Standing atop a 65-foot platform decked out in a safety harness, heavy hardware and a helmet, I hesitate when it's my turn to jump. It's not my nerves that are holding me back, but rather the scenery.
My 360-degree, bird's-eye view of the wetlands on which Empower Adventures zipline course is located has taken my breath away. The landscape is dominated by long-leaf pines and cabbage palms. Beyond, the sun sparkles on Mobbly Bayou and the tip of north Tampa Bay. A trio of hunting hawks gliding on a draft underscores my unique perch giving me an unparalleled view of this Florida nature preserve.
Empower Adventures opened its third U.S. zipline park last June in the Mobbly Bayou Wildlife Preserve, a city park in Oldsmar, part of the Tampa Bay region (other locations are in Middletown, Conn., and Middleburg, Va., just west of Washington). I recently had the chance to experience it as a guest of Empower with a group of friends, many of whom were trying it for the first time and who stood atop that first platform silent and sweating as we faced the first of five ziplines of increasingly longer length.
The first to jump didn't quite make it all the way across. She dangled patiently awaiting our affable guide Jim to pull her in while we all shouted encouragement. As each woman in turn made it to the other side, she left her fears behind. High-fives, pats on the back, a few off-color jokes: Our bonding was sealed.
So what qualities make one course stand out from another? Founder Joe DeRing has a couple of thoughts. "Setting and scenery and the site itself are so critical. We jumped all over the opportunity to be there on the north shore of Tampa Bay," he added, after having been approached by the City of Oldsmar's parks and recreation division in 2015 to build a zipline course in a city-owned park. It's a beneficial partnership where Empower, which pays rent to the city, has use of the existing infrastructure, including parking, restrooms and enormous shelter to use as base camp.
"The next [essential quality] is all about the delivery," he said, referring to his staff, "having great guides who really engage the guest and make it an amazing experience." Jim-to-the-rescue comes to mind as well as his coaching us across the 200-foot-long suspension bridge high above a pair of ponds where gators likely reside.
"Our staff has to be different, engaging and people-oriented," added DeRing. "Qualities you'd see in hospitality rather than an amusement ride. Empower has to invest in people in order to deliver the best tour and then do it over and over and over." Having invested in passionate, committed staff at his other locations enables DeRing to be the hands-on operations manager in Oldsmar.
Empower Adventure's course itself is largely what I expected, including the professional and personable guides. But the experience of flying high with the hawks, waiting my turn above the estuary and watching a snake swim across to shore, a heron drying its wings, a cormorant settled on the handrail rope of the suspension bridge we had yet to climb, these are the memories I won't soon forget. Throw in a healthy dose of joking, laughter, encouragement and good-natured teasing made it feel as if my friends and I were kids away at summer camp.
Empower Adventures offers daily adventures, including an aerial obstacle course frequently used for team building. Want something a little different? They also offer a moonlight zip as well as a fully immersive Zip and SUP (standup paddleboard) package in partnership with Upper Tampa Bay Paddle Sports, the company led by — yep, you guessed it — our guide, Jim.