The nation's first zip-line roller coaster is part of a $1.5 million expansion opening Friday at Florida EcoSafaris inSt. Cloud. The new attraction puts dangling passengers through sharp curves and jarring dips, thanks to a rigid-rail system that runs overhead and the pull of gravity below.
"It's inspired by zip lining, but it's gone way past that," said Matt Duda, sales and marketing director at Florida EcoSafaris, which opened the state's first zip line in 2009.
The new attraction is a departure from traditional zip lines, which follow a straight course and began as a means of transportation, said Michael Smith, adventure-course consultant and operator.
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"It's the evolution of zip line toward high-volume, high-capacity thrill rides," he said. "This is one of many ways that zip rides are going — further, faster and articulated turns. That's the amusement-park ride aspect of this."
The Rattlesnake is only the second of its kind in the world, trailing a similar ride at a park in Tulum, Mexico.
Zip-line activity has surged locally and nationally over the past six years. Smith found 311 outlets in North America with zip lines — including adventure courses, elevated nature trails and purely recreational activities — in 2011. That's up from 17 outlets in 2005.
"Every single day I'm learning about a new tour," Smith said. More than 120 venues will open this year, he estimated.
In Central Florida, zip lines have opened at Kissimmee-based Zip Orlando and Old Town, the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford and across the alligator-breeding swamp at Gatorland in south Orange County.
"We're seeing a boom simply because the population is desperate for activities that evoke imagination and inspiration," Smith said. "And you pair that with the green movement that's going on — the connecting with the natural world — you have a product that sells itself on so many levels."
The Rattlesnake earned high marks from Emily Kaufman, a California-based travel expert known as the Travel Mom, who previewed the ride last month.
"It married a couple of things that I really love: The-zip line experience — the fantasy of feeling like you're really flying — and a roller coaster," she said. "It wasn't too intense, but intense enough."
Rattlesnake riders take off from a 65-foot tower. The rail is 1,000 feet long, and the experience lasts about a minute. The eco-tourism attraction is set on the 4,700-acre Forever Florida conservation area in Osceola County, about 50 miles from downtown Orlando.
The future of zip-lining could shift from natural settings to urban mass-transit systems, Smith said.
"It seems a little bit out there, but the reality is in a crowded city, it's very practical to create a network of systems where people would not travel by gravity necessarily, but have a small hybrid vehicle that zips along suspended cable," Smith said. The cost of putting up high-tension cables is "far cheaper" than roads and sidewalks, he said.
Smith proposed such a system for the city of Denver a few years ago, he said, but it wasn't approved.
"The technology is already there. I don't think the public is ready," Smith said. "It certainly would be a much more exciting way to get from place to place."
DBevil@Tribune.com or 407-420-5477
IF YOU GO
What: Opening today with the Rattlesnake are Panther Pounce, a 68-foot freefall from an observation tower; Swooping Crane, where guests drop themselves from a height of 55 feet, creating a giant, swinging motion; and Peregrine Plunge, side-by-side, 1,300-foot straight-away zip lines.
Cost: The EcoPark Admission Ticket is $135 and provides access to six adventures. Florida EcoSafaris at Forever Florida donates 30 percent of its revenue to the nonprofit Allen Broussard Conservancy, which works to preserve and protect additional lands at the Forever Florida Wildlife Conservation Area.
Restrictions: Participants must be at least 10 years old.
Suggestions: Reservations recommended
Where: 4755 N. Kenansville Road, St. Cloud