A massive wooden structure rises up on the side of the road. At a distance, it appears as a pirate ship teeming with skilled sailors. Figures are climbing rope ladders and balancing on swaying plank walkways. Or is it some sort of circus setup? Someone appears to be walking a tightrope. Then a child zips through the sky and disappears over a stand of trees.
This summer, Wild Acadia Fun Park has been snagging vehicles off busy Route 3 in Trenton with its latest addition — The Aerial Adventure Park — an elaborate, three-tiered ropes course connected to two zip lines that carries people over the minigolf course and across the park.
There’s nothing like it open to the public within 100 miles.
“[Rope courses] were originally built for team building. It was only a couple of years ago that they entered the adventure park business,” said Andrew Allen, the park’s on-site owner.
Allen purchased the park — which includes water slides, minigolf, go-karts and a climbing wall — a little more than a year ago with his wife, Susan Allen, his brother, James Allen, and his sister-in-law, Erin Allen. The two families have long been in business together as owners of the Sea Princess Cruises out of Mount Desert Island, where all of them grew up.
Adding a ropes course was part of their business plan from the beginning.
“The park had been on the market for quite a few years, and we were interested in it, but we knew it needed something new to continue succeeding,” Andrew Allen said. “It had been losing money on paper for five years or so.”
The ropes course, designed and built by Wingspeed Adventures of New Hampshire during the winter, offers 30 exciting elements or obstacles, some of them taking climbers 45 feet in the air. From the top tier, people can navigate their way over to the zip line or the giant swing.
“You’re 40 feet in the air in your harness and you just free fall for 12 to 15 feet and then swing out,” said Allen of the swing. “It’s pretty crazy — quite an adrenaline rush.”
Wild Acadia Fun Park, formerly known as Seacoast Fun Park, has a long history as a hub of outdoor play.
“I went on the [water] slides probably when I was about 10 years old, and I don’t know why, but I hadn’t stepped foot on the park since that day until I came to the park to consider buying it,” Andrew Allen said. “And now I’m here all the time, and I just love it. It’s a fun place to work and own.”
And as his two daughters, 4-year-old Lily and 2-year-old Violet, get older, they’ll be playing at the park more and more, he said.
“Lily doesn’t care how old she is — all she cares about is her height. She has two inches to grow before she’s tall enough for the waterslides,” Andrew Allen said. “She’s fearless and loves the ropes course.”
At 4 years old, Lily just meets the age requirement to enter the ropes course, and she is required to buddy up with someone tall enough to reach the safety cables (a reach of 75 inches).
The course, a series of wooden platforms (similar to crow’s nests) and elements (tight wires, swings, tippy bridges and cargo nets), can hold 60 people safely and still maintain a good flow, Allen said.
On Friday, July 6, the Aerial Adventure Park saw one of its busiest days yet, with 35 people crawling through the course at once.
“We didn’t know this was here,” said Jackie Birch of Holden as she watched her three stepsons Ethyn, 19, Austyn, 16 and Josh, 10, gear up for the ropes course. “It was a nice surprise. We just came to slide and golf and all that fun stuff.”
The brothers stuck together as they navigated through a series of swinging tires, rope nets and high wires. As they moved up from tier one to two to three, the elements became more mentally and physically challenging.
“This is definitely an experience I won’t forget,” Ethyn said while waiting on a third-tier platform to ride the zipline.
If you’ve never been in a ropes course, you’re probably wondering how a person can stay safe while climbing through a seemingly confusing network of obstacles so high above ground (without a safety net below). Each participant wears a helmet and a harness that is connected to safety cables running throughout the course. You can’t really fall. If you slip off a rope or wire, you’ll simply drop a few inches and hang there in your harness until you can maneuver yourself back onto the course.
Typically, rope courses require people to clip onto the cables with two carabiners, or clips, so that they can unhook one and move it while still being safely connected with the second carabiner.
Wild Acadia Fun Park takes safety one step further by using a Smart Belay clip-in system made by Edelrid, a company that has been producing technical mountaineering gear since the 1950s. These expensive pulley carabiners have a system of communicating that prevents accidental complete unclipping. A button inside each carabiner sends a signal to the other carabiner when it has been clipped onto a cable and taken off a cable. The two carabiners can’t be open at the same time.
“This takes out some of the risk of a participant making a stupid mistake,” Allen said.
Much of what Allen has learned about ropes courses and other adventure park features he gathered from the Association for Challenge Course Technology, or ACCT, which developed the standards for ropes course inspections, equipment and hardware.
Before park visitors take to the sky, they have to go through a quick “ground school,” where they practice transitioning between safety cables. They then pair up into teams of two or three for safety.
“If we don’t see them doing things right, we’ll send them back down to ground school,” Allen said.
Trained staff members are on hand to rescue people if they get into a mental or physical bind. And with so many people playing on the course every day, rescues aren’t at all uncommon. Rescues can vary from a staff member talking a person out of a scary spot to someone being lowered to the ground by two staff members and a pulley system.
“It’s not like a lot of summer jobs,” Allen said. “You’ve got to have attentive staff people who know what they’re doing because they’re up 40 feet in the air and people’s safety is at stake.”
Each employee working on the course has at least 40 hours of training.
“It was a huge investment,” Allen said. “It doubled our staffing needs [from 9 to 18 on a busy summer day].”
“I think everything in business is a leap of faith,” he said. “We thought [the ropes course] would be an even better match for visitors of Acadia. … I’m amazed at how many of our clients live locally. We’re working to bring in the tourists, too.”
So far, the Aerial Adventure has been successful in attracting vacationers and locals.
“We drove by so many times, and the kids got so interested, so we finally stopped,” said Jingjing Chen of Acton, Mass., as she watched her 10-year-old son, Samuel Chen, work through the elements with his friend Grace Gong, 11, on Friday. Their families were vacationing in Bar Harbor together for two weeks.
Shane Gagnon, 10, of nearby Mariaville was also in the ropes course that day. He rode the zip line after his uncle, who had brought him to the park for a belated birthday celebration.
“I’ve been here lots of times, but I’ve never been on a zip line because it wasn’t here before,” said Shane. “On the zip line, I felt like I was on my very own jet.”
For information, visit www.wildacadia.com or call 667-3573.