Characters in Flight – Downtown Disney

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Take a ride in a tethered, helium-filled balloon that rises high above Downtown Disney. Located where the old Guest Relations used to be, it’s impressive just to watch. The balloon itself is about 50 feet in diameter, and stands about 100 ft high when it’s on the ground. It rises up 400 feet, four times the height of the Planet Hollywood restaurant, or two times higher than the Everest ride at Animal Kingdom. Painted bright red and yellow, it’s decorated with Disney characters that fly including Tinkerbell and Aladdin.

Cautions:   Motion Sickness, vertigo, heart problems, expectant mothers, “all other conditions that are aggravated by flight”, fear of heights, weakness, neck and back problems (see below for explanation).
Quick Notes: It’s a tethered balloon ride that rises approximately 400 feet.
Extra info: The ride takes approximately 10 minutes (3 minutes up, 4 minutes at the peak, 3 minutes down). Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. No strollers are permitted (there’s stroller parking right there). No shopping bags permitted (there’s a place to leave those). If your ECV or wheelchair is too large, you must transfer into a wheelchair that they loan you.

 

There can be a very long wait in line to get tickets, and the line is not shaded. Even if the line doesn’t look that long, it could still take a while. In addition to loading and unloading time, the ride takes 10 minutes. The number of people allowed on the balloon varies with the wind conditions for safety reasons. More wind means less people. On my last ride they only allowed 6 people up at a time. You can’t tell by the ground wind what it’s like at 400 feet. It could be calm down below, but windy up top. If there’s too much wind, they’ll close the ride down until conditions change. They won’t sell tickets in advance, so if you’ve been waiting in line and the wind picks up too much, you’ve waited in vain.

Tip: We’ve been told that the windiest time of day is often right when the sun goes down. Whenever you go, if you’re going to Downtown Disney just for that ride, it’s a good idea to call before you head there. Call (407) 828-3150. Still, it’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to ride since the wind could suddenly pick up.

Assuming wind and weather conditions are acceptable, the balloon operates Fridays and Saturdays from 10:30 AM – 12 midnight, and Sundays through Thursdays from 10:30 AM – 11 PM. Currently the cost is $18 for adults and $12 for kids ages 3 to 9.

The balloon is on a platform out on the water. You walk down a gently sloping concrete pathway over the water to get there. There are railings on both sides. You have to step up to get into the basket, or you can use the wheelchair lift. The “basket” itself is actually ring shaped with a hollow center. Guests stand single file, and you can look out either side. You can see down through the center hole in the middle of the ring, or over the outside wall.

The walls are about waist-high, but there’s a criss-cross cage made of thick nylon rope with metal supports that goes up well above anyone’s head. It appears that there would be no way you could fall out even if you wanted to. The actual basket, or ring is made of a thick polypropylene type of material. The diameter of the entire ring is probably about 30 feet, and the width of the ring floor is about three feet. Most people will be able to stand in the middle of the floor and hold on to both sides. The balloon is made out of a material that is proprietary. If there is latex in it, it’s well above anyone’s head. The tensile strength of the cable that secures the balloon is 45 tons. The helium in the balloon can only lift 4.5 tons. That gives the cable a 10x safety margin.

Take off and landings can be a bit bumpy in our experience. One cast member mentioned that he didn’t feel it would be a good idea for those with neck and back problems to try this. He said that although the landing is normally very mild, there can occasionally be a stronger than normal jolt upon landing. However another cast member who is a pilot said that there’s never a jolt. Of course it’s a personal choice, but we always recommend erring on the side of caution if you have a concern. Here are some visitor experiences:

“The day we went, it was about as windy as it ever gets. We could actually see that the balloon was leaning a little bit while it was on the ground: I would estimate about 3 degrees. The take-off was rather bumpy. My husband was convinced that this was due to the fact that we were taking off in the wind. Since we went at the absolute maximum allowable wind speed, you can figure that what I describe is the worst it would be: your experience could only be better. The pilot warns you of the bumps, and tells you that you will need to hold on to the railing (which is metal and about waist height). He was right: I think that if you did not hold on at that moment you would likely have fallen down. The basket mostly seemed to shift back and forth, tilting slightly. There was some bumping and jostling. After just a few seconds that stopped, and the rest of the ride was smooth’”

“Take off wasn’t bad, and up in the air I had no problems. I went up with a wheelchair, but I couldn’t see out of the balloon while sitting, so I stood up most of the ride. There was some wind, but not too bad, and the balloon rocked a bit, but it felt mild and I had no problems balancing. When we landed, there was a kind of jolt as we touched down. It was kind of strong and uncomfortable for me, but I don’t think it made me worse or anything.”

The balloon rises at a speed of 164 feet/minute. We didn’t experience a strong physical sensation of rising. In fact we felt less of a sense of acceleration than we’ve experienced in most elevators. Going down is even slower at 131 feet/minute. We did not have any physical sensation of dropping.

Unless you’re in a wheelchair, you’ll have to stand for about ten minutes. There’s some motion, which can vary depending on wind conditions. This motion is usually more of a weaving back and forth, with very little tipping type motion. According to the pilots we spoke with, and in our experience, once you’re at the top (400 ft) it’s usually steady. At that point guests are permitted to walk around in a counterclockwise direction to see the sights. If there’s a wheelchair on board, it blocks the way for the walk around. In that case guests are told to just move back and forth instead of all the way around. The pilot asks that passengers keep themselves spread somewhat evenly around the ring to keep it from tilting uncomfortably.

We were told that you can sometimes see from coast to coast on a clear day. We did get a sense that we were up very high, however we felt secure because of the waist-high opaque wall and the netting.

Tip: If you find yourself feeling afraid of the height, one pilot suggests that you look out at the horizon. You can also look down at the floor.

Here’s what a guest had to say about being at the top:

“I thought I’d be freaked out by the height, as I’m the kind of person that can’t stand on a balcony without getting anxious. It really wasn’t bad though.”

To address a fear some people have expressed, we asked the pilot what happens if the cable breaks. He reassured us that it won’t. It holds 45 tons -that’s 90,000 pounds, and he says that nobody’s that heavy. The basket is connected to the balloon with multiple cables, and the netting. If a lot of ropes break, the basket might possibly tilt, but it still wouldn’t fall. The pilot has control of the helium, just like in any helium (or hot air) balloon, and the pilots are all certified balloon pilots. The first thing that would happen is that the balloon would begin to rise. The pilot would radio Air Traffic Control, just like any airplane. That would keep all aircraft away from the area. ATC would instruct him on wind direction and speed so he could scope out an appropriate landing site. He would begin to fly it just like it was a regular balloon. When it was time to land he would use the valve to release the helium, and drift to a landing. And you would have gotten a bargain for a real balloon ride.

Just in case you’re wondering, the balloon has an automatic release. When it goes over 1000 feet, a separate valve senses the altitude, opens automatically, and the helium begins to leak out slowly. The balloon will descend on its own. So even if the cable breaks and the pilot dies of a coincidental heart attack, you’ll still land. You will not end up on the moon.

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About Author

I'm Stephen Ashley. My wife and I are huge fans of Disney World. I'm the author of Walt Disney World With Disabilities. I also wrote a book called Walt Disney World Made Easy for Everyone, but rather than have it published, at this point we've decided to place all the material from the manuscript on this website so everyone can have access to it! I hope you enjoy it, and I hope it makes your day just a little bit brighter and easier.

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