Jose Calderón Arana decided to rest for a moment on the bench and let his family go on another ride without him.
Calderón Arana, three weeks from his 39th birthday, wasn’t feeling well after he climbed off the King Kong ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. His wife suspected it was from the fast food they’d been eating on their vacation. Maybe he just needed a break.
By the time she and their 8-year-old son returned, a few minutes later, Calderón Arana lay on the ground, surrounded by Universal staff.
Calderón Arana, who ran a large-scale corporate pepper farm in Guatemala that sold to U.S. buyers, was taken to Dr. Phillips Hospital where he was pronounced dead after suffering a massive heart attack.
That is the account of what happened on Dec. 10, 2016, according to the Calderón Arana family’s attorneys, who filed a wrongful death lawsuit this month against the theme park in Orange Circuit Court. The suit seeks in excess of $15,000 in damages.
The death certificate, provided by the attorneys, listed the cause of death as a heart attack, multivessel coronary disease and cardiogenic shock — a condition most often caused by a severe heart attack when the heart suddenly can’t pump enough blood for the body, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said the company would not comment on pending litigation.
Skull Island had only been open about five months at the time of Calderón Arana’s death in 2016.
On the attraction, passengers wear 3-D glasses and ride in a truck on an expedition where they dodge bats, winged creatures and dinosaurs until they pass by Kong himself. It’s not a roller coaster but has thrilling immersive effects, such as riders getting blasted by air as the dinosaurs roar.
Several warning signs are posted in English at the ride entrance, inside the queue and overhead before passengers board.
“This is a safety advisory,” a recorded audio warning plays in English, warning that people with heart conditions should be among those who should skip the ride. “Riders should expect sudden and extreme movement.”
Calderón Arana, a native Spanish-speaker, wasn’t aware of the dangers, according to his attorneys.
He had a prior heart condition — his attorneys could not provide more specifics on his medical history — although his cardiologist had cleared him to travel and go on vacation, they said.
“The issue centers around had he been given the opportunity to fully assess his risk — there were no signs of any kind warning of the potential dangers in a language he was comfortable in understanding,” said Lou Pendas, who owns the law firm representing the family. “He sees kids going in there; he sees elderly people going in there. He’s going, ‘OK, I can handle this.’”
Pendas said theme parks should put up warnings in French and Spanish as well as English, all the major international languages.
At Florida Atlantic University, Peter Ricci disagrees.
“The issue here is one of long-term frugality and practicality,” said Ricci, director of the university’s Hospitality and Tourism Management program, in an email. “It is completely rational and practical to expect theme parks to have instructions, directions, and safety information in every language that one of its guests could use, but it would be super impractical when it comes to costs.”
Universal also uses symbols on warning signs that help convey messages to international guests when they don’t know English, said Bill Zanetti, a doctoral student who teaches theme park design and management courses at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
But at SeaWorld Orlando, its new Infinity Falls ride plays audio announcements and health warnings in both Spanish and Portuguese, said spokeswoman Lori Cherry, adding it was the first time the Orlando park has ever done so in another language.
Pendas is dismissive about any potential costs to Universal, which he says would be minimal as he points to the number of international visitors coming to the theme park.
Visit Orlando tracked about 882,000 people in 2017 from Mexico, Argentina and Colombia — the three Spanish-speaking countries with the most tourists coming to Orlando.
Pendas said he is anxious to get more answers about what happened that day through the discovery process with his firm’s lawsuit.
Calderón Arana’s child saw his father collapsed on the ground, Pendas said. His wife lost her husband.
“I don’t know how they will ever move beyond this,” Pendas said.
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