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If there was anyone excited about the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, Fla., it was Jeff Guillaume, founder of one of the biggest Muggle fan sites on the web.
Guillaume, 30, who was at the park's grand opening celebration in mid-June, was eager to ride what Universal Studios bills as "the most exhilarating theme park attraction ever created": Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. During a turbulent, jarring ride in a four-person car operated by a robotic arm, the Potter-o-phile gets the sensation of flying over Hogwarts, soaring past a dragon attack and being pulled into a fast-paced game of Quidditch, the sport of warlocks.
But Guillaume had to listen to the whoops and cheers from the sidelines. Like many a schoolchild whose pee-wee stature stopped him from riding a roller coaster for grown-ups, Guillaume found that his girth made him ineligible for entry. At 5 feet, 8 inches and 265 lbs., he couldn't fit the safety harness over his torso.
"I'm not mad about it," says Guillaume. "But I am disappointed that they didn't accommodate larger passengers. The question is, does the technology not allow [for the weight]? Or did they just not care to make accommodations?"
As the American population grows larger -- the average man now weighs 190 lbs. -- it's a question more and more roller coaster fans are asking. Large-size guests face weight restrictions at dozens of parks across the country. In some cases, operators install special seats to accommodate customers who won't fit comfortably -- or safely -- in standard equipment, and in other cases, those customers are simply told they can't climb aboard. Three years ago, Disneyland's It's a Small World attraction was retrofitted for larger guests after boats were repeatedly "bottoming out," according to the Los Angeles Times.
"Safety [is] the primary concern," says Universal Studios spokesperson Alyson Lundell. "All our attractions have guidelines. They may vary between attractions, but typically include language about medical conditions, size restrictions and the dynamic nature of the experience."
There is no specific weight limit on the Harry Potter Forbidden Journey attraction, but those who weigh more than 260 lbs. will reportedly fail to fit in "test seats" positioned near the entrance. If the overhead harness can fit over the body and click three times, then a person is eligible to ride. If not, they are turned away.
At Cedar Point in Ohio, the largest ride park in the world, weight restrictions are in place at 20 of the park's 75 rides. "With the roller coasters, if you can't buckle it, you won’t be able to ride," says spokesperson Robin Innes. "It's a safety issue."
Theme park aficionado Robert Niles, who runs ThemeParkInsider.com, says he would not be surprised in the coming months if Universal Studios quietly adds more accommodating seating. But the fact that they didn't do it for the opening doesn't surprise him.
"I've worked theme park operations before," Niles says. "When you have a new ride, you play it a little on the safe side when it comes to the size and weight of riders. They need to make sure that this system is fully functional and reliable and know what kind of load it can take. When things calm down a bit, they can make some changes to accommodate people with different sizes."
Potter fan Jeff Guillaume can only hope that's true. In the meantime, he says he's working on a different tactic to get on the Orlando ride. "Forbidden Journey would have been the icing on the cake for me," he says, "but I can always try to lose some weight and go back."
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