During her visit to Universal Orlando Resort in Florida, United States, in 1999, Laura Harless was excited.

The day had been going smoothly … until it was her turn to board the now-defunct Dueling Dragons rollercoaster at Islands of Adventure.

Harless weighed about 300 pounds (136 kilogrammes) and tried to sit in a regular seat to no avail.

Universal employees pulled her off the ride to wait for a seat “built for bigger people”.

“And when one became available, I got on and they kind of had to shove me in,” said Harless, who teaches psychology at Full Sail University, Florida.

“And, I mean, it was heartbreaking for me.”

Though the rest of the day was fun-filled, that moment stuck with her.

When Harless moved to Orlando in 2000, she vowed only to return to the theme park if she could meet the weight requirements for every ride.

She has been fighting weight issues her entire life. Even at five years of age, she couldn’t lose weight, though she was active and didn’t eat much.

“But I grew up in rural West Virginia and the diet wasn’t the best,” she said.

By the time she graduated high school, she was 250lb (113kg).

While she vowed to lose weight after her Universal trip, 10 years later in 2009, she was up to 376 pounds (171kg). She knew it was time to get help.

Harless didn’t want to utilise medicine or undergo surgery, so she turned to a doctor who specialises in weight loss.

The doctor put her on a special diet of small meals every two hours and a dinner of lean protein and vegetables, as well as an exercise regimen of 40 minutes daily.

“At first, I couldn’t do much, so I just walked in (the) living room doing figure eights,” she said.

Later, she moved onto workout DVDs, like The Biggest Loser and Turbo Fire, which is currently her favourite.

In 22 months, she lost 224lb (102kg). And she’s been able to keep most of that off since April 2011.

But she got her Universal pass a bit earlier than that, in August 2010 when she reached a weight that allowed her to enjoy the park’s offerings.

“That was one of my milestone presents for myself. And as long as I keep the weight off, I’m keeping my annual pass,” Harless said.

She said the reaction to her transformation has been “shock, but it’s also been very supportive and incredible”.

She had to show her employee badge to a colleague who hadn’t seen in her in a while to prove her identity.

On a trip back to West Virginia, her uncle said he wouldn’t have recognised her if he had bumped into her on the street.

But one thing that made her weight-loss journey easier is working for a psychology department.

“I work around counsellors and people who do this for a living, so all of it was very supportive and helpful, and they were great to be with throughout my journey,” she said.

Now, Harless focuses on maintaining that weight loss. She brings snacks with her everywhere she goes, and recommends steering clear of appetisers and researching menus ahead of time.

“If I know, I’m going to eat at a restaurant, I’ll plan ahead and look at the restaurant menu, look at the calorie count and know exactly what I’m going to get when I get there,” she said.

For those currently embarking on or in the midst of weight loss, Harless said to enjoy the journey and keep at it.

“You’re going to be going through changes and just kind of enjoy that process because when you do, you start to listen to your body more …” she said.

“It may be frustrating, but if you give up, you’ll never reach your goal. But if you just keep going … those little things that you don’t think add up do.” – The Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service