Adding Climbing Walls, Challenge Courses, Zip Lines and Other Exciting Options
By Dave Ramont
There are many who seem to crave a bit more excitement and adrenaline with their fitness and entertainment pursuits. Whether it's rocketing superman-style down a zip line, traversing a challenging rock wall or negotiating a ropes course high in the trees, these adventure opportunities are popping up in more venues than ever, including amusement and waterparks, hotels and restaurants, camps and K-12 schools, community centers and shopping centers.
"Non-climbing-gym business is booming," said Christina Frain, director of sales and marketing for a Colorado-based company that designs, builds and installs indoor and outdoor climbing walls. "In 2017, we had a shift and found ski areas, trampoline parks and private homes to be our top client groups for the year. We even built an outdoor bouldering park in Newton, Iowa."
Frain said that ski areas are investing heavily in their summer operations, and have found climbing walls to be hugely popular. She also explained how more municipalities are adding climbing boulders to parks as an alternative or addition to traditional playground equipment. Some of her company's current projects include a massive indoor climbing facility for Nebraska Parks and a rock-realistic climbing tower at an adventure park in North Carolina. "We're also contracted to build climbing complexes for several universities. Climbing walls are now as normal in college recreation centers as swimming pools," she said.
Ropes courses are another hot adventure component, primarily comprised of horizontally strung cables, ropes, boards and other materials tightly secured between poles or trees. The courses are fully customizable and can be tailored to match the current brand or theme of a business, according to Lori Gunthorp, market development manager for a Michigan-based company that designs and installs ropes courses along with zip lines, mazes and climbing walls. "The courses can be uniquely designed to feature a variety of challenging elements in a multitude of vibrant colors," she said.
Besides providing a physical challenge, Gunthorp said, ropes courses provide shared social experiences not only for the participants who are traversing in the air, but for the bystanders who cheer them on. She said about 70 percent of her company's installations last year were for indoor locations.
"We have a large percentage of family entertainment center clients because we can easily install our attraction over an arcade or laser tag area, and valuable floor space isn't taken away from the other activities the business offers." Gunthorp said that the company's products, such as human mazes, also work great outdoors, and are a good fit for farm parks, zoos and aquariums, natural or historic tourist attractions and cruise ships.
What to Consider
So what are some variables venues should look at when considering adding adventure elements? With regard to indoor climbing walls, Frain pointed out that walls attach to studs, CMUs (concrete masonry unit) or the steel skeleton of a building, so you need to choose a place for the wall that offers access to those elements.
Since a climbing wall requires an adequate fall zone, plan to have climbing flooring extend out six feet from the furthest point where the climbing wall overhangs. Avoid unusually shaped spaces if possible, such as areas with stairs or ramps. And be prepared to share architectural, structural and mechanical drawings with your wall builder, so they can work around ducts, pipes and wiring before building begins. "Surprises are always costly," Frain said.
Whether it's rocketing down a zip line, traversing a challenging rock wall or negotiating a ropes course, these adventure opportunities are popping up in more venues than ever.
"During the initial conversation we discuss things like space limitations, target markets and the client's overall business model," Gunthorp said. "We consider the type of audience that frequents the facility to help dictate what attractions would be the most popular."
For instance, if kids under 7 are present, they suggest the "tykes" version of their ropes course, featuring shrunken elements to accommodate kids as young as 2 years old. Depending on the size of the course, these can accommodate 30 to 100 participants an hour.
The facility's space and ceiling height is also important, according to Gunthorp, describing how their modular climbing panels are offered in more than 30 challenges and can accommodate varying ceiling heights. "We have ways to customize most of the attractions to accommodate the client, but those types of limitations need to be discussed right away."
Another crucial aspect for clients to understand, she said, is staff training. "In order to operate any of our adventure attractions, staff must go through operator training to certify they can run the attraction in a safe and responsible manner." Gunthorp said that once they install an attraction, their services department handles the training and inspections so the attraction meets all local and state standards.
Scott Hornick, CEO of a Maryland-based company offering turnkey design/build solutions to the adventure-based industry, including aerial and ropes courses, parkour and ninja courses, zip lines and climbing systems, said, "We've seen a huge increase in business adding these types of attractions. Last year we did around 80 projects and are projecting over 100 projects this year."
He added that ninja courses have been the most popular product over the past few years. "It seems kids and adults are seeking these kind of attractions based off much feedback from our customers," he said.
Whether it's a park, school or gym, every project has unique considerations. "We first look at the space, budget and ages of people using the equipment. Every project is custom-designed to meet the goals of the business," said Hornick, pointing out that different facilities use different methods for generating revenue. "Some facilities charge per attraction in the facility, some charge per hour and some charge a flat rate to use everything."
He explained how they also train staff once an installation is complete, so attractions can be operated safely. They'll also set up an inspection program. "Most of our products have daily and monthly inspection requirements, which are done by owners. We typically provide a yearly inspection."
There are organizations that oversee standards, certifications and inspector training in the adventure industry. The Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) is a nonprofit trade organization working within the challenge course, aerial adventure park, canopy tour and zip line industry, setting minimum standards for challenge course installation, operation and inspection. The Climbing Wall Association (CWA) also works to develop and maintain standards for the industry, and, like the ACCT, sponsors member development, training and certification programs.
Historic Banning Mills, located in Carroll County, Ga., is a nonprofit retreat and conservation center with a mission of preserving the unique ecosystems of the Snake Creek Gorge and Chattahoochee watershed areas, as well as the historic site of Banning, Ga. The 400-acre site is also home to Historic Banning Mills Adventure Park.
Several companies operate under the umbrella of Historic Banning Mills, including a company that provides design, construction and installation services, as well as professional inspections, training and consultations in the adventure industry. Patrick Avery, Adventure and Designs operation manager, has simple advice for facilities looking to add adventure amenities: "Design from the foundation of the customer experience."
Avery pointed out that any activity has inherent risks, which are greatly increased when you put that activity at height. So course design and building materials need to be in scope and up to par with professional industry standards. "The engineering has to match the operations, and these two factors need to be considered from the beginning. And if you're looking at building a zip line canopy tour, consider a continuous belay system to ensure guests are as safe as possible while at height."
Avery also suggests that your marketing should match the operation and desired client base. "Research your area and your potential draw. Know who your competitors are and add something new every year."
Historic Banning Mills (HBM) Adventure Park has what's considered to be the world's largest zip line canopy tour, with six levels to choose from. Avery said there are 10 miles of course with many tour options, set up as a progressive experience. All guests begin with level one and continue in sequence, with the first five taking around 8 hours. "Level six is a two-day, 16-hour experience," said Avery, "the only way to see the entire course."
Many add-on experiences are available, including challenge courses and numerous sky bridges, some of which are family-friendly, taking place not far off the ground, while other elements are nearly 200 feet up. "These are designed to wear you out, and challenge you physically and mentally," Avery said.
He added that the sky bridges in the canopy tour are like aerial hiking trails, allowing guests to crisscross over the Snake Creek Gorge and enjoy breathtaking views. "The zip lines do the same thing; however, moving at 20 to 60 miles per hour doesn't allow you much time to take in the view!"
The 140-foot climbing wall at HBM holds the Guinness world record for tallest free-standing artificial rock wall in the world, Avery said, which also features a 100-foot free fall and six zip lines. "We have four climbing walls and two rappel walls on our 150-foot pole tower."
As far as safety inspections, Avery said that industry standards mandate they perform daily and monthly inspections using in-house technicians, with a third-party annual inspection.
HBM also conducts corporate and team-building programs featuring low and high-ropes courses and GPS adventure challenges, and there are youth summer camps as well. Lodging is available, from motel-style rooms to cabins and a treehouse village accessed by netted suspension bridges. Other amenities include dining options, hiking trails, horseback riding, kayaking and whitewater trekking, a fishing lake and swimming pool.
As climbing moves closer to the mainstream, many types of climbing walls to fit many budgets have become available. Frain said the vast majority of her company's installations are custom-made, with facilities wanting walls to match their programming needs and aesthetics. "Our team does all of the design, fabrication and installation. The steel and wood components are created in our shop in Boulder, Colo."
Frain pointed out that the walls require virtually no maintenance, just the regular inspections. "Soft goods like harnesses, ropes and shoes need to be replaced when their noticeable wear reaches a certain level," she added.
Some of the offerings available include climbing boulders, which are hand-sculpted, climbable works-of-art available in different sizes, perfect for parks or playgrounds. "Their surface looks, feels and climbs like either granite or sandstone," Frain said.
A panelized wall made from engineered wood panels offers a quick-installation alternative. Modular climbing towers and walls made from UV-resistant fiberglass are a high-throughput, low-cost option with a small footprint. If there's a CMU wall or external wall containing studs, Frain suggests outdoor climbing slabs made from an engineered marine-grade foam material, for an inexpensive traverse wall or tall roped-climbing wall.
"If you'd like to add roped climbing as an outdoor attraction, a rock-realistic wall or tower is a great option. Like the boulders, these look, feel and climb like real rock," Frain said. She added that, depending on programming objectives, a facility could use auto belays so a person can climb without a belayer, creating a very high throughput. Or if they want to teach rope skills, they can have roped belaying.
Frain explained that the walls have attachment points, called t-nuts, for climbing holds. "We strongly recommend that staff do change routes frequently. Climbers will get bored and not come back if the routes are the same every time. If a facility doesn't have their own route setters, they can often hire setters from a local climbing gym to come in periodically to change routes."
One recent project of Frain's company was ProjectRock, the largest climbing gym in Florida. The Oakland Park facility offers more than 18,000 square feet of climbing and bouldering with 80 climbing lanes and over 125 routes on walls reaching 60 feet tall. The walls include rock-realistic terrain carved and painted to look and climb like rock found in Yosemite, Red River Gorge and Devil's Tower, iconic climbing destinations.
"Our designers and construction crews are climbers, so we know these climbing areas intimately," Frain said. "We employ master carvers and painters who are able to provide a realistic interpretation of the crack systems, surface texture and coloration."
Zip Lines & Other Thrills
Zip lines seem to be ubiquitous these days. "The zip line is another fantastic offering because it allows people to experience soaring above the ground in places that could never be done before, like inside furniture stores!" Gunthorp said.
Hornick agreed: "Zip lines are going everywhere. We've added them to kids play places, gymnastic centers and parks. Many people open them as standalone businesses."
Climbing is absolutely possible for people who have challenges of all kinds. Take time to learn how to work with folks who might be missing a limb, are blind, working through the challenges of autism, or many other situations that just need a little adaptation.
Zip lines feature different braking and cable systems, which can determine speed and number of staff necessary. They can accommodate single or double passengers, in a vertical or horizontal position, and some mimic the twists, turns and dips of rollercoasters.
What about ecological concerns, when placing adventure elements among trees and pristine areas? "When building outdoors, there are many things we do to reduce the environmental impact to land and trees," Hornick said. "These include construction methods, site prep and material selection."
Different adventure attractions often complement each other, generating additional revenue. Gunthorp said that last year, 44 percent of the clients who purchased ropes courses also went with a zip line for added excitement. The seamless integration is possible because they're engineered alongside each other. "No additional safety equipment has to be purchased, and they require much less staff than the typical cable zip line demands," she said. The human mazes they offer work well underneath their ropes courses, and the ropes courses utilize the same safety equipment as their climbing panels, offering more elements to climb and explore.
Gunthorp said thrill-seekers love their free-fall component, and it's a fantastic revenue generator. "We generally suggest to our clients to offer the free-fall as an alternative exit to the ropes course experience and upcharge those tickets by $5 to $8."
She also said that souvenir photo systems can be good revenue generators, especially with clients in the cruise ship industry who often position the camera above the Walk the Plank adventure element. "People want to capture their experiences anywhere they go. As with any technology, it can become outdated quickly, so we're always looking for the latest and greatest in not only photography, but video and augmented reality as well."
As these adventure amenities gain popularity, Frain points out one more important factor for attracting visitors: promote inclusion. "Climbing is absolutely possible for people who have challenges of all kinds. Take time to learn how to work with folks who might be missing a limb, are blind, working through the challenges of autism, or many other situations that just need a little adaptation," she said. "This opens climbing and other adventure activities to people who might otherwise be overlooked."
Frain mentioned Paradox Sports as one organization specializing in teaching how to facilitate adaptive climbing.
While Avery thinks the increasing popularity of adventure amenities is great for the industry, he also feels that getting people out and active is an important mission all-around. "To step away from our ever-increasing virtual world of being constantly harassed by media, marketing and our virtual-handcuffed selves to step into an accessible adventure which allows us to be actively engaged in our experience. Stepping beyond our comfort zones allows us to stretch the limits of what we thought we were able to do or be—physically and mentally—promoting personal growth."
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