Part of a series of stories calling into question the supposed joys of summer.
The kids are out of school, and it’s seasonally appropriate to burn some of those vacation days. So you’ve packed the family car and headed off to that multicolored wonderland of gleaming lights, tent tops and joyous squeals. You reach the entrance and crane your neck to see the arc of that massive coaster scrape the sky. The day is yours.
By late afternoon, you’re exhausted, drenched and still clinging to that crinkled park map that’s led you through this labyrinth. You’ve lost most of the day either waiting in line or seeking out the next line to wait in. Someone whines about wanting food. Now everyone whines about wanting food. You arrive at the front of the concessions line and balk at those prices, and no one even wants a jumbo turkey leg anyway. And that withering summer heat.
“At Six Flags, two of my family members got heat exhaustion,” says Reid Offers, a 22-year-old student and barista from McKinney, Tex. “My little cousin got significant sunburn blisters. Pus and everything. He couldn’t move two days later.”
Amusement parks are those glistening temples of good times where our friends, colleagues and loved ones want us to worship. But forget what the flashy, fast-cut advertising has drilled into your head. Listen to the chorus of dissenters who rightly recognize these places as overrated adrenaline factories.
“You can see the stress on families’ faces,” says Amanda Ludick, a 33-year-old freelance television producer who splits time between New York and LA. “It’s hot. It’s crowded. It’s just not fun.”
Having grown up in Orlando, Ludick vividly recalls when she’d arrive at a Disney park with some family friends and the older kids would tear through Thunder Mountain two or three times in a half hour. Unless you’ve camped out or you’re royalty, good luck getting that sort of quality time now.
Ludick visited Universal Studios for a work outing back in April. Those tickets weren’t cheap, nor were they covered by her company. While waiting in a packed line for the Mummy ride, she kept getting rear-ended by the couple behind her each time they inched forward. Their breath would slide down her neck. Finally she let them squeeze by. Ninety minutes in the park was all it took for her to say, “I don’t have to be here.”
A new attraction can cause numbers to spike, extending those feature film-length wait times, gobbling up parking spots, and prompting more pesky blockout dates for those who’ve dropped a pretty penny on an annual pass.
“It’s insane to see people waiting eight hours in a line,” says 38-year-old Tampa resident Stephanie Nolan, remembering the soft opening for Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. “I tell my friends give it a month. Let the shiny luster rub off.”
A former Disney World and SeaWorld employee, Nolan comes armed with knowledge of amusement park do’s and don’ts. Do try to come offseason. Don’t let your child take a dip in the stingray display. (Oh yeah, she’s seen that one.)
She breaks down the money considerations like a financial planner. A one-day trip is expensive enough. Now picture a family of four making one of these cash-guzzling carnivals a multiday excursion. Day passes hover around a hundred bucks, per head. Then factor in hotel, airline tickets, car rental, gasoline, meals and merchandise.
“I use $4,000 as an umbrella,” Nolan says. “Four thousand dollars is a big chunk of my student loan debt!”
Nolan has also witnessed many variants of amusement park behavior, ranging from the entitled to the mindless. You have your alcohol- or drug-fueled belligerence. Folks will name-drop to try to cut the line. One woman climbed into a Clydesdale stall and was shocked the horse wasn’t very welcoming. She’s seen both gift shop pilfering and third-degree grand theft ($2,000 in traveler’s checks taken from a stroller).
“It’s disorderly, a lot of people pushing and shoving,” says Donna Stewart, a 55-year-old Oregonian. She doesn’t like being surrounded by so many people she doesn’t know and has been less than impressed by security staff.
“It’s the uncertainty that puts me on edge and makes me overprotective,” she says.
Equally disquieting is that there isn’t any federal set of safety regulations for the rides. It’s up to states and local governments to hash out what those are and how often an inspector will swing by. In Florida, major parks like Disney World, Universal Studios and Busch Gardens are exempt from government investigations into serious accidents.
“These rides may not have been inspected in several years, and there’s almost no way to know,” says Tracy Mehan, manager of the Center for Injury Research and Policy’s Translational Research Team. She’s studied the sorts of injuries kids and teens sustain at amusement parks — all the bruises, sprains, cuts and concussions. Between the May and September months from 1990-2010, there were 20 hospitalizable injuries among parkgoers under 18 every day, on average, in the United States.
It’s not beyond parents to put their kids in uncomfortable positions to recoup the most on their investment.
“I’ve seen a lot of families who’ll tell their kids to stand up straight or wear shoes with big soles to get on rides,” Mehan says.
Lydia Brown remembers standing in line next to a 7-year-old girl who really didn’t want to ride the Pharaoh at Massachusetts’s Marshfield Fair. “I swear she was having a conniption,” the 21-year-old Loyola student says, “and the parents kept saying, ‘You’ll have fun!’ ”
San Diego resident Joshua Russo, 32, doubts his 3-year-old daughter would have fun at Disneyland, so he opted for his city’s world-class zoo. It’s lighter on his wallet. He can bring his own food. She gets to learn about animal habitats and food chains. Yet he can’t avoid the nagging inquiries from friends.
“People say, ‘When is she going to Disneyland?’ ” says the Department of Defense machinist. “I’m trying to stay away as far as I can. I feel like someone is going to make it happen sometime though.”
It’s difficult to be that one holdout among the adrenaline junkies and superfans. How can you hate the escapist thrills, the death-defying loops, the childlike wonder of having your imagination ignited?
Well, if you have trouble with sensory overload for one. After an intense coaster, Tacy Cresson’s eyes were darting everywhere. The towering metal, the booming roars, the sea of people she was navigating, suddenly everything was overwhelming. Her friends didn’t get it. They reminded her she paid to be here. You don’t unload that type of cash to be quiet and sit on the bench.
“It’s this extreme experience that the parks feel like they need to adhere to,” says the 21-year-old student from Delaware. “But it’s all manufactured. None of it is intimate. None of it is real.”
You also feel left out when the rides aren’t built to accommodate you. Andrea Davis, who’s conscious of her weight, avoids amusement parks now. She couldn’t ride the Paratrooper at Conneaut Lake Park in Pennsylvania because the bar in her seat wouldn’t come down far enough. She was even more embarrassed when her cousin opted to forgo the ride so she wouldn’t feel left out.
“In a museum there’s no weight limit, nothing to squeeze into,” says the 21-year-old from Youngstown, Ohio. The dirty looks for wearing a swimsuit at one park stick with her. She skipped out on a family trip to another. Her father is so self-conscious of his size that he once wore sweatpants and a sweatshirt at SeaWorld. His narrow brush with heat stroke cut their day short.
“There’s so many things I’d rather spend my money on,” she says.
Unlike the museum, or the movies, or an afternoon at the cafe, amusement parks are bundled with a sneaky mandate: You better be having fun. After traversing all those miles and parting with all those dollars, the sunk cost is staggering. We need to believe in the magic. But let’s be honest.
“What’s magical about $75, sickening food and sun?” Brown asks. “It’s consumerist, unhealthy and ultimately shallow.”