January 13, 2012
Fresh from trying his hand at just about every adventure activity under the Florida sun, daredevil and travel writer David Whitley shares a guide to the Sunshine State’s best pulse-quickening pastimes, from avoiding being eaten alive by alligators in the Everglades, to impersonating James Bond in Key West…
Thrill seekers in Florida don’t necessarily have to limit themselves to the big rollercoasters in Orlando’s theme parks – there are plenty of grown-up adrenalin activities on offer throughout the state. Most are within easy reach of the two major air hubs – Orlando and Miami. And whether it’s flying into the future with a jetpack or roaring around the track in an Indy Car, these adventures are anything but dull.
Of all the gadgets James Bond has got his hand on over the years, the jet pack he escapes with in Thunderball is probably the one that inspires the most envy. Fortunately, nearly 50 years later, a real life Q has invented one that we can all have a go with.
Jetpack Adventures in Key West has only been operating for a few months, and so far, the Florida Keys is the only place in the world where ordinary Joes can try the $99,500 Jetlev R200 system.
From the marina by the Galleon Resort, we’re whisked away by speedboat to one of the few stretches of water that’s not occupied by jetskiers, parasailers and recreational fishermen. Once there, I’m strapped into a fiendish contraption that has a five way lock and one of those death-switch lanyards usually used to stop heavy machinery if something happens to its operator. It’s strapped to my wrist; if my arm suddenly jerks wildly or goes flailing off course, it’ll detach from the jetpack and cut the engine.
The other key attachment is to a little diddy boat-thing that bobs along in the water and follows the jetpack around. This is where the science goes on, however. A superpowerful pump inside sends vast amounts of water up through the hose attached to my harness. That’s fired out from things that look like booster rockets on either side of me, and the laws of physics fire me onwards and upwards.
The power is controlled partly by remote control – the guys won’t let you go full pelt until you show you can handle the equipment properly – and partly by a twistable throttle on the handlebars.
I quickly learn that it’s not as easy as it looks. Really small movements of the handlebars are required to turn, gain height and surge forwards, but the temptation is to make larger ones just to make sure things happen.
Move too boldly, and soaring flight above the water quickly morphs into wayward spinning and a great splashing crash. When I let my body relax and rein in the “I’m in charge” instincts, however, the Bond fantasies come to life. The water powers out behind, I skim above the surface and blast upwards into a hover position with my feet dangling in the air. They promised us jetpacks, and we’ve finally got them.
Petrolheads can live out their Indy car dreams, whipping round the track at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando. Two options are available, the first of which is to get into the driver’s seat and follow a lead car around the track at the fastest speed you’re comfortable with. That may seem like the magical choice, but it’s worth bearing in mind that you’ll not be able to attack the track nearly as fast as a proper Indy car driver.
Luckily, some of those are to hand. The second option is to sit behind drivers that have competed at the highest level, and tear it up at frightening speeds and G-forces. The specially-modified cars reach up to 180 miles an hour.
The Kennedy Space Center, around an hour east of Orlando, offers a special Astronaut Training Experience that doesn’t quite prepare you for the rigours of spaceflight, but is tremendous fun. The half day programme involves a talk by a real life astronaut – with a great Q and A session at the end – but it’s properly hands on too. You start with the simulators, competing to see who can get closest to a perfect shuttle landing.
It finishes with a simulated shuttle mission – with everyone given a role either on board the full-sized orbiter or in mission control, but it’s the physical training that is most likely to bring lunch back. The multi-axis trainers are not for the faint-hearted. They strap you in, and you’re spun and flipped around in every direction. It’s only for a minute – real astronauts go in for 15 minutes at a time – but it’s enough to get you thoroughly disorientated.
The Astronaut Training Experience may keep your feet firmly on the ground for the most part, but there is one way to get a proper bird’s eye view of the Kennedy Space Center complex. Skydive Space Center flies customers out over shuttle launch pads and landing runways, with imperious views of the giant Vehicle Assembly Building and Cape Canaveral.
The only problem is that they’ll then throw you out of the plane. The company boasts the world’s highest skydives – allowing tandem jumps from 18,000 feet. This gets you around a minute and a half of freefall before the canopy opens and you float back down to earth, looking out at the Atlantic Ocean.
It won’t get your heart pumping quite as fast as being chucked out of a plane, but paddling a canoe through the Florida Everglades certainly has a bit of spice to it. Getting out on the water is easily the best way of exploring the world’s slowest-moving river, but you do have to stay more than a little wary of what’s IN the water.
Florida is justifiably famous for its alligators – you really don’t want to be capsizing the canoe and tumbling in.
North American Canoe Tours is one of the many outfitters offering day long – and multi-day – canoeing trips into the lesser-visited swampy backwaters that the famous airboats aren’t allowed near.
Zipwiring courses are somewhat ten a penny these days, but one of the more interesting ones navigates its way through the Central Florida Zoo, just to the north of Orlando. Divided into two sections, you’ll need to budget the best part of half a day to get round both.
The wires don’t exactly fly over the animal enclosures, but there’s still a decent sense of adventure as you fly back and forwards over the grounds. The real nervy moments come whilst navigating the wobbly plank bridges and wire tightropes, however.
Virgin Atlantic operates flights to Orlando from London Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow, and a daily flight to Miami from London Heathrow. For complete Florida holidays from the UK’s market leaders visit Virgin Holidays.