Characters in Flight

What in the World?
A weekly peek at Walt Disney World

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Downtown Disney has been the target of some major changes at Walt Disney World lately.  From the closing of many of Pleasure Island’s attractions, such as the Adventurer’s Club, to the closing of the Virgin Megastore, to the construction of more restaurants and shopping destinations, Downtown Disney is definitely in the middle of a reimagining.  While many of the shops and dining locations are still being built, one new addition to Downtown Disney has been fully functional for three months: Characters in Flight, located at Downtown Disney’s Westside.

The Basics

Opened in April 2009, Characters in Flight is a tethered helium balloon that takes guests some four hundred feet in the air for a pretty spectacular 360 degree view of Walt Disney World and the surrounding area.  Prices are $16 for adults and $10 for children ages 3-9 and the attraction operates Sunday thru Thursday from 10:30am to 11pm, and Friday and Saturday from 10:30am to 12 midnight.

Characters in Flight is operated by a company called “Aerophile.”  Founded in 1993 by two 25-year-old engineers, Matthieu Gobbi and Jerome Giacomoni, Aerophile manufacturers and operates a variety of balloons all over the world, including Paris, France, Irvine, California, Evry France, Disneyland Paris, Aulnays-sous-Bois, France, and Fishers, Indiana. 

The balloon itself can hold up to 30 guests when in flight.  However, the real indicator of the amount of people the balloon will hold is determined by the wind speed – the higher the wind, the fewer the riders. Capacity is determined as follows:

0-3 miles per hour – 20-30 guests
3-12 miles per hour – 10-20 guests
12-22 miles per hour – 10 guests maximum
23 or more miles per hour – No guests allowed.

Additionally, Characters in Flight will close if there is inclement weather present, or incoming.  Should the attraction close after a guest buys his/her ticket, the ticket is valid only for the date of purchase.  All refunds for unused tickets due to inclement weather must be refunded on the date of purchase.

With ticket in hand guests then wait in the queue.  Here, a ground-crew member will answer any questions you may have as you wait for the balloon to return to Earth.  For example, the ground crew assured a guest behind me that the tether is virtually unbreakable and would never snap when the balloon was in flight.  However, we added, that should the balloon break free from its tether, a safety valve would release some of the helium in the balloon once it reached one thousand feet (to ensure it wouldn’t just fly up until it popped).  The pilot would then start a controlled descent back to safety.

Once the ground crew gives guests the green light, you make your way to the big circular gondola.  Once inside the gondola, you’ll notice the siding reaches up to your waist and protective netting is right above that.  Each voyage carries an FAA certified hot-air balloon pilot.  Just before takeoff, everyone is asked to hold on to the inner and outer hand railing and brace themselves as the first few feet are jerky.   After that, it is pretty smooth ride, even if the wind moves the gondola a bit from side to side.

Once we reached our maximum height, we were encouraged to move around (but not everyone in the same place), take pictures, and ask questions.  At landing time, we were once again asked to hold onto the hand rails as touchdown can be bumpy.

Each ride is approximately ten minutes in length. It takes two minutes for both the ascent and descent and then five minutes at the top.

My Two Cents

I have always said I wanted to see Walt Disney World in new and different ways.  This was the reason I decided to finally take the plunge and give Characters in Flight a chance.  Overall, it is hard to deny that the sights that can be seen at 400 feet in the air are nothing short of amazing.  Even with Downtown Orlando in the horizon, I thought the views were incredible.  I simply wish I had something better than a point and shoot camera, because I would have been able to take some even better pictures than I actually could. 

Also, having never ridden in a hot-air balloon or anything of this sort before, it was quite a treat.  The sensation was a bit jarring at first, but once I realized I was perfectly safe I was able to enjoy it immensely.  The balloon itself is also very quiet and helped me relax and enjoy my surroundings.  Had this been a hot-air balloon, the burner would have been constantly blowing hot air into the balloon.  Seeing as the Characters in Flight balloon is filled with helium, the entire trip was extremely quiet.

As you can see from these pictures, I could see quite a bit.  But the problem I have with the Characters in Flight attraction don’t necessarily involve the ride itself – it involves the cost and the amount of time you are actually in the balloon.  I won’t pretend to guess what something like Characters in Flight costs to operate, staff, and maintain… but $16 for an adult ticket for a ten minute ride was steep in my opinion.  For sixteen dollars you can buy yourself a movie ticket and a large drink at the neighboring movie theater and get yourself some two hours of entertainment.  For the cost of 50 minutes on the balloon, you could get an entire day’s worth of fun at a theme park.  The price just really isn’t worth what you get out of it.  Someone even said to me that it would be cheaper just to drive to a tall hotel off property and see the surrounding area from the top floor there. 

While I can’t recommend the Characters in Flight experience as a most do on every single trip, it is perhaps worth trying once.  Guests, especially those guests that enjoy photography, will never see Walt Disney World quite like this (unless you spend even more money on a helicopter tour).  So while it is worth going once, there isn’t much reasons to go after that.