You’ve probably seen the headlines by now. Jessica Cox, a woman who was born without arms, was denied riding any moving attractions at Universal Orlando on a trip back in November 2015. She is not someone who takes “no” for an answer lightly, as she is a licensed scuba diver and even a licensed pilot. Theme Park University has covered many issues regarding riders with disabilites and how they can (or can’t) visit a theme park for years. In Jessica Cox’s case, the issue isn’t as cut and dry as you may think.
For starters, let’s clear up a few misconceptions. Jessica Cox will never make a dime from the actions being taken against Universal Orlando. There has been an administrative complaint filed against the resort, which means that if she does win, she will only receive a change in park policy.
Secondly, this is not an easy decision of right or wrong. The issue becomes more complicated than you may think and, after speaking with Jessica Cox, I can see both sides of the story.
“It’s unfair to have a blanket rule for all of their rides at Universal,” said Cox in a recent phone interview. “I have no restrictions on rides at Disneyland, yet when I visit Universal Studios, I have to sit in a non-motion seat for an attraction like Shrek 4-D.”
Indeed, Cox can and has ridden anything from California Screamin’ to the Mad Tea Party at the Disneyland Resort. Disney doesn’t currently have restrictions on people with no arms in its United States theme parks. However, there are limitations on various attractions for those with prosthetics and those without legs.
A lot of these restrictions actually stem from an incident that happened in July 2011 at Darien Lake. Sgt. James Thomas Hackemer, 29, was ejected from the 208-foot-tall Superman Ride of Steel. The veteran was missing all of his left leg and most of his right one, as well as part of a hip. His death lead to a swift reaction from not only theme parks but ride manufacturers as well.
Manufacturers of most theme park rides now list requirements that include limitations like height, but also on how many natural arms and legs a rider must posses in order to ride that attraction. These restrictions also suggest discouraging those who are pregnant, have a bad back or heart conditions not to ride as well. At the end of the day, it is up to the park to enforce manufacturer recommended restrictions.
In the case of Universal, they decided to make a blanket rule to every single ride they operate. This includes the provision that you must have at least one fully-functioning arm to be able to board any ride vehicle that moves in the park after this incident. That same rule is currently in place, which includes attractions with moving seats like Shrek 4-D.
To be fair to Universal, their Rider Accessibility Guide is easily found online and a visit to the park is not required to find this information. As a matter of fact, you can find the accessibility guide fairly quickly for most theme parks online, including Six Flags, which also gives nearly the same restriction Universal does. It states, “Continuously grasp with at least one upper extremity while maintaining yourself in an upright position while seated.”
Also to give a little history for Universal. How about the 2014 case regarding the Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster at Universal Studios Hollywood? In Castelan vs Universal Studios, two gentleman claimed that the park was violating the ADA by not allowing two men to ride the attraction. Neither of them had the manufacturer requirement of one functioning arm and leg to ride the Mummy when the park previously had allowed it. The judge ruled in favor of the park and it became a landmark ruling for the theme park industry.
Another thing to keep in mind is, rider safety is not a federal issue, it is a state one. Meaning the ruling in California isn’t binding in Florida, but it can certainly hold weight. Take, for example, a court complaint in New Jersey where a fourteen-year-old boy was denied access to all rides at Six Flags. In that case, a judge ruled that Six Flags was both in the right and in the wrong. When it comes to manufacturer guidelines, the park can indeed restrict riders based on manufacturer recommendations. However, if no such recommendations exist, the park has to prove actual risk and shouldn’t base rider restrictions on assumptions.
Which can be tricky for theme parks. If an assumption is made that it is unsafe to ride an attraction for someone without arms, it isn’t easy to test that theory out until someone gets hurt. Sure, the manufacturer may not have a provision in the rider safety guidelines stating someone without the proper appendages shouldn’t ride, but then again… prior to 2011, they rarely included them until an incident occurred.
Theme park incidents have ramifications far beyond those affected. Sure, there could be families grieving, court battles and even money exchanging hands. In addition, consumer confidence always dips every time there is an incident at a theme park regardless of circumstance. Generally speaking, theme parks are viewed as places where everyone is always safe and happy. Any time that dynamic changes, the park can be viewed as unsafe for years to come. Consumers rarely forget theme park tragedies. Just ask any ride attendant that has worked any attraction that has made headlines over the last few years if they get comments on a daily basis.
According to Jessica Cox, not all people without arms are created equal. For example, someone who was born without arms may have more strength in terms of mobility than an amputee who is still learning how to live without one or more of their limbs. At the end of the day, what Cox is looking for is for riders with disabilities to be treated as individuals, which can be tricky from a theme park perspective.
Gauging what someone can or can’t do based on their disability is a slippery slope. “If I can fly an airplane with my feet, why can’t I ride a roller coaster?” has been posted on Jessica’s social media and that question does not make sense. Both actions can be considered courageous, but doing one certainly doesn’t mean the other is safe. For example, Sgt. Hackemeyer could have said the same thing before he rode Superman Ride of Steel at Darien Lake before he fell out of the attraction.
All of this boils down to two words: “what if?” As a park operator, you have to create restrictions based on rider safety and sometimes that is an assumed risk. For example, while it may be perfectly safe to ride a particular roller coaster without arms, what happens when you have to evacuate the ride? More often than not, you’ll have to pull yourself out of the car when it is at a tilted angle (going up a lift hill) in order to exit.
Sure, it is possible EMTs might be able to help someone with no arms out of the ride vehicle? Yes. Then “what if?” creeps in with situations like what if the ride stopped while going up the lift hill and there was an impending thunderstorm? Steel coasters can act like a lightning rod and while the coast may have been clear at the time of dispatch, by the time an EMT arrives to help it may not be safe for them to access the stairs to evacuate. You can’t plan for every single scenario that could happen, but if it’s possible, as an operator you absolutely should.
Now it comes down to: as an apples to apples comparison, why can’t Jessica Cox ride equivalent rides at Universal Studios that she can at Disney? For example, if she can ride the Mad Tea Party at Walt Disney World, why can’t she ride Storm Force Acceleration at Islands of Adventure? Change may happen as a result of the motion that has been filed… and it could also have the opposite effect that Cox desires.
The national attention this story is getting could get Disney to reconsider their own policies on guests without arms. They remain as the only major North American theme park chain to not make drastic changes to their policies after the incident at Darien Lake in 2011. It’s also fair to point out that Disney’s rides are, for the most part, far more tame than the rest of the industry as a whole.
Finally, after speaking with Jessica, she made it clear that she is more than willing to work with Universal Orlando to modify their policies where necessary. After all, she might be one of the best resources to adjust the policies where they are more fair across the board for everyone involved. Your thoughts?
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