It wasn’t until a few seconds before they opened the doors to let us on the ride that I knew I was in trouble.
The five of us had waited 45 minutes or so in line. In fact, that was before getting into another line before being shepherded into the prep room for Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem in Universal Studios Florida.
Gru and the girls had just entered the process and set up what we were about to see. As we prepared to shuttle onto the ride, the description of the ride popped up: Four seats to a ride vehicle row, single lap bar.
I despise the single lap bar.
I was stuck with a pair of less-than-ideal options. Specifically, riding a single lap bar next to me is basically like riding without a lap bar for my kids. As a result, I am mortified at the idea that someone else’s experience would be affected because my body type doesn’t fit the ride’s restraint system.
“You four go,” I said to the family, hoping I’d get lucky and have someone else of larger size in my row.
I began apologizing profusely to the guy next to me as we sat down and put our hands in the air, waiting for the lap bar to come down.
I felt, in that moment, like I was waiting for the guillotine.
My survival mechanism through the years has been to compartmentalize, lock it up and bury it. Trauma? Crippling worry? Lock it up. Keep moving ahead.
This allows me to go through quite a bit of my life without confronting just how big I have allowed myself to become.
How big are we talking?
Morbidly obese. Most days I was the largest – in girth – person I saw in the park.
But I function – most days – by setting aside the guilt and the self-loathing and the shame and the worry and going about my life as best I can under the circumstances which I have created for myself.
But there are times I can’t put it away.
There are times that the blubbery reality of what I have allowed myself to become stands right in front of my face and demands to be reckoned with.
And so I was, hands in the air, apologizing over and over again to a stranger for affecting his ride experience and trying desperately to keep the negative thoughts locked away.
Then the lap bar came down, automatically, painfully on top of my stomach.
The attendant announced over the intercom that there was an issue. I looked up to see two workers heading my way. Quickly, I was up out of the seat, waving them off and moving to the front where a bench awaits those who can’t ride the ride but want to watch the show.
I kept my head down, making myself as small and unnoticeable as possible – an impossible task.
All I wanted was to be out of the center of attention. Above all, the self-loathing, the internal recriminations, the guilt and the anger were bubbling up inside me. In addition, I felt the heat of every eye in the place as they waited for me to get out of the way.
That’s when the voice piped up over the in-ride intercom.
“Enjoy the ride?” she chirped playfully.
I don’t know if she could hear me. And I wanted nothing more than to get to a seat on the dang bench and let them start the ride.
“Yeah. It was great,” I played along.
“Shortest ride in the park,” she said.
I sat down and the room went dark and Gru, the Minions and the girls began their hijinks.
We booked our trip to Universal Studios Orlando with a full understanding that there would be many times I would have to be a bystander. Universal Studios and, especially, Universal’s Islands of Adventure are amusement parks built on the back of thrill rides.
Are the rides at Universal Studios plus-size friendly?
Most of Universal’s theme-park attractions come with warnings that people with unique body dimensions would not be able to ride due to the safety restraints.
Most of the rides warn that people who have 40-inch waists or more might not be able to ride. I didn’t see any particular weight restrictions or a weight limit, just warnings that certain size people might not be able to ride.
And that’s OK.
There have to be size limits. Certainly, I understand that I exist on the other side of those limits.
It’s impractical to think a ride like the Jurassic World Velocicoaster is going to be able to accommodate someone of my size. Even if they did build a ride vehicle that could carry me upside down and through a bunch of g-forces, I’m pretty sure it would be a bad idea for me to ride it.
And so we knew ahead of time that many of the big rides come with test seats where you can avoid the indignity I felt on the Minion ride.
Overall, we had a great time at Universal and I’d happily sign up to take the family again, especially now that I know where some of the more unexpected pitfalls lie.
Is Universal Studios fat friendly?
No. It isn’t.
And listen, I don’t love the term fat friendly, but that’s what the internet has decided to go with for now. If the most commonly used search terms change, then so will I.
And to be fair, Universal isn’t fat antagonistic either.
The park is, in my opinion, fat apathetic in both its planning and training.
Fat apathetic means that while the park isn’t against fat people or working to lessen their experience, there wasn’t much thought given to how to improve the experience for overweight visitors.
In fact, there were several instances in which had someone simply put a little thought into it, the park could have been more accommodating without a lot of effort.
Which rides at Universal Studios are plus-size friendly?
Universal has several motion rides – Transformers, Simpsons, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, Spider-Man, Minion Mayhem and Men in Black.
I could ride all of them except the Minion Mayhem ride. Why would that ride vehicle be designed differently than the others? Maybe the others represent newer thinking, but I’m not sure.
The exit turnstiles at Islands of Adventure vs Universal Studios
The exit turnstiles at Islands of Adventure are not quite as far apart as they are at Universal Studios. I was able to exit Universal Studios just fine all week, but the first time I tried to leave Islands of Adventure, I didn’t fit.
Luckily, I was close to the stroller exit. I could step over behind a stroller and leave quietly.
Or so I thought.
One of the Universal employees at the gate saw me leave and yelled, “Strollers and wheelchairs only” to the exiting crowd. Was he talking to me or were there other people following my lead? I don’t know.
I put my head down and didn’t look back.
Are the Harry Potter rides plus-size friendly?
Finally, we made the long trek at rope drop to Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. I’d tried not to get my hopes up. The Universal website sets the bar for limitations low for the Harry Potter rides, but looking at the ride design, I thought I’d have a shot.
And so, after the big walk, my family was putting their stuff into the lockers, I went over to the test vehicle and sat down – comfortably in the sidecar.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has been the big draw to Universal for us for quite some time. The Harry Potter universe has been a shared passion of my oldest daughter and mine since she was first old enough to understand the books.
I’d wanted to bring her for years but we kept putting it off.
“Holy crap,” I thought to myself, feeling a wave of euphoria. “I fit in this seat. I’m going to get to ride.”
It was then I saw the green light wasn’t on. I had the red light. I couldn’t get the restraints down far enough into the locking position. The euphoria washed away.
The motorcycle part wasn’t any better.
I had to smile and wave as they walked off down the queue and I went and sat in the shade until they got back.
Are the employees friendly, or at least understanding?
It depends wildly on the employee. In general, I think the customer service at Universal is a bit hit or miss, especially when compared to Disney.
For example, the employees at the test seats were always very nice. Clearly, they’d been trained – or at least selected for their empathy.
Conversely, in the line at Spider-Man, with rows of four seats, they asked us to go three in one row and two in another. I asked the guy if we could go 4 and 1, allowing me to have a lap bar (and a row) to myself.
“You figure it out,” he said, sounding quite irritated.
Then, when my family took up row one and I started to sit behind them, he sent three more people into the row with me.
Again, I apologized profusely to the family beside me. But they were nice and the ride went off without a hitch.
I wish I had gotten the employee’s name at the Race Through New York, which had a test seat that I didn’t see. There, we’d spent most of our time in the queue getting yelled about what color our ticket was or whatever.
But when I walked in and sat down – first of the row thanks to another employee’s recommendation – our guy had a brief look of panic.
“Should I just get off?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “I’ll make sure you get to ride.”
He pulled out a seat belt extender, which reached easily. And then he stepped around behind me to where he could help make sure I was buckled. He checked on me again before the ride started and then after.
I hope he gets a raise.
What rides can you not ride when plus-sized?
None of the big coasters. For example, you won’t be able to ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster or the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. Neither of the Harry Potter dark rides. I didn’t try Doctor Doom’s Fearfall. But I don’t think I could have done it.
The ride car for Escape from Gringotts had theming on the side that kept me from even getting into the seat. And while I fit in the seat for Forbidden Journey, I couldn’t get the green light for the restraint device.
I also had to get off the Jurassic Park River Adventure Ride. However, the employees there were very gracious and helpful.
So what can you ride?
In addition to the ones I mentioned previously, I rode the heck out of Flight of the Hippogriff. It was just the right speed for my two younger children. In fact, we rode several times while Leslie and Sofia tackled the Forbidden Journey ride.
We rode everything in Seuss Landing, which was nice to get to do as a family. I didn’t try Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls. Just by the eye test, I didn’t think I’d make it. I didn’t even try the special test seats on that one.
So, what can you expect as a heavy person?
I wrote most of this with a voice in the back of my head asking this question.
I imagine it’s the voice of some reader on the internet reading all this and wondering why I expect Universal to make accommodations just because I’m big. Or maybe it’s my voice asking the same question.
Ultimately, I don’t expect Universal to change a million things to accommodate me. My condition, my situation, whatever we want to call it, my size is my fault. Surely, it is the result of years of weakness. And also bad choices and whatever else goes into the mix that allowed me to get this way.
In a broad sense, Universal told me what to expect and basically delivered it though by keeping the specific warning generic. Focusing on 40-inch waistlines left me having to just guess the ones I could ride. And that’s really all I want. Universal parks set the parameters.
And then, I will find a way to work within them.
I don’t want special treatment. I understand that rides can’t be built with unlimited capacity.
Still, I was a paying customer. My ticket wasn’t less even though I wasn’t going to be adding to the wait times on the most popular rides.
What did I expect?
A little bit more understanding and customer service.
There were moments of real grace. But also, moments that made me cringe. I don’t want to be made to feel lesser.
Keep an eye on the little things like the turnstiles or table placements in the restaurants.
A little more privacy near the test ride vehicles would be cool as well. A couple of times it felt like being in a dressing room without a door.
An extra ride test area near the front of the park where larger guests could just knock ‘em out and know beforehand what they can and can’t ride would be pretty awesome as well. I certainly would have appreciated it before making the uncomfortable march to Hagrid’s.
What changes would I like to see?
I wouldn’t mind a little more clarity in ride specifics.
Universal basically has two warnings. One for rides with restraint systems and one for rides with bench seats. Going by the descriptions, I shouldn’t have been able to ride anything.
The blanket warning for each ride stated that there could be an issue for anyone with a 40-inch waist. Well, by my experience, someone with a 40-inch waist should be able to ride almost everything comfortably, including Hagrid’s.
If I could ride Simpsons or Men in Black, then someone with a 40-inch waist would be FINE.
By having essentially the same warning for each ride, I found myself playing roulette with whether I’d be able to ride or not. Towards the end of the trip, I passed up a couple of chances to ride. I didn’t want that embarrassment again, that walk of shame.
Disney vs Universal for plus-size riders
It’s not fair, I suppose, to compare Universal to Disney. But my experiences at Disney have been far more accommodating. From employee interactions to having a clear understanding of which rides I can and can’t do.
At Disney, I can ride the vast majority of the rides. At Universal, I can’t.
I want them to consider, as much as possible, varying body types when they debut a new ride. Is it going to be a tight fit or an impossible fit? It would be nice to know ahead of time.
I want to feel like at least some thought went into building an experience obese people can enjoy as well.
Ultimately, I want to feel, I suppose like I do when I’m at Disney.
Have you had a similar experience to share? Let us know in the comments.