One New Theme Park Roller Coaster Addresses “Am I Too Large to Ride?”
Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
If you spend a few minutes reading any major publication, you’ll quickly realize that America’s overweight population is growing. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, nearly 2/3 of Americans are overweight or obese. The global picture is similar, with 500 million adults around the globe considered obese and that number expected to skyrocket to more than 1 billion by 2030. Against this backdrop, entertainment designers are left asking important questions. How can themed entertainment venues offer a great visitor experience when safety concerns limit some guests from participating in rides based on their size?
Safety issues have to be theme parks’ paramount concern. With one questionable decision or allowance made that violates the safety guidelines of a ride, people can be seriously injured or die. Accidents have occurred in the past few years that have been potentially linked to the rider’s size. This has led to park policies, often driven by insurance requirements, setting weight limits on riders. Another approach requires riders to fit securely within ride cars, and denying access when the safety mechanism won’t close properly. Inevitably this leads to disappointment and frustration at one end of the spectrum and accusations of discrimination at the other.
For theme parks, managing the ride experience for today’s larger population has several components. The first is creating policies that prioritize safety on existing rides. In a recent interview with the LA Times, one expert highlights a problem with older rides that were manufactured with a different user in mind. “Theme parks have been around 40-plus years, and sizing, in the past four decades, has changed a lot in America,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., an Ohio industry consultant. “Some of these rides were designed back when people were a little smaller.”
With that reality in mind, it’s possible for parks to evaluate whether modifications can be made that preserve the integrity of the ride and allow for a more inclusive experience. Adjustments may be as simple as providing larger cars or different safety mechanisms, or may require more complex ride modifications. Universal Studios has modified its Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey ride with several seats designed to accommodate larger passengers. This segmented approach to modification is another one that many parks are considering for popular rides, as it may be more cost effective.
Another critical factor is the customer service and training of park staff in dealing with this highly sensitive issue. The internet is rife with complaints from park guests about rude comments and processes that don’t automatically let overweight guests know that modifications are available at specific rides. In some cases, the guest must know ahead of time to request modified seats. If a rider doesn’t ask and doesn’t fit, they’re sometimes told to leave and not informed of the alternate arrangements available.
Focusing on this aspect of the visitor experience is one of the most important steps that theme parks can take. If modifications are available, model parks are creating processes to advise guests of that quickly. Consider the Forbidden Journey, where guests may be asked to sit in a test seat which confirms that the guest can sit anywhere, can sit in a modified seat, or needs to be declined access to the ride. Regardless of the outcome, overweight guests need to be handled with respect and communication done in an open and helpful manner.
A second approach is integrating an awareness of the changing population dynamics into ride design and development itself. One French theme park recently launched a new coaster attraction that’s designed to accommodate larger passengers. The roller coaster uses wider ride cars. Other rides have made engineering choices that enable higher weight limits by manipulating ride dynamics by limiting moves such as loops.
Safely accommodating larger guests is an increasingly important issue in the theme park world. The best strategies have four elements in play: policies that prioritize safety, excellent customer service training, modification plans for existing rides, and an awareness of the range of different sizes of guests when designing new attractions. We expect this topic to come under increasing scrutiny in the years ahead, and hope to see more parks leading the way in thoughtful, inclusive design.
Image sources: Nigloland, Safer Parks, WordPress