Dear theme parks, it’s time to get on board with size-inclusive roller coasters
Roller coasters may have been my first love. Growing up, I gravitated to that feeling of the wind whipping through my hair, my feet hanging above the ground and seeing for miles from the top of a coaster before that inevitable drop.
County fairs, the small theme park Magic Springs near my hometown, Silver Dollar City, Six Flags, SeaWorld, Disney World ... I grew up obsessed with riding every roller coaster I was allowed on. It was as close as I could get to flying.
That all changed the first time I visited Universal Orlando as an adult.
After waiting in line for almost two hours and settling into a seat on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, I was confronted with a horrifying realization: I didn't fit on the ride. After a couple of attempts to get the locking mechanism to click into place and being told it was just short, I was forced to get up and follow a ride attendant to a side room — with all eyes of the other passengers fixed on me.
I'd never felt more embarrassed or ashamed in my life.
And as I continued to be turned away from other coasters at the park throughout my time there, that feeling only intensified. My favorite experience in the world quickly turned into one of the most dreaded. The excitement I used to feel as the coaster flew down the tracks has been replaced with anxiety I'm forced to push through just to get in line for any roller coaster or thrill attraction.
It's that anxiety that followed me to Disney World in Orlando this past week as I tried out its newest rollercoaster: Tron Lightcycle / Run. Unsurprisingly, given what I'd heard from others who had previewed it before me, I could not ride the standard cars for this brand-new coaster.
In 2023, theme parks are still making rides that a large segment of the population can't fully enjoy, and it's time for that to stop.
Tron Lightcycle / Run was not made with different body types in mind
I've been looking forward to the unveiling of the Tron Lightcycle / Run coaster, located in the Magic Kingdom, since it was announced in 2018.
Despite my concerns about whether I'd be able to ride, I jumped at the chance to attend a press preview event with Disney to test it out ahead of its April 4 grand opening. For full disclosure, Disney paid for my flights, hotel room and park tickets for the event. Disney did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Walking up, it looks fantastic. The coaster tracks are covered by an awning that lights up at night, and you walk directly beneath as riders fly by overhead to get to the ride entrance.
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The queue inside the ride is equally (if not more) impressive, with on-theme lighting and an immersive ride terminal where you hop on your "lightcycle" ride car. However, that's where my experience started to go downhill.
The rumors I'd heard about the restrictive — and sometimes incredibly uncomfortable — ride car turned out to be true.
My understanding is that the ride is essentially a carbon copy of the Tron coaster at Shanghai Disneyland, which opened along with the park in 2016. The standard seat for the ride is a lightcycle bike that mimics the vehicles in the "Tron" movie. You straddle a bike seat and get into position on your knees, lean forward and pull back on the handles until the back of the seat locks into place behind you.
For taller or plus-size riders, the size and design of the ride vehicle can cause a real problem.
The leg holds where you insert your knee and shin are on the small side — I couldn't fit my knee inside without considerable pain, and my shin wouldn't fit in at all. A metal bar also comes in behind your calf to lock your knee in place on the bike. Without that bar locking in place behind your knee, the back of the seat won't move forward into place to keep your upper body in place.
I spent more than five minutes trying to situate myself in a way that would let the seat close behind me. I couldn't make it work, no matter how hard I tried, and I wasn't alone in my struggles.
Those with a body height, weight or general shape that didn't fit the mold that this seat was made from had extreme difficulty — including taller riders and those with larger calves or hamstrings.
To its credit, Disney did provide an alternate ride vehicle in the back for those unable to ride or uncomfortable riding the bike-style seats.
However, the alternate seat isn't available on every ride group and requires an additional wait off to the side once you get through the standard queue, where you'll potentially have to separate from your ride group and have a longer wait time.
Adding an option for those unable to ride the standard car is nice in theory, but it outlines a continued problem we see in the design and implementation of new roller coasters: Size-inclusivity is still oftentimes an afterthought or a nice-to-have rather than a key design element of the core attraction.
Tron is only the latest example of a lack of size inclusivity on roller coasters
While the newest example, Tron Lightcycle / Run is far from the only roller coaster or attraction at major U.S. theme parks that isn't size-inclusive.
Elsewhere at Disney World, Avatar Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom are both notoriously hard for park visitors who are plus-sized. (The PhotoPass on that ride perfectly captured exactly how enjoyable Mine Train was for me during my recent visit while the restraints dug into my leg hard enough to cause bruises.)
This isn't just a Disney thing; Universal Orlando has more than its fair share of issues, too.
Most of the rides within the Wizarding World of Harry Potter aren't size-inclusive, including Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Hagrid would be turned away from his own ride, which is equally ironic and infuriating.
Jurassic World VelociCoaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and even The Incredible Hulk Coaster are also not very size-inclusive — though I am personally able to ride VelociCoaster and Hulk most of the time. Hulk even has a row of more size-inclusive restraints with extenders — which seems like proof that they could have built the entire ride to be more size-inclusive if they'd wanted to.
The argument in favor of Universal Orlando is that they at least have test seats on most, if not all, of their coasters so that you can avoid waiting in line if you won't be able to ride.
But while a nice effort in some ways, those test seats are all still out in the open, meaning you get to experience the joys of struggling to fit into the seat while the rest of the park watches. Plus, at rope drop, even a two-minute delay to check the test seat can mean the difference between waiting 10 minutes for a ride and waiting two hours.
Many other parks, such as Six Flags, are notorious for not being size-inclusive. There are entire Reddit threads, social media accounts and blogs dedicated to helping plus-size theme park-goers navigate which coasters they'll be able to ride.
Size inclusivity has to start during ride design and manufacturing
A different ride vehicle tacked onto some coasters isn't a real solution. To be successful, size inclusivity has to be a consideration at the very beginning of ride design conversations with engineers, designers and manufacturing companies.
Teams of engineers and designers at a theme park work together with a manufacturing company to conceptualize and build new attractions. For example, Walt Disney Imagineering and a company called Vekoma designed and built the original Tron Lightcycle / Run in Shanghai. During those initial design decisions, size inclusivity should be addressed if theme parks want to be serious about being inclusive.
And this doesn't just affect plus-size riders like me. Rides with over-the-shoulder restraints can be uncomfortable or painful for otherwise "straight-sized" people with larger busts. Taller riders can have difficulty with enclosed ride cars if they don't have ample legroom.
We know size-inclusive coasters that cater to a variety of body types are possible — they already exist.
Expedition Everest is a really fun coaster at Animal Kingdom that is much more accessible to larger passengers comparatively. Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Epcot is an absolute blast to ride, and all of its ride cars are inclusive. While I'll admit Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios isn't the most size-inclusive example, I can easily fit as a size 20 adult woman who holds a lot of weight in my midsection — and that coaster even goes upside down.
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I love roller coasters, but I never considered that as a healthy woman in my mid-20s, I'd be excluded from getting to enjoy these rides ... until I felt the immense shame and embarrassment of being escorted off of Gringotts after the lap bar lock was too small several years ago.
It's possible to design and build fast, stomach-churning rides that allow passengers across a broader spectrum of heights, weights and builds to enjoy the experience. We know this because they exist.
A ride attendant at the Disney Tron preview event told me that, by his estimate, nine out of approximately 40 riders that day had to step aside to ride in the back car. That's obviously a nonscientific sampling, but it was nearly a quarter of all riders during that day. If your roller coaster excludes anywhere near one-fourth of people who could otherwise ride, there's an issue with the design, not with the riders attempting to enjoy themselves.
Thrill-seekers who spend their time and money going to theme parks — no matter what height, weight or body type — should be able to enjoy the feeling of flying through the air that I fell in love with as a little girl.