Zip Line vs. Zip Ride

With the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) and Professional Ropes Course Association (PRCA) both introducing new standards for Zip Lines, and with the International ASTM standards organization developing standard ASTM F2959 to establish criteria for total design, manufacture and installation of aerial adventure courses (to include zip lines, challenge courses, aerial trekking courses, etc), the question arises,

“It’s just a bunch of cable strung between two structures, isn’t it?”

For better or worse (and that will primarily depend on how the standards are written and applied), this industry is changing and growing. Personally, I find it exciting. New technology, new opportunities, and new experiences seem to be appearing on my Google Alerts every day… and I think that is just great. At the same time, I have some concerns about the new direction of standards and the evolution of the zip line.

I often receive inquiries about whether zip lines can be designed to arc, pass intermediary anchors and do physically amazing things. I also receive similar questions as to the nature of increasing cycle times and supporting a nearly perplexing numbers of riders. The answer is “yes, zip lines can be designed to arch and defy gravity” and “yes, I have a solution to reducing cycle time and supporting a perplexing number of riders.” The answer is “A ROLLERCOASTER”. The good news is that it has already been invented and designers and manufacturers are available worldwide.

If to traverse a length of cable between two structures a motorized trolley is required, should the ride be called a zip line? If cables are used to suspend a steel tube with arcs and undulations that thrill riders as they descend on a multi-sheave pulley, should the ride be called a zip line? These are questions that we need to answer.

Additionally, there is a growing concern, perpetrated I believe by rumors and builders making grossly inaccurate claims, that hand-braking systems and systems with additional human involvement are dangerous. First, all zip lines are dangerous. Second, recent studies by the insurance companies have shown that while there are slightly more claims on hand-braking courses, the severity of injury has been less than those claims for course using other methods of control.

Let’s for a second compare a few different “zip lines” through a video comparison.

ArborTrek Canopy Adventures – Smugglers’ Notch, Vermont

Zip Rider – Icy Straight, Alaska

Sun City South Africa

Soaring Eagle Zip Line

Moto-Zip – Branson, Missouri

YMCA Camp Piomingo – Louisville, Kentucky

Personally, I have not had the opportunity to ride the Sun City Africa zip line, Moto-Zip, or the Camp Piomingo, but I would like to ride them all. I selected these examples because I believe they are representative of some of the new experiences that are emerging. I’m a fan of innovation and experience and I found the zip lines that I did experience above to be tremendous fun. I also found it hard to call some of them zip lines.

In the example of the hand-braking zip line and camp zip line, gravity was the chief propellant and the users were given opportunities to participate in the experience either by stepping off the platform, or in the case of the zip line canopy tour, steering and controlling their speed. The Zip Rider at Icy Straight is awesome! But I didn’t have the opportunity to choose when to go. In fact, I didn’t have any control in the system other than to sit there. I enjoyed the experience, but it was akin to be a passenger in a vehicle driving at high speeds rather than being the driver… and I like to drive.

So, here’s the quandary. Are all of these really zip lines? I believe they are… but I believe they are in the same way that motorcycles, buses, RV’s, carts, buggies and automobiles are all vehicles. As the industry begins to expand, I think it is important that we keep this in mind and that we really start considering the terminology we use to define these structures.

I will make a bold prediction. All of the regulation and standards that are developed in the next five years will do less to reduce the risk to participants than would spending time to look ahead and define the market and develop proper terminology. The growing popularity of “zip lines” and commercial attention is not good for the industry. It misleads participants.

In one recent commercial aired during the Super Bowl, Jerry Seinfeld zips through Manhattan on “his personal network of zip lines” (simply hanging from a t-bar) and executes a flawless dismount. Holding on to a t-bar and supporting ones body weight looks easy in the commercial, but most participants cannot do it. In another commercial, Maxwell the Pig, Geiko’s newest mascot, soars down a cable with ease, clipped into the system with a 99 cent keychain carabiner mouthing “Pure Adrenaline” between squeals of “Weee! Weee! Weeeeee!”

I love the commercials and the new experiences, but they are dangerous. Zip lines, whether hand-braking, non-hand-braking, or commercialized ARE DANGEROUS! There are inherent risks involved in soaring along cables at high speeds at dizzying heights, and users need to be aware of what these risks are before entering a course.

Unfortunately, most guests are NOT well educated on these risks. It never fails to surprise me how little people read or how willing they are to enter in to a risky environment without educating themselves despite warnings and plentiful resources. I’m a fan of hand-braking courses. To me, hand-braking provides a more intimate experience. I like the control, the feeling of the cable whizzing by, and the warmth that seeps through the glove and into the palm of my hand as I squeeze the cable. I’m bored silly by zip lines (regardless of how long or fast and in fact perhaps more so by how long) when my only ability to participate is to scream “Whoopppeee!” There’s no learning curve or opportunity to develop. But, hand-braking experiences and traditional zip lines that require participants to control their direction of travel and speed run the risk of being sabotaged by new technology which automates and removes the participant from the experience.

So, here’s what I propose. The term zip-line should be broken down into two categories: 1) traditional zip lines, and 2) zip rides.

Traditional Zip Lines: Traditional zip lines require user input (if even to just take a step off of a platform and initiate the experience). Such input may require the user to control some or all of the following: position, speed, direction of travel, dismount, take-off.

Traditional zip lines should be further broken down in to two categories: 1) requires user input, and 2) does not require user input.

Zip Rides: Little to no user input is required. Input in to the system is purely for amusement and not required as part of the safety system.

By more accurately defining the experience and preparing users who enter the course, risk to the general public can be further mitigated without creating regulatory standards that prohibit user experience, stifle innovation, and create scenarios where “big money” investing in zip rides and amusement rides create regulatory standards that destroy participant opportunity.

Zip coasters are the newest evolution in the zip line craze.  Riders descend a steel tube which rises, falls, turns, and undulates.

Zip coasters are the newest evolution in the zip line craze. Riders descend a steel tube which rises, falls, turns, and undulates.

Zip coasters are the newest evolution in the zip line craze.  Riders descend a steel tube which rises, falls, turns, and undulates. Zip coasters are the newest evolution in the zip line craze. Riders descend a steel tube which rises, falls, turns, and undulates.[/caption]

“It’s just a bunch of cable strung between two structures, isn’t it?” No. It’s not.

The difference between zip rides and traditional zip lines is that of whether or not zip lines are amusement park devices. I assert that traditional zip lines are not amusement park devices. They are adventure sports. Zip rides are amusement park devices.

In hand-brake systems, users must be properly trained and they must demonstrate the ability to master basic skills and show improvement along the course of the experience. The user’s input is imperative in the experience just as a climber’s ability to position his body, grasp holds, find foot placements, and route-find is imperative in rock climbing, another adventure sport. The experience is one of adventure and psycho-motor skill development, not simply thrills and amusement.

Zip rides, at their core, are thrill rides, pure and simple and they should be treated as such. The duty of care is placed solely on the operator. User input is required only as a means to increase the thrill or amusement and not to mitigate risk.

As members of the amusement park and challenge course communities move forward in their quest to develop new standards, and as regulators and interested parties seek to protect the public, I encourage them to adopt the new terminology and to embrace the differences and rewards inherent in each of the experiences.

Michael Smith

As the President of ArborTrek Canopy Adventures, LLC, Michael is dedicated to providing novel, adventure experiences to individuals, small groups, and communities that foster an appreciation for the n...

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