Theme park cast member stories: Why you have to be 40 inches tall to ride Disney's Big Thunder Mountain
Published: August 9, 2010 at 9:36 AM
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.