There's a woodpecker 10 feet from me. He's merrily pecking away for bugs in the bark near the uppermost branches of a towering cypress tree. We're at eye level to each other. One of us doesn't belong up here.
A quick glance down confirms that I'm the interloper. I'm standing on a small steel platform slung between a pair of telephone-style poles. The forest floor is visible through the open metal grating 50-plus feet below my feet. No time for vertigo; our guide is beckoning me to the platform edge, where he snaps the carabineer-and-lanyard contraption cinched around my waist to a slender-looking pulley. "Slide clear!" I hear, and I lean tentatively over the abyss. My body falls forward, my feet follow, and off I go … ohdeargodinheavenwhyahoooo!
Welcome to the Zipline Safari at Forever Florida, the newest thrill ride in the Orlando area. At 50 feet high and with speeds of approximately 20 mph, the specs on the nearly mile-long ride might sound meager next to a megacoaster. But this attraction, the first of its kind built in the state of Florida, provides something the big theme parks don't: a breathtaking blast of the real world.
Since 1996 Forever Florida in St. Cloud has been offering horseback rides and coach tours through its Crescent J Ranch and Allen Broussard Conservancy, a nonprofit nature preserve founded in honor of a young naturalist and Hodgkin's victim. With "eco-tourism" a hot industry buzzword, they've invested $350,000 in a one-of-a-kind arboreal attraction, hoping to appeal to tourists seeking natural environments as an alternative to themed ones.
Your experience begins with the always-exciting adventure of driving deep into rural St. Cloud, past some of the last extant citrus groves near the Orange County border. My trip from the Mall at Millenia area took over an hour, thanks to a couple of unplanned scenic detours. (As Mark Twain said, "There are lies, damned lies and Google Maps.") By the time you read this, new signage should make the entrance to Forever Florida's sprawling property more visible; if you reach the giant tree festooned with garbage, you've gone too far.
Once you turn into the driveway, keep an eye out for the flock of pedestrian peacocks that likes to strut alongside arriving vehicles. A short drive down a dirt road takes you to the welcome center and restaurant complex, where you'll sign one of the most densely written legal release forms I've ever seen. Once you've waived all rights to sue for death and/or dismemberment, you'll be boarding the "trail coach" for a trip into Florida's vanishing wilderness.
The obligatory equipment briefing is brief but reassuring: All the equipment is tested to tens of thousands of pounds, the helmets hold video cameras (with an SD memory card of your experience available for an upcharge), and the harness was quite comfortable compared to my last hoisting (onstage at Bob Carr, by invitation).
The zipline experience is split into two sections: a bunny hill warm-up run of three zips, followed by a combination of four zips and two sky-bridges (slats of wood strung across steel cables). But the most frightening part of the whole experience isn't the zip down; it's the climb up. I'm sure the 50-foot scaffolding you ascend is safe and stable, but it sways heart-stoppingly from side to side and requires climbers to space out, lest it overbalance. By the time you reach the treetop-level launching pad, your heart may already be pounding.
There's no need to worry about any of the equipment you're carrying; a guide will always clip one of your lanyards to a secure point before undoing the other clip, so you're never unprotected. When they aren't ensuring your survival, the employees will point out the various ecosystems you're sliding through, from the cypress slough to a pond stocked with gators.
Unlike other ziplines you may have experienced, there's no need to stop yourself with a handbrake or brace for a jarring stop. Just gently step off the platform, lift your legs for speed and make small motions with your gripping hand to prevent spinning backward. As long as you don't break a leg on any stray tree limbs (when your guide says "cannonball," tuck those knees up!), you'll glide to a smooth landing.
I visited on the first day of their soft opening, so my safari took nearly five hours. That time should soon be reduced by half, but animal-interaction exhibits (currently under construction) will help to flesh out the experience. I've zipped on lines from New Hampshire to Mexico, but Forever Florida's version is the most extensive and exceptional that I've tried; it isn't inexpensive, but then there's nothing around to compare it to. If you can afford it, the combination of tangible yet tamable thrills with outdoor beauty makes a perfect antidote to firstname.lastname@example.org