There is a story that’s been passed down between employees at Universal Orlando for years as part of the park’s quirky history. I first heard it from my brother, one of the last skippers of Amity Island before Jaws was finally slain and Diagon Alley was built on its corpse. Interestingly enough, it also concerns a ride that has long since been slain by the Harry Potter marketing machine… and it highlights a relationship between thrill rides and disability that I had never considered before.
The ride was Dragon Challenge, formerly Dueling Dragons; one of the most intense rides in the park. In its heyday, it was a record setter. The first ever pair of dueling inverted roller coasters. The Fire and Ice coasters intertwined like two serpents playing Twister, placing the two vehicles in perilously close proximity. In its heyday, it seemed as if you could reach out and high-five your fellow riders as you sped past one another in a gravity defying corkscrew. It was harrowing. Exhilarating. Too dangerous for its own good. In 2011, a rider lost an eye when they were struck by an object dropped by another rider. The rumor was that someone was holding their keys in their hand and lost their grip, but no official cause was ever released. The coaster launches were staggered after that to prevent another incident.
Some time after, according to legend, a man with a prosthetic leg boarded the ride. Things went normally at first, but disaster struck during one of the inverted loops. Whatever was holding that prosthetic in place couldn’t withstand the G-forces, and the leg was sent soaring over the horizon. I like to imagine what it would have looked like from the perspective of someone else riding; perhaps someone forced on by an overeager partner, terrified that their feet would get caught on one of the platforms that seemed just inches from your feet. How, right at the moment they had begun to succumb to the ride’s charm, someone’s leg would fly past their head. If it were a film, I’d imagine it moving by in slow motion, the plastic glistening in the midday sun as a look of terror spread across that unfortunate rider’s face.
Supposedly, the leg crashed into the nearby lagoon, and the park spent hours searching for it. It was never found, and the park had to pay a sizable fee to their unfortunate, legless guest. In some versions of the story, the twist was that the rider was never wearing their prosthetic to begin with, and was simply gaming the theme park to provide what their insurance refused. Other versions claimed that the rider would return to the park years later, only to lose their leg again. Honestly, I doubt the veracity of the entire story; not only is it kind of ableist to paint the de-legged rider as some sort of prosthetic con artist, but I can’t find a single news article confirming this event actually happened. It’s true that many rides at Universal Orlando expressly forbid prosthetic limbs, but there’s no evidence that this particular incident was the cause. It’s more likely that the 2011 death of Sgt. James Thomas Hackemer, who was thrown from his seat after a roller coaster’s lap bar failed to restrain him, was the cause of this new safety measure. Not that I blame the team members at Universal for coming up with such a fanciful story. A prosthetic leg flying over the horizon is a lot more palatable than a story of a war hero being launched to his death while his family watches in horror.
The story highlights a problem with Universal Orlando, however. Of all the major theme parks in the Orlando area, it’s one of the least accommodating. Walt Disney World, its main competitor, allows amputees and guests in wheelchairs to ride nearly every attraction. The only exceptions are some older walk through attractions, certain water slides, and a pair of older attractions that simply weren’t designed with accessibility in mind. There are also very few restrictions based on size; guests with larger body types can comfortably fit on every attraction. Even SeaWorld, which has a reputation as being an also-ran in the theme park wars, has harnesses designed to secure amputees safely on even their more extreme rides. Universal has made improvements over the past decade (driven in part by a 2012 lawsuit), but guests can still be turned away at a moment’s notice.
At many places, employees aren’t even trained on how to properly accommodate guests. When Sgt. Hackemer and his family asked an employee at the Darren Lake amusement park which rides were safe for amputees, the employee allegedly claimed that all the rides were safe, despite the fact that park policy clearly stated that riders on the coaster he was ejected from needed to have two legs. Many questions fielded by disabled guests, ranging from service dog rest areas to safe spaces to retreat during an autistic meltdown, are met with a resounding shrug by the rank and file theme park employee. The parks are designed with able bodies in mind; it’s no surprise that the employees are trained in the same way. Even anecdotes like that fanciful prosthetic leg story highlight a certain callousness toward the disabled. No version of the story implicates a team member for failing to remind their guest to secure their limb. There’s not a version where the guest was warned not to ride, only to foolishly ignore their warnings. The owner of the flying leg is portrayed as foolish at best, or outright devious at worst. The team operating the ride is, of course, depicted as blameless.
Theme parks are meant to be an escape from reality, but events like this reveal an ugly truth. Our public spaces simply aren’t designed to accommodate people with disabilities. It’s a reality that many have to live with every day of their lives. Theme parks are just an extreme example; our obsession with bigger, faster, more spectacular rides leads us to overlook huge subsets of the population. A counter top being too high is frustrating; a roller coaster without proper restraints can kill.
It’s clear that, after 2020, theme parks are never going to look quite the same. The major players are frantically trying to jury rig new safety measures to protect guests, and the era of tightly packed vehicles may well be coming to a close. The parks of 2030 could look totally different to what we have today. I only hope that the next generation of engineers and designers remember the disabled community as they create the next big attraction.
After all, someone’s life, or leg, could be at stake.