Let's talk about height restrictions on theme park rides

September 26, 2018, 12:57 PM · 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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Replies (15)

September 26, 2018 at 1:21 PM

Thank you very much for putting pen to paper after the request. Sincerely, bbann230.

September 26, 2018 at 2:17 PM

Why don't people just measure their kids at home so that the kid knows what to expect and they don't have to deal with these stresses at the parks?

September 26, 2018 at 2:56 PM

Hey, there were times when my kids were one height when we left for the vacation and a measurably different one halfway through it! That makes "going for it" when it's close tempting for some.

September 26, 2018 at 4:04 PM

Nice piece, Robert. Although I don't have kids and didn't begin to frequent theme parks until the year before I turned 60 and consequently never had to deal with these issues, I appreciate the thought and insight that went into writing this.

September 26, 2018 at 7:40 PM

Robert, how do you talk with your child and the ride operater when the child goes to the doctor and he or she gets his or her height and then the next week go to the ride and the attendant states he or she is not able to ride but he or she meets the requirements according to the doctor visit that had just taken place.

September 26, 2018 at 10:22 PM

At Holiday World they will measure kids near the park entrance and give them a color coded band (coated paper bands) if you choose. Then the rides correspond to the colors so both parents and kids can tell what rides are good for them. This was very nice for our kids and takes all the checking and rechecking out of it.

September 27, 2018 at 1:32 AM

No one talks about maximum height issues enough. Disney is good with their guests in that sense, but the big thrilling roller coasters at other parks often have maximum height restrictions which is unfortunate.

September 27, 2018 at 8:30 AM

As a parent with a child that's slowly progressing through the various height restrictions, the most annoying thing is when different parks have different height restrictions for the same exact type of ride. For instance, my son really caught the roller coaster bug on our trip to St. Louis and Chicago back in 2016 when he rode his first looping roller coaster, The Demon at SFGA. The custom Arrow-looper north of Chicago has a height restriction of 42", yet virtually every other Arrow-looper in the country has a height restriction of 48". My son rode the Demon at least 12 times while we were at SFGA, but when we got back home, it was incredibly difficult to explain to him that just because he could ride The Demon, he still couldn't ride other smaller, non-looping roller coasters (including dinky wild mouse coasters and medium-sized wooden coasters).

A similar issue happened this summer when we went to Cedar Point. After going on Twisted Timbers earlier this year, which has a 48" height restriction, like every other RMC on the planet, my son was super excited to ride Steel Vengeance at Cedar Point until we found out that the Sandusky park had put a 52" height restriction on the record-breaking coaster. We spent much of the summer checking his height at various parks to see if he could clear 52" before our early August trip, but he ended up being about a half an inch shy. After racing to the coaster at rope drop, we walked to the measuring stand at the front of the line, and as expected he couldn't pass, and subsequently threw a fit about it. He'll almost assuredly clear the 52" barrier by next year, but this summer has been really frustrating trying to explain to him why he can ride certain roller coasters (like Millennium Force), but cannot ride others (like Superman Ride of Steel at SFA).

I understand why the restrictions vary from ride to ride and from park to park (state to state), but try telling that to an 8-year old kid.

September 27, 2018 at 8:48 AM

At cedar point when I worked there a couple years back you could take your kids into prak ops and they would measure your height and give you a bracelet so you would know what you could ride. I think they still do that

September 27, 2018 at 12:40 PM

What's really fun is getting your child measured at the entrance of the park and getting a wrist band that clears her to ride certain rides, but then getting rejected by the ride operator, even those she has a wrist band indicating that she can ride it. You argue, but to no avail. So then you have to go ride other rides and come back when there's a different ride operator on order to ride the ride that you were previously cleared to ride.

September 27, 2018 at 2:22 PM

To 173.169.99.130,

If I was working at a ride, measured a kid using a height stick and the kid wasn't tall enough to ride, I'm not the one who's going to be putting the kid on the ride. If the kid gets hurt, I'm liable for allowing the kid to ride when they weren't tall enough.

I don't care if the family doctor themself was in the station with the family. If I measure and the kid doesn't reach the height stick, that's all that matters.

I'd recommend they go to a guest service location to get measured, as well.

September 27, 2018 at 9:21 PM

I think that, as a parent who had a child who was 39 and three quarter inches tall on a recent trip to Disney world, I would just say that at times the height measurement felt a bit arbitrary. With shoes on, he was right at 40 inches, but if he slouched even the slightest bit when being measured, he would appear to be a tiny bit too short. Throughout the trip, it was very frustrating when he would be permitted to ride something one day, and then be denied it the next. I guess that what I’m saying is that, if a child is a quarter inch too short for a ride, the cast members should have the ability to wave him through. It’s hard to believe that those few millimeters really are the difference between safety and danger.

September 28, 2018 at 9:49 AM

How is this an issue? The requirements are put there for safety, which should be every parent's priority. Do people really get dramatic over this?

September 28, 2018 at 12:18 PM

How many people have their children wear shoes that "lift" them up to meet the height restrictions?

September 29, 2018 at 4:17 PM

I've been kicked off rides after enduring the line a few times because I'm too tall for them. Maximum height restrictions suck

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