The idea of soaring above clouds is so magical, peaceful, and serene, that it’s worthy of most bucket lists. But you don’t have to catch an airplane (or jump out of one as a skydiver) to experience the joy of taking flight. Two unique experiences in Central Florida can help you check that box in a much more relaxed, memorable way.
For a flight that’s truly one of a kind, visit Wallaby Ranch in Davenport, Florida – the first full-time Aerotow hang-gliding park in the world. Rather than rely on a cliff or mountain to launch, this tandem method of hang gliding allows the glider to be towed behind a powered aircraft with wheels attached to the frame, which means all you have to do is enjoy the ride – and the views as you soar above the ranch. Just minutes from Disney, the location couldn’t be more perfect. Thanks to sea breezes from both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, Florida has become one of the best places to hang glide.
When to fly: Mornings or late afternoons provide the best wind conditions.
Before you fly: Experience isn’t necessary to take a tandem flight with a certified instructor. (If you’re lucky, founder and owner Malcolm Jones, one of the most experienced tandem hang-gliding pilots in the world, will be your instructor.) Once you turn off a tree-lined, two-lane road, you’ll drive into the pastoral, 500-acre ranch past huge swaths of emerald green lawn where hang gliders are lined up in neat rows. After a very quick check-in, you’ll be ready to go.
The experience: The crew will secure you into the harness attached to the non-motorized glider, and “you’ll be towed 2,000 feet in the air behind a specially designed airplane, then the rope releases and off we’ll go!” says Jones, who opened the ranch in 1991. If you’re comfortable, you can help steer and operate the hang glider during the 15-minute flight. With a lightweight aluminum frame and nylon wings, these unique hang gliders feel light as a feather once you’re up in the air. “It’s so serene and quiet up there,” Jones adds.
After your flight, spend some time exploring the ranch. Take a dip in the large swimming pool, let the kids romp in the playground, or go hiking or biking on more than 400 acres of trails (you’ll have to bring your own bike as they’re not available for rent). If you’re an experienced rock climber, bring your gear and take advantage of Wallaby Ranch’s climbing wall (neither gear nor instruction is provided on the open wall).
Good to know: Wallaby Ranch is open seven days per week, 365 days per year, weather permitting. A single tandem flight costs $175 per person, but you can also purchase packages of three, 10 or 20 lessons. Gliders, helmets, parachutes, and harnesses are all available for rent, so you can try out the sport before committing to buying the gear.
Orlando Balloon Rides
Once in a lifetime. Out of this world. This is how guests have described what it’s like taking flight on a hot air balloon with Orlando Balloon Rides, also in Davenport, Florida.
When to fly: All hot air balloon rides take place shortly after sunrise as this is when weather conditions have the highest chance of being just right (winds must be less than 6 knots and there can be no rain or storms within 100 miles).
Before you go: Once you’ve made a reservation, you’ll be emailed a confirmation with details about your flight, including a phone number to call to check for flight status on the night prior. This is in case weather affects your departure time, or in rare cases, forces the company to cancel the flight altogether.
The experience: On the morning of your flight, you’ll arrive at the Orlando Balloon Rides Welcome Center approximately one hour before sunrise and be whisked away by shuttle to one of several launch sites. Even though your feet are still firmly planted on terra firma, this is where the fun begins. You’ll have a front row seat to watch the colorful balloons as they swell from flat and messy to big, billowy and fully inflated. In many cases, the pilots enlist the help of curious fliers, showing them how to set up and inflate the balloon. After the 20-minute transformation is complete, you’re boarded into a compartmentalized basket, where you and your family will hover close as you stand together for the one-hour flight.
Once you’re up in the air, the oohs and aahs continue as the excitement of the launch site gives way to the orderly calm of Central Florida’s orange groves before gliding over vast swamps filled with marshes, wildlife, and waterways. While pics of the landscape below are certainly Instagram-worthy, sometimes another hot air balloon drifts by close enough that you can snap a pic of it from the air, providing a rare perspective. Needless to say, you’ll want to have a camera handy.
Turning vents make it easy for the pilot to give everyone on board a 360-degree of the earth below. One minute you’re gliding over the treetops, enjoying a quintessential bird’s-eye view of the landscape below, the next you’re several thousand feet in the air, feeling like you’re heaven-bound.
Landings are gentler than most people expect and once the basket touches down, all you have to do is open the safety door and walk out. The pilot is in constant contact with the crew on the ground, so they know just where to meet you with a glass of champagne or orange juice (sometimes both, if mimosas are your thing) to toast the experience. A shuttle transports you back to the welcome center for departure – unless you want to stick around and learn how to take down a hot air balloon.
Good to know: Orlando Balloon Rides is open seven days per week, 365 days per year, weather permitting. Kids must be at least six and anyone under 18 must fly with an adult. Each flight carries 16–20 passengers and you’ll be standing the entire time.
Ready to take to the skies? Hilton’s Experience Orlando Package includes discounts to both experiences.