Zip lines come from wild to mild

06/11/2012 12:00 AM

06/11/2012 12:20 AM

The mother of all thrill rides? It’s at Forever Florida, about 45 miles south of the Orlando theme parks.

The choice of thrills is yours. It could be Peregrine Plunge, smooth and straight and, at 1,300 feet, the longest zip line in Florida. Or the Rattlesnake, which turns and dips so it feels like the zip line hangs beneath a roller coaster track. There’s Panther Pounce, a straight drop to the ground. And the Zip Line Safari, with seven zip lines and two suspension bridges that take almost 2 1/2 hours to complete.

Florida EcoSafaris at Forever Florida put in the Zip Line Safari last year, ratcheting up the thrills available at the cattle ranch-turned-adventure park. In April, it added the other zip lines.

Forever Florida is a 4,700-acre wildlife conservation area that includes a working cattle ranch and the Allen Broussard Conservancy as well as the adventures. It has a mailing address in St. Cloud, but it’s closer to Holopaw and is about an hour’s drive from Orlando.

In addition to the zip lines, it offers “safaris” by horseback, a recumbent bicycle attached to a cable 25 feet above the ground, and a “coach” that is more like a swamp buggy. There is wildlife throughout the property, including peacocks, alligators, deer, wild turkey and other creatures that are frequently sighted, and scarcer animals including wild hogs, blacks bears and Florida panthers.

Except for the coach safari, Matt Duda, director of sales and marketing, likes to brag that none of the adventures burns fuel, they’re all powered by people or horses.

And adrenalin.

On a sunny day last month, six staffers from Visit Orlando and one Miami Herald reporter visited Forever Florida to try out the new zip lines. All but two were had ridden zip lines before this excursion.

One of the newbies, a calm and adventurous fellow, volunteered to be the first to ride The Rattlesnake, which uses a rigid spine instead of a cable that sends the rider on a zigzag, up-and-down route through the trees. Florida EcoSafaris calls it a zip line roller coaster. It’s the only one in the United States.

The man’s colleagues watched as he stepped out onto the platform about 70 feet above the ground, got his harness checked and was attached to the zip line.

“Now just lift up your feet and sit in the harness,” the attendant told him. And just like that, he was off, gliding along the beginning of the line that, if stretched out straight, would end up nearly 1,000 feet from where he started,

His friends watched as he slid along the cable, tense and silent, even as it took a gradual turn that took him 90 degrees from where he had been before

“He’s going to scream,” one of them said as the rider approached a dip, and a few seconds later he did, although it was more like a yelp as he got a little bounce from the dip. There was more surprise than fear in the yelps that followed, the result of unexpected turns and bounces.

He finished, got unhooked and quickly climbed the eight flights of stairs to the platform where riders launched themselves on both the Rattlesnake and Peregrine Plunge. His colleagues cheered.

Meanwhile, this reporter was getting to ride her first zip line. I chose Peregrine Plunge because it was straight and simple.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I told the fellow adjusting my harness. My stomach was knotted with fear.

“You don’t have to do anything,” he said. “Just pick up your feet and you’ll go without doing another thing.”

He reached up and tugged on the cable. “This cable will hold 5,000 pounds,” he said, trying to encourage me.

Peregrine Plunge is a tandem zip line. Another woman from Visit Orlando, strapped into her harness, stood calmly waiting so we could launch together and ride side by side. There were people waiting behind us.

“OK,” I said.

After a final check, I picked up my feet and was out over thin air in a flash. I leaned back in my harness. Not so bad after all. Woo-hoo! We zipped along, not too fast, turning from side to side a little. “Grab the yellow rope,” the guide on the far platform called to me, too soon. I grabbed it as I passed, and as I slowed, he hauled me in the rest of the way.

Emboldened, I climbed back up the stairs to ride the Rattlesnake. But it had a bit much action for me. I landed safely and told Duda I was finished with zip lines for the day.

The others decided to try the Panther Pounce, which is essentially a free fall with cables slowing the rider as he nears the ground. It’s a 68-foot fall, and unlike the other two zip lines, requires the rider to deliberately step into thin air. One woman crossed herself when she touched the ground. A man screamed “Awesome!” as he plummeted. The other first-time rider looked down, screamed, stepped back into the tower and got unclipped from the harness. But eventually he took the plunge.

I retreated to the Cypress Canopy Cycle, a reclining bicycle suspended from a steel cable. It moves only as fast as the rider wants it to and is only 25 feet high at most. It is more my speed. The route winds below the tree canopy but above saw palmetto and other growth. For about 40 minutes I pedaled, pausing occasionally to enjoy the view and a different kind of thrill ride.

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