Since 2001, the number of zip lines built in the U.S. has soared from 10 to more than 200, according to zip-line experts.
LOS ANGELES — In the 1970s, disco-themed skating rinks were the rage. It was paintball battlefields in the ’80s, followed by urban-skateboard parks in the ’90s.
Now comes the zip line, an elevated cable ride that zips harnessed riders downhill at high speeds, powered only by gravity.
These rides stretch over canyons, vineyards, island tourist towns and zoos. Since 2001, the number of zip lines in the United States has soared from 10 to more than 200, according to zip-line experts.
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“They are spreading like fast-food hamburger joints,” said Mike Teske, technical director for a Maui-based zip-line company who also heads a panel drafting national safety standards for zip lines.
The craze is fueled by a resurgence in the popularity of outdoor activities, greater availability of insurance and cheaper construction costs for zip-line platforms because of the housing slump, according to builders and operators.
Prices to ride vary widely: It costs $10 to ride an 800-foot zip line at a KOA camp in Santa Paula, Calif., for example, but $112 to ride two zip lines at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
In addition, builders and operators note, zip lines have wide appeal to both young and old. The only physical demand is the climb up the steps of the platforms, where guests wearing harnesses are hooked to a pulley that allows them to travel along the zip lines’ steel cable, with typical speeds reaching 35 to 45 mph and faster. The most advanced zip lines have built-in brakes.
Riders must slow themselves with a gloved hand on basic models.
Like roller skating and paintball battles, the promise of an adrenaline rush draws many first-time riders.
“I tried it because going to the movies and going bowling is getting boring,” Tyler Montague, 21, a graphic-design intern from Huntington Beach, Calif., said after a three-hour tour at Action Zipline Tours in the mountains near Big Bear Lake in California.
Other riders say they try a zip line once, to check it off their bucket list.
“I’m 64 years old, and I don’t think I’ll do it again,” John Rockwood, a retiree from Buffalo, N.Y., said after joining his wife, Julia, on the Big Bear zip line.
Not everyone is thrilled by zip lines, especially in areas where critics say proposed routes can spoil views or disturb wildlife. Near Big Sur, for instance, activists are fighting a proposed zip line in Jacks Peak County Park.
Zip lines have become such a boom industry, particularly in California, that a private group is setting voluntary safety standards for these rides.
The guidelines are being written by Pennsylvania-based ASTM, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials. The group previously has drafted safety rules for helmets, medical devices and steel products. The work began two years ago, and officials estimate the voluntary rules could be drafted in the next year or two.
No government agency keeps records of zip-line injury rates, but operators and insurance providers say injuries typically are severe but rare. A worker was killed and another man injured last year while making modifications to a zip line in Hawaii, home to more than a dozen zip lines. In 2010, actor Hugh Jackman injured his eye when he rode a zip line for an Oprah Winfrey television special in Australia and ran into lighting gear.
But most zip-line injuries, operators say, take place on lines built by amateurs who ignored safety requirements.
Since the craze took off a few years ago, the number of U.S. insurance firms willing to write policies for commercial operations has grown from about two to 10, said Robert Monaghan, executive vice president at Hibbs-Hallmark, a Texas insurance firm that has written zip-line policies for years.
“Insurance is reasonable if they build it properly, train their staff properly and subject themselves to third-party inspections,” he said.
Zip-line experts trace the birth of the trend to Costa Rica and South American countries, where canopy tours of the rain forests use zip lines to whiz tourists from one tree to another. Americans who rode the South American zip lines brought the craze to the United States, where the lines first appeared at summer camps for children.
Thaddeus Shrader can attest to the popularity of zip lines. He’s the chief executive of Colorado-based Bonsai Design, one of the nation’s largest builders of zip lines and rope courses.
His company has grown from six full-time workers in 2008 to 73 today, with offices in North Carolina and West Virginia.
He estimated his company will gross $7 million this year, compared with $5 million last year.
“As North Americans have seen how much fun they are,” he said, “zip lines have just taken off.”