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Seeing wild Florida is a breeze

Jamie Abell told me not to worry. "The first step is the hardest," he said. Standing 55 feet above the forest floor, strapped into a tree climber's harness, I wasn't concerned about falling. "It's landing that worries me," I confessed. Abell smiled, patted my helmet, then took a step back. "Yahoooooo," I yelled as I stepped off the platform and leaned back to achieve maximum velocity. Flying through the pine flatwoods, tree branches narrowly missing my face, I understood why Abell insisted I cover my noggin. A moment of lost concentration was all it took to get me turned me around. Flying backward, I prayed I'd turn back around in time to land without smashing into a tree.

"Lift your feet," Megan Talbo yelled seconds before I would have slammed my shins into the platform.

I reacted just in time to save myself some major bruising and embarrassment. "You'll get the hang of it," said Talbo, another guide. "You will be a pro by the end of the day."

One down, six to go, I thought to myself. Ziplining was not as easy as I envisioned.

High flyer

I have never been afraid of heights. Skydiving and bungee jumping weren't a problem, but I must confess that I was a little worried about banging into a tree at 25 mph.

But my fear was unfounded. The zipline guides for Florida EcoSafaris at Forever Florida assured me that their lines were engineered by professionals and maintained on a daily basis.

"We check them every morning before the guests come out," Abell said. "We ride them ourselves to make sure everything is all right."

The seven zipline stations vary in height as they cut across a variety of habitat. The highest point on the zipline trail is 55 feet and the longest run is 750 feet — longer than two football fields.

It takes about 21/2 hours to complete the course. But after you get one or two rides under your belt, you will wish it was longer. But don't worry. You can zipline once in the daytime, then come back for a starlight or full moon zipline tour on another day.

Forever Florida

The 4,700-acre ecoranch and wildlife conservation area has a variety of ecosystems, including live oak hammocks, pine flatwoods and cypress swamps. It's home to alligators, white-tailed deer, black bear and the endangered Florida panther.

Guests can visit the Crescent J, a "living" museum to Spanish Colonial cattle and Florida's unique Cracker Horses. You can see the area by horseback, motorized coach or via the previously mentioned zipline.

Camping is available, and guests can eat at the full-service Cypress Restaurant after touring the grounds.

Dr. Alan Broussard, a 10th-generation rancher from Louisiana, used to play in the woods near the ranch when he was a boy. The wildlife ecologist eventually founded a conservancy, which purchased the land and renamed it Forever Florida, in order to keep it a wildlife preserve. For more information, go to www.forever florida.com.

Safety concerns

If you don't like heights, stay away. For those with safety concerns, note that the cables are capable of supporting a minimum load of 26,600 pounds.

The guides — and there are at least two on every adventure — are fully certified. They do most of the work for you. There is no hand braking. The system slows and brakes automatically as you glide into the platforms. Zipliners remain connected to one of two safety lines at all times.

The "engineered course" was professionally designed by the Illinois-based Experience Based Learning Inc., one of the leading builders of ziplines in the United States. For more information on the designer, go to www.ebl canopytours.com.

FAST FACTS

If you go

Florida EcoSafaris at Forever Florida (4755 N. Kenansville Road) is near St. Cloud, south of Interstate 4. Take U.S. Highway 192 to Holopaw and turn south on U.S. 441. Drive 71/2 miles and Forever Florida is on the east side. For information, call toll free 1-866-854-3837 or visit www.floridaecosafaris.com.

Upcoming events

Starlight Zipline Safaris: Saturday, Jan. 9, 16 and 23; Moonlight Zipline Safari: Jan. 30.

By the numbers

The Zipline Safari consists of seven "zips" and two sky bridges over three ecosystems.

It takes about 2 1/2 hours to complete the course, but with check-in and transportation to and from the start of the trail, allow yourself four hours on site.

Maximum height: 55 feet

Maximum speed: 25 mph

Longest run: 750 feet

Cost: $85 for adults and children 10 and older who meet the 70-pound minimum and 275-pound maximum weight requirement.

Seeing wild Florida is a breeze 12/31/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 3:31am]

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