The Fat Girl's Guide to Amusement Parks
Posted by Angela in Fun Stuff,Sports + Recreation
Squeeze every bit of fun into your amusement park trip (Great America photo booth ca. 1998)

Until I was 14, I was terrified of roller coasters.

Per longstanding tradition, our 8th grade class trip took place at Sandusky, OH-based Cedar Point. It was 1990 and the Magnum had just debuted. The sleek, orange monster boasted a 204-foot plunge at an angle of 60 degrees. Obviously, it was the only thing anyone cared about riding . . . with one very notable exception. While my friends racked up run after run on the coaster, I held people's bags, wandered off with a random girl from my class to get lunch, and rode less stomach-turning attractions like the Scrambler and the Swings.

The kicker is that I wasn't even fat back then. Certainly I weighed more than most of the girls in my class (and those extra 20 pounds may as well have been 200 in my mind). But what kept me off the Magnum wasn't weight -- it was just plain old fear. The following spring, goaded by my friends to the point of capitulation, I boarded the orange nemesis and screamed my head off during the famous drop . . . and I absolutely loved it. After that, some kind of adrenaline switch flipped inside of me and there wasn't a ride in any park I wouldn't try.

Viewing the photo at the top of this post -- college friends all crammed into one of the photo booths that line the midway of every good theme park -- actually makes me sad, because that was my last trip to coaster-ville. One thing or another has derailed every planned trip for more than a decade, until I've found myself asking the proverbial fat girl question: "Am I too fat for the rides?" This question is followed by its slightly less painful siblings, "Can I do all that walking?" and "Girl, don't you remember how badly water-ride-soaked pants can chafe?"

For every overweight girl who's asked herself the same questions, let's see what we can figure out . . .

Plus-size amusement ride restriction policies

Given the highly publicized incident at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, where park staff turned away overweight patrons from one ride, theme park ride passenger size has garnered more attention than usual lately. And the very blunt truth is that for overweight patrons, it makes sense to review the park's guidelines and ride restrictions before buying tickets or -- worse -- getting to the front of the hour-long Superman: Ultimate Flight queue and being turned away. Beyond just a weight restriction, many rides -- certainly more than I remember! -- now carry size restrictions based on the restraint harness or bars that hold passengers in place. Ultimately, the park needs to ensure the safety of all riders. So what's the best way to inform yourself before your next visit?

Most parks provide at least some information on their Web sites regarding ride restrictions, although the verbiage is often vague or focused around minimum rider height. Cedar Point has gone the total transparency route by publicizing policies for passengers of "exceptional size" (including women weighing more than 200 pounds, or individuals taller than 6'2), as well as how the guidelines affect prospective riders on individual attractions.

To give real-world context to the online information, you can review other park-goers' experiences on boards like Theme Park Insider, Coaster Critic and Theme Park Review. And overweight lifestyle blog GrandStyle offers an impressive round-up of ride logistics and plus-size park patron experiences from around the country.

Some parks have opted to take the proactive approach one step further by placing actual-size "test seats" along the queue lines for various attractions. Theoretically, this measure allows passengers whose size might not be compatible with the ride to self select out of the line, saving embarrassment for both passenger and park employee when it's time to board.

And yet, it's not as though the 19-year-old ride attendant is standing there with a scale or a measuring tape to disprove your ride eligibility. On my last visit to Six Flags Great America, I rode every single coaster and thrill ride in the park without issue. I weighed 240 pounds. Some of the harnesses were on their last click, perhaps, and my hips have never wanted to fit neatly into any ride seat. Despite these logistics, the only true moment of discomfort was while straddling the seat portion of a standing coaster, something my ridiculously short legs were never meant to do. As with the two-seat policy employed by many airlines, enforcement seems to be hit-and-miss, and patrons are left to the honor system to gauge their own ride eligibility, unless questioned by an attendant. Would I still have boarded the Wave Swinger, had I known about its 230-pound weight limit? Probably. Would I recommend the same action to a friend? Good question.

Finding theme park excitement at any size

Whether you're coaster-phobic, skeptical about size restrictions, or just not a fan of motion sickness, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy yourself at a theme park if you're not crazy about the rides. We've already established that photo booths are one of my favorite things on earth, but the midway is packed with other beckoning diversions. Duck out of the hot sun and into a theater for a show. Issue an epic skee-ball throwdown in the arcade. Channel your inner hussy and pose for some old-time photos in western barroom garb. Challenge your kids to some no-holds-barred bumper cars. Or be the people screeching off-key Spice Girls songs in the recording booth as onlookers shake their heads. (As someone who has witnessed a friend's park-recorded "Kokomo" video from 1989, I cannot emphasize strongly enough the potential for hilarity here.)

The upshot is that there's plenty to do, even if you're feeling like the tag-along to friends (or kids) who are much more excited about thrill rides than you are. Coasters get the glory, but they're just the tip of the amusement park iceberg.

Managing dietary restrictions at the park

When it comes to theme park meals and snacks, these days you can go as healthy or as indulgent as you choose. While the traditional midway fare (hot dogs, nachos, ice cream, fries, you know the drill) still holds court in parks nationwide, there's a strong push to bring healthier, more wholesome choices into the mix -- and to make options like water and fresh fruit accessible. When possible, check out the park restaurants online before visiting, so you know which area of the grounds will be the best bet for your ideal meal. Or, fill some lunch box coolers with your favorite munchies and eat your meals picnic-style (check the website of your park to make sure outside food and drink are permitted).

Remember that you'll pay excessive park prices for everything from Diet Coke to a simple chicken sandwich. Combine that fact with the importance of staying hydrated, and it's clear that a refillable water bottle is a must-have. Instead of dropping $3 every few hours, you'll stay cool and flush by simply cruising past a drinking fountain.

Dressing for all-day comfort at the park

Let's start with the obvious: You'll be covering a lot of ground during your theme park adventure, so wear shoes that fit and provide long-lasting support. This isn't the time to break in a cute pair of sandals, ladies; you'll be hobbled with blisters before lunch. Beyond the comfy shoes approach, pack an extra pair of socks (two, and an extra pair of shoes if you plan to hit the water rides) for later in the day. You can always stash a bag with your extra gear in a rental locker.

When it comes to clothing, the two most important factors are weather and water. Protect yourself from all-day sun exposure with a water-proof, sweat-proof sunblock; don't forget to apply even to your hair part if you don't plan to wear a hat. And if you're lulled by the water rides, either choose clothing that dries easily or pack an extra set for after the splashing good times. (Seriously, denim weighs about 10 times more when it's wet.) A hot, sweaty day at the theme park is bound to bring out the chafing, so have your favorite remedy in place.

Theme parks can be a great place to face your fears (of heights. . . of crowds. . . of food on a stick. . .) if you let yourself give in and enjoy wherever the day takes you. At the end of the day, when your feet are sore and your throat is raw from screaming (either on a coaster or at the sugar-buzzed kids), hopefully the park experience will have been one to remember -- even if you hope your own photographic evidence never surfaces on a blog a dozen years later.

Have you been to an amusement park recently? Tell us how you made it a fabulous experience -- or what you'd do differently next time.