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Theme park cast member stories: Why you have to be 40 inches tall to ride Disney's Big Thunder Mountain

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Published: August 9, 2010 at 9:36 AM

You can't possibly think of a new way to get around a roller coaster's height requirement that theme park employees haven't seen before.

Lifts in the shoes? Seen it.

Spiked up hair? Nope, not gonna get ya through.

Standing on your tippie toes? Um, feet flat on the ground, please.

Begging, pleading, crying? Actually, we are the ones trying to help your child here.

That's because, as theme park employees working a roller coaster, we know what can happen when a too-short child rides a coaster.

Now, I'm start with a confession. In normal operation, we could take an infant on Walt Disney World's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and no harm would come to the baby. I worked with cast members who could eat a bowl of cereal while riding a test train on Thunder in the morning and not spill a drop of milk. So they clearly knew the ride well enough to hold a baby securely throughout. I don't doubt that some Disney fans could do the same.

But theme parks don't establish height requirements based on a ride's normal operation. They put those in place to protect riders in case of something going wrong on the ride.

By that, I don't mean a mechanical breakdown. I mean that something happens, usually because of a guest's actions, which disrupts the normal flow of operation on the ride. What happens when a child starts crying in a train, which prevents us from dispatching it from the loading station?

With no room in the station, the train behind on the track has no place to go. So it stops out on the course, on the final block brake. And with a train on that block brake, the train behind it has to stop on the third lift. And so on.

Those "cascade" stops happen in orderly manner, and probably wouldn't make an experienced rider spill his milk (or drop a child). But what happens when a guest panics, and tries to jump out of a train while it's on a lift? It's happened, and I've seen it.

In cases like that, the operator in the coaster's control tower does a "power disconnect," shutting down power to the entire track. Any train on a lift will stop immediately. But trains that have crested their lifts will continue running, propelled simply by the free fall of gravity along the track.

To keep those trains from running into one that might be stuck on the next lift, ride designers have installed what's called a "safety brake" in front of each lift. And that is what you do not want to hit if you are shorter than 40 inches tall, or pregnant, or have a back, neck or heart condition. A safety brake can take a train running nearly 30 miles per hour to stopped in about eight feet. It's a hard, hard stop.

After the ride shut down with trains on the track, no one ever wanted to be the one assigned to go check on the guests who'd been stopped in a safety brake. Only the most experienced Thunder operators were assigned that task, and even though I worked that location for a year, I never had enough seniority to draw that thankless assignment. (I always got sent to people stuck on a lift, instead.) But I heard reports from those who did about the sore, shocked and sometimes angry guests who had to endure the misfortune of hitting the safety brakes.

Still, I never knew anyone to be hurt from hitting a safety brake, as unpleasant as that experience must have been. To me, that's testimony to the effectiveness of Disney's boarding restrictions.

So next time a cast member, team member or theme park employee stops a too-short child from getting on a ride, don't criticism him or her, okay? Don't make them the bad guys. The more you know about how roller coasters work, the more you might appreciate the important work that the folks at the front of the queue do everyday.

For more stories about working in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, visit Stories from a Theme Park Insider.

Readers' Opinions

From 32.179.102.113 on August 9, 2010 at 10:06 AM
I was wondering..... because I have heard you say before at Disney you were not suppose to send out a coaster with a crying child.... what happens if the child was not crying at first, but upon start of the ride the child starts crying? Do they stop the ride for the child, or does the child just learn their lesson the hard way?
From Robert Niles on August 9, 2010 at 10:47 AM
If the train's out of the station, they're going through the ride, though we will watch in the monitors for signs that the child's trying to get out.

If the train's not out of the station, it's a judgment call if the train's been cleared for dispatch. Typically, the operator would stop the train only of s/he felt the child was going to try to exit the ride. (Once a train starts moving, stopping it shuts down the ride.)

The idea is to prevent a crying child from boarding the train. But if a child starts crying after boarding, standard operating procedure if to try to get the child's family to exit the train before it needs to dispatch. Only if they refuse - and the child keeps crying - would we have to hold the train, and run the risk of the cascade stop.

From Melissa Donahue on August 9, 2010 at 11:13 AM
All very interesting information, Robert. Thanks for sharing. It makes you wonder about those idiot parents who try breaking the rules to get their children on board or the ones who force a terrified child onto a ride.
From Anthony Murphy on August 9, 2010 at 11:27 AM
I know its bad, but my mom sometimes dragged us on rides crying. Then again, it was Alien Encounter (no real danger there) and Tower of Terror (could be a problem). Either way, we NEVER thought about leaving or escaping the ride while it was in motion.

I see that problem with the crying child, but where were they when they could have saved me?!?!?!?!?!

Good point on the height requirement. I always was curious on why some were really high and they had to go through health issues too. I mean Soarin has a bunch of requirements too and its one of the smoothest rides at WDW!

From Robert Niles on August 9, 2010 at 1:22 PM
The Soarin' height requirement comes from the evacuation system in place in case the ride units get stuck in their raised positions, from what I'm told. Perhaps a current or former Soarin' CM can provide details.
From Joshua Counsil on August 9, 2010 at 1:54 PM
Thanks, Robert. If only everyone entering a park understood this concept. Sure enough, every time I hear complaints about height restrictions, the whiner always has an opinion along the lines of, "It's not like my son will fall out of the train if he's an inch short. This ride doesn't even have any loops."

As someone studying mechanical engineering, I see this happen in all aspects of transport and dynamic attractions, and I haven't even finished school! I know people who refuse to fly because it's dangerous, but then tailgate cars by a foot while driving 60 mph. I know people that have gone boating while drunk, but refuse to bungee jump because the probability of death is too high. These designers know what they're doing. Yes, there have been deaths and injuries due to unforeseen circumstances, but they're pretty damn good at what they do.

From 32.179.102.113 on August 9, 2010 at 2:33 PM
When I rode the Free Fall at Six Flags over Goergia the first and only time..... If crying would have gotten me out of the ride at the top before we dropped..... I may have considered trying to make some tears come out.
From Amanda Jenkins on August 9, 2010 at 3:09 PM
Back in 1986, When we took our first big (every aunt, uncle, grandparent. cousin) family vacation (and I was in first grade), it amazes me to this day that my mom was allowed to keep me in her lap to ride Space Mountain. I have always believed and understood that there is always a point to any rules/regulations. Do people really have the right to complain? I would say No. With the internet, you can find out on your own if your child is the correct height to go on rides at a theme park.
From 69.14.216.42 on August 9, 2010 at 3:29 PM
Splash Mountain is the same way. On a normal ride, there's absolutely no reason you couldn't take a baby on it. However, if there happens to be an E-stop or a Power Disconnect while a log is going down the big drop, a brake at the bottom will activate and bring the log to a stop almost instantly. It doesn't happen often as the timing has to be just right, but I've watched it on the monitors in tower. You do not want to have a baby in your arms or a child on your lap if you happen to be in the log that gets caught.

I used to be really bothered by parents who would argue that their children should get to go on the ride even though they were too short. One woman once told me that she was a lawyer and would write a waiver to allow her kid to go. I thought it was terrible that as a 19-year-old college student, I was more concerned for the safety of these kids than their parents were.

From Raymond Sydowski on August 9, 2010 at 3:55 PM
This is why we have child swap tickets. Thank god for that.
From Michael Smith on August 9, 2010 at 6:29 PM
The worst thing in the world was having to deny a child that made it all the way through the line. Many times if we were short staffed, they would pull cast members from other areas to Space Mountain to be greeters(that was all they could do since they were not trained to operate the ride). Most of the time, these greeters would not enforce the height requirement because they either got too overwhelmed or they just didn't want to have to confront the guest and knew we would deal with it inside. These were always the worst parents to deal with. Most of them knew they shouldn't have gotten through, but they still felt like they should get to ride since they made it that far. I didn't often get irate guests that I couldn't calm down without calling management, but when I did get one of these inconsolable guests, it was usually due to this issue.

Parents just didn't understand why we couldn't just look the other way. In addition to the safety concerns of the child that Robert mentioned.. I was always concerned about the media and my legal liability too. Any little incident that happens at Disney is instantly a lead story in Orlando, and every bit of info possible is squeezed out of the story. If something happened to a child on a ride, the child's height is instantly going to be looked at by the press and by the parents legal team. In addition to protecting the child, I was also looking out for myself by standing firm.

From Dan Babbitt on August 9, 2010 at 8:54 PM
Things I've seen at greeter at the Tower of Terror:

Ketchup packets in kids shoe,

Wearing there mother or fathers shoes,

Tissue in shoes

Those are just some of the things I've had to deal with.

With a crying guest, especially with a child, its up to the parent if they want to ride or not. If the child is crying I will pull aside the family and see if the child stops or not. If there not to disruptive I will put them on the ride, with other guests and send the elevator. Now if the child is crying and cant com down but the family insists on going on and forcing the child on I will pull them aside and put them on there own elevator where the child can cry as much as they want. I will only do this though depending on wait time and time of day.

From Manny Barron on August 9, 2010 at 9:05 PM
This June I saw a family drag a girl(she was about 9 or 10) onto Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at DHS. Yeah she was big enough to go on the ride but she CLEARLY didn't want to get on to the point of begging her parents not to, since she was a bit older she was trying very hard to hold back her tears. Things got worst once she saw the take-off in the alleyway. They made her get on but seriously why would parents do that.

Anyway that emergency stop sounds wicked. A 30 mph train stopping in 8 feet! That is something i dont want to experience.

From Ty Mullins on August 9, 2010 at 9:42 PM
Now that I work a roller coaster and have to perform height checks almost daily, I can relate to Niles and all the problems that height checks create. I've been cussed out numerous times, threatened, and more, all because a parent's child doesn't meet the 48-inch height requirement. It's a pity that parents put a roller coaster ride before their own child's safety, and it's also sad that they lose their temper and use such a "colorful" vocabulary right in front of them as well. I've never considered an emergency stop being one of the main reasons for the height requirement, but next time I have to deal with a "Why can't he ride?", I may just have to use that answer.
From Rob P on August 10, 2010 at 12:29 AM
I think it's really good that the welfare of the rider is given such consideration.
Most of us will rarely admit to our , or our family members', limitations ( nod to Clint here ) and need to have a degree of "policing" to ensure that we don't overstep the mark.
It's so easy to get carried away in the fun at the Parks and it's only natural that we then push ourselves that little bit harder and might go on rides that we, maybe, shouldn't.
But if the rules try to protect you from yourself then I think that's a good thing.

The crying child issue is a tricky one. But the parents will often know already if their kid's a screamer. On rides like Tower of Terror it's nonsense to take a small child. Then there's the effect on other riders. How fair is it to make someone wait 90 mins in line and then have it spoiled by a crying child. Parents have be realistic and have respect for fellow riders.

Mind you I cried on Stitch's Escape. But only on the way out because it was so bad and it was 30 minutes of my life that I knew I'd never get back.

From Jason Jackson on August 10, 2010 at 4:47 AM
These are the same people who tell us they are willing to sign a waiver to ride a steel rollercoaster during a thunderstorm.
From 97.100.113.108 on August 10, 2010 at 6:00 AM
I once had a father say to me that he was willing to sign a waiver stating that if his child( that was two inches too short) got hurt or died on the ride he would not sue. We told him no.
From Thomas Caselli on August 10, 2010 at 7:59 AM
I don't get alot of parents. Rules regarding who can and can't ride certain rides are there for a reason and it is not the ride operator who makes up the rules, so don't take it out on him. Also, those who want to force their crying child onto a ride should be slapped upside the head. If you look at the alot of the accidents at theme parks, they happened because someone disregarded the rules or went into a place that he shouldn't have gone into.
From 98.217.92.251 on August 10, 2010 at 9:55 AM
I am a parent who is a true "rule follower" and one year, we knew our son was going to be "very close" to being the right height for Rock 'n Roller Coaster. Upon arriving at the queue we politely asked the CM outside to carefully measure our son. The CM did so and to my eye, my son just barely cleared the required height (and when I say just barely, I mean by the width of a sheet of paper). We asked this CM at least three times if she was sure that he was the correct height, knowing that he would be measured again inside. She assured us that he was fine so we set off to stand in line with mys on being so excited that he could finally ride. Low and behold, once we got inside, the CM decided that he was not, in fact, tall enough. Needless to say, my son was devasted that he could not ride and my daughter was very upset that he couldn't join her-it ruined the ride for everyone on that day and basically ruined the day.

As I said, we are rule followers and I agree that the height requirements are in place for safety reasons so while I understood, I just wish there was some consistency in the way chldren are measured. One full day of our vacation was ruined because of a CM - not at all a magical experience for us on that day.

From Ted Heumann on August 10, 2010 at 10:56 AM
As the father of 3 young children, I have never gotten upset about height requirements (disappointed, but not upset) at Disneyland. BUT at Knott's I was upset. Not upset at the employees (it's not their fault, they don't make the rules), but upset at management. At a time when my oldest son (who was about 6 at the time) was able to ride almost EVERYTHING at Disneyland, he was not able to ride a single coaster at Knott's. I understand that he can't ride on Silver Bullet (he still can't a few years later), but Jaguar (SERIOUSLY?!?). My son could ride on EVERY coaster at Disneyland (Space, Big Thunder, Splash, Soaring, just NOT CA Screaming), but NOTHING at Knott's, what's up with that?!?
From Robert Niles on August 10, 2010 at 6:36 PM
Consider Knott's keeping your son off Jaguar its contribution to his development as a theme park fan. What a waste of track that is.
From Pyra Dong on August 10, 2010 at 6:49 PM
OH gawd this article brings bad memories. I used to work as a ride operator in the kids area of Busch Gardens... and at the front gate where we would pre-measure the kids and give them wrist bands so they already knew which rides they were tall enough to go on...

AND ITS MOSTLY THE DARN PARENTS!!!!! DARN DARN DARN! I would measure the kids and if they were short, I always tried to sound very excited about the rides they COULD go on-- and they'd be very happy... but then the parents get mad about the rides their kids COULD NOT go on... and THAT'S when the kids start crying. (And yes, it doesn't help that BGT's rides were always compared to Disney's shorter height requirements)

UGGGGGH. i'm ranting and ranting and ranting!!!!

I really believe that every theme park has things to see and do no matter how small you are. It's not ALL about roller coasters.

From rick stevens on August 10, 2010 at 7:07 PM
Blasphemy! LOL.

My son was always big for his age so he met most of the height requirements early on. His maturity level was not commensurate with his height. I remember waiting in line at SM for over an hour. He was fine until we got up to the part of the queue where you could actually see the loading area. That is when he decided that this was not the ride for him...we exited. I hate seeing parents forcing their kids onto rides they are not ready for.

A part of society that no one has mentioned are the little people (or whatever the proper PC term is) of the world. Many of them do not reach the height requirement. I would love to hear their stories.

From 32.179.102.113 on August 10, 2010 at 8:48 PM
I can't stand the idea of a child being forced onto a ride they don't want to ride because the rest of their family wants to ride or someone in thier family thinks that is the way to make them like it. Although I have ridden plenty of roller coasters and rides in the past, I suffer from anxiety and the thought of already not wanting to ride the ride and then someone making you ride it just sounds horrible. I can imagine many times it does not result in a pleasurable experience for the child.
I appreciate parents like the guy who said he did not force his child onto Space Mountain even though he was tall enough and they had been waiting in line. Let people do things at thier own pace (the kid will probably grow older and decide they are ready for that later). One horrible experience could cause your child to not enjoy theme parks at all. I think it's important not being able to ride something is not something you allow to ruin your trip if your there with friends and / or family.... and I definately would not want to make a child feel bad for not doing something they don't want to. Besides, a child feeling independent enough to say they are not ready for a ride at an amusement park despite the pressure to ride should be rewarded with support because hopefully when pressured later in life to do other things (drugs, etc.) they will be able to be independent enough to say no despite the pressure.
From Rob P on August 11, 2010 at 12:07 AM
Sorry Robert but I have to disagree with you over Jaguar at Knott's. It's not the most thrilling ride out there. That's true. But I remember taking my sister-in-law to Knott's and getting her to go on Jaguar. A woman in her 30's who had never ridden a coaster of any kind was , understandably, not going to jump in on something like the Kraken or Hulk. So she rode it and gained confidence from it. Now she goes on most things .Maybe not Kraken or Hulk yet but you never know.
So rides like Jaguar DO have a place in the parks. They are the ones that encourage people, who might never have tried a coaster, to test the water.

As for the height restriction issue. If they installed one or two laser measurers (like they have in hotels and Nike stores) somewhere near the entrance then parents would have an accurate printout for their child that could be shown to the CM at the line.
It could also print the list of rides that the child was able to go on to save more time. Just an idea.

From Scott B on August 11, 2010 at 4:46 AM
Last year I took my daughter on Goofy's Barnstormer. She missed the height requirement by an eigth of an inch. The Disney Cast Member said, "Sorry, you almost made it." Then he looked at her sad face and said, "wait a minute." He leaned over, adjusted my daughter's hat by raising it a little, measured her again and suddenly she was tall enough to ride. "There, that's better," the guy said then he patted me on the back and then we went off on the ride.

That was almost a year ago and she still talks about the Barnstormer. We are going again in a few weeks (to celebrate my graduation from Grad School, any excuse to go back) and now she is ready to tackle Big Thunder Mountain! Oh and I measured her already and she is the proper height for the ride. So no hat adjustments on this visit.

From 65.47.250.230 on August 11, 2010 at 11:32 AM
Rocks, can you even think of a worse thing to put into your child's shoes to make them tall enough to ride? Yup, I saw that one time. As to height limits, size limits and other factors such as no solid casts; the ride manufactuers have rider requirements which must be enforced by the park or company operating the ride, according to ASTM standards and certain state rules. So some of the rides come into a park with the limiations that seem to restrictive but they are directly from the manufacturer and that would account for differences between seemingly similar rides if they are made by different companies.
It would be nice if parents would THINK for a moment that their struggling, crying child could hurt themselves worse trying to get out of a seat restraint then the apparent embarssment the parent suffers when they leave the line with their crying child. I don't know how many times I've heard a parent tell a child that they are an embarssment when they leave the line with their crying child; I'm thinking that was a smart mpve on their part.
From 75.220.75.230 on August 13, 2010 at 9:11 AM
I would imagine that the parks insurance companies require strict adherance to safety rules as well. There are people who would sue, even if they are the ones breaking the rules. One mistake by park employees could cost these companies plenty if the wrong person gets hurt.
From 96.255.101.170 on August 13, 2010 at 11:45 AM
As we all know, there are rotten, rotten parents out there. Last time I was at WDW (c. Sept 2002), we rode the Alien Encounter. Once the ride had started, I could hear a little girl (sounded like she was under 5) screaming bloody murder. And it is easy to tell when a cry is filled with terror. She screamed like that the entire time. At the end of it, i turned around to look, and the *%$#@! she was with was laughing his head off at her! she was still in full terror and he was laughing at her. Hope he still thought it was funny when she didn't sleep for 6 months or would never ride anything again! Seriously, what is wrong with people?

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