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Lighter than air? Only when it's calm

Characters in Flight is a giant tethered balloon that features silhouettes of Disney’s animated flying characters such as Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and Dumbo.

Walt Disney World

Characters in Flight is a giant tethered balloon that features silhouettes of Disney’s animated flying characters such as Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and Dumbo.

A new balloon attraction at Downtown Disney promises panoramic views of the Happiest Place on Earth.

Just hope the weather is cooperating.

Mother Nature grounds Characters in Flight whenever the 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 last week when I drove from Tampa to review the tethered helium balloon ride. I left in the morning, when the wind is generally lighter, in the hopes of catching one of the early rides, which start at 10:30.

I arrived to find the kiosk closed; the 72-foot diameter balloon covered in netting. One of the pilots said the balloon 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 into the air. Conditions can deceive. And if there's any sign of storms in the area, 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. Only when air is at a virtual standstill is the maximum 30 allowed.

During my visit, a steady stream of people stopped to inquire. One woman told the pilots she went there three times, but the ride was always closed.

"I'm not trying again,'' she said, walking away in a huff. "I admit defeat.''

Ride officials say visitors can call Downtown Disney Guest Services to find out if the balloon is running. However, when I called, the operator didn't know anything about it other than the regular hours.

Sans the balloon, Downtown Disney still has a lot to do and see, some of it new. For shopping, check out Tren-D, a clothing and accessories store with hip Mickey Mouse stuff for adults. When you're hungry, try the T-Rex Cafe, a dinosaur-themed restaurant and shop with lifelike prehistoric animals that move and roar loudly. Just don't expect to shop for music at the Virgin Megastore; it closed last week.

So far, reviews of the balloon have been mostly positive. On a clear day, you can see to the shuttle launch pad in Cape Canaveral. A reporter for the Orlando Sentinel called it "very Google Earth — Live!'' He also advised people to "pack their patience.''

Because even a magical place like Walt Disney World can't control the weather.

Up, up and away

This tethered helium balloon ride at Downtown Disney runs from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and until midnight Fridays and Saturdays, weather permitting. Located along Village Lake behind Planet Hollywood. Tickets are $16 for adults, $10 for children ages 3 to 9, and free to children 2 and younger.

Lighter than air? Only when it's calm 05/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 21, 2009 1:02pm]
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