A reader yesterday asked me about theme park attraction height requirements and enforcement. As a kid, height sticks intimidated me as a test I could not study for and could do nothing to pass. As a parent, I felt that stress even more intensely watching my kids step up to be measured, knowing the anxiety that experience caused me as a child.
But as a theme park employee and ride operator, I learned the importance of height requirements in protecting guests from what are, at their core, enormous pieces of dangerous and unforgiving machinery.
So, yeah, this is a tricky issue. Theme parks and their operators have a responsibility to protect their guests from physical harm. But I think they also bear some responsibility to steer them away from emotional distress, too. After all, people come to theme parks to have a good time — not to get stressed out by things such as whether or not their kids meet height requirements.
That's why I applaud theme parks that handle measuring kids pro-actively. Don't leave this to the load station, after kids and their parents have gotten excited for a ride and waited in its queue. For me, the best way to handle height requirements is for parks to provide a station near the park's entrance where kids can get measured and find out which rides they can go on in the park.
Spinning this as a positive is key. When get measured on a ride-by-ride basis, the answer is either "yes" or "no." But at a central measurement station, the answer is always "yes." It might not be yes to everything, but it's always going to be yes to something. (Unless every ride at the park has a height restriction, of course, but that's not the case at any major theme park.)
Yet safety demands redundant checking, so a park can't leave height measurements to one employee at the park entrance. When I worked Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, checking that riders were 40 inches tall was a team responsibility. Sure, there was a height sign at the queue entrance, but Disney's Imagineers had included hidden signposts throughout the station — handrails and decorations placed exactly 40 inches from the floor, to be used as a visual reference so everyone on the crew could check kids in the station.
After even a short while working a height-restricted attraction, you get to be an expert at sizing up a child's height. You don't need those signs and sticks anymore to tell if someone is too short to ride. But the parents who don't trust your judgment do, so that's why they are there.
Many theme park fans know by now that parents and caregivers can do a "child swap" if kids in their group don't meet the height requirement. One adult stays with the kids who are not riding, while the other goes on with those who are. Then the adults switch, so that both get a chance to ride.
Back in my day on Thunder, we handled child swaps in a clumsy, low-tech way. The non-riders had to wait at unload, buffeted by the departing riders in a cramped space, waiting for the rest of their family to go through the queue and ride. It's so much better today on rides where parks have invested in child swap waiting rooms, where kids and the caretakers can relax with games or videos, waiting in a pleasant environment instead of fighting crowds.
The only kid I ever saw having a good time waiting on a child swap at Thunder was Billy Joel's daughter, Alexa Ray, who got to play with a few of the women on the Thunder crew on a grassy patch in a backstage area with a great view of the final scene of the ride, while her dad and his bandmates rode. Such are the perks of celebrity. (This anecdote betrays how old I am, given that Alexa Ray is in her 30s now.)
Ultimately, it's up to attractions employees to handle child measurements with sensitivity. This is where experience matters so much, which is why I always support pay raises for theme park employees, so that they can afford to stay on the job long enough to earn that experience. Experienced operators prevent downtimes, increase capacity and manage guest expectations and emotions, creating a better experience for everyone. Pay raises that retain good ops employees pay for themselves, and then some.
Again, an experienced operator knows if a kid can ride before he or she steps up to the sign. If you know the kid is going to pass, then set up the triumph. Encourage the kid to get measured... and make their old sibling get measured, too, especially if you sense that older kid will tease the younger for having to get measured. Then congratulate the kids for "passing the test" and wish them well.
It gets much trickier if you know the kid is too short. That's when I would try to be proactive, to intercept the family before they got to the sign and suggest the child swap option or something else in the area. If the parents demanded a measurement, I always would crouch to meet the child at eye level, smile my most reassuring smile, and try to chat up the kid about how much I love playing on Tom Sawyer Island, and "have you gone over there yet?" Then I would stand up and deliver the bad news to the parents, not the kid.
Ideally, the parents would take the hint and head over the island, or at least whisk the kid away to unload, blaming me for not getting to ride, if they wished. However, some parents decided to fight the call. This is never, ever successful and only makes your kid feel worse in the end, so, please, do not be that parent. Trained to defuse guest complaints at all times, if a parent demanded to enter the queue with their too-short child, we would let them pass. But we would phone the station to let the crew there know a too-short kid was on the way, so that they would intercept and measure them in the station.
Too-short kids are not getting on the ride, no matter what. By delaying that rejection, parents who challenge employees over this are only going to end up with a crying, angry kid at the load station, instead of enduing a moment of disappointment at the queue entrance, immediately followed by moving on to something fun to do.
Theme parks impose height restrictions not because kids below that height are too short to fit on a ride or enjoy it. Heck, in normal operation, babies could go on Thunder and some other coasters safely. Height and other restrictions protect riders in case something goes wrong, such as the stopping on a safety brake or having to be evacuated. In those, rare cases, people under the designated height can be at extreme risk. So don't take the chance. Respect the park's height and safety restrictions, trust the operators, and follow their lead to find the best experience for you and your family when you visit.
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