Flightline at Wild Animal Park allows you to release your inner Tarzan

 
LA Times | Travel
 

Video: Flightline in action at the San Diego Wild Animal Park Think you know thrill rides? Welcome to something new, a summer attraction with speeds up to about 50 mph and a drop of 400-feet plus, but craftily designed to get your heart pumping in the most intoxicatingly easy an...


By Christopher Smith // 05.16.09
 

Video: Flightline in action at the San Diego Wild Animal Park


Think you know thrill rides? Welcome to something new, a summer attraction with speeds up to about 50 mph and a drop of 400-feet plus, but craftily designed to get your heart pumping in the most intoxicatingly easy and, well, gentle way.

That's Flightline, recently opened at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park in Escondido. It's the zip line taken to a higher level. Launching from a hillside platform at an elevation of 900 feet, with the San Pasqual Valley dramatically laid out below, you are enveloped on all sides by air. Riders end up soaring rather than screaming; think well-being, not whiplash. All the while, they are gawking at herds of animals, including rhinos, gazelles and, in the near distance, giraffes.

About the only qualm you may experience is the price of the plunge, an economy-defying $70 for less than two minutes in the air. But price notwithstanding, Flightline is likely to exceed any zip line you've ever zipped along. Built over two years and at a cost of about $3 million by a Canada-based conservation construction company, the ride accentuates movement but not motion.

Graphic: Riding the zip line

Unlike many zip lines, Flightline cables are made of steel -- not cord -- and they are a full seven-eighths-inch thick. With the top of the harness securely attached to a locking device around the cable, it meant the ride I took was stable, with no rocking, swaying or bouncing. And though there was that 421-foot drop in elevation during the two minutes or so I was airborne, it came over the length of more than two-thirds of a mile, an inexorable but gradual return to Earth.

The result was that the descent, which I intellectually knew was plummeting me along at more than 40 mph, felt almost serene.

Mind you, there is a buzz, which comes when looking at the panorama below. Zip lining elsewhere offers fairly close-up views of terrain and plants whizzing by; here, you seem to float down to the landing deck.

During my ride, I experienced a couple of "Animal Planet" moments that have stayed with me:

* Perched on the edge of the launch platform in my harness, ready to go, I saw at eye level, about 900 feet high, a bird of prey circling. Starting down the line, focused on the topography below, I noticed that the bird's shadow was keeping pace with my descent. At that moment I felt a primordial little shudder, my body perhaps deducing that I was being sized up as potential prey.

* It appears that, in an unplanned reversal of eco-tourism, Flightline riders have become a viewing spectacle for some of the animals. The watched, if you will, becoming the watchers. Near the end of my trip, I exchanged glances with a member of the Indian Gaur herd. Gaur are wild cattle, the largest animals of their species on Earth. It felt as though I made contact with this big boy, and I noticed that the Gaur never missed a chew of cud as he gazed up at me.

Jungle cruising

Apart from Tarzan, it's unclear who first developed a practical way to careen through nature just for the fun of it.

Recreational zip lines seem to have popped up in the 1970s. To break up the monotony of field work, outdoorsy doctoral candidates doing research in Central American jungles started stringing taut cords between trees and off they'd go. From the start, zip lining was clearly less about exploration and more about exhilaration.

Blessed with diverse micro-climates and ideal volcanic mountain terrain -- medium-size peaks of a few thousand feet with sloping but not impossibly steep grades -- Costa Rica emerged in the 1980s as the planet's premier location for zipping over and sometimes through foliage at high speed.

Compared with other places, commercial zip lining sites have been slow to come to Southern California. The nearest destinations include a four-line ride down Bootleg Canyon 20 miles or so south of Las Vegas; a pair of 1,500-foot lines in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada; and on the islands of Maui and Kauai, where tour operators package zip line runs with hiking, kayaking and other outdoor pursuits.

That changes with this new ride in the north San Diego County hills. As for cost, the Flightline ride is less expensive than the rides in Nevada and Hawaii. Additionally, a third of the $70 cost goes directly to the park's on-site efforts to repopulate the California condor. During a trek in a canopied truck up to the launch platform, riders pass condors in their man-made sanctuary -- an opportunity to see your money at work before you experience the bird's-eye view itself.