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Central Florida's Zipline Safari takes riders atop the trees

Dewayne Bevil on Attractions

Theme Park Ranger

January 14, 2009

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Zipping through the treetops is no longer just for the birds.

Starting this month, Central Florida residents and visitors can hang 55 feet above the ground from a steel cable and zoom 20 miles an hour over Forever Florida. It's an exhilarating adrenaline rush above the pine flatwoods and forested wetlands of the 4,700-acre ranch and conservation area in Osceola County.

Along the way guests can glimpse local wildlife, including a 14-foot alligator, and zip in and out of the tree canopy, all in the name of conservation.

Called Zipline Safari, it's a unique addition to Central Florida's ecotourism market and the only zipline developed for flat land in the world, according to Matt Duda of Forever Florida. It's also the only zipline course in the state -- the next nearest is in South Carolina.

Typically zipline courses are in mountainous terrains or offer a feature such as a ravine or gulch to zip over, said Steve Gustafson, president and owner of EBL, which designed and constructed the Osceola course.

"The first canopy tour where the tour is in the treetops, that's essentially built on zero elevation gain or loss -- it's quite unique," Gustafson said of the St. Cloud attraction.

Earth's pull is a player in the course, which includes one zipline that's 750 feet long -- about two and a half football fields.

"Gravity is the engine that drives the experience," Gustafson said. "We have it engineered where there's no hand-braking, there's no mechanical brake."

The first step of the 2 1/2 -hour course is a staircase to a platform more than 50 feet up. Visitors, issued harnesses and helmets, are tethered to either the wire or a secure spot above the platform at all times.

The next step is a doozy. No need to jump, the guide says, merely lean forward and let momentum take over. The overhead pulley system makes a droning noise as trees blend into blurs. Another guide waits on the next platform -- built into two utility poles -- and reels in those who don't quite make it the entire length.

This is repeated six more times during Zipline Safari, which also uses two elevated, wobbly rope bridges to transport customers between some of the course's nine platforms.


Ecotourism for everyone

This is the new face of ecotourism, which has evolved in the past 20 years, said Megan Epler Wood, an international ecotourism expert based in Vermont.

"It used to be more of a specialized, niche market where you had to be very interested in bird-watching or some kind of nature orientation that made you quite serious in visiting a nature-related place," she said.

"Nowadays, I don't think anyone feels like ecotourism isn't for everyone," Wood said. "Honestly, if they're going to Disney World or one of your theme parks in Orlando -- but they want to have an experience that gets them closer to nature -- that's a good thing."

Forever Florida started considering an expansion a year ago, said Ken Wilshire, general manager of Florida EcoSafaris, the nature tours branch of Forever Florida. Employee Steve Wagner was planning his honeymoon, which included zipline tours in Latin America. The adventure concept melded with EcoSafari's conservation mission, Wilshire said.

The business model calls for 100 visitors a day to the attraction, but its conservation message -- a major element of ecotourism -- is a high priority.

"If we do get a little lucky with this new experience and are able to generate larger volumes than we anticipate, we're not going to be kicking that back to the head honchos of the organization," Wilshire said. "It's going to go back into conservation and trying to buy more land or be able to protect more areas with our management programs."

Dewayne Bevil can be reached at dbevil@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5477.

If you go What: Zipline Safari, part of Florida EcoSafaris at Forever Florida Where: 4755 N. Kenansville Road, St. Cloud When: Open daily. Zipline groups depart hourly 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. How much: $85. Florida resident price is $50 through January. (Reservations required.) Requirements: Participants must be at least 10 years old and weigh 70 to 275 pounds. Call: 866-854-3837. Online: floridaeco safaris.com