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. . . And He Took It Sitting Down

TRIED & TRUE: This column is one in an occasional series of first-person accounts of leisure activities.

July 14, 1994|RICK VANDERKNYFF

Sometimes, the less you know, the better.

When my editor asked me to try the new Ejection Seat attraction at the Orange County Fair, I agreed without hesitation, then pretty much forgot about it. It was a hectic week, so I never got time to read the press materials.

The morning of the demonstration, I woke up bleary after a late night of work and drove straight to the fair. The only thing I knew about the ride was that it was billed as a "reverse bungee jump," a description that, though vaguely ominous, brought no particular image to mind.

As I walked to the meeting point, workers all over the fairgrounds were getting ready for the fair's official opening the next day. Two tall towers, looking like the twin masts of a sailing ship, were visible in the distance, and it soon became obvious they were my destination.

A small knot of people was waiting when I arrived, fashionably late, and someone asked cheerfully if I had been able to sleep the night before. I smiled and shook my head. Everyone clearly expected me to be terrified, and I thought it only sporting to play along. Don't think I'm boasting--I can get plenty scared if I have the time--but I just hadn't thought about it much.

*

I looked up and took it all in. Hanging from the two towers were long elastic cords, like those used for bungee-jumping, which were attached at ground level to a pair of padded seats protected by a circular metal bar. I sat down and was strapped in beside Peter Kockelman, the ride's designer, who casually began giving me some numbers: towers, 125 feet high; riders go 30 feet over top of towers; acceleration from launch, zero to as much as 65 m.p.h., instantaneously.

For the first time, I got a knot in my stomach. Perhaps I hadn't thought this through properly. But by this time it was far too late to do anything but pretend nonchalance.

The seats, attached to the ground with a hook, began rocking and straining as the elastic bands were tightened with winches. I was told to cross my ankles and hold on to the straps. Kockelman kept talking calmly, as if we were sitting on a park bench.

All at once, and before I really expected it, we were launched straight into the air like a rock in a slingshot (the difference, of course, is that we remained tied to the elastic). I was told later that riders experience three to four Gs of force--seven is the most a person can endure--and I felt all of it. But the most exhilarating part came as we reached the top of our arc and floated, weightless, for just a moment, before plummeting again.

*

The seats can rotate freely on their horizontal axis, and do. The first time we screamed down to Earth, we were going down headfirst. I shouted a few obscenities and then laughed like an idiot, gripping the steel supports as we came to the bottom and shot up again. And again and again, as we bounced numerous times.

Slowly, the bounces got smaller and my stomach settled back into something close to its usual position. Because the elastic cords absorb the force of each bounce, the ride is fast but never jarring, and near the end, the sensation is one of floating gently up and down. Then it was over and we were lowered to the ground.

With preparation and all, the attraction takes about three minutes, although the actual "ride" is probably less than a minute. I'd say it's enough, however; I was offered a solo trip, but with legs slightly wobbly and a tiny touch of queasiness, I politely declined (solo riders rise considerably faster than two riders together, because of the weight difference).

It is a thrill, to be sure. The question for fair-goers is one of price: How much are they willing to pay for a quick adrenaline rush, albeit a memorable one? The cost of the Ejection Seat is $40 for a solo rider, $60 for two. Steep, but reports from the first days of the fair said business was brisk.

Before I left, I asked to watch someone else take the ride, and if anything, it looks even worse than it actually feels. It occurred to me that I had missed part of the "fun" of the ride, the anticipation.

The Ejection Seat (there are several, some traveling to fairs and some at permanent sites) is a product of Bungee Adventures, a Bay Area-based company that was the first to offer commercial bungee-jumping, Kockelman says.

Kockelman designed the Ejection Seat as a way of making the "bungee experience" relatively risk-free, and at the same time bringing it to big crowds of potential customers at fairs and other events.

There is an important difference: Bungee-jumping requires that extra act of faith, that deliberate step into the abyss. But for a more controlled, still exhilarating taste of that free-falling sensation, the Ejection Seat remains at the fair until July 24.

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