Katie Champagne has a story that will leave you both inspired and angry.
The 17-year-old was born without hands and without her left arm almost to the elbow, but she's an accomplished equestrian. And despite not having any fingers, she can navigate an
as easily as the fastest thumb-typist you know. She aims to be an artist or photographer.
Katie was humiliated last week when ride attendants at
made her get off Kraken, one of the park's most popular roller coasters. In December, Universal employees stopped the Michigan teen from going on the
"My heart sank," she said.
Angry yet? Good. But now ask yourself how you can blame the theme parks. Today's lawsuit-happy culture forces them to come up with page after page of safety requirements.
The parks say Katie did not meet those requirements because she could not grasp the safety harness on the rides with at least one hand.
It all boils down to the difficult calculus that pits Katie's fun against risk management.
And in that equation, Katie's always going to lose.
Theme parks get sued so often that they've learned to spell out exactly what risk they will accept and what they won't.
Take this SeaWorld rule for Kraken, a floor-less roller coaster with a 151-foot lift, steep drops, sharp turns and speeds up to 65 mph: "Guests with an amputated leg(s) above the knee are not permitted to ride. A guest with a double leg amputation BELOW the knee may ride provided the guest has two functioning hands. A guest with a single leg amputation at the knee or below may ride provided the guest has one functioning hand and one functioning arm. A guest with a single arm amputation may ride provided the guest has one functioning hand and two functioning legs."
G-forces. Speed. Angles. They've all been calculated so SeaWorld can determine who it thinks will be safe on the ride and who won't.
And, as far as a theme park is concerned, more safety equals fewer lawsuits.
Back in 2009, the Sentinel took a detailed look at lawsuits filed against Central Florida theme parks, and it wasn't pretty. There were almost 500 suits filed between 2004 and 2008, and 101 of them dealt with rides or attractions.
The rest were lawsuits over everything from food poisoning to scratches from a wayward vulture during a trained-bird show.
You better believe Universal and SeaWorld are going to make sure they're covered on one of their biggest liabilities: coasters that hurtle people through the air at top speeds.
"They have to have a safe environment or they're going to face a lawsuit," said Michael Spellman, a Tallahassee attorney who specializes in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Katie's attorney, Richard Bernstein, said she should have been able to ride because she is capable of holding onto the harness with her upper extremities even though she doesn't have hands.
But Spellman points out that safety decisions can't be left up to individual consumers.
"She could injure others if she was thrown from the ride," he said. "A company cannot be in the position of letting the patron decide if the guidelines apply. It's not just about that person's safety. It's about everybody's safety."
Katie's family said she rode Kraken on an earlier trip to SeaWorld in December without a problem. All that means is an employee didn't do his job and enforce the rules.
Orlando is in the business of making people happy.
But Katie Champagne's misery is the result of a litigious society, not heartless theme parks.