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Bigger riders mean bigger headaches for theme parks

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Published: October 31, 2007 at 11:48 AM

Americans are getting fatter, and theme parks are responding.

Bigger riders mean tighter fits into roller coaster and other ride seats, particularly on attractions designed a generation ago. As a result, parks are adding "plus-sized" seats to roller coasters, "test" seats at the beginning of ride queues, and in some cases, rebuilding ride systems entirely. But the changes are not coming quickly enough for some frustrated visitors, who are going online to ask others for advice on which rides will be able to accommodate them.

Theme Park Insider reader Rachel Crichton expressed her frustration over a trip to Cedar Point. "I only stood in line for five rides before giving up on the park," she wrote in a thread on TPI's discussion board.

After "being brutally embarrassed at three of them, I managed to fit Mean Streak and Gemini just fine, but was asked to get off of the mine ride and Blue Streak, and didn't even bother trying to fit... into Magnum.

"They say to try a test seat before waiting in line, and i gladly would've done that... except they only have test seats at, like, four rides, and none of them were rides I tried getting on. The website claims you can skip the line to try out the seats before waiting in line, but if you ask me, that's even more humiliating than waiting in line and then getting turned away," Crichton wrote.

Busch Entertainment Corporation spokesperson Damon Andrews acknowledged that theme parks are concerned about the trouble that some visitors are having.

"It's an issue we've recognized and we've tried to make accomodations where they've made sense," he told TPI in a phone interview earlier this year.

"On many rides, such as a Sky Tower, there's no need for individual weight restrictions," Andrews said. "But on a ride like a roller coaster, you are going to reach a point where you will have difficulty accommodating people over a certain weight."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2005 that the average weight for men aged 20-74 increased 25 pounds between 1960 and 2002, from 166 pounds to 191 pounds. During the same period, the average weight of women the same age increased 24 pounds, from 140 pounds to 164 pounds.

Kids are getting bigger, too. The CDC reported that the average weight for a 10-year-old boy increased from 74 pounds in 1963 to 85 pounds in 2002. Girls' average weight increased from 77 pounds to 88 pounds over the same period.

And as average weights increase, so, to, do body shapes.

"It's an issue of proportion," Andrews said. "Perhaps the top fits well on a ride, but the bottom doesn't. So that person really needs to see the ride seat beforehand, so that he or she can decide whether to ride."

Busch, like other theme park companies places sample seats at the entrance to selected rides, so that overweight visitors can try to fit themselves into the ride seat before taking the time to wait for that ride... and risking the embarrassment of not fitting in when they get to the load platform.

But sample seats are only ones of the accommodations that parks have made for larger riders.

"Depending on whether the ride manufacturer allows it, we've made accomodations ranging from extended seat belts to adding extra-large seats on some rides," Andrews said. "If, even with the larger seat or other accommodation, if we see someone still having a problem, we try, as tactfully as we can, to suggest that rider might not be able to go and to offer an no-wait admission on another ride."

The Walt Disney Company is making changes, too. Walt Disney World spokesperson Zoraya Suarez would not provide specifics in response to Theme Park Insider's query, but noted that "the diversity of our guests is one of many considerations in the design phase of our attractions."

Al Lutz reported on MiceAge earlier this month that Disney will next year rebuild the ride system of the It's Small World attraction at Disneyland to add larger boats and a deeper flume, to prevent what's become a common occurrence -- the 1960s-era boats "bottoming out" and coming to a stop, due to the excess weight of today's riders.

"The new flume will follow the exact same path as the original, and it will travel past sets that are in the exact same locations. But the extra depth of the new flume and the added buoyancy of the new boats should allow for several hundred extra pounds of churro-loving park visitors to pile into the new boats before they bottom out and bring the ride to a stop," Lutz wrote.

Some visitors aren't waiting for parks to design new seats and rides, however. They're using bad experiences with theme park rides as inspiration to make their own changes to, literally, fit in.

"I had the crappy experience this weekend of not fitting onto the Powder Keg at Silver Dollar City," wrote Theme Park Insider reader Becky Clubbs, on another discussion board thread. "I am now on a diet/weight loss program because not fitting onto theme park rides is a pretty big motivator for me."

Here is a sample of recent TPI discussion threads about weight issues:

Weight restrictions at Busch Gardens Europe
Weight limits for coasters at Busch Gardens Europe

Size issues at Busch Gardens Tampa?

Cedar Point Planning for a Big Guy
Are there any overweight Cedar Point Riders out there?

Need help! Question about Kennywood

Size limits (Six Flags Great Adventure)
Test Seats/Weight Restrictions (Six Flags Great Adventure)

Six Flags St. Louis for overweight riders?

Readers' Opinions

From brian lochridge on October 31, 2007 at 1:27 PM
This Kinda stuff drives me nuts!!!! Why are the Theme parks changing the ride systems because people can't control there weight. You are not entitled to ride the rides just cause you paid admission, if you don't fit, to bad. The parks shouldn't spend money changing ride systems and ride seats just to accommodate fat people. That leads to higher operation cost and in turn higher ticket prices for me since people can't push themselves away form the table. Accommodate Accommodate? why to the parks feel the need to accommodate people who have made a choice to be big. This is a slippery slope, once you start accommodating people on there personal choices it can lead down the wrong path.

I don't care it people are embarrassed to sit in the test seat, that's what there there for. If you can't fit in the ride and are to insecure to try the test seat don't complain. It's not your right to ride roller coaster. These people have made a personal choice to be overweight don't make the rest of us pay for it.

From Anthony Murphy on October 31, 2007 at 2:56 PM
I have though its never kept me off a ride! It seems to only happen on Wooden Roller Coasters at Six Flags Great America. Some of those are a tight fit! Never at Disney or Universal strangely enough!


You know, I know that I am heavy, but I do not need a reminder in front of strangers, probably the worst kind of embarassment at a theme park. Damm right they should change these roller coasters if they can. Either that or get test seats outside of the ride. The whole point is there is nothing like that. Also, I am a little heavy, but not morbidly obese and I do not fit too well in some of the roller coasters. Its a big problem and I think that the theme park industry needs to fix it for the future rides if at all possible.

From Robert Niles on October 31, 2007 at 3:47 PM
It's a business. And if a business needs to change its facilities to accommodate a changing audience... well, if that business wants to stay in business, it had better do that.

Sports stadiums are doing the same thing. Seat in a seat at Fenway or Wrigley, then compare those to a modern stadium like Coors. Modern ballparks, even the "throwback" designs, are huge, thanks to the need for wider seats, aisles and concourses. People from 2007 simply do not fit in seats designed for people from 1910.

Complain all you want. Lose the weight yourself, if you wish. But if you want theme parks to stay in business (and I certainly do!), then you ought to be pleased to see parks doing the things that they need to do to appeal to a larger number of customers.

From Phillip Florendo on October 31, 2007 at 4:17 PM
It's probably a good business deal to make room for these overweight riders to ride. If most of America is changing shape, it only make sense for businesses to want to accommodate them. Not that I agree with this. They should keep it the same and use it as a motivator to people to lose weight and fit in the seats.

There are a select few rides out there, though that do seem a bit small. My only size limitation, if any, is being too small at 5'2". But one type of seat in particular, Ghostrider at Knott's Berry Farm, seems tight. I'm surprised how anyone bigger than me (which is pretty much everyone) can ride in it.

From Claudine Deshaies on October 31, 2007 at 5:10 PM
I kind of agree and disagree with this idea.
There's a point where you're not going to change every ride over to "heavy duty" to accommodate everyone. There are certain rides that are weight balanced, such as swing rides and raft rides where you're not going seat a 400lb man across from two 75lb kids. I think they made that mistake at SFNE when it wasn't Riverside Park anymore and it wasn't called Six Flags yet. The raft flipped and someone was killed. You have to think of safety first.
Last summer when I went to PKD, a friend and I got on Ricochet with a man and his daughter. The man was very large and couldn't get the lap bar shut. The attendant came over and leaned on the bar with all her weight and got it locked. The man complained during the whole ride that his stomach hurt. The fact that the car was so small and he was so big actually made an otherwise tame ride quite scary.
Griffon, being a much newer ride, does have the middle seats to accommodate larger riders and it's not a safety issue since the middle seats are also the center of gravity on the ride.
I just don't think every ride can be made to handle more weight. It's not a discrimination thing as much as just plain old physics. I'm not a small person, but I do fit comfortably in the seats. Personally, if I found myself not fitting in them, I would try to lose weight and not expect the park to change for me.
From Brian L on October 31, 2007 at 5:33 PM
Like the guy said in the article, it is sometimes a "matter of proportion"; for me anyways. My butt region is just fine being able to fit in the seats, its just that i have a bodybuilders upper body and sometimes the shoulder restraints just can't get around my shoulders and chest. So sometimes its really not about weight. Its really not that embarrassing for me anymore since i know which rides at Busch Gardens Europe i can do...lot o trips on Apollo's Chariot is fine for me. I was able to do Griffon, but just barely, and it was quite uncomfortable. The B&M coasters may be forgiving on lower body, but ive had bad problems with their upper body standards...even tried the "diamond" lines and i still came off with a sore shoulder.
From Debra Niarhos on October 31, 2007 at 6:05 PM
Just another good reason for people to get their weight under control. No I do not think theme parks should make special accomadations for those who have problems with with weight.
From Lindsey Williston on October 31, 2007 at 7:32 PM
Even though I am not a large person by any means, I am feeling quite offended by the bone-thin prejudiced people that are looking down their stick noses as large people. Not everyone of them can "help" their weight. It doesn't always mean they "can't push themselves away from the table" As usual it are the sickly skinny people of the world who never eat who think they can have everything their way in the world and anyone different than them can suffer. If a theme park is willing to put extra large seats for bigger people in their rides then God bless them for recognizing the diversity of the world and keeping the parks family oriented. If you are ashamed to be in the same place as large people and are not compassionate enough to share the theme park then maybe you don't need to come. They made the lap bars and shoulder harnesses to keep the skinnies in their seats so a gust of wind doesn't make them fly out, and now they are thinking or the majority of body sizes in the world. Get over it
From Todd Harris on October 31, 2007 at 7:51 PM
It is not necessairily a matter of being over weight. Some people who work out their legs can have trouble with some seat designs, and body building causes an issue too. I have seen both be a big problem especially since the new rides were designed for smaller than average adults. I use to work in the industry, and I know that the systems have gotten smaller over the past 20 years.

People that have closed minds and only see things from one point need to think before sounding off.

From Iris Hernandez on October 31, 2007 at 8:43 PM
Back when i was skinny, i still always had a large "chest" area and it made it hard and sometimes painful to ride some rollercoasters...now that i am much bigger(mostly in the lower region) it gets a little uncomfortable, but i am willing to do anything to keep riding. Big or small, for me its still a pain in the butt. If the industry can do something about it, amen to that.
From Ashley Keene on October 31, 2007 at 10:08 PM
I had a friend whose motivation to lose weight was to fit in the Millennium Force seats... as much as it sucked that he couldn't ride them without changing, it was a great motivator.
From brian lochridge on November 1, 2007 at 6:39 AM
Robert I couldn't disagree with your comments more. It's not good business to spend millions of dollars to change a ride because a few fat people can't ride it. Yes America has a an epidemic of overweight people but most of those overweight can still fit on a ride. Like in most cases it's a small minority of hugely overweight people crying fowl. Think about it, it's not like there are hundreds of people being turned away every hour cause there to big to ride. Most rides fit 90-95% of park visitors, why then pay the money to get the other 5-10%. Those visitors won't make up the cost of changing the ride.

Also, the whole "not all of them can help it" excuse doesn't float. Maybe 2-3% of these people have a medical condition that causes there obesity. Your not going to make me feel bad by saying they can't help it.

From Dustin Kern on November 1, 2007 at 8:50 AM
This is a sad but true fact, Americans are getting fatter at an alarmingly faster rate than the rest of the world. The majority of people attending amusement parks and theme parks are not overweight. The reason parks are paying so much attention to them is that all it takes is one small voice to get the ball moving.

Does it bother me when I go to Busch Gardens and see the "larger seats" for overweight people? Yes it does because that just shows American culture is conforming to a problem in a way that it thinks is the best solutions. It's like putting a bandaid on a knife wound, it's only going to get worse. Next they'll be making every seat on every train to fit larger people. What happens to us average or smaller sized people? More injuries will start to show up, both in the average/small size Americans as well as the overweight. Reason being that the average/small size Americans will have too much room to move around during the ride and that heavyweight people will be crammed into a ride that their body isn't designed for. Not to mention, allowing them larger seats on a ride is only allowing this health risk to continue.

Lastly, all of these changes to accomodate are coming right back at us. With parks having to spend more money on "alterations," there goes their budjet for new rides. You know where they get all the money when their budjet runs out? Ticket sales, so not only are people getting fatter America, but everyone's wallet will only become anorexic because of theme parks and amusement parks.

P.S. - Before any retaliation comes my way, yes I have not fit on a ride before. I have plenty of friends who are overweight but they are all trying to do something about it because they want to be able to go out and do stuff again. If everyone works together, we can stop this issue of overweight. If someone's overweight, don't sit there and laugh or talk behind their back, be polite. They are intelligent and the comments don't help them. If everyone was a little more supportive, we could change a lot of things.

From Keith Rayment on November 1, 2007 at 9:50 AM
I'm chuckling at the image of 'lardies' wedging themselves into little carts having previously wedged their faces at not being able to say 'no' at the question 'you wanna go large on that?'. I'm 6' 5" and occasionally suffer on rides that cramp folk with extra height - whilst my girl suggests 'why should trim people rattle about in rides built for bloaters?'. Sounds fair to me.
Meanwhile, Scotland is apparently the second fattest nation in the world and I'm aware (as an Englishman) that they have few theme parks ...maybe they own their fatness better?
From Arica Woodhouse on November 1, 2007 at 10:07 AM
Not all people who have problems "fitting" are overweight. I know I'm not skinny, but I've never had a problem fitting in the seats, unless there are over the shoulder restraints. I have a large chest, and that is something I cannot help, or fix. I love roller coasters, though, so I'll deal with the pain they cause, but it really is quite uncomfortable. Wear a pair of DD's for a trip to a theme park, then revisit this with your comments.
From Robert Niles on November 1, 2007 at 10:44 AM
According to the CDC, 35 percent of American adults are overweight and 30 percent are obese. That means nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. And the trend is that those numbers are increasing. So this isn't merely an issue for a small number of overweight people.

Yes, most folks, even overweight and some obese ones, can fit on to many theme park attractions. But weight loads take their toll on ride systems. And being able to put just three people in a boat row, as opposed to four, for example, affects ride capacity and wait times.

The Small World example is appropriate. Perhaps it helps some readers to think about what Disney is doing not as an accommodation for "fat people," but as prevention for ride downtimes. Either Disney does that, or everyone continues to suffer through increasing downtimes... or Disney puts scales at the entrance and starts turning away people over a certain weight.

Roller coasters aren't the main issue here, to be frank. Sure, that's where you see the sample seats and plus-sized seats. But there comes a point where weight and body mass correlate strongly with the heart and circulatory problems that endanger people who go on high-G-force thrill rides. And seat sizes can be an effective way of screening out riders who would be at risk.

G forces are not an issue on dark rides, boat rides and in theater shows. Capacity and visitor satisfaction are. For *those* reasons, parks are going to have to deal with what is happening in society, and adjust in an effort to retain and expand their market share.

From Adrienne McDonald on November 1, 2007 at 11:13 AM
I agree with several posters here. And too, back when I was skinny, I have broad shoulders & I'm taller so although I fit great in the seat, I still got bruises from the OTSR and/or the seat in general since I was a female at her appropriate weight but with broad shoulders it still was a tight fit sometimes. I have long arms to so my arms usually end up outside the car rather than in. No offense to fellow overweight riders but since they're accomodating the NEW rides, wouldn't it be more costly to change older existing rides to accomodate? What about coasters like arrow or vekoma even some swartzkopf coasters that have certain size train cars. Again to reiterate about the physics comment, would that affect the ride or the layout/design, for safety & stress on the track if they had wider trains? Were the track layouts designed for those smaller type trains? (I just mentioned those companies since we all know how small/tight the cars usally are or can be.) I simply just lost weight since I got embarrassed once & that's all it took for me. I'm still wayy overweight but riding coasters is important to me so I decided for myself to just lose some weight so I can fit better. Even at sz 22-24 & 229 lbs, I only had real trouble on wooden coasters, the Georgia Cyclone is the one I couldn't fit in. The others I could shove myself into but it WAS uncomfortable. I know that there are some of us that either can't lose weight or may feel they can't (and YES I understand it may be personal choice so I'm not trying to throw my views on anyone or hurt anyone's feelings or tick anyone off) but seems to me there ARE plenty of rides available that CAN accomodate those who are of a larger size. I'm in a sz 16 now & can fit BETTER but would be better if I were smaller, at least a 12 which I probably won't get any smaller due to my thyoid condition but if I were able to lose more, I wouldn't have to work so hard to get into the seat & fix the seatbelt around me. Being smaller DOES make it more comfortable to ride. I do have to say but at least there ARE those rides that do accomodate. Just look at the ride & riders next time. Do you see anyone of a larger size riding it. Does it look like a larger rider WOULD fit. I'm sure there are places a person can watch the ride/riders for a few minutes w/o standing in line. That's what I did. That's why I didn't bother w/Apollo's Chariot, I knew the type of restraints were on it & thought my belly would hinder the fit so I didn't even bother. I knew I'd fit in the other coasters since I've ridden those types earlier at other parks. AP was the only one I was concerned with. I don't get angry at the park if I don't fit. It's not their fault I don't fit. That's just the way it is. I DO however agree that there should be tryout seats available at all the rides or at least the coasters. That seems to be the most popular ride at a park. Anyway, I hope I didn't tick anyone off by my input. It certainly wasn't intended if I came across that way. Thanks!
From Bradley Robertson on November 1, 2007 at 11:29 AM
While I do agree that accommodating larger riders from a business perspective is a might be a good move financially, socially I think it is a bad idea. All it does is serve to accept being overweight as the norm and that it's okay. I'll be the first to admit that I am not at my ideal body weight, but being a little under 200lbs at 5'8" also hasn't made it uncomfortable for me on any ride. As it is I already think harness on many inverted coasters are too large and my head ends up being banged around. There are some people out there genuinely have had a hard time losing weight despite honest efforts. It has been scientifically proven that overweight people have a hard time losing weight because of body chemistry. Genetically we are built to store fat. This goes back to when during a colder climate you may need to use that stored energy. However, our diets have changed dramatically and we now consume more calories and fat than is reasonable thus resulting in more storage.

Back to the financial aspect. The reason I say it "might" be a good move is because I have my doubts. Obese person much more likely to have heart problems. High intensity thrill rides may not be suitable for these persons. Does the potential for lawsuits from the families who could be hurt by a obese loved one being seriously injured or dying outweigh the possible financial gains. It's not a risk I would want to take, but that's also why I'm not a CEO.

Finally, I do agree all rides should have a test car or harness before you enter a line. People who can't fit the ride only slow down the line and cause embarrassment.

From Franki Brock on November 1, 2007 at 11:53 AM
I dont have a problem with having sample seats, not at all. I think that they are a great way to prevent humilation for over-weight guests. But, I do have a problem with having to change the roller coaster seats. I have never, thank god, had a problem getting into seats. I am 15, average weight, I have a large chest area, and a big butt too. I am a lot of muscle as I do cheerleading and swimming. If I couldnt fit into a ride that would encourage me even more to lose that weight!
From rafael g on November 1, 2007 at 8:52 PM
instead of changing everything, why not just change a car or two that fits just one person. for example, most roller coasters fit 2 people across, so make it where that row only fits 1 person across. so if the row fits 4 people, then you fit 2. now don't change all rows, just a few. that way the bigger people will feel better about not having to be embarrassed in front of everyone.

this idea could save a lot of money because they would only have to change a few cars, and not the whole ride system.

From Chris Wilkes on November 2, 2007 at 5:33 AM
The way I see it, this is a health condition issue. Regardless of whose fault it is- whether it is glandular or flat out overeating, obesity is a high-risk health condition... period. And if we have to make concessions for one issue, then do we have to start making them for all?
What about the pregnant women, the people with high blood pressure, the people prone to vertigo or motion sickness?
What about deaf people? Do we need on board sign language so they can follow a ride's story? What about blind folks? How about a running audio commentary on all rides describing what we're seeing in great detail? Do we have to start running around and making costly changes to all theme-park rides so that no one feels excluded or unable to get the same enjoyment out of them as everyone else?
It's a nice thought in an idealistic little theme-park utopian kind of way. But it is also totally impractical and threatens to hinder effectiveness of the rides to the majority.
Being more accomodating to diversity is one thing... but something like this really feels like it's opening the floodgates to people demanding even more similarly reasoned changes.
From vg fernandez on November 2, 2007 at 8:59 AM
as a big person(5'11 245 lbs) i never has problem in the universal and disney parks. but lets be real nobody wants a very big person(350+ lbs) seat near you or your children because you can think there are more porcentage of danger in this ride. the parks must make a more discret form to fit in the sample seats for example in hulk in IOA the sample seat is in the main entrace. nobody can be ashamed in this situation.

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