By Lesley | November 15, 2010
I am a theme park person. By this, I mean that I am a person with a certain affinity for theme parks. A thorough knowledge, you might say. A special interest bordering on fixation. I have mentioned this on the travel-themed Fatcasts, especially as it relates to my emphatic adoration of Disney World. I am not, truly, a Disney fan in the general sense, as I have seen and heard proper Disney fans and their passionate regard for all things Disney makes my own feelings look downright cold by comparison. But my knowledge of Disney theme-park trivia is broad and varied and consistently surprises folks who tend to think of me as about the least-Disney-like person they know.
I am writing, at present, from the idyllic vacationland known as central Florida, home to Disney World as well as the less-interesting (to me, anyway) Universal-owned parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Until this weekend, I haven’t been to either of the Universal parks for a decade at least; they’ve always struck me as less fully committed to the forced smiley-face insanity of the Disney parks, and while the Disney employees and fans (often the same thing) have fully drunk the happyland Kool-Aid (myself, glassy-eyed and sedated, included), Universal has always felt a bit more contrived to me. Doubtless, on one of my many childhood trips to the World I was injected with some virus that floods me with an opiate-like euphoria in the presence of a particular fiberglass castle, or a certain geodesic sphere.
We went to Islands of Adventure last Sunday on the prompting of my in-laws, with whom this vacation was taking place. They wanted to see the new HarryPotterland, being fans of the source material. The big new attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, is a purportedly groundbreaking thrill ride that melds motion-simulation with a track-mounted KUKA arm. Just trust me when I say that this is a big nerdy deal in thrill-ride technology.
As it turns out, when this ride first opened, some park patrons had… problems. Fit-related problems. To be blunt, this brand-new ride was remarkably unforgiving to even those with mediocre fatness, or to some women with sizeable racks. In order for the ride to operate, an overhead restraint system must lower to a certain point. Racks and bellies alike interfered, and many sad fatties were denied their ride based on safety concerns.
Which is valid, certainly — no thrill ride is worth risking life and limb over. But the required dimensions seemed, based on reports, to be unexpectedly specific. After all, there are thrill rides in many theme parks that accommodate fat riders just fine — rides far more aggressive in their abuse of physics than the motion-simulator based Harry Potter ride. Thus, the ride’s rather precise limitations were surprising for an attraction that would have broad appeal to lots and lots of park guests. Forbidden Journey’s size issues were enough of a problem, with hundreds of would-be riders being turned away every day, that in September Universal was compelled to modify the restraint system on certain seats to handle more flesh.
I knew all of this going in, including that there would be special fatty lines for the modified seats, though I couldn’t find any straightforward assessment of how the fat-checking actually worked. Would I have to self-identify as a Fat? Would I be marked and pulled from the line by appearance? Even though I was pretty certain I would not qualify even for the modified restraints, I felt compelled to run through the process to bring the experience to y’all, my faithful readers. And so, here we are.
Immediately outside the ride entrance are two test seats. The idea is to lower one’s corpulence into the seat and pull down on the restraint while watching the status lights on the apparatus. If one can pull the restraint down until the light glows green, said person is fine for any of the ride seats. If the light only hits yellow, you’ll be needing a fatty special. If it stays red, you’re too fat for this shiz, porky. Go get another butterbeer. The test seats were host to a small fatty convention, as folks took their chances. My husband succeeded in getting a yellow light. My light flickered yellow, briefly, but seemed to prefer red. Well, we were getting in line nevertheless, to play this bitch out.
The ride queue is elaborately themed to various sets from the films, and was nearly-empty at the time we were there, so luckily the wait was not long for the final fat reckoning. Coming up to the ride loading area, there was a set of turnstiles manned by a park employee, and just beyond was another set of test seats, with their own special attendant, whom, in the spirit of the context, I am calling the Sorting Fat. As we waited at the turnstile, I watched as the sad-faced female half of a couple was denied a yellow light and escorted to an exit door shrouded in darkness in the background. Even now, I am not sure if these folks were self-selecting or if the Sorting Fat was pulling people from the line. I may have been able to bypass this test and gone directly to the ride — where I probably would have been booted anyway. So instead I hesitated near the test seats while the Sorting Fat, a slender, kind-faced, and fair-complected youth in the requisite Harry Potter hat and robe, returned from having escorted the last set of too-fats through the exit to Potterland oblivion.
We both spoke at the same moment. Awkward. “I was asking if you were waiting for me. I guess you are,” said the smiling boy who would be passing judgement on my ability to be flung around by a giant robot arm. Into the test seat I go; it fits my hips fine, which is usually where my fit-troubles lie. Arms up, the restraint is lowered. Through the padded U-shape of the restraint, I watch the eyes of the Sorting Fat flicker from the light status panel to my face. With a surprisingly genuine expression of regret, he says, “I’m sorry, you won’t be able to ride today.” Today! As if there is hope for the future! As I disengage my enormousness from the test seat, I immediately wonder at the sensitivity training this kid has probably had. I can almost imagine him going home at night and weeping a few silent tears for the fats whose theme park experience he has been forced to blight so. I am on the verge of asking about the extent of Universal’s Be Nice To Fatties training, but my husband had flung himself confidently into the test seat for a second check. Oho, but he is stuck at the red light as well! Even though he had yellow at the ride entrance! Joined in too-fat-for-Harry-Potter-ness as we are in matrimony, together we are escorted to the exit, which does not lead to a den of giant spiders hungry for human flesh, but rather to the gift shop.
I round the corner as the Sorting Fat holds open the door, and then double back, touching him on the arm. I ask his name, and for the first time he looks a bit nervous. “Keith,” he says. Keith did a wonderful job, I have no problems with him. What I have a problem with is the need for Keith’s position in the first place. For myself and my husband — who groused the rest of the day about Universal’s extreme volume of suck — the denial was annoying, but not something likely to ruin our trip. We are both more likely to blame the ride’s lack of capacity than to internalize the guilt and shame of our collective failure to fit in, especially since I have never been sized out of a ride before. But for the park guest who is unprepared for ejection, this experience could very well be devastating and humiliating, the ruin of a trip meant to be an escape from the sharp reality of everyday life.
I live in metro Boston, and Massachusetts is one of the more slender states in the US, so I am usually the fattest person in the room in most circumstances, and I’m quite accustomed to that. In these southern theme parks, however, the fat is plentiful, and I spent the better part of the remaining day noting which of my fellow guests would also be denied entrance to the Forbidden Journey. Certainly, when it comes to vacation plans, you pays your money and takes your chances, and nothing guarantees that you won’t have a bad experience. But even for me, a person pretty well insulated against self-loathing, the experience of being sized out of this one ride rendered me uncharacteristically reluctant to check out other rides for the rest of the day. I didn’t want to repeat it, you know? I had the distinct impression that I was simply being tolerated, and not welcomed, and given the price of admission that left me more than a little resentful of the faceless entity that is Universal’s theme parks division. I felt unusually self-conscious, and if that was my reaction, I can only imagine the effect on people who lack the tools I’ve developed to cope with this sort of experience.
The next four days were spent in Disney World, where I have never been sized out of any ride, even if the seats in the Hall of Presidents are a little snugger than I’d like. I’d love to tell you that Forbidden Journey was an awesome ride and that Universal has taken steps to improve accessibility for a diversity of sizes, as many thrill rides do. Alas, the attraction’s name proved just a bit too literal for me.