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The Great Water Park Bikini Debate

On July 2nd of this year, Madelyn Sheaffer was ultimately asked to leave Adventure Oasis Water Park in Independence, Missouri because the bottom of her bathing suit was considered to be too small by park management.  She was approached by two employees originally and was asked to put on shorts to cover. After she asked to speak to a supervisor, that person backed up the employees – either cover up or leave the park.

I live nowhere near Missouri, yet this news story has crossed my path several times in the past few days. A woman in a bikini will always make headlines, but in this case, there is a fascinating debate that I find intriguing. Should she have been kicked out because her bikini was too small?

In today’s American society, we feel the need to critique what people are wearing constantly. Shows like Fashion Police, What Not To Wear and hours of red carpet footage before any awards show encourage viewers to give their feedback if an outfit looks good or not. Members of my own family will decide whether or not to watch certain shows based on what the actors are wearing. Hell, my grandmother voted for George W Bush because she thought he was better looking than John Kerry back in 2004. It’s nauseating.

If you don’t believe me about how bad our society has gotten, click on over to this article that ran in Kansas City about Madelyn getting kicked out of the water park. It will only take a minute or two. Most importantly, after reading the article go down and read the comments section below. After taking a moment to compose yourself from the madness, come on back and we will talk about the legalities of this situation.

Can management legally kick someone out of a water park for any reason?  The answer is, of course, complicated.  The Federal Civil Rights Act guarantees all people the right to “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, without discrimination or segregation on the grounds of race, color, religion or natural origin.”

In addition to the Federal Civil Rights act, some states have passed their own legislature that covers an even broader umbrella that guarantees that you can’t discriminate against additional items like sexual preference or unconventional dress.  This is not to say that businesses don’t have any rights to run their operation in a way that they choose, as long as it stays within the letter of the law.

Six Flags Logo

Copyright Six Flags Over Georgia

In July of 2007, Joshua Martin was violently beaten at a bus stop just outside of Six Flags Over Georgia. The crime was a result of gang wars that were happening in and around Six Flags located on the outskirts of Atlanta. Unfortunately, many local theme parks around the United States are used as a babysitter for parents on weekends, summer months and even after school. For the cost of an annual pass, kids stay off the streets and hang out in a park with all the amenities including food and security.

The problem is, sometimes kids will be kids and fights between schools and gangs will often break out within the park or just outside the gates. In this case Six Flags, like any business, has the right to refuse business to anyone if their clothing might provoke a fight – thus disturbing the business. Believe it or not, many local park security and front gate staff around the country are trained to look for gang symbols and have the legal right to refuse admission to anyone showing them.

Copyright Aquatica Water Park

Copyright Aquatica Water Park

So let’s get back to our water park issue. Did Adventure Oasis have the right to ask Madelyn to leave because of her skimpy bikini? If they can make a claim that it was disrupting their business? Absolutely. Generally speaking, unless otherwise posted, water parks will only approach a guest wearing a skimpy bikini only if another guest makes a complaint. Meaning, regardless of all the stares and pointing – someone needs to speak with a staff member of that park and tell them that they are uncomfortable by what someone else is wearing.

This is usually the legal loophole that many theme parks use to adhere to their family friendly guidelines. Often times the guest raising the red flag remains anonymous or doesn’t even exist! I know several park employees that I have worked with over the years who have told guests to change or cover up their clothing because the employee finds the item too revealing and make the claim that a guest made a complaint. Since they are the fashion police and protectors of the company brand – they take it upon themselves to speak to the guest in question and make them change the clothing they find offensive.

Wet N Wild

Copyright Wet N Wild

Madelyn claims there were several teenagers in the water park that day wearing the same style of bikini and no one asked them to leave. She seems to believe that because she is older park management decided that she shouldn’t be wearing it. So does that mean she has a case if she wanted to sue the water park for discrimination?  If she can prove it, yes it does.

That doesn’t mean it’s a winnable case. It would help if she could prove that the other bikinis showed just as much skin as hers or that the park allows more risque ones to be worn.  However, if no guest complains, generally speaking they are good to go.  Many water parks have rules posted in guide maps or signage that say “No thong or inappropriate bikinis allowed”. However, even a thong bikini is somewhat up for interpretation. What Victoria’s Secret, Ujena and Wicked Weasel bikini companies consider to be a thong can be drastically different in terms of coverage.

Typhoon Lagoon

Call me a male pig all you want, but I don’t think parks should discriminate on clothing of any kind unless it poses a threat of harm to themselves or another patron.  Times change and so does fashion. The clothes that my parents wore when they were teenagers for their time were scandalous, but these days are considered prudish. One can assume that even five years from now what is considered outside the box will become the norm.

Depending on what part of the world you live in and how you were raised, your version of what is considered “family friendly” will be vastly different than someone else’s who lives in a different area than you with different beliefs and values. So why should any business have a right to tell you what is considered to be acceptable behavior and dress for your family?

This article, more than any other I have written, I seriously want your feedback. Do you think parks have a right to tell you how to dress?  Do you think Madelyn should sue?  Are we so far gone as a nation that all we can talk about is whether she can “pull off” that bikini vs whether she has the legal right to wear it?  Leave your comments in the section below.

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  1. DavidSutton
    Posted July 6, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    I believe that parks should provide a family friendly experience. Rules should apply universally and be consultant. I think that cast members should approach guests wearing inappropriate clothing before another guest complains. If you can catch it before a guest complains it is better than waiting for a guest to have a bad enough experience to complain to a cast member. Operationally, I think it would be best to train the park entrance cast members to look for inappropriate clothing and deal with it before the guest enters the park. I worked in park operations and the only times I have ever approached a guest about what they were earring was that there were a few guests at a Halloween Pary who were wearing masks that completely covered their eyes and face. This violated the party rules and was unsafe. An inappropriate bikini does not pose a safety threat, but it is not very courteous to other guests. Handle all situations with the utmost courtousy, but try to promote a family friendly atmosphere for the other guests.

    • Josh Young
      Posted July 6, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

      David, thanks for the response. When it comes to the safety of a guest – that is a no brainer that should be fairly cut and dry in regards to if/when you should approach someone about their clothing. However, don’t you think it’s a fine line to what is considered family friendly anymore? Keep in mind, when you approach that guest or their family with the questionable outfit on, they will most likely be embarrassed. Often times, especially with International guests, they consider many outfits and swimsuits to be family friendly when Americans don’t. I don’t think you can train staff to be spot checkers on what is considered family friendly – often times they will end up just being the “fashion police”.

  2. EpcotJosh
    Posted July 6, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    It is also worth noting that Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not explicitly define what is meant by “places of public accommodation,” and more importantly, does not define what is excepted from being within that meaning. There is case law holding that places such as hotels are definitely included, as they are a channel of “interstate commerce,” which is important because the commerce clause is the basis for federal authority that keeps the Act from running in to separation of powers issues. Whether or not a theme park would ever be specifically enumerated is an interesting question, and as far as I know there are not any cases on point (although I have not researched this specifically). In any event, discrimination cases are frequently interesting to read because the “defenses” asserted are often surprisingly off-puting. For example, if the park in the article argued successfully that they asked this woman to leave simply because she looked gross in the bikini it would probably carry the day, since attractiveness is not a protected classification. This is, no doubt, why she claims that the discrimination was based on her age. I would be shocked if she won a lawsuit based on the facts provided, and hope for the sake of judicial economy that she doesn’t file a suit (put intended).

    • Josh Young
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      EpcotJosh, thanks for taking the time to respond. I agree that even if a lawyer took the case, it would be virtually impossible to win. Unless there are laws in Missouri that protect businesses from discriminating against clothing – then she doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Many people think the law covers any time they have been wronged, but it just isn’t the case here. The fact that she called the police is insane, because the “crime” would be a civil one, not a criminal one.

  3. PixieAngelo
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    In a Water Park, a bathing suit needs to be more Function than Form for the wearers safety and comfort as well as to reinforce a positive family atmosphere. The top should provide enough support so that the wearer’s breasts don’t jiggle or sag, especially when walking up and down the stairs to the slides. The bottoms should provide full coverage so the suit doesn’t bunch or shift on the water ride. If you are wearing a tiny suit that barely covers you, you are a distraction and give the impression that you are showing off or cruising, and that behavior doesn’t belong in a family theme park. Younger women may be able to get away with smaller bathing suits because they are less developed and there is less of a chance of their body hanging out of the suit if the fabric shifts during the course of the ride. It’s tough being a mature, “full-figured” woman in a bathing suit and being called out for something like this is bound to be embarrassing. Just because a bathing suit fits doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s appropriate. Some people would understand the true nature of the request and comply for the esprit de corps, while other people get pumped full of righteous indignation and go after Disney’s deep pockets. If you just want to lay out in a skimpy bikini that you may be too mature, endowed or out of shape to wear, do it at your hotel, not a busy water park full of impressionable little kids.

    • Josh Young
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      Pixie, thanks for the comment. I think it needs to be made clear – this has nothing to do with Disney. This incident happened in Missouri at a very small water park that doesn’t have deep pockets. In the highly unlikely event she did sue and win – she wouldn’t make much from the endeavor, barely enough to cover lawyer and court fees.

      In terms of your outline on what should be appropriate attire for a water park? I don’t think it’s practical or even possible to enforce a dress code that ensures there is no excessive jiggling or sagging from a woman’s top. Or making sure the bottoms cover enough and are manufactured properly to prevent bunching or shifting – that may be a hard thing to determine until you visit a water park and find out the hard way. Thousands of people visit a water park in a day, how do you enforce a policy that is truly practical, fair and everyone can follow? There are no easy answers.

      My personal opinion is? Water parks can’t catch every “naughty” bathing suit that comes through the gates and clearly family friendly/decency is in the eye of the beholder. If a business tries to determine that on behalf of the rest of the customers, it generally has the right to do so considering it’s private property – but it’s not smart business.

      • EpcotJosh
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink


        I agree with your observation that decency is in the eye of the beholder. As a famous Supreme Court justice once wrote “I can’t define obscenity, but I know it when I see it.” Perhaps not the most erudite thing for a judge to write in an opinion, but it certainly stands for the proposition that it is virtually impossible to articulate objective standards for this sort of thing. Even if an objective standard could somehow be drafted it would still have to be interpreted and applied by people who are, by nature, subjective.

      • PixieAngelo
        Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        Appropriate attire for a water park would be a one piece bathing suit for women and trunks/swim shorts for men. Both should provide ample coverage to be safe and discreet.

        • KileOzier
          Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          Pixie, I just don’t believe you are qualified to dictate what “appropriate” attire is for anyone, anywhere or at any time in a public venue. You don’t like what someone’s wearing; don’t spend so much time looking and judging.

    • Hariette
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      PixieAngelo — Your comments are blatantly sexist. As a mature woman you expect us to find bathing suits that prevent our breasts from SAGGING? Seriously? When you find this magical suit that reverses aging and gravity, please let me know. You accuse women who wear “tiny suits” to be “showing off or cruising”? Apparently “no fashion sense” isn’t an option in your world. Why are all your comments directed only to women and specifically older, mature women? Is it because after a certain age we stop being eye candy therefore we should not show our jiggling bodies around you and men of your ilk?

      I’m curious…do you feel the same way about man-boobs regarding jiggles and sags?

      • PixieAngelo
        Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        Hi Hariette. I’m a 42 year old woman and a size 20. I wear a one piece swim suit because it looks best on my body shape. I may not have much fashion sense, but I know how to dress for my size, age and the occasion.

  4. KileOzier
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    While I may not appreciate the sight of a woman or man wearing “age inappropriate” bikini’s or speedo’s at a water park (or beach); it’s really none of my business…and certainly not my business to actually complain to management that my delicate, visual sensibilities have been in some way offended. Be they supermodel thin or classically Rubenesque in form, IT’S JUST A HUMAN BODY, PEOPLE. Stick your nose back into your own business. With kids, use it as a teachable moment, if nothing else.

    Frankly, I’m impressed at her comfort in her own skin and healthy self-image.

    My sympathies go to the Evicted Woman for being chastised and ostracized for a body within which she was evidently quite comfortable until the self-righteous crowd gathered in the virtual square to stone and ban her. People need to get over themselves.

    Now, on the other hand, if we’re good with this policing; then, by all means, let’s move on to banning fat people in Las Vegas or any theme park from wearing shorts and lycra, tank tops and halfies, and any one over 30 wearing Abercrombie & Fitch or Hollister. I mean, if we’re going to police what offends our “sensibilities,” well then, by gar, let’s get to policing!

  5. lindros88
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Josh, this was a very interesting article. Earlier this year I felt like I was the subject of similar discrimination at the Typhoon Lagoon waterpark near Orlando. Just to give you some background, each January and July the waterpark gets many foreign tour group visitors from South America. The girls in these groups openly wear thong bottoms throughout the park and are never told to cover even when they walk right past a lifeguard or security.

    Now I know this may gross out some readers but I figured if girls were allowed to wear them at the park I should be able to as well (yeah I’m a guy). Well that didn’t go over too well and I was told to cover by the redneck manager named Clint Bronson, even though there were 20 girls just in my section near the wave pool that were wearing thongs. So I asked if he was going to ask the girls to cover and he said “I should only be concerned whether there are any other guys wearing thongs today” and “that there’s a difference between a guy’s butt and a girl’s butt.”

    So the bottom line is girls are allowed to wear thongs at the Disney waterparks but guys will be asked to cover. They did update their park guide this summer to specifically say that “thongs are prohibited”. Back when the incident happened the rules were that “appropriate swimwear must be worn”. However, I’ve been to the Disney waterparks a few times this summer since that wording change and girls are still allowed to wear thongs throughout the park and are not told to cover. As you mentioned, they only act on complaints, which is wrong and results in de-facto discrimination because people are less likely to complain about a girl wearing one than a guy.

    Whether or not people think that thongs are appropriate for a Disney waterpark is irrelevant … the rules whatever they are should be applied equally. If girls can wear them so can guys. Otherwise that runs afoul of Florida State civil rights code for public accommodations (760.08, see link below) whereby they are not permitted to extend a privelage based on gender. So even if thongs are prohibitied in their rules, by not asking the girls to cover they are extending them a privelage but not to the guys and that’s a violation IMO.

    • DavidSutton
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      @Lindros88 I think your experience is a little ridiculous because of one simple fact. Male and female bodies are created differently. It is completely acceptable to apply different dress standards to men and women. You complained that men were not allowed to wear thongs, but you didn’t seem to have a problem with Disney not requiring you to wear a bikini bra top with your thong that they would require girls to wear. I is an uncomfortable experience to be called out for inappropriate clothing. This should be handled with respect, but it is completely reasonable to have different standards for male and female clothing.

      • lindros88
        Posted July 26, 2013 at 12:33 am | Permalink

        In what manner are women’s and men’s buttocks different?

        Enforcing a rule that says men must cover buttocks but not women is blatant discrimination which is OK at a private club, but is not OK at a public facility.

        The bikini top analogy is not relevant to the thong case since there presumably is a distinct difference between a man’s flat chest and a women’s breasts. However, FWIW I think women should be legally allowed to be topless where ever a man is permitted to do so. This is the case in several US states and will eventually spread to more. There are many more states that allow public breast-feeding.

        Also, FWIW I’ve seen a number of European pre-teen girls go topless at the Disney water parks without being told to cover. So again your analogy fails since if those undeveloped girls can go topless then guys shouldn’t have to wear a bikini top.

    • cenkboy
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      I guess all fat people should be banned from the water parks because their clothing can not cover up the fatness. It is interesting the the Disney Parks allow swim thongs for girls but not boys. It does not really make any sense. Actually I was allowed to wear a swim thong at some Disney Parks, about 7 years ago even though I am a male. I was attending a private party that had rented out the park. I have a muscular and fit body and there were no complaints about my swim thong. I do not know about their current thong policy, but I do know that thongs are accepted part of International swim wear and I think these water parks should be able to accommodate both International and out of State visitors where swim thongs are commonly worn by both men and women.

  6. MichelleMorganReeves
    Posted August 21, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I also believe that any business has a right to have a dress code for their guests. I don’t want to go to a water park and see anyone of any age walking about with their buttocks hanging out of their bathing suit bottom regardless of how fit they are. There is a time and a place for that, and a family park is not the place or the time to expose your buttocks or breasts to the world. When in Rome, as the saying goes. I believe, in this case, that the park should offer alternative things to wear (ie: a long tee shirt or shorts) as many people don’t necessarily bring those things with them. If the person in question refuses, once those accommodations are offered, then they should be refunded their admission and asked to leave. Theme parks and water parks are privately owned entities and, as such, have the right to enforce whatever guidelines they feel are right for the comfort and safety of ALL of their guests. I am a frequent visitor of the water parks in Orlando, and I must say that I have seen fewer clothing infractions since the new wording has a appeared in the pamphlets, and for that, I am grateful!

    • Josh Young
      Posted August 23, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      Ya know, I think times are changing and water parks need to roll with the punches. Want to show off your back side in a water park (male or female) – go ahead. It’s as big of a deal for a child who sees the cheeks as a parent makes it out to be. I just don’t see it as being that big of a deal.

  7. cenkboy
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    I have actually worn a men’s thong bathing suit made by Speedo at several Disney Water Parks in the daytime during the summer about 7 years ago several days without any complaints. I do a lot of weight lifting and am age 57. I think they do allow thongs for both men and women if you look hot, but quickly pick you out if you are not hot. Generally theme parks should allow swim thongs for anyone that wants to wear them, even swim jocks for men (a new men’s style) as they are a part of International culture and widely accepted world wide. People should not worry about a fashion crime.

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