Theme park: the happiest place on earth, if your size is right

Theme park: the happiest place on earth, if your size is right

23 December 2021 Off By Facto Edizioni

/ by Domenico Matarazzo /

/ Between lockdowns, inflation and the winter holidays, consumers move less and will eat more and worse. The result is the growing number of obese people.  For them, the park experience can be painful. Here are the issues and some initiatives to counter the crisis /

Near the entrance of many rides in amusement parks there is a test seat that visitors are invited to use to check if they can fit in the cars. In this area it is not an uncommon scene to see an obese person trying to fit in the seat, and then burst in a laugh while struggling to fit. The scene is not funny at all for the visitor. Behind the nervous laugh, according to research, there is a desperate reaction of people that emerges when they are being publicly humiliated: first during the attempt to sit, then when they are forced to walk away. 

These customers pay the same entrance fees, and yet they can’t enjoy the same experiences of all other guests. This type of scenes are most likely going to happen more frequently in the future and parks management should start planning accordingly. With the enactment of social isolation and physical distancing and other restrictions due to the pandemic, the usual places for physical activities, like gyms and outdoor recreation facilities, had a limited attendance. Moreover inflation, higher prices and the winter festivities will push individuals to eat more but also to consume cheaper and unhealthy food. The result is the increase of the segment of the obese population and, with it, the number of visitors that cannot enjoy a ride or might face humiliation in other public settings within a theme park.  

Current data show that obese people make up some 36.5% of the adult population in the USA and current trends indicate that this rate is on the rise. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) reports that there are more than 400 major theme parks and amusement parks and attractions in the USA, and about 300 in Europe, hosting 375 million and 161 million visitors annually, respectively. If the proportion of obese guests to theme parks matches that of the general population, then one third of all visitors are obese. 

Some parks are already addressing the issue by offering healthier menus by replacing hamburgers, hot dogs, and turkey legs with meat, egg and dairy-free options. One of these parks is Disneyland which was recently recognized by PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) association as the “Most vegan-friendly amusement park in America” or “The happiest place on Earth for young vegans.” Beyond healthier menu, to date, however, the number of studies about obesity and theme parks is very low, indicating that researchers and park administrators have paid little attention to this rapidly growing segment of their visitors.

To address the issue, it takes a bigger and coordinate effort. This is the opinion of the UK government who has put together a national pilot plan that includes amusement parks in the set of solutions. With this objective in mind, next year the British government will launch an app that aims at helping people to make change to their diet and physical activity. The participants will wear a device similar to a Fitbit that will provide personalized health advice, such as increasing the step count, eating more fruit and vegetables and reducing portion size. The plan also includes organized activities to promote exercise, like runs in the parks or walking to work or school. 

The app could also be used to monitor supermarket spending, rewarding those who cut their calorie intake and buy healthier options instead. Each of these activities will be rewarded with points in the app, like the miles we get for using a specific airline. It is not a coincidence that one of the minds behind the plan is Sir Keith Mills, the entrepreneur behind Airmiles and Nectar points, two very popular reward programs in the UK. Participants will collect points for their healthy behaviors, which will unlock rewards that could include gym passes, clothes or food vouchers and discounts for shops, cinemas, or theme parks.

HeadUp Systems is the company that won the contract to develop the app and manage the 3 million pounds from the Department of Health and Social Care that is allocated to provide incentives and rewards for the participants. Incentives and rewards are key components of the program as consumer research shows that financial incentives do increase physical activity and inspire healthier eating among individuals. The UK has one of the worst records for obesity in western Europe, with two in three adults overweight or obese, and one in three children reaching this stage by the time they leave primary school. There are countless and known benefits about staying fit, but the goal of the British government is also to reduce strain on the NHS, the National Health Service. According to the accounts of the department, obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS £6 billion a year. 

The pilot scheme will launch in January 2022 and run for six months in a location in England yet to be decided. Ministers hope to then roll out the scheme nationally. 

While amusement parks generate tons of data that are useful for market research, there is not a vaste literature about the visit experienced by visitors whose body might be a barrier to full enjoyment of the attractions. In one early project carried out in 1992, researchers identified three levels of the theme park experience which could frame the issues: visitors’ initiative to participate, experience with fellow visitors, and interaction with the staff. 

More recently researchers from the Department of Hotel and Tourism Management at the Negev in Israel and the Hospitality and Tourism Management program at Virginia Tech used this framework to carry out an exploratory study. The project was limited in size with only 14 respondents, but what makes it relevant is that all the respondents agreed on specific issues and experiences that they went through while visiting a theme park. The first goal of the project was indeed to identify the issues and the second goal was to identify the solutions.

As for the issues, it is harder to walk long distances between park attractions and wait in long queues for obese people than for visitors with no weight issues. Obesity is not formally classified as a disability and so visitors with this issue cannot use the special line for people with disabilities or golf carts to move around. The main issue that was common for all respondents was also the strong feeling of humiliation, caused mainly by their inability to experience a ride (due to the small seats or too-short seatbelts), and by the insult of being asked to leave the line, all in front of other visitors. This request is especially embarrassing when made in front of their children. Participants used words such as “humiliating,” “embarrassing,” “devastating,” and “I wanted to cry.” Moreover, this is especially difficult when children are not allowed on a ride unless accompanied by a parent, or when the children want to take the ride with the parents only. Some of the comments reported by the victims of this treatment show how the experience can have long term effects on the individuals. For some “it ruined the whole vacation”, for some it was a “hard-to-heal wound” or “a painful memory.” To aggravate the situation, some participants felt that bystanders seemed to be happy seeing them and their children excluded from the ride, as if was socially acceptable and the right thing to do to be excluded from the line. For some, the reaction could also be the result of thinking that obese individuals are perceived as recipients of government support paid for by taxpayers. The solution to these problems, therefore, should not just be from the point of view of the individual’s ability to access an attraction, but also in terms of respect and acceptance by others. 

Some of the solutions were also included in the…

Continue reading Games & Parks Industry December 2021, page 34

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