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Over the years, I have experienced a great deal of criticism from guests, and even fellow waterpark managers, for our policies requiring life jackets for younger guests.

But despite the flak I’ve taken over this policy, I’ve stuck to it and will continue to do so. I urge all waterparks to adopt similar policies.

After all, children in every state are required to wear seat belts and/or be in car seats at a certain age. In many states, helmets are required when riding a bicycle. These laws are for children’s welfare.

So it goes with our life jacket policy, which states that an adult 18 years or older must be present with a child under 48 inches tall, and that child must wear a life jacket in all water attractions. In other words, a 10-year-old sibling, cannot take a 6-year-old down a slide without a parent. This life jacket policy puts responsibility of the child’s care squarely back on the adult, which allows us to run a waterpark and not have to “baby-sit” a single child.

Too harsh? Not when you consider that a life jacket is sometimes the only thing standing between drowning and safety. In fact, I like to think of our life jacket policy as a safety net because mistakes happen, whether from lifeguards or parents.

And because waterparks can get so crowded, life jackets make even more sense. For instance, our park is popular with camp groups, which come from a three-state area. These groups include inner-city youth programs, which bring in children who don’t know how to swim. Indeed, it is not uncommon for our staff to be asked if it is OK for nonswimmers to go down the slides.

Even with all these very good reasons to enforce a life jacket policy, we encounter resistance. Here’s how we have dealt with it at our waterpark with much success:

  • Provide free life jackets around the park (excluding infant life jackets).
  • Rent infant life jackets, with a full refund upon return
  • Sell life jackets to those who want them. (You may be surprised how many people choose this option).
  • Allow guests to bring their own life jackets, as long as they are Coast Guard-approved, and no inflatable of any kind.
  • Put wristbands on guests under 48 inches tall, which are a different color than the over-48 inch bands so attendants and guards have a visual reminder.
  • Don’t allow any under- 48-inch children past the 3-foot line in the wave pool.
  • Permit infants to ride in a lazy river only if they’re wearing life jackets and are in adults’ laps. And any infant who is held by an adult can partake in any kiddies areas.

Even with these clear policies, we do have a few gray areas we occasionally face concerning children with autism and youngsters with sensory disorders. But these children usually are in constant connection with their caretakers. In those cases, we allow the caretaker to wear the different color wristband. Usually, we also can get the child into a life jacket.

Otherwise, the biggest hurdles we face with the “Under 48 Inch Rule” are parents with children who fight them on the issue. In these cases, we are sometimes called in to be the “bad guys” and enforce the rules, which can be done in a teacher-like way — and most of the time works out. It becomes a bit more difficult with children who are small for their age while their cousins and friends are bigger.

In these situations, we give them a Tadpole ticket so that next year when they are big enough, they can come to the park for free.

Finally, we have a 1-inch leeway that lets parents make the call whether their children should wear life jackets. This is particularly interesting when the adult wants to pay the under-48-inch price for a child who is clearly over. We allow this, but most of the time the adult comes back for an upgrade to the adult ticket because we require that anyone under 48 inches be accompanied by an adult on all rides and waterfeatures.

For those rare times when the parent and child become inconsolable over our policy, we do not hesitate to offer a rain check or refund. But we do not bend the rules because this is a safety issue. This is our park’s most serious safety policy, and it is not negotiable. Many times I have said to parents, “In your backyard you can do whatever you want. In my backyard, these are the rules. We have everyone’s children to watch, not just yours. We are operating a waterpark and we strive to provide a safe, fun environment and experience.”