I spent most of my visit to Orlando either upside down or flying backwards. I might not have been able to get to the Kennedy Space Centre but I did fly around Hogwarts, above a Miniature USA, over an alligator swamp and had slime flying at me. However, no ride, zip wire or even broomstick came close to my experience at iFly Orlando Indoor Skydiving centre. If Roald Dahl had been for a visit, I swear he’d have set his most famous book in a wind tunnel…
I believe I can fly… don’t I?
It is the last few moments of the safety briefing. I have learnt that indoor skydiving is not a ride, but a sport. I have absorbed instructions to keep my chins up, my legs straight and my arms out. I have resolved to relax in the cylindrical wind tunnel. But I have one last question. What happens if we get sucked into the vortex?
Our instructor Adam Fultz shakes his head and grins. “I’m not Willie Wonka you know.”
And I’m definitely not Charlie. By the time I have geared up in jumpsuit, helmet and goggles, I feel more like the girl who blows up into a blueberry. By contrast Cameron looks like a mini astronaut on his umpteenth mission.
Not above the cloud but under the sea
And then they turn the wind on. I enter the tunnel and fall forward. Boom. It’s a whole new world. But I don’t feel I’m flying. I have the sensation of going under the sea. My nostrils fill and I struggle to both swallow and catch a breath. I can almost taste the salt on my tongue. I feel slightly sick as I struggle to push my legs into the correct position. Like a swimmer going against the tide I force my arms into place. Already my muscles ache. Everything is going in slow motion. The ear plugs I’m wearing cut out most of the noise of the wind, but it still sounds like a very loud hoover and I can feel its power and its pull. Meanwhile Adam is moulding my body into the right position, signalling to me to straighten my legs in a small window that acts as mirror. All I see is a woman with hamster cheeks flapping her arms about. And then, he lets go and I am floating.
For a moment. And then I am sinking. Oh!
I am Buzz Lightyear not Buzz Aldrin.
I have legs not wings. I wasn’t made to fly. Adam rescues me before I hit the floor and sends me off in another direction; straight for the wall. It occurs to me that it’s 2am back at home and I ask myself what I’m doing in a wind tunnel, heading for a face plant in the glass. But then I turn a corner and start to relax.
The ultimate thrill franchise
I thought Starbucks was an exciting franchise until I came across this lot. iFly indoor skydiving is increasingly popular across The States and there are at least three like it in the UK; one not far from us in Manchester. At first sight it’s not very glamorous; from the outside this sealed glass tube resembles an industrial tower. But centres like this are used by skydiving teams from around the world to enhance their skills and it’s just one step from here to the clouds.
You don’t need to be a skydiver to have a go. Children from three upwards are welcome at iFly and the wall-to-wall wind is particularly ideal for anyone scared of flying who wants to confront their fear in a safe, controlled way. “It’s the same experience whether you are 20 feet up or only a few inches from the ground,” says Adam. You can progress from clueless beginner experiencing the first sensations of leaving earth, into a frequent flyer with some real skills. “The more you do it, the more you get addicted. You quickly learn how to go left and right, how to flip over. How to go forward and backward and move around with the wind. You are stimulating the brain and the body,” he adds.
Letting myself go
On my second go I’m definitely not up to flipping but at least I know what to do. I can’t really control my hands or legs and my body positions are dubious but I’m exhilarated to get off the ground. And then, with a nod and a grin, Adam grabs me and launches off into space. I am frozen with shock as we spin together, up and up through the tube. Time speeds up and slows along with our movements. And then I start to really enjoy myself. I forget the pressure in my nostrils. I forget the dry taste in my mouth. I forget the fear and the raw adrenaline running through my veins. I am a helicopter. Or at least one of its blades. It is one of the biggest rushes I have ever had. Up and up we go, round and round on the wind.
Adam was wrong. He is Willie Wonka and I am Charlie. In the glass elevator and shooting for the sky.
Letting Cameron go
And then, after exactly two minutes in the tunnel that seem like ten, it’s all over. For me anyway. It’s Cameron’s turn. Weighing just four stone, he is Adam’s basketball. The instructor throws him around his head, spins him on his tummy using just one finger and chucks him high into the air. Cameron has spent the early evening eating Pixie Sticks; little coloured tubes of sugar, and I’m sure he’ll throw the e numbers back up again, but he’s laughing and smiling, and looking like a synchronised swimmer in a warm pool.
Then Adam straightens him out, grabs him by the legs and together they take off, spinning at the speed of light through the wind tunnel. And then, they’re gone. I imagine them up high, going round and round like ballroom dancers. And now I am Charlie’s Mum. I have lost my son to Willie Wonka. He is up, up and away out of my reach. I am left on earth in an unflattering jumpsuit, sucking in my hamster cheeks and hoping he comes back to me sometime soon.
I have a feeling that this won’t be the last time I wave goodbye as he gets into the glass elevator and travels far, far away.
Where is it?
iFly Orlando is just off International Drive. But if you live elsewhere there are iFly’s or similar indoor skydiving experiences dotted across the USA and the UK. Anyone from the age of three up can have a go at flying, and various taster packages are available. Check out their websites for price details as they vary. A family package can be shared by up to five people and includes a DVD of your experience and ten one-minute flights.
When do I go?
iFly Orlando is open seven days a week until 10.30pm. There are evening flights if you want to skydive after work. Although our session was very busy, evenings are a good time to see the professionals practising; we were treated to a half hour show with a skydiver and two trainers tumbling around in the air tunnel before we were kitted out.
What do I wear?
Practical clothes and trainers are advised although they do provide jumpsuits, goggles, helmets and earplugs. I turned up in flipflops and they sorted me out with some shoes.
Will I freak out?
Being scared of heights is no problem; you can fly with your nose pretty much planted into the net near the ground. It is a little daunting to enter the ‘vortex’ but within seconds I lost all my fear and started to enjoy myself.
Who can do it?
Any ability from beginner to Felix Baumgartner is catered for and there is no maximum age although there is a maximum weight. There’s a full safety briefing beforehand, and an instructor will guide you through the whole thing. This activity is made for family bonding; there were two kids in our group and both were much more confident than the adults and happily helped us through it.
Disclosure Note: Thanks to Visit Orlando and the Nick Hotel for looking after us during our visit to Orlando.