Visitors who look skyward at San Diego Zoo Safari Park are now seeing more than the usual assortment of exotic birds. Up in the sky about six stories above the brown hillside is a new kind of flying species soaring overhead at about 40 miles per hour, swooping to a sudden stop atop a platform the park has built especially for the species' arrival.
These creatures might logically be called the Smiling, Laughing Zip Line Riders because invariably that's what they do when they finish their breathtaking two-thirds-mile flight from a perch high above the hillside.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park's Flightline ride is attracting kids and adults of nearly all ages who want to try out the latest tourism craze. Zip lines are popping up all over California, from Catalina to historic Gold Country and the state's leisure travelers are — you might say — jumping at the chance to fly down a mountain with nothing but a wire and a pulley protecting them from a very unpleasant fall to earth.
The zip lines are part thrill ride, part scenic adventure and can cost upwards of a million dollars to build. But locations that have installed them are finding they have a wide appeal and give visitors just one more reason to visit their particular area. Catalina Island, for example, is heavily promoting its new zip line as a way to show travelers that, far from being stale, the island is always adding new activities to make a visit even more memorable.
The park installed its zip line in the spring of 2009 and has seen a steady clientele paying the minimum $70 per person to fly. Other pricing options are available including packages that include repeat rides and helmet cams for you to record your adventure. Keep in mind that about 30 percent of the price goes to wildlife conservation so you know you're doing a good thing in addition to experiencing a unique ride.
So what's the zip line like? We'd never "flown" before so we visited the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and scheduled the 90-minute experience as part of our day at the park. The rides are scheduled throughout the day, usually on the hour, and during this particular Friday in July the ride was not overly crowded. There were no long lines and just a couple of other riders who would go with us during our timeslot.
As is always the case with adventure rides like this, the first step is signing the waivers — legal forms that remind you the activity can be dangerous and requiring you to admit that no one is holding a gun to your head to make you go. It always gives us a little pause when we read through these forms but we remind ourselves that, especially in California, we live in a litigious society and one lawsuit can wipe out a business.
It's at this stage that you'll also be weighed — although, fear not, only the attendant sees the actual results of your weigh-in. The main thing is that you have to be over 75 pounds and under 250 pounds. If you're too light-weight, you won't have enough propulsion and if you're too heavy — one assumes anyway — you will be going too fast, which is probably not a good thing.
Then it was onto the instruction phase of our adventure. We were handed our harnesses, which are kind of like big diapers with cables and connectors to hook onto our metal "trolley" — the thing that has the rolling wheel that attaches to the wire. These particular harnesses are a little awkward to put on but the affable attendants will do it for you — or not, if you don't like people connecting things near the region of your upper thighs.
The instructions are fairly simple. There are just two positions for you to know — your soaring position and your landing position. There are hand signals for both and, as you come in for your landing, an attendant will signal to you just the right time to change to your landing position.
Just like skiing, there is a beginner hill for the Flightline beginner — a kind of warm-up ride to get you accustomed to the feel of flying down the wires. It's a short, 400-foot ride and the fastest you go will be 15 miles per hour. It's really kind of a confidence builder so that you aren't as intimidated when you see how high the "real" ride is off the ground.
We sat down in our harnesses, dangled for a few seconds and we were quickly on our way. Our ride down the beginner hill was quick and uneventful — although the one thing that is kind of startling is the braking system that has your trolley hitting a succession of blocks that have been carefully arranged according to your weight. The more you weigh, the further out your braking begins. When you brake there is a loud clanging sound as your trolley hits that series of blocks.
Next the Wpark puts you into a truck and takes you up to the launch platform, which is well to the back of the Safari Park property. The winding road took us through some interesting "back-lot" areas where they feed some of the animals and you can also learn more about their unique conservation program for the California Condor. Finally, you arrive at the tower, with its commanding view of the valley below and a zip line that stretches way farther than you can see.
Now you begin to understand why you did the beginner hill. Our guess is that, without the beginner hill, some customers might opt out once they arrive at the main platform just because it is so high up and gives the sense you basically will be stepping off a cliff. But the beginner run had given us confidence that, yes, these lines will hold — even at six stories above the ground.
The two-thirds mile Flightline ride is thrilling, but it does go by quickly. You gain speed throughout the first half of the ride before it starts to level off a bit. The whizzing of the pulley against the wire gets louder and louder and you start to sense that even minor changes in your body posture can start to turn you sideways — so you freeze in your soaring position, legs completely out and apart, shoulders forward. In just a minute or so, it's already time to shift to your landing posture, leaning way back, again with legs spread and apart. And then it's over.
We'd heard stories that some people are a little frightened to jump off the main Flightline tower but it didn't seem especially daunting to us. We think it's because we ski a lot and there are some similarities — if you're okay with a chairlift at a ski area, you'll be okay with dangling from one of these zip lines.
The worst part was the pictures. Like major rides at Disneyland, the park has a photographer stationed at the base of the ride to get telephoto shots of you soaring through the air. It sounds good in theory but the picture they get of you cinched up in your harness, legs spread and hair blown off the back of your head may not look exactly like Superman.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is in Escondido, about 35 miles north of San Diego. The park is home to exotic animals from around the world and is operated in conjunction with the world-famous San Diego Zoo. One of the most popular theme parks in Southern California, the Wild Aimal Park is worth a full day's visit.
WHAT: Flightline is the new zip line ride available at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The ride is open to anyone age 10 or older and weighing at least 75 pounds, but no more than 250 pounds.
WHEN: Anytime of the year. The Escondido area can get fairly hot in the summer and is more crowded with tourists during that period as well.
WHY: The Flightline zip line ride is a thrill ride that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike and is a unique experience that combines the thrill of flight with the scenery of the Safari Park. Riders will be flying right over wild animal habitats and other features of the Safari Park
HOW: For more information on San Diego Zoo Safari Park, phone (619) 231-1515 or visit www.sandiegozoo.org/park.
Photos, from top: The Flightline tower can be intimidating for some; attendants prepare riders for takeoff; landings are easy but not particularly graceful
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway; inflight photo courtesy San Diego Zoo Safari Park
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