We’ve never been real big on rollercoasters. In general we’re OK with steep drops and tight turns. But once the track starts looping and spiraling and spinning upside-down, count us out.
We’re pretty much the exact opposite of Keyair Christie, who—like a lot of 12-year-olds—can’t get enough of this stuff. The scarier, the better, as far as he’s concerned. “He’s been riding rollercoasters since a very young age,” says Keyair’s mom, Gina Stephens. “He loves the thrill of it.”
So the kid was heartbroken and humiliated late last year when ride operators at Universal Orlando wouldn’t allow him to board the sensational Jurassic World VelociCoaster. Why couldn’t he ride?
“The staff said it was because he’s an above-knee amputee,” Stephens recalls. “They told us, ‘You have to be a below-knee amputee in order to ride.’ So now my son’s looking at himself like it’s his fault, and having cancer was his fault. It felt very personal. He’s literally crying, he felt so horrible. He went home feeling like there is something wrong with being an above-knee amputee.”
And it takes a lot to get Keyair down. He’s been eyeball to eyeball with life-threatening cancer since he was eight years old, and he’s hardly flinched. He lost his right leg at age 10. Now, at age 12, Keyair is battling another cancer relapse. Through it all he’s kept up his grades, maintained his spirits, and shrugged off more hardship and peril than most people face in a lifetime. We’ve been following his journey on social media since shortly after his amputation. “Prince Key is always smiling, even on tough days,” we wrote in 2021. “To us, that’s what courage comes down to: looking the demon in the eye and smiling back.”
Unfortunately, he’s not the first amputee who’s left a Universal park with a frown on his face. More than a decade ago, two amputees (one upper-limb, one lower-limb) sued the company after being turned away from a ride at Universal’s Southern California property. A few years later the relatively well-known Jessica Cox—a congenital, bilateral arm amputee who’s licensed to fly airplanes and holds a black belt in taekwando—filed a discrimination complaint against Universal Orlando after she was barred from its rides. In 2019 another congenital upper-limb amputee lodged an ADA complaint against Universal after being told his limb difference made him ineligible to ride any of the water attractions with his kids.
“His amputation wasn’t a problem at any of the other parks [in Orlando],” says Stephens. “SeaWorld actually harnesses you into the seat to make sure you’re not blocked. Each ride had their own harness, and they literally took time to put it on him and make sure he’s safe. So what makes SeaWorld different? They have wild rides just as much as any other place. Why can’t [Universal] have that harness for each ride?”
Others have asked the same question. “It appears Universal, known for its thrill rides, has stricter policies than SeaWorld or Disney,” the Orlando Sentinel wrote in 2016. “Cox and other amputees say they’ve been able to ride on Disney attractions, including the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, with no problem. SeaWorld has harnesses designed to tightly restrain amputees in its roller coasters.” An Orlando resident named Austin Lang (a theme-park enthusiast who’s on the neurodiversity spectrum) echoed those views in 2020: “Of all the major theme parks in the Orlando area, [Universal] is one of the least accommodating. Walt Disney World, its main competitor, allows amputees and guests in wheelchairs to ride nearly every attraction. . . . Even SeaWorld, which has a reputation as being an also-ran in the theme park wars, has harnesses designed to secure amputees safely on even their more extreme rides. Universal has made improvements over the past decade (driven in part by a 2012 lawsuit), but guests can still be turned away at a moment’s notice.”
Amplitude reached out to Universal multiple times, via both email and phone, seeking to understand their side of the story. We never received any response from Media Relations. The operator at Guest Services took notes on our inquiry, assigned it a case number (#01385345), and promised there would be followup. We heard nothing further.
To be fair to Universal—a courtesy we feel obliged to grant, despite its lack of courtesy toward the limb-loss community—its policies have uniformly held up in court. The company has asserted that it carefully enforces the safety guidelines provided to it by ride manufacturers, and its accessibility practices and ridership restrictions are clearly stated on its website. It’s also our duty to note that Universal isn’t alone in barring amputee riders; we found news stories about two similar incidents involving Six Flags (one of which resulted in a lawsuit). And we include here the perspective of Judy Berna, an amputee who believes theme parks are in a no-win position when it comes to riders with limb differences. “There is no way a ride operator can be trained on all the different kinds of leg systems,” she notes. “There is no way there can be a blanket policy that applies to every kind of prosthetic socket. There are many amputees who can ride specific rides very safely. But how do the teenage park workers decide who is safe and who is not?”
That’s a fair question (although Disney and SeaWorld seem to have answered it). But for Stephens, this isn’t about legal compliance and liability avoidance. Even if Universal has defensible reasons for turning limb-different riders away, it doesn’t excuse the company’s total lack of consideration for Keyair’s feelings as a young person with limb difference.
“They never explained it was a safety issue,” Stephens says. “They just said his leg’s got to reach to the end of the seat, and he’s an above-knee amputee so his leg is too short. We said, ‘Explain to us what’s the difference between having an above-knee amputation and a below-knee amputation.’ But they didn’t ever mention it as a safety issue. None of that was explained.” Stephens asked to talk to the VelociCoaster’s ride manager and said, “‘You’re the lead person in charge. Can you at least tell me why he can’t ride?’ And she just mentioned the same thing, he’s got to be a below-knee amputee. Honestly, I don’t think they even understand the rules. But everybody’s looking at us like we did something wrong, you know? It was embarrassing.”
That’s the piece that Universal seems not to be hearing. Instead of training its staff to enforce the rules with empathy and understanding, the company hides behind cold legalese that defines amputees as an excluded class. That’s an infuriating message for anyone (especially a 12-year-old) who’s fighting every day to be recognized as a normal person and a full-fledged member of society. It’s why Keyair’s experience at Universal was so painful, and why Stephens has sworn off any further trips there.
“We’re never going back,” she says. “It would have made it completely different if they had told us, ‘It’s a safety issue. We’re scared that you may fly off. This is the reason why we can’t let you ride,’ something of that nature. But by just saying, ‘You’re above-knee, and that’s the reason why you can’t ride,’ my son was looking at his leg and feeling like crap. It was so hurtful.”
Keyair is still in a serious fight for his health, and he and his family need your good thoughts. If you can afford a small donation to help pay the medical bills, so much the better. Follow on Instagram at @prince_keyair and on Facebook at Ke’Yair’s Fight Against Osteosarcoma.