of Downtown Disney's newest and most unusual attractions is Characters in Flight, a tethered balloon ride. It's
located where the old Guest Relations
used to be. Despite the fact that I have a touch of agoraphobia myself,
Iíve scoped it out for you. No need for thanks: just buy multiple copies
of the Walt Disney World with Disabilities book for everyone you know.
Disneyís warnings: Motion Sickness, vertigo, heart problems,
expectant mothers, ďall other conditions that are aggravated by flightĒ;
Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult; No strollers (there
is stroller parking right there); No shopping bags (there is a place to
leave those too)
(as if it isnít obvious): Fear of
Depending on the size of your wheelchair or ECV, you may take it on.
There is a smooth, slightly sloped ramp down to the balloon and they
have an electric lift to bring chairs up the step or so to get into the
ďbasketĒ under the balloon. However the actual area that people stand in
is fairly narrow, so if your ECV is large, it may not fit. They actually
have a tape measure there so they can tell. If that is the case, they
keep a manual wheelchair right there that you can borrow free of charge;
you may transfer into it and use that to go on the ride.
The ride itself is mostly smooth but there
are no seats and you will have to be able to stand for about ten
minutes. There are railings to hold on to, and everybody can reach one
at all times. Take off and landings can be quite bumpy. The pilot warns
you of that.
Itís a tethered balloon ride like you sometimes see at county fairs, but
done up in Disney style. Itís filled with helium though - not hot air.
If youíve ever had a hankering to go on a
hot air balloon but donít feel like spending the money or you're not
quite brave enough to soar over four lane highways, this is an
alternative. Itís impressive just to watch. The balloon itself is about
75 feet in diameter. It stands about 100 ft high when itís on the
ground. Thatís about the same as the Planet Hollywood restaurant. When
it flies it goes up 400 feet and thatís four times the height of the
Planet Hollywood restaurant, or two times higher than the Everest ride
at Animal Kingdom. Itís painted a bright yellow and decorated with the
black silhouettes of Disney characters who fly, like Mary Poppins, Peter
Pan, Dumbo, etc. Cute! The scary or fun part (depending on who you are)
is that you are allowed to get on it.
There can be a fairly long line to get
tickets, and the line is not shaded. Of course thatís not unusual for
Disney lines but I mention this particularly because the ride closes if
there is the least amount of wind, and they will not sell tickets in
advance. This means that if you are standing in line and they decide to
close it, you will have waited in vain. I mean, you will have to leave
and come back and wait all over again another day. That happened to us
and it was annoying.
There is a big fancy sign on the ticket
booth that lists wind-miles-per-hour and has little diagrams of what the
balloon will look like in the air at each wind speed. Itís rather
complicated, listing the number of passengers allowed for each wind
range. In a nutshell, the more wind, the more each little balloon
picture slants (and the sign makes it look like it might not go up quite
as high) and also, the fewer people it will take on.
If you can sense any wind at all
they wonít take it up with any guests, period. They say that
thatís because what you perceive on the ground is so much less than what
is up at 400 feet. And thatís true, but I believe itís more than that: I
think they are just extremely conservative. Iím not saying thatís bad.
On the sign they say that they will close
when the wind speed gets up above 22 mph. When we finally went up it was
practically wind-free on the ground. Up at the top it was a bit gusty
for sure, but I donít think it was close to the 22 miles per hour they
claim it takes to ground it. (I used to race sailboats, so I think I
have sense of that.) But, the pilot told us that it was too windy, and
yup: we were the last ride: when we got down they closed.
Also, they told us that they actually only
take up about 20 guests maximum, despite the fact that the sign says
that on a windless day theyíll take up 30. And since they never go up on
anything in other than basically still air, I suspect they never take up
fewer than 20 despite the fact that the sign says it will take up ten
people on windier days.
Anyway, this is just my long-winded way of
saying that you cannot expect this ride to be open. You absolutely must
call first: (407) 828-3150. And even then, there is a decent chance that
they will close while you are waiting in line if there is just the
slightest breath of air. We also learned that the windiest time of day
is right when the sun goes down. So youíve been warned.
The balloon is on a platform out on the
water. You walk down a gently sloping concrete pathway over the water to
get there. There are railings on both sides. You have to step up to get
into the basket, but as I mentioned, they have a wheelchair lift. The
ďbasketĒ itself is actually a ring, or a donut shape. Guests stand
single file, and you can look out either side: down through the ďholeĒ
in the middle of the donut, or over the outside wall. The walls are
about waist-high, but there is a criss-cross cage made of thick nylon
rope with metal supports that goes up well above anyoneís head. I
believe that there would be no way you could fall out even if you wanted
to. The actual basket, or ring is made of a thick polypropylene type of
material. The diameter of the entire ring is probably about 30 feet and
width of the ring floor is about three feet. So you can stand in the
middle of the floor and hold on to both sides, if you wish.
The balloon is made out of a material that
is proprietary: I could not get them to disclose it. Supposedly it has
some military applications (or so the cast member thought). I thought
the last time they used balloons in the military was in World War I, but
hey, I wasnít going to argue with THAT. Anyway, if there is latex in it,
it is well above anyoneís head.
I think I mentioned that the day we went
it was about as windy as it ever gets. We could actually see that the
balloon was leaning a little bit while it was on the ground: I would
estimate about 3 degrees. The take-off was rather bumpy. My husband was
convinced that this was due to the fact that we were taking off in the
wind. Since we went at the absolute maximum allowable wind speed, you
can figure that what I describe is probably the worst it would be: your
experience could only be better. The pilot warns you of the bumps, and
tells you that you will need to hold on to the railing (which is metal
and about waist height). He was right: I think that if you did not hold
on at that moment you would likely have fallen down. The basket mostly
seemed to shift back and forth, tilting slightly. There was some bumping
and jostling. After just a few seconds that stopped, and the rest of the
ride was smooth. It goes up at a speed of 164 feet/minute and it doesnít
seem to accelerate. To me, it was not fast enough to feel. I
would say itís not even as much acceleration as an elevator. Unless you
are looking, thereís almost no physical sensation of going up. Going
down is even slower: 131 feet/minute. Likewise, it seems slower than an
elevator. So thereís nothing about this thatís like an amusement park
When you get to the top (400 ft), the
pilot invites you to walk in a counterclockwise direction around the
ring if you wish to get a good look at all the sights. If you look
outside the ring they say you can sometimes see from coast to coast on a
clear day: pretty amazing. You do get a sense that you are up very
high. I never had that feeling that I was on the edge of a cliff though,
because between the waist-high opaque wall of the ring and the netting I
guess I felt protected. Actually, looking down from inside the ring was
more disturbing because you can see that you are attached by a single
cable. But in case you are interested: the tensile strength of the cable
is 45 tons. The helium in the balloon can only lift 4.5 tons. That gives
the cable a 10x safety margin. Does that make you feel better?
There is just enough room to pass by
someone who doesnít wish to let go, and walk. Although I knew that our
particular ride had to be tilted a little from the wind, I have to say
that I couldnít really sense it: I had no trouble letting go of the
railing to move around. But I could feel that it was gusty. The day was
hot so the wind felt pleasant, actually. And, although the ring is well
under the balloon donít count on shade: you must take into consideration
the time of day and position of the sun. If you are sun sensitive plan
on an evening ride.
The balloon takes 21/2 minutes to go up,
spends 5 minutes at the top, and takes another 5 minutes to descend. The
pilot chats the whole time, pointing out landmarks and such. If you find
yourself feeling afraid of the height he suggests that you look out at
the horizon. I also thought that you could just look down at the floor:
the floor and walls of the ring are opaque.
If there is a wheelchair on board it does
block the way for the walk around. In that case guests are told to just
move back and forth instead of all the way around. The pilot does ask
that passengers keep themselves spread somewhat evenly around the ring.
This is to keep it from tilting uncomfortably, I presume.
The pilot also gives you warning before
you land and asks everyone to hold on again. The landing I thought was
actually not quite a bumpy as the take-off, but that might only have
been because I was more prepared. There was the same side-to-side and
tilting motion. All in all I thought the whole experience was remarkably
non-frightening. It has a sort of unreal feel about it. This may be
because, except for the actual take-off and landing, you really canít
tell you are moving. And that was even on a windy day.
In this last section Iím going to address
a particular fear of mine which might not be a fear of yours, or might
not have been a fear if you hadnít thought of this. So if
youíre already satisfied, donít read any more. But if something is still
nagging at you, here you go:
What happens if the cable breaks? Yes, I
asked. Here's what I was told:
First of all, it wonít. Remember, it holds
45 tons -thatís 90,000 pounds. Nobodyís that heavy. They looked at me
like I was an insane lunatic just for asking, and the other passengers
backed away. (So, see? Wasnít it nice of ME to ask, so you donít have to
make a fool of yourself? Donít feel bad: thatís what Iím paid for.)
OK, second, donít forget, the balloon is
filled with helium, so youíre NOT going to fall. Youíre going to go UP.
(The basket is connected to the balloon with multiple cables (not just
one), and the netting. If a lot of ropes break, the basket might
possibly tilt, but it still wouldnít fall. Even I canít imagine
they would all break.) Now, there are two safety back ups. The pilot has
control of the helium, just like in any helium (or hot air) balloon. The
pilots are all certified balloon pilots as well, so the first thing that
would happen is that the balloon would begin to rise. The pilot would
radio (yes, he has a radio) Air Traffic Control, just like any airplane.
That would keep all aircraft away from the area. ATC would instruct him
on wind direction and speed so he could scope out an appropriate landing
site. Then he would begin to fly it just like it was a regular balloon.
When it was time to land he would use the valve to release the helium,
and drift to a landing. And you would have only paid $16 for a real
balloon ride: a super bargain.
And, just in case you are super paranoid,
the balloon has an automatic release: when it goes over 1000 feet, a
separate valve senses the altitude, opens automatically, and the helium
begins to leak out slowly. The balloon will descend on its own. So yes,
even if the cable breaks and the pilot dies of a coincidental
heart attack, you will still land. You will not end up on the moon.
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