I’m loitering in the foyer of my local Publix repeatedly stepping onto their vintage Toledo floor scale working through an OCD in bloom.
I’m accustomed to the arrow-tipped arm sweeping the Toledo’s round face and coming to rest past the 300-pound marker in the white space between the scale’s first increment and its last. I ballpark this distance at an extra ten pounds. But this morning, the week before my roommate and I adjourn to Orlando for Gay Days, that red pointer is thwacking into the stopper behind the zero mark. Hard.
This weight mare trails us to our first Orlando park: SeaWorld. Insert your own Shamu joke here. We make a beeline for their latest attraction, Ice Breaker, a launched steel coaster just opened after a COVID delay. The ride’s manufacturer — Premier — is American, usually a good omen for larger riders. Unfortunately, Premier is frequently lumped in with Swiss manufacturer Intamin and virtually all of the Asian manufacturers as a fatty no-fly zone.
Our beeline makes Ice Breaker our “rope drop” ride so there’s no line as my roommate speed-walks the switchbacks without me, not realizing I’m waylaid in the “tester seat,” that car just outside the main waiting where the uncertain can do a test strap in. Historically, freak shows were preceded by larger-than-life freak paintings as a backdrop for the barker who would lure carnival bystanders in with a promise of the exotic. I begin to regard the test car as the new barker and when my roommate returns, I’ve successfully navigated the shoulder restraint/lap bar combo, but the console’s red light still shines demonically. We quickly switch places. Click! The unlabeled lights flip green. Fucker!
“I do not trust the accuracy of test seats,” Big Boy’s Guide to Roller Coasters author Mike Galvan told the Los Angeles Times. He goes on to detail tester seat belts intentionally shorter than the actual ride designed to spare larger guests what he calls “the walk of shame” or getting booted off the coaster during loading. "I’ve also had the opposite happen,” Galvan continues, expertly forecasting my morning. “I made the test seat, but was rejected from the actual ride.”
Loading onto Ice Breaker, I enter first, but my roommate forgets his training. I’ve instructed him to board after me, pivot and leap, throwing his full body weight onto my lap bar like an Olympian mounting the Pommel Horse.
This spring, 340-pound teen Tyre Sampson plunged 400 feet from jerry-rigged restraints to the bottom of ICON Park’s FreeFall drop tower. His death chilled Orlando ride operators, who used to push down on lap bars to “get that click.” Now they’re mostly hands-off. 325-pound YouTuber Adrian Vasquez stress-tests the “fat-friendliness” of American theme parks, not only detailing the change in policy, but also advocating for the helping-hand approach.
But if policy changes, the practice has not. Park employees are as individual as ride restraints, which Galvan calls a lottery. “Seat belt lengths can vary,” he says, “from ride to ride and row to row.”
Later in the day, we board the floorless-coaster Kraken by another Swiss manufacturer Bollinger & Mabillard. In a nod to American obesity stats — 14% at SeaWorld’s 1973 debut, skyrocketing to today’s one in three adults — Kraken’s conspicuous signage steers quests with “larger chest dimensions” toward “modified” rows 4 and 5.
A monitor hanging above the loading zone broadcasts a schematic of all four seats over an eight-row train with each block turning green when a rider “clicks in.” It’s a walk of shame Russian roulette almost as thrilling as the ride itself. And when one patron, whose pendulous breasts put her squarely in the “larger chest dimensions” category, starts fumbling with her belt, an all-male unit surrounds her, working with the intensity of EMS triage until her box turns green.
I don’t receive the same “assist,” but after a yogic exhalation of breath, I also manage to click in. “Some parks require two locking clicks,” Galvan adds, bemoaning the lack of an industry standard, “while others insist on three.” No industry standard? Can you imagine this randomness imposed on rider height? When the two-minute ride ends, I exit the station in bargaining mode. “It’s not like I don’t fit on any of the rides,” I bolster myself, “it was just that one. And that was right after breakfast.”
My false sense of security calcifies as we move into Gay Days proper at the Disney parks. Notoriously fat-friendly, Disney has no height or weight max resort-wide. The signature Gay Days bear meetup at Magic Kingdom’s Country Bear Jamboree is dotted with audience members one Cheesecake Factory away from TLC’s My 600-lb Life. Like Country Bears, another attraction that opened with the park in 1971 famously did so with weight-reinforced boats after the ones at Disney’s sister park in California kept running aground like those Higgins boats in the D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan.
Before Gay Days’ Epcot finale, Adrian Vasquez asks if Disney’s latest marquee attraction, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, is fat-friendly. The backward-launch, dark ride coaster by Dutch manufacturer Vekoma has only been open for a week. We need to wake up at 7 a.m. just to work our phones for a boarding group, but I haven’t slept because of Vasquez's answer to his own fat-friendly question: "Yes. And no.” While his description of the glide-and-lock lap bar is reassuring — no clicks! — he also recounts a walk of shame on his second ride when a larger guest in front of him gets the heave-ho.
Though they’re gone in seconds, we secure a boarding group, but I stay on my phone, frantically Googling images of the ride car long past that point in Guardians' pre-show where phones are verboten. I drill my roommate on the assistance I anticipate needing, even demonstrating with a vault up onto the switchback guardrail. He suggests employing Disney's “ride purse” for unencumbered repositioning. It’s a good note. We board. The ride car is roomy and might actually have been comfortable, but my revel breaks when roomie pogos onto my lap bar almost slicing me in half.
I cannot be alone sweating theme park walk of shame spirals. I just wish I could provide guidelines. All I know is I weigh more than 300-pounds. At Publix. My nutritionist really got behind the idea of my bathroom scale remaining in storage. I also learn an LA Fitness membership dating back to my college years lapsed during Covid so their locker room scale is also out. And though Disney vehemently denies the rumor, I keep returning to the image of boats teaming with overweight Americans beaching themselves inside an attraction. And I can't help but wonder: is it really a small world after all?