Last week, WFTV – the ABC affiliate in Orlando ran a story on Jessica Cox, an armless woman who filed a discrimination complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations after visiting Universal Orlando in November of 2015 and discovering that she could not experience attractions because of her disability. While it is true that Universal has very strict policies when it comes to their ride restrictions, calling it discrimination is just utterly ridiculous. As a former Team Member at Universal Orlando (not speaking on behalf of the company), I’d like to shed some extra light on this story instead of letting WFTV paint Universal in a bad light and ignore the other side of this story.
If you are deep into the world of theme parks, you hear people comparing Disney and Universal in terms of attraction friendliness for guests with disabilities. Disney is usually lauded for making attractions that are accessible for as many as possible, while Universal is condemned for their small and tight gift shops in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, attractions that can’t fit guests of all body sizes, and the list goes on. Even in WFTV’s investigative report, they were very willing to point out that Cox had no issues riding similar rides at Disney parks.
But, Universal has a set of ride restrictions set in place to ensure guest safety that goes highly unseen, even though it is easy to find for anyone doing the slightest bit of research. If you don’t feel like looking for it – here it is. The Universal Rider’s Guide lists out all ride restrictions, height requirements, ride warnings and more in a nice little pamphlet that is also available at Guest Services locations and every attraction at Universal Orlando. The part that we need to dive into first is their four concrete ride restrictions that are set in stone:
CONTINUOUSLY GRASP WITH AT LEAST ONE UPPER EXTREMITY.
EXPLANATION: The guest must have at least one upper extremity or prosthesis exhibiting good grip control with the ability to brace and strong enough to allow the guest to maintain the proper riding position through the duration of the ride, where specified.
INDEPENDENTLY MAINTAIN YOURSELF IN AN UPRIGHT POSITION WHILE SEATED.
EXPLANATION: The guest must have the body and spinal control to sit upright without the aid of other people or devices and be able to maintain the proper riding posture even during bumping or other characteristic movements of the ride. Certain units, such as Caro-Seuss-elTM animals, require the ability to form a saddle posture.
INDEPENDENTLY ABSORB SUDDEN AND DRAMATIC MOVEMENTS OF THE ATTRACTION WHICH MAY INCLUDE SPINNING, TURNING, ACCELERATING, STOPPING, CLIMBING, ETC.
EXPLANATION: The guest must have su cient awareness of the nature of the ride and the ability to sit upright and grip, grasp or hold the restraint mechanism and/or brace with legs, as needed, during the dynamic motion of the ride without the aid of other people or devices.
POSSESS SUFFICIENT UPPER BODY STRENGTH TO INDEPENDENTLY SUPPORT YOUR TORSO, NECK, AND HEAD DURING THE MOVEMENT OF THE RIDE.
EXPLANATION: The guest must have the su cient muscle control to support their head, neck, and upper torso in a standard, forward-looking position without the aid of other people or devices during the movement of the ride.
All four of these ride restrictions must be met in order to experience rides at Universal Orlando. Unfortunately for Jessica Cox, she was restricted on rides she could experience, because of the first bullet point – Continuously grasp with at least one upper extremity. While it is unfortunate, it is a rule that Universal Orlando has put in place to prevent any tragedies like the story of the Army veteran with no legs who was thrown from a roller coaster at Darien Lake and died.
Now let’s go over some of the claims and statements and dissect them. It is easy to side with Cox when she says things like, “I was never held back, never restricted. For the very first time in my life, I felt as though I was limited.” After hearing that, it wouldn’t be a shock to see people siding with her. Then when WFTV reveals that she has a black belt in taekwondo, is the first armless pilot, and is a certified scuba diver, you really might wonder why she isn’t allowed to ride Universal’s attractions.
Well, here’s the thing. Like the height restrictions set by the manufacturers of Universal’s attractions, exceptions cannot be made on a person-by-person basis. While working at Universal, I heard from ENDLESS amounts of parents with children too short for attractions like Dragon Challenge yell and scream about how I didn’t know their kid but they do so that’s why they know they are able to handle it. Heck, I even know of an instance where a little person put up a fight because he was turned away due to height despite being an adult. Height restrictions don’t change based on age. If a person under the height requirement for a ride makes it on and ends up being okay then they got lucky. However, I’ve seen people who have snuck between the cracks and ended up getting hurt because of it. Just because one person ends up okay doesn’t mean everyone will and that is why the rule is in place.
Cox’s attorney thinks that Universal can’t make these assumptions based on how somebody looks, because she can do a lot more than the average person, meaning it is blanket discrimination. A rule is a rule and a law is a law. The next time I get pulled over without wearing my corrective lens while driving, I am not going to file a complaint with the police and say they can’t make assumptions about me. The fact is I have to wear my glasses while driving regardless of whether or not I think I can go without them. End of story.
A lot of people ask the question, “Can’t Universal just make people sign a waiver that says if they get hurt then it is their fault?” This is a dumb question. We would witness parents signing waivers for their kids left and right and kids would be getting hurt all over the place leading parents to ask the question, “Why would you let me sign this to break the rules if you knew my child would have a chance at being hurt?” Stupidity takes many different forms.
An issue that does come into play is Universal’s ride guidelines. These are the suggestions they make that say guests with back problems, pregnant women, etc… shouldn’t experience attractions, but Universal can’t force them not to ride, because a lot of these problems are not visible. At the end of the day, an attraction attendant doesn’t care if you think you can experience the attraction because you’re only a little pregnant or because you can do many amazing things despite lacking limbs. They just care about your safety and will say no if your safety is being compromised.
That least me to my final thought. Jessica Cox is an inspiration without a doubt. She has overcome the odds and has done many great things and continues to do so. However, sometimes everyone needs to take a step back and think about the situation their in. Changing the rules for one person could have a terrible impact on the lives of many. We should strive for equality as a culture, including theme parks, but is it worth the risk of injury or death when it comes to theme parks? I don’t believe so.
I sympathize with Cox and realize I can’t empathize in this situation. While working for Universal, I would’ve loved to put her and anyone like her on rides that she is restricted from, but it just isn’t safe. Knowing that I pressed the button that ended up hurting or killing someone would’ve left me permanently scarred, and no Universal employee deserves that, and no family should have to go through the pain of losing someone or dealing with injury because of a theme park ride.