Iowa amusement park became a political force before accident

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa amusement park where a ride accident killed one boy and critically injured another has become increasingly influential in Iowa politics as the state has trended Republican.

Adventureland Park CEO Michael Krantz has donated $175,000 to county, state and federal Republican candidates since 2014. That made him one of Iowa’s largest GOP donors before a crisis that could devastate his family-owned park’s reputation and finances.

The park also has increased its lobbying at the Iowa Legislature, including for a recent law change allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to operate its rides. The park’s political impact has overlapped with several incidents in which workers or guests were injured, leading to regulatory fines and lawsuits.

Krantz has given $80,000 to Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has been silent publicly about Saturday’s accident on the Raging River ride that killed 11-year-old Michael Jaramillo and left his 16-year-old brother on life support. A worker was killed on the same ride in 2016 due to an operator’s errors.

Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett said the governor is “heartbroken after hearing what happened and grieves for the family.” He said Reynolds was briefed this week by Iowa Labor Commissioner Rod Roberts, who is overseeing the investigation into what caused a boat carrying six family members to flip on a ride that moves circular rafts through a man-made river.

Roberts signed an order Tuesday to keep the ride closed until the investigation’s conclusion and correction of hazards.

Krantz, 36, has been CEO since 2013. His sister, Molly Vincent, is its marketing director. Their brother Matthew is an executive, and all are directors of Adventure Lands of America Inc., which owns the park and hotel.

Krantz declined an interview request, saying through Vincent that he is “focused on a thorough investigation of this tragic accident.”

Their late father, Des Moines businessman Jack Krantz, built the park in suburban Altoona in the 1970s, and visits have made fond memories for generations of Iowa children. Today, the park has over 100 rides, shows and attractions.

Coronavirus restrictions shortened Adventureland’s 2020 season by a month, and the park saw smaller crowds. Then in August a rare wind storm known as a derecho damaged trees on its 183-acre campus and the gondolas on its Ferris Wheel.

The pandemic exacerbated longstanding concerns about a shortage of seasonal workers at Adventureland, which records show received $7.1 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans to retain hundreds of jobs.

In April, Iowa lawmakers approved a bill sought by Adventureland eliminating longstanding safety rules setting a minimum age of 18 to operate rides. The company began recruiting workers 16 and up, saying it expected 600,000 guests this year.

Adventureland attorney Guy Cook said the law had no bearing on Saturday’s accident because adults were operating the Raging River. Still, its passage reflected Adventureland’s clout.

Sponsors included Sen. Zach Nunn and Rep. Brian Lohse, whose districts include Adventureland and who received donations from Krantz last fall. Reynolds signed it. All three are Republicans.

“I support Adventureland because it’s a major jobs provider and entertainment center for the state of Iowa,” said Nunn, who worked there as a teenager. “Like any business that provides value to our citizens, they’re going to have a voice at the table.”

Democratic Sen. Nate Boulton opposed the change, arguing it would increase risks by allowing minors with poorer judgment to operate dangerous machinery. Boulton, a lawyer who specializes in worker safety, said Adventureland has seen a “pattern of serious injuries to workers and to customers,” yet lobbied to weaken safety protections.

Seven lobbyists represented Adventureland this session, including Jake Ketzner, Reynolds’ former chief of staff, records show. They argued the change wouldn’t hurt safety.

Cook said “safety is the bedrock of park operations,” noting the death is the first of a customer on a ride in its 47-year history.

However, several workers have been injured in different ways since 2013 — from falling off a platform to having a finger amputated after it was pinched in a ride safety bar, records show.

In 2016, a 68-year-old worker died of head trauma after an operator moved the Raging River unexpectedly, trapping him between a boat and a concrete wall. Another employee was injured when the same ride moved unexpectedly a month later.

Two maintenance workers trying to fix a ride in 2018 suffered serious finger injuries. A month later, an employee oiling chains on a roller coaster fractured his arm when he was knocked to the ground after his co-worker sent a test ride. Regulators cited the company for safety violations, which were settled by a $14,500 fine.

Adventureland has also faced several lawsuits filed by injured guests, including on waterslides that were added in 2010.

The Jaramillo family has retained attorney Ryan Best, who says Adventureland failed to protect the family and respond quickly to the accident. David, 16, has emerged from a medically induced coma but remains heavily sedated and can’t talk or see, Best said.

Trial lawyers say the family’s damages could be enormous.

“This is going to be a major problem for Adventureland,” Boulton said. “This ride had issues.”