Should Theme Parks Be 'R'-Rated for Safety's Sake?

August 18, 2022, 5:23 PM · 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 Berry Farm

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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Replies (18)

August 18, 2022 at 6:20 PM

The Question: "Should kids and teenagers be allowed to visit theme parks without their parents hovering near at all times?"

The Answer: No

August 18, 2022 at 7:29 PM

Yet another example of our society catering to the lowest common denominator with the behaviors and actions of a few bad apples ruining it for the majority of those who know how to act and behave without supervision. It’s a sad state of affairs where we are excluding groups from participation because of a handful of morons.

Theme parks should be welcoming places for people of all ages and backgrounds, but should also not serve as a catalyst or outlet for holliganism.

August 18, 2022 at 7:32 PM

What are the activities that children (under 18) are unable to enjoy when they are accompanied by an adult?

August 18, 2022 at 8:27 PM

it depends on that persons relationship with the adults in their lives. some teenagers can do plenty of things with adults, and adult family members. others do not have that privilege and it’s a bummer that their experiences, and those that simply enjoy the independent experience Robert speaks of, are losing out.

August 18, 2022 at 8:49 PM

Well, the Tunnel (or Peoplemover) of Love is a lot less fun when your parents are around...

August 18, 2022 at 8:51 PM

Robert, the restriction you have posed in your question appears to be much more restrictive than Knott's policy. It is also totally unenforceable. You have described the Knott's policy as requiring a parent or guardian being in the park. This is a far cry from requiring someone "hovering near by". My answer is "yes" to Knotts and "no" to yours.

August 18, 2022 at 9:51 PM

Knott’s requirement includes signing a waiver when you buy your tickets which makes you liable for the action of any minors in your party. So, the idea is that you “helicopter parent” your minors while in the park with them.

August 18, 2022 at 11:04 PM

I think some form of chaperone policy is a good idea for any park, but I feel the policy Knott's put in place is an over-the-top knee-jerk reaction that is just too extreme. In particular, I take issue with the requirement that chaperones must " remain with their party at all times," as that seriously infringes on the ability of everyone in a group to enjoy their visit. For example, if a parent can't ride something the kids want to ride, or there's a sizable age range within the party, it makes it difficult as the group can't split up so everyone can do what they're interested in. There's also the question of what removing independence from kids may cause to happen developmentally. It seems that allowing them to wander a safe environment such as a theme park alone would be beneficial, and if they know that their parents will be summoned the second they step out of line, that should be enough to keep most children in check. Additionally, I also find it a little discriminatory that someone who could drive to the park alone or work at the park alone cannot in turn visit the park alone.

For me, a fair chaperone policy would read something like this: "Guests must be at least 16 years of age to visit the park alone. Any guest under 16 years of age or who cannot produce a valid ID confirming their age must be accompanied by a responsible chaperone 21 years old or older. The chaperone must enter the park with their party, remain in the park for the duration of their party's visit, and be reachable by mobile phone at all times while in the park. If a minor is found to be violating park rules or disrupting the experience of other guests, they will be required to remain with their chaperone for the duration of their visit. Minors found in the park without a chaperone will be ejected without refund."

August 18, 2022 at 11:20 PM

Does seem Knotts stricter than other places on this. Myself, I was about 17 when my mom finally let me really explore Disney World on my own but can understand some parents more worried, especially these days. Still, seems it's more Knotts concerned about liability etc to make harsher and it is sad some idiots can spoil it for so many others but not sure I can see Disney or Universal being as strict as this.

August 19, 2022 at 2:44 AM

"I was about 17 when my mom finally let me really explore Disney World on my own but can understand some parents more worried, especially these days."
What do you mean especially these days? Is the world more dangerous for kids to be on their own these days? Is there any evidence of that?

August 19, 2022 at 9:51 AM

To me it seems these kinds of things happen in cycles. Teems do stuff, rules get made, stuff stops, rules drop, and after a few years... repeat as new teens find new stuff.

Personally I don't have any issue with an R rating. The idea of being dropped off at a park (whether that was to hang out with friends or because my parents used it as child care) seemed like something you just didn't do. Even as a teen, unless you were in college, a parent had to be present.

August 19, 2022 at 10:46 AM

I was wandering theme parks by myself from 7 years old. My parents walked SO slow, and I wanted to get stuff done and get on as many rides as I could.

I think it's sad that instead of going after the kids involved in the fights, Knott's is punishing everyone under 18 (I'm 47; this isn't about me when it comes to Knott's new policy, but it's about what is right). It's not the kids that are the problem as a whole, it's just a few people that Knott's is overreacting to.

Did Disneyland require chaperones for adults after that fight in Toontown? No. It's one of those things that sometimes happens when large groups come together in a stressful situation (and let's face it, visiting a theme park has become stressful).

It's not the rules that need to be changed; it's the security response and ability to intervene or involve law enforcement that needs to be looked at.

August 19, 2022 at 12:07 PM

It's an interesting question. I loved being dropped off as a kid, unchaperoned, with a sack lunch and directions to return to an exact pickup location at an exact time. But I also realize not all junior high kids are as responsible as I was, nor do all parents train their kids as well as mine did. Knott's Scary Farm can get pretty rough on crowded nights, and honestly I would never drop a minor off there without knowing they were part of a responsible group. I've seen multiple fights break out on a single night before. With the crowds it usually takes security longer to get there than the fight does to break itself up.

August 19, 2022 at 1:46 PM

I think it's a very smart move, because it shows the world that Knotts cares about maintaining a family environment. My mom started dropping me off at Six Flags over GA when I was 12 or 13, and had no worry that I'd be safe. Today I don't go to Six Flags at all, if I can help it, because it's so scuzzy and often feels unsafe.

By protecting their reputation as a family park, Knotts may one day again open its gates to unaccompanied kids. Once you lose that reputation, you're on the slippery slope to become another trash park.

August 19, 2022 at 2:40 PM

Easy, how about enforcing rules and laws. Get rid of soft on crime policies and actually put people in jail and keep them there!

August 20, 2022 at 11:22 AM

Mr. Torrance, they've proven time and again that a more severe sentence does not have a deterrent effect. It's cognitive dissonance--people don't see themselves as someone who would go to jail, so they don't fear jail sentences. Same effect with smoking cigarettes, the threat of death doesn't stop people from smoking because they aren't the kind of person who would get cancer. You can google this stuff.

August 20, 2022 at 11:30 AM

Easy solution : tickets and pass holder terms and conditions if you cause, participate or if you are in even in an area of disturbance whether you participate or not , you lose your security deposit of $500 and are banned. Collect $500 up front along with several profile photos and thumb prints! Then have all you areas covered with security cams with roving security bots and automatic water sprinklers. Haha ??

August 23, 2022 at 7:43 PM

A security deposit isn't a horrible idea. Similar to what hotels and car rental places use. It helps keep a lot of trouble out of hotels as someone who works at one can confirm. I would actually be for it myself.

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