Should kids and teenagers be allowed to visit theme parks without their parents hovering near at all times?
That's the question now raised by Knott's Berry Farm, which earlier this month implemented one of the industry's strictest chaperone policies, and then extended it to all nights of its popular Knott's Scary Farm Halloween event.
In effect, Knott's policy slaps the equivalent of the movie industry's "R" rating on the park. Actually, Knott's policy is even one year more exclusive that the movie restriction - no people under age 18 are allowed into the park without a parent or guardian over the age of 21.
Knott's had a compelling reason for its new policy. Fights between what appeared to be unaccompanied teens forced the Orange County, California theme park to close early in a Saturday night this summer, following other disruptive incidents involving teens in the park. Banning those involved might keep those individuals out of the park, but it does little to prevent future events by like-minded people.
By many accounts, the problem at Knott's wasn't gangs or anything like that. It was social media. Teens were staging fights for views on their social media accounts, then gleefully recording the aftermath as those not in on the scheme panicked and ran. There's no practical way that Knott's could have banned - or would have wanted to ban - people using their mobile phones to record inside the park. Positive social media is an effective form of publicity for businesses, after all. So it was the unaccompanied teens that Knott's chose instead to target.
The policy seems to be working as intended, with no reported incidents since then and families and older visitors spreading the word that wait times are down and the atmosphere is more calm without the unaccompanied teens and kids. Now, plenty of young visitors keep coming to the park. It's just that Knott's policy requires them to stay within the presence of their parent or guardian at all times, who presumably will keep them from doing anything disruptive.
But, as a kid, I cherished those first moments of social freedom that I could enjoy when my parents let me set off by myself inside a park. On Boy Scout trips, I wandered around Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and SeaWorld Orlando on my own while I still was in middle school. Then as a parent, I thought that theme parks were the perfect sorta-urban environment in which to allow my kids to do as I did and learn how to navigate a crowd while remaining in a controlled and contained space. I would hate to see that opportunity lost forever if every park in the industry moved to adopt Knott's policy.
Yet I also understand why Knott's has implemented the policy it has. Allowing kids to bolt once a parent or guardian (or older friend) gets them through the gate creates a massive loophole through which plenty of social media mischief can be shot. The idea is not just that young visitors come to the park with responsible adults, but that those adults also continue to supervise them.
Do not overlook the legal meaning of that word "responsible," either. By requiring the adults to stay close, that puts them in a position to assume liability for their young companions. Presumably, adults would have more assets that Knott's parent Cedar Fair could target in a legal action, should the kids in their care misbehave while visiting. That creates another compelling incentive for those parents and guardians to do their job and keep their kids under control.
Beyond all this, I don't know what to say. I'm happy that people are enjoying Knott's more now that this policy is in place. I wish that the idiots who enjoy recording, or watching, a near-riot would forget that theme parks exist and would never bother visiting one again. And I hope that, some day, young theme park fans again will have the opportunity to explore, discover, and fall in love with Knott's, on their own terms.
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