The Nature of Orlando

Discovery Cove DolphinBy the time the dewy grass slid silently away under the peeping sun’s gaze, a warming thermal had already drawn our wicker basket gently upwards.

A passing osprey gazing directly into our eyes shattered our reverie and heightened anticipatory nerves. Gulp! There’s a tingly awakening that we’re floating in a blue and white striped hot air balloon, and those misty clouds, quiet lakes and preserved forests gliding by are far, far below. When Reunion Resort arranged our flight with Orlando Balloon Rides (OBR), they sold our group on a 1-hour lofty adventure that would end with champagne toasts—a tradition since the first successful manned launch from Paris in 1783—and a hearty outdoor breakfast. The entire 4-hour experience began with an early morning meeting with a caravan of passenger vans and equipment trucks, to have the chance to work in tandem with the crew to prepare the 315,000-cubic foot balloon for take off. We were issued formal instructions: no jumping out once in the basket, or we’ll lift off before the FAA-regulated, specially licensed pilot is ready. And never, ever use the words “blowing up” to describe inflating the balloon.

Roger that. Our 16-member group settled comfortably in four divided compartments of the 12×6’ heavy steel framed basket. Centered in a fifth section were the pilot and the propane tanks used to propel short blasts of fiery heat upward to maintain the balloon’s ascent. Surprisingly, the ascent was so smooth and the crew’s informational quips of balloon history so amusing, we didn’t realize our elevation until a that osprey showed up!

“We own three of the largest nine balloons in the US,” says Jason Schulke, business development and marketing director. “Bigger balloons fly higher and longer, though at 6,000 feet we’d be in international space, so we tend to stay around 3,000 feet for better views, such as spotting deer, bears or alligators. For groups larger than 60, we have additional smaller balloons.”

What about people afraid to fly?

“We have a chase package. They can assist inflating the balloon, follow with the chase crew, pick everyone up at the landing site, participate in the champagne and breakfast, and receive their official Flight Certificate.”

DISCOVERY COVER Mother Nature herself couldn’t have ordered more serene, inspirational and soothing climes than those at SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove. It’s an all-inclusive touchy-feely experience, including feeding stingrays, snorkeling through a craggy reef with schools of tropical fish and velvety mantas, and floating on an inner tube down the Wind-Away River past beaches, underwater caves and gushing waterfalls.

“From the moment they step onto the nature trail, groups feel immersed into nature,” says Susan Dahle, senior manager of convention sales. “Their first encounter might be a sloth held by a trainer, or hand feeding one of the 250 exotic birds in the Explorer’s Aviary. They’re amazed that this hidden oasis is just minutes from International Drive and I-4, yet the relaxation begins the minute they kick off their shoes and feel the sand between their toes.”