'It's like you're climbing the gallows': The 'walk of shame' some theme park visitors dread

·8 min read

There's a "walk of shame" many theme park visitors privately dread.

"It's like you're climbing the gallows," said Dan Becker, a self-described "big, friendly dad" known as Disney Dan on YouTube and across social media.

He remembers barely fitting into a seat on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal Islands of Adventure in Orlando during his honeymoon years ago.

"I was like my ideal wedding weight, and I sat down on Forbidden Journey, and the thing came over my shoulders, and I had to really squish down, but I clicked in, and I was like, 'I got it!'" he said.

While theme parks across America diligently post height requirements and potential health hazards for their rides, plus-size customers can be left to figure out for themselves whether they will physically fit in or face embarrassment.

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After putting on what he called his "Hogwarts 30, regular dad weight," Becker, who is 6 feet, 2 inches tall, wasn't sure he could do it again for a subsequent visit.

"I was like, time to intermittently fast because I don't know if I'm going to be able to ride it," he said.

That uncertainty is a reality for countless Americans who don't fit theme park rides due to their body size and ride configurations.

Becker shared his concerns publicly several weeks ago when Universal Studios Hollywood appeared to post, then delete a tweet that some critics considered insensitive.

"Even when he makes it, it's not something to celebrate," said Kevin Perjurer, Becker's friend and creator of the Defunctland YouTube series, which explores the history of theme parks. "He shouldn't have to do that in order to fit on the rides."

While Universal Studios Hollywood didn't comment directly on the tweet, Tom Schroder, vice president of corporate communications for Universal Parks & Resorts told USA TODAY: "All our attractions are designed to be as inclusive as possible within safety and operating guidelines set by the ride manufacturer."

"Obviously, (the tweet) was not meant to harm people," Perjurer said, noting that challenges with body inclusivity and accessibility are found at theme parks across the country. "I've seen people wait two hours for (a) brand new ride and have to get turned away because they don't fit, and it is the most heartbreaking thing."

Plus-size travelers are left to their own devices to figure out which parks can accommodate them

Annette Richmond, founder of Fat Girls Traveling on Instagram and Facebook, said she was "decked head-to-toe in my Gryffindor garb" when she was turned away from Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal Studios Hollywood.

The way that's handled can vary widely across parks.

"Unfortunately, it depends on the person (who's) working that day," Richmond said. "Maybe the person is like, 'Sorry, I feel bad you can't make it', or maybe that person is like snickering a little bit."

Recently, when a USA TODAY staff member wasn't able to ride Goofy's Sky School with her kids at Disney's California Adventure due to size, she said cast members profusely apologized and offered her whole family expedited entry to another attraction. The staffer did not identify herself as press, to avoid special treatment.

While some rides have height restrictions at Disney parks, including maximum height, there are no official weight restrictions. Disney refers guests to individual attraction webpages or guest services for details. No size limits are specified for Goofy's Sky School, but its webpage says, "The seating and restraints on this attraction may prohibit guests of certain body shapes or sizes from riding."

Richmond said the Fat Girls Traveling community has taken to "detective work" to avoid uncomfortable situations.

"People will literally send photos of their hips and like their measurements to say: 'Hey, this is what my body looks like. This is how much my hip width is. Am I going to be able to fit on this ride or that ride?'" Richmond said. "We need to figure out a way to make it more accessible for everyone or to let people know ahead of time, 'Hey, this is not going to work for your body' so that you don't get there and are completely embarrassed or feel ashamed because – not that your body is wrong – this wasn't built to accommodate you."

Knott's Berry Farm's website specifically says their rides' safety systems are "designed by the manufacturer to accommodate people of average physical stature and body proportion," and "guests of exceptional size may not be accommodated" on some attractions. That includes, but is not limited to, "guests who exceed 6' 2" or those who exceed 250 pounds (some attractions may have lower weight restrictions), have a 46" waistline or 54" chest." Signage is also posted at rides like Charlie Brown's Kite Flyer. The Southern California theme park is part of Cedar Fair Entertainment.

A sign posted at Charlie Brown's Kite Flyer at Knott's Berry Farm says the ride "may not accommodate guests of a larger size."
A sign posted at Charlie Brown's Kite Flyer at Knott's Berry Farm says the ride "may not accommodate guests of a larger size."

"Height and weight restrictions are in place for the safety of our guests," SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment told USA TODAY, saying that guidelines are "clearly posted at the entrances to rides" as well as online.

"The safety of our guests is always our number one priority," echoed Sandra Daniels, vice president of communications and diversity for Six Flags Entertainment. "Guests with certain body proportions or of certain heights and/or weights may not be able to enjoy certain rides if the safety restraints will not operate as designed." She said ride-specific details are noted in the Safety & Accessibility Guide on Six Flags' app and website.

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'The walk of shame'

Universal's Schroder said that in addition to information posted on its websites, "team members are always ready to help guests with specific questions," and "Many of our rides have sample seats and restraint systems near the entrance so guests can determine for themselves if they can ride comfortably."

Sample seats are available at various theme parks, but Becker says trying one out can be just as embarrassing as being pulled out of line.

"There's crowds of people around, and you're climbing up to be like, 'Guess the weight of the next guest!'" he said, adding that there are various opportunities for embarrassment along the way. "There's the walk of shame midway queue versus the walk of shame pre-queue, and then there's just the walk of shame when they have to stop the ride system" when people try to get on but cannot fit the ride.

He says warnings on park websites aren't always easy to navigate either.

"It's with a tiny little icon at the bottom of a really long list on the website, and you have to click into a separate PDF and scroll 16 pages down on this very small, hard-to-read PDF to slowly figure out, 'OK, with this ride, I have a 40-inch waist and anything above that, you have a hard time riding,'" Becker said.

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'Fat people are the majority of Americans'

Richmond, of Fat Girls Traveling, said "it's time" for theme parks to make rides more accommodating.

"Make things bigger so that bigger people can fit comfortably," she said. "Businesses need to step up and accommodate the majority of the population, it's time."

As of 2018, 42.4% of U.S. adults were either obese or severely obese and another 31.1% were overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That adds up to nearly three-quarters of the adult population.

"In our minds, we think, 'Oh fat people are the minority'; actually, fat people are the majority of Americans," Richmond said. "Diet culture puts so much pressure on us and so much negativity in our minds that we feel ashamed by that, and we don't want to accommodate the majority of people, but when we look at the size of the country ... more companies need to take that into consideration."

Perjurer, who studies theme parks for Defunctland, acknowledges older rides were not built for today's body sizes, but said the next generation of rides can be.

"I would like to see (an) acknowledgment from these companies that, 'Hey we're actually trying to do this,'" he said. "Innovate, experiment with the goal of getting more people on the ride."

He says the best rides are the ones everyone can ride.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Plus-size theme park visitors worry about fitting in, 'walk of shame'

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