Autumn, 6, is the youngest of the three Larsen kids, who live with their father Dave and mother Bobbie Jo near Diamond Lake in south Minneapolis. All year long Autumn looked forward to riding the big rides at Valleyfair, the amusement park. Last summer she had been too short, and watched with green eyes as her brother Dakota had all the fun.
In the ensuing months, the girl’s red-topped head grew closer and closer to the magic 48 inch threshold. By July, she was 46.75 inches tall.
Her parents dreaded the prospect of another trip to Valleyfair with Autumn grounded while her sister and brother soared. Then the Valleyfair web site gave them some uplifting news. A child who stands 48 inches in shoes would qualify for the rides.
Bobbie Jo took Autumn to Famous Footwear in Richfield and found a pair of sturdy brown flip-flops with thick soles. In them, Autumn stood tall at 48.125 inches – victory!
Dave bought the Valleyfair tickets online and was reassured by the language on the ticket itself: “This ticket admits one guest who is 3-61 years of age & 48” or taller in shoes on any 2008 public operating day.”
On Aug. 15, the family traveled to Shakopee for a day at Valleyfair. The first inkling of trouble came at guest services, where Autumn was told to take off her shoes before being measured. Her father objected.
They left without the required armband, but managed to get on the 48-inch minimum rides anyway. For a time.
At 12:30, they were stopped while trying to get on the old-fashioned roller-coaster.
“They like said, I couldn’t go on there,” Autumn told me in an interview. “But I already go’ed on there.”
Then, she recalled, “Daddy started talking really very loud.”
Dave Larsen was frustrated most of all by the inconsistency. One ride operator would do the measurement with shoes on. Another would make Autumn take them off and stand on a pad. The family gave up after Autumn was barred by a “meanie” from the Corkscrew, another ride she had been on earlier.
It ruined their trip.
“We ended up leaving shortly after that,” Larsen told me. “How can you stay when your child is just sitting there, ‘Daddy what did I do wrong? I rode it before, what did I do?’”
Larsen sent a letter to Valleyfair, explaining the situation and demanding that someone in authority contact him. Instead, he got an envelope with a check for $13, a refund for the extra cost of Autumn’s fully-fledged ticket.
The height restrictions for rides are set by the manufacturer for safety reasons, said Rachel Onken, promotions and communications manager for Valleyfair. Onken didn’t know about the Larsens’ situation, but said the refund showed that Valleyfair recognized that the family was owed something.
Onken said that if a ride operator thinks that a child’s shoes are too thick, they can use a pad that reflects an average shoe height to get a more realistic measurement. Then there’s the issue of shrinkage that could happen after a day on one’s feet.
“Children might shrink a little bit during the day,” she said. “If you start at 48 inches, you might be just a hair underneath it by the end of the day.”
Larsen doesn’t think there was any safety reason to keep Autumn off the rides. Nor does he think that she lost any altitude that day. But Autumn has lost her love of Valleyfair. Every time a Valleyfair commercial comes on TV, she has the same reaction: “That’s where the meanie works.”
Valleyfair offers this 20-page safety guide for its rides. And there’s an online comment form for feedback, although it does note that those who want a response from Valleyfair management need to write an actual letter.