By Chad Emerson
As theme parks increase capacity and guests increasingly return to the parks, safety remains one of the few items that the pandemic did not affect during the unprecedented last two years. In this issue, The Large Park Report examines a relatively new safety standard that, while designed to protect guests, is certainly causing a series of challenging circumstances for guests and employees alike.
Height Restrictions as a Safety Tool
Almost every theme park offers a ride that includes a height restriction of some type. Designed to keep guests secured in the ride vehicle, height restrictions are expected by most guests especially when it comes to more thrilling attractions like roller coasters. Typically, employees enforce the height restriction with a simple measurement stick, oftentimes permanently placed at the entrance to the ride queue.
This creates predictability on the front end, so guests don’t waste time in line only to later learn they do not meet the height restriction. The simplicity of measuring height helps the process (though we’ve all seen “rite of passage” where kids do their best to be as tall as possible to ride their favorite thrill ride). Generally, though, conflict and confusion between guests and employees are limited since height restrictions are such a well-know and generally accepted safety tool.
As thrill rides continue to push the boundaries of speed, size, and physics in general, parks are increasingly introducing a new type of ride restriction. One whose implementation is much more difficult and often confusing (if not downright embarrassing) for a segment of guests.
Size Restrictions as a Safety Tool
With ride vehicles evolving (and often shrinking) to create more thrilling experiences, some of the new ride vehicles require certain-sized guests to ride in a special vehicle or even not ride at all. Typically, these guests are larger in size than the ride designer feels can safely fit into the ride vehicle.
One quick note: this is different than weight restrictions which, while not as common as height restrictions, are not entirely uncommon in the industry. In those instances, if the weight restriction is strictly enforced, it can be done through a discreetly placed scale that measures a guest’s weight when they step onto it. Unlike height restrictions which typically affect children more than adults (though certainly not always), weight restrictions more commonly affect adult guests and that creates another dynamic that should be addressed in a sensitive manner considering the topic.
While often related to weight restrictions, size restrictions are distinct though. In the case of size restrictions, it is the ability of a guest to safely fit into a ride vehicle and its restraints that is the determining measurement. This means that, even guests whose total weight may fall within the ride vehicle restrictions, the shape or structure of their body may not allow them to safely ride the vehicle.
Two examples of size restrictions can be found at two of Universal Orlando’s newest, high-profile attractions: Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and Jurassic World VelociCoaster. In both instances, guests who exceed a certain size (regardless of height or weight) are prohibited from riding the rides. This clearly is done strictly for safety purposes, but it still creates challenges since both rides are two of the highest demand rides for guests visiting Universal Orlando. It’s also worth noting that size restrictions are not limited to Universal Orlando rides or even these two rides at Universal Orlando.
In fact, at least 12 rides at Universal’s Islands of Adventure park and nine at the adjacent Universal Studios park have size restrictions. This comprises a substantial portion of the overall number of rides and includes many of the most popular rides.
However, when two of the most highly anticipated new rides at a large park resort both restrict guest size in addition to height, there are certain lessons to be learned and choices to be made regarding the inherent exclusions this creates.
From this writer’s first-hand experience, the VelociCoaster is one of the most thrilling new attractions anywhere in the industry. Intense launches, inversions, and high speeds combine with immersive ride design to create a top-notch experience…if your waistline is less than 40 inches (and you are at least 51 inches tall). This size restriction is necessitated by the ride vehicle used for the attraction. The vehicle minimizes its physical size which leads to a thrilling experience that makes you feel like you are almost floating in the air while still offering highly engineered safety restraints.
Minimizing Unexpected Confusion and Awkwardness
Inevitably, when rides are restricted because of physical requirements, a segment of guests will realize some level of disappointment because they want to ride the ride but cannot do so. To mitigate this disappointment, Universal and other large parks take several proactive steps. These are steps that you should carefully consider if introducing a physically restricted ride at your amusement facility.
First, consider whether your ride could use a certain number of modified ride vehicles that have reduced physical restrictions. This is an approach that some rides utilize with wheelchair-accessible ride vehicles that are included with the conventional ride vehicles. Even if not allowing for wheelchair-accessibility, a limited number of ride vehicles on your attraction might offer modified seats or cars that include supplemental or modified restraints.
Sometimes modified ride vehicles simply don’t make logistical or engineering sense. If so, large parks like Universal often implement two additional steps. For starters, it is crucial to post very clear and transparent signage explaining the restrictions as early as possible and certainly before a guest enters any point of the queue line or even pre-queue line. This informs the guest, manages expectations, and allows them to maximize their park time without having to waste time in a line for a ride they are restricted from.
Also, in addition to physical signage at the ride, posting the restrictions in your on-line materials is a key step as well. Clear and concise restrictions on your website and/or park app helps guests avoid awkward situations even before they enter your facility.
Finally, a more costly but highly effective tool is to place a “test vehicle” outside the attraction. The test vehicle is a replica ride vehicle that guests can interact with to determine if they meet the ride restraint’s physical requirements. A guest can literally sit in a mock ride vehicle to determine if they will be eligible to ride the ride.
If you decide to introduce new rides with size restrictions, then it is highly recommended that you invest in proactive steps to inform the guest of those restrictions as effectively as possible as soon as possible in the park experience.
(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson at firstname.lastname@example.org.)