Are they right to be?
“This is not a park for fat people,” a social media poster said.
“I’m a thick woman. Just wondering now if I will be able to ride,” another question.
“OWA people are ignorant,” slammed another.
The 21-ride Park at OWA, which opened Friday, issued a response to its ride restrictions earlier this week. Those restrictions amounted to suggestions that “guests of larger size” might not be accommodated for certain rides.
But it’s the descriptive nature that got park’s operators, Creek Indian Enterprise Development Authority, into hot water. Specifically, the park stated that guests who exceeded 6 feet, 2 inches in height and weighed over 225 pounds and had a 40-inch waistline or a 52-inch chest, could face restrictions.
The restrictions went further by singling out women who weigh 200 pounds or those who wear a size 18 or larger.
“It is pretty much at the discretion of any particular park on the variety of their restrictions,” said Martin Lewison, an assistant professor of business management at Farmingdale State College in New York, who researches the theme park industry. He also visited The Park at OWA on its opening weekend.
“Often the restrictions are fairly descriptive. But it’s usually pertaining to things like ‘you must be able to hold on with two hands,’ which they would be referring to prosthetics. Normally, you’ll get kind of generic language where it says that ‘guests of a certain size’ or ‘body type’ may not fit into this ride.”
The Park at OWA, in a statement released Tuesday, acknowledged it had received inquiries into its posted rider safety restrictions. The statement reads, “It was never our intent to offend any person or group by the language in our rider safety restrictions. Restrictions implemented by The Park at OWA are provided by the ride manufacturer to ensure the safety of our guests and employees.”
The statement also specifies which guests can ride on some of the park’s thrill rides, including its featured attraction, the Rollin’ Thunder roller coaster.
“Guests must be able to utilize all safety restraints and devices as designed by the manufacturer. Guests must have the ability to maintain the proper upright position and riding posture during the entire ride operation. All passenger restraints, including lap bars, shoulder harnesses, and seat belts, must be positioned properly and fastened tightly to allow guests to safely enjoy the ride.”
The restrictions are nothing new for the amusement park industry, though long-established facilities like Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim do not post any specific height or weight restrictions.
Some parks do. At Cedar Point in northern Ohio, the same language that was posted on OWA’s website is published with their literature specifying height and weight restrictions for female guests.
At Alabama Splash Adventure in Bessemer, all rides and water park attractions are designed to accommodate guests of larger size, unless the ride is considered a true kiddie ride, said president Dan Koch.
But the park does not have suggested restrictions based on gender.
Koch said that generally speaking, if a guest can fit into the restraint system of a ride, they are allowed to continue. Only in cases of extreme obesity, he said, is a guest precluded from riding the park’s rides.
The park’s signature attraction, the Rampage Roller Coaster, allows riders as short as 48 inches and up to 6 feet, 8 inches in height.
“At that outer limit is basically an NBA player,” said Koch. “We have plenty of 300-pound plus riders who get on the Rampage Roller Coaster. In fact, I cannot recall ever having a guest not being able to ride Rampage because they were 6 feet, 9 inches.”
Theme parks, nationwide, have included additions and designs to address heavier guests. For instance, tester seats are sometimes installed near the entrance of a ride’s line allowing guests to check to see if they can physically fit into it. Some ride manufacturers will add wider seats to accommodate bigger guests.
Collen Mangone, a spokeswoman with the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions – a trade group representing amusement parks – said that most parks provide information regarding size and disability restrictions through “signage, printed or web materials and model ‘test yourself’ seats at the start” of the ride’s lines.
“The manufacturers establish the guidelines and restrictions for attractions,” she said. “Restraint design is typically based upon a 95 percentile physical profile to comfortably accommodate the vast majority of a ride’s population segment.”
For The Park at OWA, the restrictions were based on the manufacturer requirements, which suggests that “guests of particular body types may not be accommodated.”
Lewison said the manufacturer for OWA’s rides is Zamperla, based out of Italy, which does have an American division and also operates Luna Park in Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Their No. 1 concern is really guest safety,” he said.
Tragedy involving heavier riders has happened on amusement park rides before. In 2013, a 52-year-old woman in Texas died on a Six Flags roller coaster ride leading investigators to wonder if her weight contributed to her fall from 75 feet.
In 2004, a 55-year-old man fell to his death at a Six Flags in Massachusetts. State officials determined the man died because he was not properly secured in his seat because he was so overweight.
The deaths, which become headline news in the media, sometimes prompt Congress to consider implementing federal regulations on the industry. Thus far, the amusement park industry is not regulated by the federal government.
Instead, safety guidelines are often left up to the states. Alabama is one of only a few states in the U.S. without regulations or a regulator agency in place to inspect amusement or carnival rides.
“This is an incredibly safe industry,” Lewison said. “As you know, when something goes wrong, we hear about it. But we don’t hear about the millions upon millions of ride cycles when nothing goes wrong. The accident or injury rate is incredibly small.”
Mike Galvan, a suburban Chicago resident and self-described roller coaster fanatic, wrote a guide about seven years ago for larger guests at amusement parks.
The 33-year-old is a regular contributor to the 15-year-old SFGAmWorld, a fan site for Six Flags Great America north of Chicago.
He is also a formerly “overweight guy” who experienced what he calls the “walk of shame” in which he would discover – upon sitting in a ride after waiting in line to get on it – that he was too big to continue with the experience.
Galvan said his experiences helped encourage him to lose weight so that he could continue with his life’s passion of riding roller coasters. He said he’s ridden over 250 of them.
He said he’s monitored the controversy at OWA, and has taken sides with the park operators.
“It’s unfortunate some people have taken it the wrong way,” said Galvan, adding that he believes the descriptive restrictions were most likely written by the ride manufacturer and not the park. “Could it have been presented a little different? Maybe. But it’s hard to say, ‘hey fat person, you can’t ride this ride.’ You can’t say that. But it’s tricky to try to include everyone who may be a certain size or something like that without hurting someone’s feelings.”
Galvan said he wants to try out the Rollin’ Thunder in Foley someday soon. He said he can understand why they park wants to be extra cautious with people who experience a roller coaster that features plenty of dips, inversions and corkscrews.
“I don’t think the park was trying to be malicious or nasty,” said Galvan. “When you have a new multi-million dollar coaster like the Rollin’ Thunder, you want to make a return on your investment. You want people to be happy about it.”