One zoo director says the new attraction is an effort to lure young adults. Once they hit their tweens, he says, kids tend to roll their eyes at the idea of looking at animals.
It wasn't so long ago that you had to leave the country for an authentic tropical zipline adventure.
The latest trend to sweep the state's attractions is changing that. In a pursuit to get kids off their computers and video consoles, more and more Florida parks and zoos are offering canopy tours with a local twist: alligators, flamingos and the occasional monkey.
"It's a nature walk – in the trees," said Andrea Hill, a spokeswoman for the Brevard Zoo in Central Florida.
This summer, the Brevard Zoo became the latest in a series of Florida zoos, theme parks and attractions to offer ziplines, pulleys suspended on a cable mounted up to 65 feet above ground at an incline. Harnessed and strapped, the rider lets go and whizzes past trees, over water and wetlands and beside animals.
Brevard's "Treetop Trek Aerial Adventures" includes a canopy walk – a walk on suspended moving logs – and some 750 feet of zips across wetlands. It takes upwards of three hours to finish the course, and offers close-up views of spider monkeys and coatimundis (South American raccoons.)
Zoo executive director Keith Winsten says the new attraction is an effort to lure young adults back to the zoo. Once they hit their tweens, Winsten said, kids tend to roll their eyes at the idea of looking at animals.
"We're trying to show people that nature is a fun place to be," Winsten said, taking a moment to point out the alligators viewable from 40 feet up. "It's a very hot trend. Florida came from behind the trend, and now has five ziplines up and running and more on the way."
He said Florida enjoys the distinct advantage of being able to offer outdoor adventures year round. So attractions like his are turning to experts to determine the best way to get the video game generation interested in nature, even if there's no place there to plug in your iPod.
It's all part of what they're calling the "No Child Left Inside" movement.
Florida ziplines are just one way to combat what author Richard Louv coined "Nature Deficit Disorder."
Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, says kids are more likely to do better in school, have better attention spans and even behave better if they spend more time outdoors surrounded by nature.
"Studies indicate that nature can be powerful therapy for such all too common maladies as obesity and depression," Louv said. "And an even wider body of evidence now illustrates the restorative power of time spent in the natural world, including the stimulation of all of our senses."
Kids probably enjoy ziplines so much because of the sense of "controlled risk," Louv said, "which is a good contrast to their daily lives, in which risk has so often been eliminated."
Florida EcoSafari at Forever Florida was the first of the state's attractions to offer the zipline adventures. The 4,700-acre Central Florida eco-ranch and wildlife conservation uses profits from park admissions to buy conservation land, which boasts the highest concentration of endangered species in the state. Fifty-five-foot-high zips go up to 25 mph through Pine Flatwoods and over forested wetlands where white tail deer and endangered Florida panthers live.
"We were the trailblazers, and people have taken to it like crazy," said Mike Duda, Forever Florida's director of sales and marketing. "We're the ones everyone is trying to emulate."
Participants traverse the forested wetlands in groups of 12, with a guide in front and another in the back. There are height and weight restrictions, and children have to be at least 10. Unlike other parks, Forever Florida also has night tours.
They also have a Cypress Canopy Cycle, which looks like a reclined bike suspended on a cable.
"Less and less people want to go outside," Duda said. "They want the experience of an exciting adventure – but accessible. That's the key to getting to the video game generation."
Prices range from $40 for the Treetop tour at Brevard Zoo to $85 at Forever Florida's EcoSafari.
"Something like this would cost $125 in Costa Rica," Duda said. "But it's not something you have to travel around the world to do."
This summer Gatorland in Orlando also opened a zipline attraction. It's seven stories off the ground and as long as 520 feet.
"Zipline brings us up to date with that younger demographic," said Gatorland's Mike Hileman. "It feels great."
If You Go
321-254-9453 ext. 253
8225 North Wickham Road, Melbourne
Florida EcoSafari at Forever Florida
4755 N. Kenansville Road, St. Cloud
Gatorland's Screamin' Gator Zipline
14501 South Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando
Cost: $69.99 (includes park admission)
Alligator Farm Crocodile Crossing
999 Anastasia Blvd., St. Augustine
(904) 824-3337 ext 33
Cost: $25/$65 (check for specials)
Central Florida Zoo
Seminole Aerial Adventures - Zipline Courses
3755 NW Hwy 17-92, Sanford
Frances Robles is a South Florida journalist who has written about Miami and Latin America since 1993. She lives in Coral Gables.