BY SUSAN THURSTON
Times Staff Writer
A new balloon attraction at Downtown Disney promises panoramic views of the happiest place on Earth. Just hope the weather cooperates.
Characters in Flight is grounded whenever winds exceed 22 mph, which has happened a lot since the ride opened last month.
Thunderstorms in the area? Fast-moving puffy clouds? Assume both feet are staying on the ground.
That was the case one morning last week when I drove from Tampa to review the tethered helium balloon ride. I arrived to find the kiosk closed, the 72-foot-diameter balloon covered in netting. A pilot said the it was grounded until 8 or 9 p.m., at the earliest, because of high winds.
High winds? Barely a leaf was moving on the trees.
Apparently low wind on the ground doesn't mean low wind 400 feet in the air. And if there's any sign of storms, the balloon can't fly for safety reasons.
Even when the winds are less than 22 mph, the speed dictates how many people can board each 10-minute flight. The more wind, the fewer passengers, and only when air is at a virtual standstill is the maximum 30 people allowed.
That will leave a lot of wanna-be riders waiting in line for a very long time or out of luck entirely. During my visit, a steady stream of people stopped to inquire. One woman told the pilots she tried three times, but the ride was always closed.
Ride officials say visitors can call Downtown Disney Guest Services to ask if the ride is operating. But when I called, the operator had no information beyond the regular hours. Unless you're nearby, calling ahead won't help anyway, because winds shift quickly.
Reviews of the balloon have been mostly positive. Views are stunning and, on a clear day, you can see the shuttle launch pad in Cape Canaveral. The Orlando Sentinel called it "very Google Earth — Live!'' but suggested people "pack their patience.''
Because, unfortunately, even a magical place like Walt Disney World can't control the weather.