A zippy look at Wild Animal Park

Visitors who look skyward at San Diego's Wild Animal Park are now seeing more than the usual assortment of exotic birds. Up in the sky about six stories above the brown hillside is a new kind of flying species soaring overhead at about 40 mph, swooping to a sudden stop atop a platform the park has built especially for the species' arrival.

These creatures might logically be called the Smiling, Laughing Zip Line Riders because invariably that's what they do when they finish their breathtaking two-thirds-of-a-mile flight from a perch high above the hillside.

The Wild Animal Park's Flightline ride is attracting kids and adults of nearly all ages who want to try out the latest tourism craze. Zip lines are popping up all over California, from Catalina to historic Gold Country, and the state's leisure travelers are jumping at the chance to fly down a mountain with nothing but a wire and a pulley protecting them from a very unpleasant fall to earth.

The zip lines are part thrill ride, part scenic adventure and can cost more than $1 million to build. But locations that have installed them are finding they have a wide appeal and give visitors just one more reason to visit their particular area. Catalina Island, for example, is heavily promoting its new zip line as a way to show travelers that, far from being stale, the island is always adding new activities to make a visit even more memorable.

The Wild Animal Park installed its zip line in spring 2009 and has seen a steady clientele paying the minimum $70 per person to fly. Other pricing options are available including packages with repeat rides and helmet cams for you to record your adventure. Keep in mind that about 30% of the price goes to wildlife conservation, so you know you're doing a good thing in addition to experiencing a unique ride.

We visited the Wild Animal Park and scheduled the 90-minute experience. The rides are scheduled throughout the day, usually on the hour, and during this particular Friday in July the ride was not overly crowded. There were no long lines and just a couple of other riders who would go with us during our timeslot.

As is always the case with adventure rides like this, the first step is signing the waivers — legal forms that remind you the activity can be dangerous and requiring you to admit that no one is holding a gun to your head to make you go. It always gives us a little pause when we read through these forms, but we remind ourselves that, especially in California, we live in a litigious society, and one lawsuit can wipe out a business.

It's at this stage that you'll also be weighed. Fear not, only the attendant sees the results of your weigh-in. The main thing is that you have to be over 75 pounds and under 250 pounds. If you're too light-weight, you won't have enough propulsion, and if you're too heavy you will be going too fast, which is probably not a good thing.

Then it was onto the instruction phase of our adventure. We were handed our harnesses. These particular harnesses are a little awkward to put on, but the affable attendants will do it for you if you want their help.

The instructions are fairly simple. There are just two positions for you to know, your soaring position and your landing position. There are hand signals for both and, as you come in for your landing, an attendant will signal to you just the right time to change to your landing position.

Just like skiing, there is a beginner hill for the Flightline beginner — a kind of warm-up ride to get you accustomed to the feel of flying down the wires. Next they put you into a truck and take you up to the launch platform, which is well to the back of the Wild Animal Park property. The winding road took us through some interesting areas where they feed some of the animals, and you can also learn more about their unique conservation program for the California condor. Finally, you arrive at the tower, with its commanding view of the valley below and a zip line that stretches way farther than you can see.

The two-thirds-of-a-mile Flightline ride is thrilling, but it does go by quickly. You gain speed throughout the first half of the ride before it starts to level off a bit. The whizzing of the pulley against the wire gets louder and louder, and you start to sense that even minor changes in your body posture can start to turn you sideways — so you freeze in your soaring position, legs completely out and apart, shoulders forward. In just a minute or so, it's already time to shift to your landing posture, leaning way back, again with legs spread and apart. And then it's over.

The worst part was the pictures. The Wild Animal Park has a photographer stationed at the base of the ride to get telephoto shots of you soaring through the air. It sounds good in theory, but the picture they get of you cinched up in your harness, legs spread and hair blown off the back of your head may not look exactly like Superman.

At a glance

Where: The Wild Animal Park is in Escondido, about 35 miles north of San Diego. The park is home to exotic animals from around the world and is operated in conjunction with the world-famous San Diego Zoo. One of the most popular theme parks in Southern California, the Wild Animal Park is worth a full day's visit.

What: Flightline is the new zip line ride available at the Wild Animal Park. The ride is open to anyone 10 or older and weighing at least 75 pounds, but no more than 250 pounds.

When: Any time of the year. The Escondido area can get fairly hot in the summer and is more crowded with tourists during that period as well.

How: For more information on the Wild Animal Park, call (619) 231-1515 or visit http://www.sandiegozoo.org/park.

For more information on travel in California, visit http://www.californiaweekend.com.

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