The Ironically-Named Universal Studios

Reconsidering my opinions about theme parks that treat me like I’m too fat to visit them

Two things I’ve seen recently:

  1. A theme park and roller coaster fan posted a photo to Twitter, showing his hand-made calendar of weight-loss goals he wanted to hit. The overriding goal: to lose enough weight to be able to ride the new Velocicoaster at Islands of Adventure in Orlando.
  2. A couple that makes YouTube videos were at a preview day for Universal Studios Hollywood to prepare for its re-opening, and they wanted to go on its new dark ride for The Secret Life of Pets. But when trying the test seat outside the ride entrance, one of them found he couldn’t fit with the ride vehicle and its restraints. He then did something I’ve never seen from a theme park YouTuber: he said, on camera, how it was a drag that Universal didn’t make more of an effort to make the ride accommodating for larger guests. But then — twist! — he found a way to fit in the ride vehicle, so they resumed their previously-scheduled ride-through and talked about how great the ride was and how Universal had even beat Disney at its own game, etc.

Taken together, I’d say that sums up the state of Universal, in the current Wizarding World of Harry Potter era: creative is doing the work, coming up with rides that seem fun, are full of novel ideas, and have been getting exceptional reviews. But then they’re put into theme parks with what seems like no concern given to actual guests, and then for whatever reason, guests are eager to treat it like it’s their own fault, not Universal’s.

For a while, I’ve been feeling like such a theme park snob for having such a low opinion of Universal Studios, based entirely on a couple of disappointing trips I took with my family in summer in the late 90s/early 2000s. It felt disrespectful to the hard work of so many people, especially since the parks had shown an eagerness to be more experimental and innovative than the notoriously risk-averse Disney parks.

So I made a point not to compare it to my memories of Disney, and instead focus on all the cool stuff they were doing — the fantastic Spider-Man ride, the great theming in both Harry Potter lands, the beautiful layout of Volcano Bay, the ingenious design of Cabana Bay as an affordable hotel that was so cool that people would actually prefer to stay there instead of a more expensive one, and the still-phenomenal tram tour at the original Universal Studios Hollywood.

And I kept being disappointed, over and over again. Because again, the creativity and the design weren’t in question. The problem was that they were constantly being kneecapped by baffling decisions apparently made elsewhere. Entire lands made with seemingly no thought as to capacity. Hour-or-longer waits for a brief “ceremony” at Ollivander’s that chooses only one child in the audience, and doesn’t even give them the wand afterwards. Rides for properties that appeal to younger audiences, but have ride systems that keep younger audiences from riding. And overall, the constant feeling of being told by Universal that I’m too fat, too old, or that my time isn’t valuable.

I realized that I wasn’t the one being disrespectful to the work of the creative teams, Universal was.

The Secret Life of Pets ride looks genuinely charming, and appealing to me even though I have zero interest in the license. There are some very clever effects throughout, combining screens and projections and animatronics and special effects. It could’ve been a wonderful family ride, but it has a ride system that might as well be on a roller coaster.

Any time this criticism is raised, you can see people leaping to Universal’s defense, almost as if someone had dared to criticize Elon Musk online. They make it sound as if these are just unavoidable design constraints that every theme park is subject to — even though we all know that there’s a very liability-sensitive 900-pound gorilla just a few miles away from both of Universal’s American resorts. And on the rare occasion that Disney does make something that’s not (ahem) universally accessible, they get reamed about it online.

I’ve spent most of my life somewhere on the spectrum between “husky” and “fat,” but I’ve very rarely been subjected to the kind of criticism that most overweight people have to put up with regularly. It’s always, always presented as your fault. “You could be skinner if you tried.” “You’re responsible for making yourself unhealthy.” “I lost x pounds, so you could, too.” “If you took better care of yourself, people wouldn’t be such assholes to you.”

Along the same lines, Universal advertises these rides and parks to us, while making what seems like zero effort to make them accessible to us. And everyone acts like it’s our fault. Meanwhile, the parks sell pizza fries, butterscotch-flavored cream soda, and milkshakes with whole slices of cake or doughnuts in them. [Edited 6/10/21: Because this can be so easily misinterpreted: I mention unhealthy theme park food not as “fat people just can’t help ourselves from overindulging!” bad-faith nonsense. I actually tend to eat fairly reasonably at theme parks, but I still can’t fit comfortably on a ride where I’m supposed to be the Incredible Hulk. Instead, I meant it to counter the first thing people always, always, always trot out to defend hostility or indifference to fat people: the claim that it’s some kind of tough-love argument that’s in interest of the target’s health. Look at the food for sale at Universal parks and try to tell me again that this company is concerned about guests’ health. I dare you].

To be clear: I absolutely don’t begrudge in the slightest any of the people using a fun-looking rollercoaster as a metric for their own plans to lose weight. On the contrary, that seems like a fun way to do it. What I’m calling out is the idea that we’re obligated to change our bodies to fit the rides, and not that these companies are obligated to change their rides to accommodate as many of us as possible.

I also don’t begrudge any YouTuber who just wants to have fun at the parks (and not piss off Universal with their videos) instead of having to think about any of this bullshit. American society finds ways to make fat people feel bad about themselves multiple times a day, every day, and it’s such a relief to be able to take even a brief vacation from it. Not to mention the anxiety that comes from wondering if you’re going to be publicly kicked off a ride because “you don’t fit” (always worded that way instead of “the ride doesn’t fit you”).

So I’m done giving them a break. Again, by everything I’ve seen, Universal creative is doing some really good work. But I’m kind of done making excuses for theme parks that repeatedly act like they don’t want me there. I’m sure I’ll go on the tram tour at Universal Hollywood again, and I’m looking forward to seeing Super Mario World, and finding out if they’ve made the rides there ridiculously hostile to the overweight.

But I’ll have to leave the Hagrid coaster, and the Velocicoaster, and the slow-moving family ride based on an animated movie about adorable pets, for the average sized. Meanwhile, I’ll be at Disney, where they almost never make me feel old and fat.