A high-strung attraction at Nickelodeon Universe offers a choose-your-own adventure in the rafters of the Mall of America.
Neon lights blinked in the distance. A set of small hands gripped a rope tight. The boy on the wobbly line above was screaming, "I'm not gonna die!"
It was a Thursday night at the Mall of America. My daughter and I were resting on a platform, gazing up at a white-knuckle drama unfolding atop the megamall's latest attraction.
Touted as the tallest ropes course of its type in the world, the Flying Dutchman Ghostly Gangplank course is a unique mental and physical challenge. For about $6, any adult or child who is at least 42 inches tall can ascend the course's vertigo-inducing heights, including obstacles, tightrope crossings, planks and an apex perch towering six stories above the carnival scene.
"Falls are pretty rare," said Ann Jennings, 21, an attendant who has overseen safety on the Flying Dutchman since its opening last July.
My daughter, Gwen, and I met Jennings about 30 feet up in the air.
It took five minutes -- and several obstacles crossed -- to reach the operator's station. Jennings was roped in and offered tips of the "don't look down" type.
Jennings' job as a roaming ropes-course attendant has her leading kids and timid adults up and down the crisscrossing course. She climbs to the aid of people in trouble.
"There are occasional freakouts," she said.
My daughter, who turns 5 next month, was nervous as we approached the attraction's entrance gate.
"Is this like mountain climbing?" she asked.
In a way, yes. Flying Dutchman climbers suit up in a webbing body harness. An operator at the base of the attraction cinches buckles and affixes an overhead lanyard into a track. As you head up the initial stairway, the safety line above trails along to keep you always "on belay."
You can fall on the Flying Dutchman, to be sure. But the rope will catch you a few inches below, letting you grab and pull back onto the stunt.
Alissa Blaeser, an attendant working at the start of the course, reassured Gwen as she was fitted and buckled up.
"This can't come out of the track anywhere on the course," said Blaeser, giving Gwen's line a tug.
We walked onto the initial stairway, stepping slowly up, looking ahead. Gwen leaned back and squinted.
"I want to go to the top," she said.
Lines tangled in a web above. In total, the course's manufacturer, Ropes Courses of Allegan, Mich., used more than 6,000 feet of line to build the vertical maze. To reach the top, Gwen and I would have to traverse a dozen obstacles and ascend four levels of ladders and stairs.
Unlike other attractions at the mall, the Flying Dutchman has no time limit. Up to 36 people can be on the course at one time. Some people spend five minutes, others up to an hour exploring the vertical challenges, Blaeser said.
There is no course guide. You are on your own to climb and meander along the lines.
"This is the only physical type of attraction that we have," said Jennifer Lauerman, marketing director at Nickelodeon Universe. "People can go at their own pace with no time limit."
Gwen and I paused at the first platform. She tugged on her safety line and assessed the options to continue. At each level of the course, there are several ways across and up. Gwen and I, looking for the route of least resistance, picked a bridge with wooden slats to start a traverse toward a stairway on the structure's far side.
The bridge bounced as we walked. Gwen watched her feet, getting across the expanse with big steps and the careful placement of each small shoe.
Higher up, the challenges increased. One crossing involved a single line -- one foot in front of the other -- with rope handles for balance. Gwen stared ahead, a platform beckoning 20 feet away.
We skirted another expanse. We walked up a final stairway, which swayed more than 50 feet above the floor. And then, near the top of the structure, Gwen peered down.
"Look at the people!" she said, pointing.
We paused on the platform. People on ropes below jumped and screamed. Gwen gripped a cable and gazed out at the view -- a mountaintop at a mall.
Stephen Regenold writes about the outdoors, fitness and adventure travel at www.gearjunkie.com.
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