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Downtown Disney
Disney's Characters in Flight Balloon Ride
by Amy Paulshock

One 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.


Cautions: 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)


My warning (as if it isnít obvious):  Fear of heights!


Accessibility: 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.


Quick notes: 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 ride.


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.


Here's a comment sent in to us by a reader: "I finally got the nerve to ride the Downtown Disney balloon. I have really big time neck and back problems, so I'd been hesitant. The day was pretty calm and clear and I decided to try it. I drive a scooter, and we requested a wheelchair to transfer into. I was able to walk onto the balloon and they carried the chair up for me, though it was quick enough so that I was able to stand for most of the ride. Ultimately it was fairly physically easy. I did have to adjust and hold on when the wind picked up a bit, but it wasn't really that challenging. The only issue I had was the landing. There was a pretty big jolt and it did feel painful for my neck and back. I don't think it was at a level that would cause me damage, but it was uncomfortable for a minute there."


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