Size Matters: Theme Park Attractions and CX

Theme parks are aimed squarely at families, but when the rides can’t accommodate the different size and shape of each family member everybody loses out.

A day at the park

So yesterday my daughter and I were at Hersheypark, my favorite non-Disney theme park.  We were in line for the Great Bear, a suspended roller coaster that gives me the willies but makes my eleven-year-old nutcase of a daughter giggle with delight every time she rides it.

The Great Bear

The Great Bear at Hershey Park. “You wouldn’t be afraid of it if you weren’t so old,” my daughter declares. Thanks.

Like all suspended coasters, the safety restraint system on the Great Bear consists of a rigid, padded harness that comes down over the rider’s head and connects to a vertical seat belt in front.  It’s a pretty tight arrangement and doesn’t have much flexibility for people who are tall (like me), wide, or deep.  The Great Bear does have one seat that’s made with a double seat belt and larger harness, but even that seat is the same width as the others.

We stood in line positioned in the special row with the special seat that better accommodates my six-foot-two height, and we watched as a family of four in front of us boarded.  The middle-aged mom in the group tried to sit in the larger seat, but the rigid plastic seat wasn’t wide enough for her hips.  She tried to make it work, but eventually gave up and had to exit the ride. She despondently left the boarding area, heading to the exit to wait for her family in the hot August sun.

Enjoy your ride, sardine!

In the row behind that family, a group of campers from a special needs youth camp was boarding.  One teenage boy who was a bit on the heavy side tried to sit in a regular seat, but he couldn’t get the seat belt to reach the harness.  His camp counselor tried to help but couldn’t get it.  A ride attendant came and tried to force the harness down, then she called for help and another attendant tried to help, and eventually a third attendant came and all three of them threw their weight behind the harness. The whole time the boy was visibly embarrassed that he didn’t fit the ride.

Eventually the strength of three grown adults was sufficient to close the harness in position, finally crushing the boy’s abdomen enough to make the belt connection.  The counselor saw that the boy was pretty uncomfortable, squashed in a harness that was too small. The counselor successfully lobbied to have him moved to the larger seat that had just been vacated by the middle-aged mom.  He was able to ride more comfortably, albeit in a row without his friends or counselors.

Neither of these guests was an extreme example of the human form.  Why were they humiliated and made to feel that they were too wide or fat to ride with their family or friends?

Size by the numbers

While there are lots of sources for median and average heights and weights, it took a bit of research for me to find data that gave me a better picture of the distribution of height and weight among Americans.  The numbers I’m using for this article come from the 2007-2008 data from the United States Center for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), For that survey, NHANES included just under 10,000 participants, so the data gets a little fuzzy at the far edges.  I’m focusing on adults between 20 and 80, not because younger and older people are unimportant but because the NHANES data doesn’t have enough participants in those age ranges to give us good information. NHANES also breaks the data down by decade of life: 20-29 year olds, 30-39 year olds, etc.

For the sake of simplicity I’m going to focus on the data for 40-49 year olds, both because that’s my own age range and because our group tends to be the heaviest and (almost) the tallest.  For the straight-up numbers, I’m also going to focus on males, because we tend to be both taller and heavier than women.  Although they fall into a narrower range for height and weight, women have more variations in body shape; I’ll talk later about how that impacts the ride experience.

How tall is tall?

Heights of American males aged 20-79, as of 2007-2008 (source: CDC NHANES)

Heights of American males aged 20-79, as of 2007-2008 (source: CDC NHANES)

I’m just under 6′ 2″ tall, slightly down from my peak of 6′ 3″ in high school. For my age range, that places me at the ninety-second and a half percentile.  In other words, 7.5% of men in my age range are taller than me.  Only rarely have I seen an explicit upper height limit posted on rides (and that was for 76″, or 6′ 4″), but there’s definitely an implicit limit on any ride that has an over-the-shoulder harness safety system.  Based on my own experience, I can reasonably say that 6′ 2″ is pushing the upper limits of many ride restraint systems.  My sixteen year old son is a very skinny 6′ 4″, and he already avoids some rides because they’re uncomfortable.

In my own age range only one in a thousand men are taller than 6′ 6″, but in the 30-39 age range that number becomes half a percent, or one in 200.  So, even designing for 6′ 6″ will exclude a significant part of the audience.

How short is short?

Heights of American females aged 20-79, as of 2007-2008 (source: CDC NHANES)

Heights of American females aged 20-79, as of 2007-2008 (source: CDC NHANES)

At Hersheypark, the largest height requirement on any ride is 54″, or 4′ 6″.  For adults age 20 and up, the NHANES data only goes down to 4′ 10″. A statistically insignificant number of men are below 5′ 2″ in height, while for women 1.7% are shorter than 4′ 10″ in the 30-39 group, then that percentage jumps to 3.3% in the 70-79 group.  From this data, we’re unable to estimate how many women fall below the 4′ 6″ threshold, but extrapolating what data we do have suggests that the number is less than 0.1% among women in the age 20-69 range.

How heavy is heavy?

It’s no secret that Americans have been getting heavier. However, the distribution of weight across adults surprised me.

Weights of American males aged 20-79, as of 2007-2008 (source: CDC NHANES)

Weights of American males aged 20-79, as of 2007-2008 (source: CDC NHANES)

As a reference point, the water slides at Hersheypark’s Boardwalk water park accommodate visitors up to 250 pounds on a single raft.  On the two-person rafts that number increases to 400 pounds total, but realistically a 350 pound rider probably doesn’t have a 50 pound companion, so let’s call 250 the number.

In my 40-49 age range, 11.3% of men are heavier than 250 pounds.  In the 50-59 range that number jumps to 12%.  Even at 400 pounds, however, we still have 0.5% of men who are heavier!

Weights of American females aged 20-79, as of 2007-2008 (source: CDC NHANES)

Weights of American females aged 20-79, as of 2007-2008 (source: CDC NHANES)

Even for women, that 250 pound cutoff leaves 4.5% of those in my age range out in the cold, and that number jumps to 5.8% in the 30-39 range and 7.1% in the 50-59 range.  Sorry mom, no ride for you.

But isn’t obesity bad?

I know, I know, we’ve been told all of our lives that obesity is bad, fraught with health risks and negative consequences. However, that’s not the point.

We’re talking about theme parks and the guest experience, and theme parks are about creating wonderful experiences for people, not limiting them because of their physical size or shape.  Even if you’re a hardcore believer that obesity is a failure of will and character (and there’s lots of evidence that it’s not), it’s just bad business to alienate and embarrass a significant segment of your customer base.

And hey, walking is great exercise, and most people who visit theme parks do a lot of walking.  If you’re a theme park operator and truly interested in helping to combat obesity, make it easier for people to visit and enjoy your park!

The shape of the guest

Height and weight by themselves don’t describe the entire range of human morphology.  The reality is, we’re all different shapes.  For men, we tend to follow a similar plan, and as we add excess weight it tends to turn into belly mass first and spread out from there.  For women, however, we have terms like “apple-shaped” or “pear-shaped”, and weight distributes in many different ways.

And let’s be blunt: those different shapes disproportionately make things tougher for women on these attractions.  Do you have wide hips?  Good luck with those rigid plastic seats that seem designed for teenage boys with skinny legs.  Got big boobs?  Enjoy the constricted breathing experience you’ll enjoy when the overhead harness crushes your chest.

Disney seems to manage this challenge best; many of their ride vehicles use bench-style seating rather than hard plastic form-fitting seats, and when they have overhead harnesses on rides like the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster they are generously large.  Why don’t other parks and ride manufacturers understand that people come in such a wide variety of sizes and shapes? Some manufacturers in particular (I’m looking at you, Intamin) really seem to target skinny people of average height in their designs.

Friends and family are part of the experience

From a business perspective, it might be perfectly reasonable to declare that 1%, 5%, or even 10% of the target audience just isn’t for you. Sure, you’ll lose the revenue opportunity from those folks, but you’ll make plenty of money off of the rest.

But here’s the thing about theme parks:  friends and family are a critical part of the experience.  Most people attend theme parks in groups, not by themselves, so the impact of the excluded population is much larger than that population alone.  Mom doesn’t like the safety harness crushing her chest on the roller coasters?  Junior is too tall to enjoy anything with a restraint system that comes over the shoulder?  Oh well, I guess the family isn’t going.

When my daughter and I finished on the Great Bear and walked past the mom who couldn’t fit in the seat, it was a sad memory for her, her family, and even us as observers.  Theme parks are about creating happy memories, not sad ones.

You can’t exclude part of a family and expect the family as a whole to enjoy the experience.

Design for the edge cases

We expect the operational life span of a roller coaster or other “E ticket” ride to be not years but decades.  That makes the engineering challenge of designing a roller coaster that much more difficult, but it’s not impossible.  Ongoing studies like NHANES make it possible to extrapolate population demographics based on decades of existing trend data.

What should the goal be?  An operations specialist might include the engineering, manufacturing, operating, and maintenance costs of each attraction.  But that’s looking at it from the wrong angle.  The goal should be to create the best experience and accommodate as many guests as possible without making the attraction unsafe, impractically expensive, or impractical to maintain.

In a perfect world every ride would accommodate every single human being in the world for the life of the attraction. But okay, I’m not unreasonable.  I recognize that engineering certain rides for larger guests can make it harder to ensure comfort and safety for smaller guests, and that building a track to handle fifty people at 200 pounds is much easier than building a track for fifty people at 400 pounds. So where do we draw the line?

Pulling numbers out of nowhere, I think it would be reasonable to design for 99.9% of adults through age 70.  Why should healthy senior citizens be denied their fun?  Not only that, but I would aim for 99.9% of adults based on projected height and weight data 20 years in the future.

Yep, that’ll be me one day. And that’s one thoughtful dragon in a turtleneck.

I don’t have the extrapolations handy, but even designing for the 2007-2008 data would require that rides handle guests up to 6′ 6″ and 420 pounds. Even at those extremes, that still leaves out 0.4% of women in the 20-29 range on the basis of weight and 0.5% of men in the 40-49 range on both height and weight; I just don’t have enough data to extrapolate all the way to 99.9%.

Including the exceptional makes you exceptional

Our society treats people at the upper bounds of height and weight as exceptional, but rarely in a positive way.  They expect to be excluded from things like theme park rides, and that’s a bad thing.  By intentionally designing a park’s attractions to accommodate a broader range of body shapes and sizes, each theme park has the opportunity to stand out.  Doing so will not only increase the love and loyalty shown by the exceptional guest, but will create appreciation and loyalty among the guest’s family and friends.



Interested in keeping in touch? Sign up for our newsletter.