As Americans get fatter, more worry they won’t fit on roller coasters

Overweight Mike Galvan has endured the ‘walk of shame’ several times after failing to fit in the seat of a theme park ride. It doesn’t help that size restrictions vary from theme park to theme park

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2016, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2016, 5:00pm

Universal’s Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey has bedevilled many big and tall riders, who discover at the last moment that their journey aboard the new attraction is indeed forbidden because they don’t fit in the “enchanted benches”.

The uncomfortable scene is a familiar one to anybody who has ever visited a theme park: the overweight rider becomes increasingly embarrassed as the ride attendant pushes and shoves with all his might on the over-the-shoulder restraint that stubbornly refuses to click closed. Everybody waiting in line knows what comes next: the walk of shame.

“The walk of shame is an embarrassing experience,” says Mike Galvan, who penned the Big Boy’s Guide to Roller Coasters. “I’ve been there many times. It’s disheartening.”

Galvan likens the straight back and flat seat on Forbidden Journey to an “old wooden chair” that provides little wiggle room for larger riders.

“When the over-the-shoulder restraint comes down, if part of you is hanging over, whether it be your gut, your thighs or your shoulders, you’re going to be very uncomfortable,” Galvan says.

While there are no height or weight maximums for Forbidden Journey, the safety restraints must be able to close properly in order for guests to ride, say Universal officials.

Like many theme park attractions, Forbidden Journey has a tester seat near the entrance for visitors who might be worried they won’t fit on the ride. But as big and tall riders will tell you, those tester seats often can be misleading.

“I do not trust the accuracy of the test seats, no matter the park,” Galvan says. “I can only suspect that the seat belts on the test seats are intentionally short to minimise the potential of riders getting the ‘walk of shame’ at the station. I’ve also had the opposite happen, where I made the test seats but was rejected from the actual ride.”

Galvan, 31, is a regular contributor to SFGAmworld, a fan site for Six Flags Great America outside Chicago. In 2007, he was so overweight that he stopped going to theme parks because he no longer could fit on the rides. Over the next three years, he lost more than 59kg so he could return to his passion: roller coasters.

Anybody who has ever been kicked off a ride because he or she was too big will tell you that theme park attractions are not designed for people who are heavier or taller than average.

All theme parks have euphemistic names for “exceptional sized riders” or “guests of larger size” – those who are too fat or too tall to fit safely in an attraction seat. Some makers of rides even try to make accommodations with “big boy seats”.

So how big is too big?

Cedar Fair, the parent company of Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, and 10 other amusement parks, offers very specific size requirements for “guests of larger size”. Cedar Fair warns that men over 1.9 metres tall or 102kg with a 101cm waistline or 132cm chest “may not be accommodated on some of our rides”. The park operator says women over 90kg who wear a US size 18 or larger could have trouble fitting on some rides.

At Ohio’s Cedar Point, some coasters such as Millennium Force, Top Thrill Dragster and GateKeeper have a 1.98-metre height maximum. Ohio’s Kings Island institutes height maximums for a number of rides, including Firehawk (2.05 metres), Invertigo (1.9 metres) and Delirium (1.9 metres). Tennessee’s Dollywood has 2-metre height maximums on a number of rides, including the Wild Eagle wing coaster. The Green Lantern: First Flight at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, also has a height maximum of 2 metres.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia sets aside two rows of seats on the Alpengeist and Griffon coasters for riders with “chest measurements exceeding 132cm”.

Splashin’ Safari water park at Holiday World in Indiana uses a walk-on scale to ensure the maximum weight on the six-passenger Mammoth rafts doesn’t exceed 476kg.

Disney parks have no height or weight maximums on any attractions, according to officials. Disneyland famously replaced the 1964 boats on It’s a Small World because the increasing waistlines of Americans were causing them to run aground – an assertion reported by MiceChat and vigorously denied by Disney officials.

Theme park officials typically respond with prepared statements when asked about making accommodations for “riders with unique physical attributes” (such as this one from Six Flags): “We work closely with ride manufacturers to incorporate safety systems that are designed to accommodate people of average physical stature and body proportions. We require that all seat belts, lap bars and shoulder harnesses be positioned and fastened properly. Due to the rider restraint system, guests of a larger size may not be accommodated on some rides.”

As has been well documented, Americans are getting fatter. The average weight for adult men has risen from 75.3kg in 1960 to 88.5kg in 2012, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The average weight for women increased from 63.5kg to 75.3kg during the same period.

Addressing the issue is complicated for ride makers in part because every rider carries weight differently – with problem areas ranging from the hips, waist and stomach to the chest and shoulders. For big riders, coaster rideability varies from park to park.

One of the biggest concerns for larger riders is what Galvan calls the “seat belt lottery”.

“It’s absolutely amazing how from one row to another, the length of the seat belt will vary,” Galvan says. “The only reason I can think for this irregularity would be off-season maintenance. Some rides are more egregious than others in this department.”

“The issue with these rides is the seat belt and the lack of an audible ‘click’ when pulling the restraint down,” Galvan says. “Not to mention that you have the seat several feet off the ground, so you have to tippy toe or jump up to get into the seat. Depending on your body dimensions, you might not be able to manoeuvre yourself to get into the seat properly.

There are no industry standards among ride makers and amusement parks when it comes to accommodating bigger riders. Some parks require two locking clicks to secure a lap bar or over-the-shoulder restraint on a ride, while others insist on three clicks. Seat belt lengths can vary from ride to ride and row to row.

“Most manufacturers, if not all, hoping to do business in the US are now offering optional jumbo seats to buyers to fit larger adults,” says Bob Dean of Florida-based Leisure Labs, which represents Mack Rides, Great Coasters International and Mondial.