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Emily Latimer | Longreads | June 6, 2023 | 4,358 words (15 minutes)
It’s March in Florida, and I’m walking around Hogsmeade village in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. It’s a Christmas card come to life—a picturesque setting with charming storefronts, cobbled streets, and faux snow-capped brick buildings with crooked chimneys. A train conductor dressed in a brown suit greets me in a (probably fake) British accent. Behind him, excited park-goers bustle in and out of a sweet shop, clutching plastic cups of Butterbeer. My friends and I snap pictures of the village’s arched roofs, marveling at this place that attracts millions of visitors each year.
We want to see Hogwarts, so we head to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a flying adventure through the castle. We pass through the gates and eventually it becomes dark and atmospheric, with cold stone walls and stained glass windows everywhere, but the warm glow of yellow lanterns lights our way. We hear music from the movie, including its iconic leitmotif: first the delicate sounds of an enchanted bell, then the flurry of strings. Talking portraits speak to us as we move deeper into the castle, and we see magical objects scattered about: the Mirror of Erised, a copy of the Daily Prophet newspaper, and the Sorting Hat. Above, we see Professor Dumbledore, who welcomes us to Hogwarts. “You may encounter all manner of things not common to your own world,” he warns.
It really feels like we’re walking through the halls of a magical place.
As we approach the end of the queue, Harry, Ron, and Hermione appear and invite us to watch a Quidditch game. A rollercoaster-style car pulls up next to us. It looks like some kind of enchanted bench. Above us, countless candles float in the air, as if they’re all under a spell.
“Huh,” I say to my friend. “I think this is the ride that made me feel sick last time.” We walk onto the moving platform and take our seats. It happens fast, and there’s no time to back out. I pull the ride restraint over my shoulders and it clicks into place.
The bench abruptly moves sideways and I’m lifted into the air, feet dangling. I’m swept up and to the side at the same time, which throws me off balance.
Instant regret. My heart is beating hard, I’m accumulating spit in my mouth, and after a few seconds, I’m already dizzy and nauseous. I’m hyperaware of my body as it shifts and sways at the mercy of a robotic arm that lurches me, tilts me, turns me. I hold on for dear life.
I’ve been told that the ride is about four minutes long. But it feels like I’ve entered a portal to another dimension where time loops on and on. I’m reminded of that time I ate an innocent-looking THC-laced peanut butter cup and spent the night in a fetal position. I just pray I make it through alive. Or better yet, maybe I’ll die and the misery will end.
I suddenly remember the $8 Butterbeer that I chugged right before the ride. Whoops. I close my eyes; I know I’m going to be sick. I can’t escape it, but maybe I can delay it. I take deep but shaky breaths. I brace against the unpredictable movements. And then, I let it happen.
I surrender to the ride’s pre-programmed destiny. Its force is bigger and stronger than mine, and better engineered. I’m flailed around like a ragdoll. I curse Harry Potter and his friends, the ride designers, the thrill seekers who rave about the ride, and most of all, me, for willingly going on it. I hold on as long as I can, but the ride pitches me forward and I open my eyes. I see Harry on screen, flying a broom through a Quidditch field. And then I throw up all over my lap. In my hands. And into the open air.
I love amusement parks. I love rides. Unfortunately, they make me barf. There was the time I emerged green and shaky-legged from The Simpsons Ride, a motion simulator attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, and another occasion when I nearly blacked out from the g-force on Dueling Dragons, a roller coaster that Universal Orlando retired in 2017.
It’s not just rides: I once spent six hours in the cabin of a rocking lobster fishing boat, and I often feel disoriented on an especially windy car ride. But I’ve always denied my propensity for motion sickness. Feigning ignorance is the best bet, I thought: So I read in the car, I opted for high-speed ferries, and I went on whatever fun fair rides I felt like. Forget medication—my motion sickness is not that bad.
That is, until this past winter, when I found myself wandering Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure in search of a new pair of shorts, carrying a plastic bag stuffed with my puke-covered clothing. It was then, at age 27, having thrown up at multiple amusement parks in my life, that I realized motion sickness was something I’d have to live with. And that even though I’ve loved going on theme park rides since I was a kid, I’ve never been able to fully experience what they’re built to do: give me a freewheeling, exhilarating thrill.
Thrill seekers want an extreme adrenaline rush, but also an emotional journey. Theme parks are designed to deliver both. The fear and ultimate satisfaction we feel from thrill rides is similar to what we seek in a horror movie or a painfully spicy hot sauce. They’re all benign forms of masochism. (Singer Lucy Dacus recently said that flying in airplanes is a “death-flavored experience.” I think the same could be said for amusement park rides.)
There’s an enduring interest in theme parks and their manufactured thrills. In 2019, over half a billion people visited theme parks worldwide, passing through the gates of magical places like Walt Disney World, Legoland, Six Flags, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Universal Studios in Hollywood and Orlando, where I met my fate on that Harry Potter ride. The global theme park industry, valued at almost $55 billion, is built on family fun, shared experiences, and escape. “It’s about getting away from the everyday and disappearing into a different world,” says Sabrina Mittermeier, author of A Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks. There’s no time to think about your silly little problems when your body is flying through the air against all odds.
A theme park is also an illusion: a fantastical, cloistered space that transports visitors to far-off realms. “It’s all about control,” says Scott A. Lukas, a cultural anthropologist who studies theme parks. “We’re giving you the illusion that you can do whatever you want, yet, we’re controlling everything.” The real trick is making sure park-goers don’t clue into the coordinated efforts happening behind the scenes. The goal? Complete immersion.
But what happens when a ride that’s meant to excite you or make you feel awe doesn’t strike that perfect balance of fun and fear? What does a shattered mirage look like?
When I was younger, the arrival of the traveling carnival each spring to our mall parking lot in Sydney, Nova Scotia, was a sign of the end of the school year. It was 2006, and I was nearly 11 years old. For about $15, my best friend Erika and I got bracelets that let us go on any rides we wanted. Black pavement underfoot, we were free. We weaved through the circus grounds with other unsupervised children from our neighborhood, giddy with excitement. Under worn-out tents, carnies slung sickly-sweet cotton candy and invited us to play games of chance. We always blasted past the games and ran straight for the rides: rides with names like Sizzler, Fireball, Tornado, and Round-Up, which spun all around us, a dizzying assault on the senses. There were a few standout attractions—Zipper flipped you upside down, Tilt-a-Whirl spun you in circles, and the Gravitron lifted your legs off the ground as if by magic. We went on all of them.
One day, we waited in line for Star Trooper, which whizzed above us in a blur of purple and aqua. We slid into the umbrella-like seats when it was our turn. We flew through the air, kicking our feet as the ride lifted us higher. Halfway through, it slowed down and reversed. The backward motion reminded me of the Subway sandwich I’d eaten earlier. I got off the ride, sickly pale, and puked in a garbage can. (“The olives stand out to me the most,” Erika says now.) We laughed, the older kids made fun of me, and we continued on like it never happened. Surely the slow-moving Ferris wheel would be fine. But as we reached the very top, I threw up on the riders below me. Again, we laughed. It was just another day at the circus.
We liked being scared. In our basements, we used Ouija boards to summon spirits. We huddled together in front of the TV as we watched people cut their limbs off in Saw. (I threw up on the carpet after that one.) And we rode all the rides.
Every summer, Erika and I took the ferry to Prince Edward Island for a soccer tournament. We would stay in Cavendish, the beachside town famous for Anne of Green Gables and the classic Sandspit Amusement Park. After soccer games, we visited the fairground and rode the old wooden roller coaster or the bumper boats. It was kind of rinky-dink, but there were more intense rides too. One time, we went on the Rok-n-Rol, a ride on a raised platform that spun us into oblivion. Seated face-to-face, it tipped us upside down, swirled us around in circles. We loved it. Erika begged me to go on again. A little voice told me not to, but I was good at ignoring it in the pursuit of fun. We rode again, and I felt my chicken pesto sandwich come up. I vomited all over both of us. “It was, like, almost normal to me at that point,” Erika says. “It’s weird that we never looked into it.”
Up to a third of people experience motion sickness. It’s the body’s response to different types of movement that cause disequilibrium—a sensation of unsteadiness, imbalance, and spatial disorientation. Cue the nausea, dizziness, headaches, cold sweats, general unwellness, and, well, barfing. Anyone can get motion sickness, so it’s not considered a disease, nor is it considered a disorder. It’s been described as “a natural response to unnatural conditions,” and somehow, that makes me feel better. Children as young as 2 can experience it, and women are more susceptible than men, as are migraine-sufferers and those with inner ear troubles. Heck, sheer anticipation may bring it on: People who have experienced it in the past may have worse symptoms expecting to feel sick.
Motion sickness can be felt anywhere: land, sea, air, and space. In recent decades, new technology that mimics vehicular travel—like flight simulators, VR headsets, video games, and motion simulator rides — have joined the classic motion sickness provokers: the car, the railcar, the airplane, and the boat. You can’t escape it.
Since antiquity, thinkers have theorized and written about motion sickness. Aristotle was the first to describe seasickness as an imbalance of fluids in the body. Hippocrates wrote, “Sailing on the sea proves that motion disorders the body.” Charles Darwin was continually seasick on his nearly five-year journey on the HMS Beagle, writing in 1835, “I hate every wave of the ocean, with a fervor, which you, who have only seen the green waters of the shore, can never understand.” Angsty.
The cause of this condition is simple: motion. There are, however, competing theories about what is happening inside our bodies. Sensory conflict theory says sickness is brought on due to a mismatch between what the eye sees and the information the brain receives from the inner ear balance mechanism (the vestibular system, which detects disorientation in space). So when the eyes tell the brain that a person is sitting still on a boat, for example, but the vestibular system senses head movements from waves rocking against the ship, these mismatched messages are traditionally believed to cause motion sickness.
Too much stimuli can make you sick. These signals can combine and multiply, depending on your environment. John Golding, a professor of applied psychology at the University of Westminster, says motion sickness can take many forms: sea sickness, car sickness, air sickness, space sickness, cinerama sickness, and cyber sickness.
I experienced hybrid sickness on that Harry Potter ride, thanks to the mismatched stimuli between screens and physical motion. But ride-induced motion sickness is nothing new. In 1893, ride designer Amariah Lake invented an “illusion apparatus” called The Haunted Swing. Victorian-era riders entered a room and took a seat on the swing. Attendants gave it a push, and, as one Australian newspaper described, “The swing seems to whirl completely over … while the occupants shriek convulsively and hug each other.” The ride mechanics deceived riders enough for them to believe they were moving. In reality, they were stationary; it was the room that rotated. People were amazed by the engineering and overwhelmed by the physical experience—sometimes enough to vomit. But the ultimate trick in theme park rides is to perfectly calibrate their ups and downs so people don’t end up sick.
If you ask me, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey missed the mark. It’s definitely a feat of engineering—the world’s first passenger-carrying industrial robot. Since its successful debut at Orlando’s Islands of Adventure in 2010, Universal has built the ride at parks in California, Japan, and China. (Before the Hollywood version launched to the public in 2016, TMZ reported that it was making employees barf left and right, and ride engineers couldn’t figure out why.)
As I encountered that day in March, the ride features a four-seat, roller coaster-style bench, mounted on a robotic arm that drops, spins, twists, and turns. The bench doesn’t go upside down, but at one point, riders are laid flat on their backs, and honestly, what’s the difference? The robotic arm (which seems to have a mind of its own, but actually is programmed) was designed for “a guaranteed thrill factor,” according to KUKA, the German robot manufacturer.
For me, there’s too much movement: The arm is attached to a track, which moves through a physical set with animated props. Dome-shaped projection screens fill the rider’s entire field of view. (Read: There’s nowhere else to look.) The ride blended the “first-ever combination of live-action, advanced robotic technology and innovative filmmaking,” creating a new, immersive experience. And hey, people really love it: There’s a cult-like following online, with fans calling it a revolutionary ride with insane, state-of-the-art tech that refreshes the indoor “dark ride” genre.
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But those prone to motion sickness don’t like it very much. Exactly once, more than a decade ago, Steven Golden rode the Forbidden Journey. I contacted Golden after I found him on Reddit, complaining about the ride. He still hasn’t forgotten the feeling of helplessness that set in when the over-the-shoulder restraint eased into place. “I just remember thinking, oh my God, I’ve made a terrible mistake,” Golden says. Within seconds, he remembers being propelled up and jerked around. He tried to look for an exit sign or a stationary object to break the illusion of immersion, but he couldn’t find anything. “There was absolutely no escape.” Over a Zoom call, we laugh and bond over our shared misery. Never again.
New research from Thomas Stoffregen, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, says it is unstable movement that makes you sick—full stop. Motion sickness doesn’t start in the inner ear, Stoffregen says, but rather from a disturbance in the body’s system for maintaining posture. You lose your equilibrium first, and then you get motion sick. In an inconsistent environment, the brain can’t modulate the body’s movement like it usually can.
So on a theme park ride, the relationship between what you’re trying to do with your body and what actually happens to your body is unpredictable and leads to destabilization. Yes, just picture poor me, strapped to a seat and pushed through space. “You’re trying to stabilize the head against these motions that you cannot predict and cannot control,” Stoffregen says. “That’s why you got sick in that device.”
Theme parks have long been a battleground for motion sickness sufferers, but they’ve continued to lure people over the decades. Thrill seekers want fun, fantastic, never-before-felt experiences. Dreamland, one of the earliest theme parks at Brooklyn’s Coney Island, operated from 1904 to 1911. For just 35 cents admission, visitors, many of whom arrived by ship, could embark on one of the first motion simulator rides: Under and Over the Sea, a simulated submarine ride in the Atlantic Ocean. It looked like a Man-of-War ship, complete with lifeboats, gun turrets, and a deck. Peering through portholes, riders witnessed giant squids and sharks. Other simulators at the time imagined a trip to the moon, or a reproduction of the Galveston flood of 1900.
These rides were completely new physical experiences for people at the time. In a 1981 article in The Journal of Popular Culture, American historian Russel B. Nye described the public appeal of the amusement park as a “riskless risk, a place where one may take chances that are not really chances.”
Thrillseekers want their kinesthetic sense disturbed—that’s the whole point. But push the drama too intensely and a person may never come back again. Ride designers must walk that fine line between safety and danger, while balancing the physical stress on the body. The truth is, thrill rides are designed to induce some level of discomfort. But what’s too much? Throwing up? Whiplash? Blacking out due to g-force?
Modern rides that choreograph one-of-a-kind experiences in whimsical worlds and galaxies far, far away—like riding a magical bench through the halls of Hogwarts, soaring on the back of a winged banshee in Pandora, or joining the Resistance in an epic battle against the First Order—are leveraging haptics, olfactory, and VR technology that has become increasingly multi-sensory and immersive. All the while, they need to fine-tune the right amount of fear and fun that doesn’t make riders run for the nearest garbage can.
Past and present, some rides go too far. The world’s first looping roller coaster, the Flip Flap Railway at Coney Island’s Sea Lion Park, was infamous for knocking people out. (It had a perfectly circular loop, which meant passengers were nailed with serious g-force.) In 1910, Rough Riders, another early Coney Island roller coaster, tossed 16 passengers out of the car, killing four.
Even if you don’t die, some rides are notorious for making you feel sick—even today. Just read through online reviews for Epcot’s Mission: SPACE, The Simpsons Ride at Universal Studios, or Star Tours at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and you’ll find lots of people commenting that they nearly puked. After my vomit mishap, I stumbled around Hogsmeade in search of chocolate when a kind shopkeeper advised me to skip the Minions and Transformers rides, just to be safe. Last year, the New York Post wrote that Epcot employees were handing out barf bags at the new Guardians of the Galaxy ride, which rotates 360 degrees and has Disney’s first-ever reverse launch on a roller coaster. (Am I surprised? No.) On message boards, park visitors plot when to take their Dramamine and ask which stomach-turning rides to skip.
New motion simulator rides, like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios—a combined trackless dark ride, motion simulator, walk-through, and drop ride—have been more successful. In 2020, Theme Park Insider ranked it as the best new attraction: “Disney’s latest masterpiece blends four ride systems with animatronics and live actors to create the most immersive themed experience of the year.” Disney made another winner at its Animal Kingdom park at Walt Disney World. On Avatar Flight of Passage, a 3D flying simulator, riders straddle a mechanical banshee and feel it breathe between their legs. “No other theme park attraction so wonderfully recreates the feeling of flying than Flight of Passage does,” states another Theme Park Insider review.
In my deep dive into theme park blogs and forums, I found a real appetite for well-done immersive rides that don’t make you expel your overpriced park lunch.
Because here’s the thing: People are getting sick at theme parks all the time. Prone to motion sickness since childhood, Darren Kwong rode that Harry Potter ride a few years ago. He later rated it one star. “I couldn’t enjoy it at all,” he now says. He closed his eyes seconds after the ride started, and took deep breaths to stop from getting sick. He made it through without throwing up on his date, but it was close.
Another rider, Laurin Jeffrey, went in with a plan. He heard it may be a rough ride, so he preemptively took ginger pills, Gravol, and Pepto-Bismol. Even loaded up on medication, he felt sick because he felt the actions on screen didn’t match up with the movements of the robotic arm. “You’re going sideways while backwards while it tips you as you’re looking at something going forwards,” he says. “If you could design a Vomit-Tron, that would be it.”
One blog post on Penny Arcade resonated with me in particular: “Within the first 5 seconds of Harry Potter I knew I was in trouble. … As vomiting turned from a possibility into certainty I started trying to focus on how best to throw up.” Been there, brother.
You can try to beat motion sickness, but once it sets in, it’s already too late. The best way to stop motion sickness is to avoid situations that may provoke it. But if you’re like me and absolutely must ride: Look at the horizon. Try Dramamine. Consider acupressure. Don’t eat or drink anything before or after a ride. (Or if you do, make sure it’s bland.) Try not to get annoyed when your friend says, “I didn’t think it was that bad.”
But prevention may not work. One reviewer took Transderm-Scop, a medication that had proved effective on other rides. “That miracle drug allows me to ride everything else in the world … [but] it barely took the edge off,” they wrote. “Without the medication I was undone.” Another reviewer took medication but ended up braving the ride to see if it had kicked in. “It didn’t work at all,” she wrote. “I’m 44 years old and have never thrown up on an attraction.”
When you puke in a land of magic and whimsy, the wonder vanishes.
The seat was curved, so puke pooled under my butt and legs. Who’s going to clean this? I thought. I stood up, spaced out and doused in vomit, and watched as the bench rolled away. I hurried toward the nearest unmoving wall, squatted, and took deep breaths as my friends surveyed what happened. The cool floor looked like a good place to lie for a while. Then I heard a voice.
“Ma’am, I have a room for you.”
I glanced up and saw a kind employee looking down at me. From his expression, I could tell he had seen this before and knew exactly what to do. He ushered me to a door marked for employees only and opened it to reveal a hidden space—one dedicated to unfortunate souls like me who couldn’t make it through the ride without getting sick.
There was a square basin that looked like a toilet filled with water. It was a special puke sink, with a silver flush handle. I hovered over it for a second, but I was all puked out. Two of my friends came in after me, and one of them was inspired to throw up, too.
The small room had a normal sink and soap and throw-up bags and paper towels. I wiped off my shorts and legs, and removed my T-shirt, which was completely ruined. The attendant knocked on the door and asked if I needed anything. A new shirt. Shorts. Water. He came back with a blue T-shirt, size adult large, with a screen print of the Hogwarts castle. “Visit Enchanting Hogsmeade,” it read. A $27 souvenir, free for the price of vomit. “No shorts,” he said.
I felt grateful for his help and relieved that this secret room was here to hide my vomit. There was a wooden cabinet with dozens of Gildan T-shirts and flip-flops in different sizes. As I looked at them, I thought of all the people who came before me and puked on their shoes. They got to see inside this secret space, too, which is magical in its own way.
My friends and I explored, flinging cupboards open and peeking behind curtains to reveal cleaning supplies and garbage bags. As I scrubbed my body and donned my new T-shirt, I accepted the tiniest water bottle I’ve ever seen—another consolation prize.
“Does this happen a lot?” I asked the ride attendant.
“Pretty often,” he said.
I balled up my old T-shirt and my ruined hat and shoved them into a plastic bag. I was still shaky, but I took sips of water and felt ready to leave.
I wobbled through the busy gift shop toward the bright Florida sunlight, dazed as people dressed in Hogwarts-themed clothing moved around me. I put my clammy hand to my cheek and took a Snapchat selfie with my barf bag. “Bag of shame,” I posted.
As I cowered in a shady area while my sister hustled around looking for a new pair of shorts for me, I thought about how quickly the illusion can shatter in theme parks: You get stuck upside down on the Flying Cobra. The bright lights come on after Space Mountain malfunctions, exposing the ride’s steel infrastructure. You’re covered in your own vomit, and the spell is broken.
Emily Latimer is a journalist and fact-checker in Nova Scotia. She’s written for the CBC, Canadian Business, Maclean’s, and elsewhere. You can find her stories at www.emilylatimer.com.