represented about 1.5% of all crimes in the U.S. in 2014, while counterfeiting reports represented about 6% of the police reports at the Disneyland Resort in the 30-month period analyzed.

Law enforcement officials that investigate crime at the other three Southern California theme parks — Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain — say counterfeit money is not a common problem.

The Anaheim Police Department declined to provide details of the counterfeiting incidents at the Disneyland Resort, saying it isn’t required to do so under public records laws.

Disneyland spokeswoman Brown said counterfeit money may be showing up at all theme parks but appears to be a prominent problem at the Disneyland Resort only because Disney employees may be more vigilant about reporting all crimes to local police.

Theme park experts say counterfeit money may be showing up at higher rates at Disneyland because the resort attracts a greater share of international visitors, who may have unknowingly received the fake cash from bogus money exchange offices.

Also, experts say, counterfeiters may try to pass fake money at theme parks during the busy holiday season when temporary and inexperienced employees are working at cash registers.

“People who pass counterfeit notes take advantage of a busy type of situation,” Kollar said. “When you have long lines, it’s easy to pass off bills in certain situations.”

Times staff writer Ben Poston contributed to this report.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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