Theme Park Ranger
2:33 PM EDT, June 16, 2011
Gatorland is flying high with its Screamin' Gator Zip Line, an aerial cable course that skirts the edges — and flies over animal habitats — of the theme park. Before the park's official opening Thursday, I was part of a preview group that dangled over alligators and crocodiles and zoomed through the treetops of the park, an Orlando mainstay on South Orange Blossom Trail since 1949.
I had burning questions and concerns — I mean, how high can a jumping Cuban croc jump anyway? Here's what I learned … and how the scariest part of the course doesn't even involve a cold-blooded animal.
But is it safe?
Several friends have said they aren't afraid of heights so much as the leapin' lizards, falling into the animal enclosures or the big breeding marsh. I can tell you that I felt secure in the harness, which is tethered twice to the pulley that glides along a cable, which is designed to hold more than 14,000 pounds. At every tower's jumping-off point, every zipper is checked by Gatorland's trained guides for "10 points of safety," which includes leg and shoulder straps, helmets and other key safety elements.
But is it secure?
The harness felt snug without cutting off circulation to the extremities. The staff helped us into our get-ups (and double-checked for security) before we made our way to the first of six towers Gatorland added for the course. They are in the style of the park's longstanding observation tower, which stands along the edge of the breeding marsh and isn't involved with the zip line.
The towers' stairwells are built wide and sturdy. You could have a small cocktail party on each one with room to spare. Color coding alerts riders to the points where they must be tethered before moving forward or upward. The towers do sway a smidge as folks zip to the next stop, but that's supposed to happen. It's a physics thing. Honest.
Most common mistake?
It's not getting turned upside down or getting stuck in the middle.
"People forget to look around. They get so fixated on the tower that's ahead of them." says Trevor Hildebrand, the chief operating officer of Montana-based Global Highline Adventures. "We built the course so that the guest doesn't have to come out and have any prior skills. They can come out and just enjoy themselves. They don't have to slow themselves down; the guides do that for you … All you have to do is look around and enjoy the scenery."
It's true. On the first zip line of the course, named the Gator Grunt Run, I stared toward my group members waiting on the next tower — and for the guide who catches zippers and unhooks them from the wire.
Lesson: Gravity is your friend
There's no engine or brake on the zip line. Your weight alone propels you toward the next tower. Upon exit, the group moves en masse up the tower stairs for a higher lift-off point. If, for some reason, zippers don't quite make it to the other side, the catcher is trained to scoot out and pull the stranded guest to safety.
No nipping at your heels
Let's face it, if the jumping Cuban crocs could achieve the air time to snap at you more than 30 feet above their heads, Gatorland would have a whole other show to compete with its longtime Jumparoo. When you look straight down at them, they appear quite unconcerned. Likewise when riding the 500-foot stretch that goes over the alligator breeding marsh.
You can look for gators in wait, but I suggest taking in the panoramic view of nature that's so, so Old Florida (try to ignore the strip center across the way). It's just Gatorland humor that this part of the course is referred to as "The Widow Maker."
The scariest part
The next-to-last segment doesn't go over water or reptiles or vast gulleys or muck. Nope, it's a swinging bridge, about 160 feet long, and it's over dry land and sidewalk and possibly other Gatorland guests. You're under your own foot power here, none of that just picking up your feet and gliding to the next destination. Let's just say it's wackily wobbly.
You are still tethered, of course, and there are wires acting as rails, and intellectually, you know that you'd sink maybe 6 inches if you lost your balance … but … still … yikes.
My group insisted that was a peacock to look at below, but honestly I was way too focused on putting one foot in front of the other and keeping a death grip on the wire — as did eight of our nine zippers. (Not counting the guide who brought up the rear and essentially sprinted across. Did I say "Yikes!"?)
Race to the finish
The final leg features side-by-side zip lines with the idea of racing back down to Earth. It's over water and called "Deliverance." These lines are at the front of the park and run parallel to the trail, so they serve double duty as an advertisement to passers-by. (Bonus hint: For more speed — or a competitive advantage — go for the line on the right.)
Screamin' Gator Zip Line
Where: Gatorland, 14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando
When: Park hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Cost: $69.99 for Screamin' Gator, which includes admission to Gatorland. Reservations required.
Restrictions: Zippers must be at least 37 inches tall; zippers cannot weigh more than 275 pounds.
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