One of the great benefits of iFly, the new, wind-based entertainment destination in Rosemont, is that it can confirm for you things you've always suspected.
I, for instance, have been pretty sure that jumping out of an airplane would be a bad idea. The first step is a doozy, of course. And then there's that 10-or-so-second part during which you are plummeting toward Earth, before the parachute, knock on wood, opens. Skilled people almost surf through the air, smiling, probably hopped up on Mountain Dew. Others (ahem) would just be counting the seconds until they could return to a more traditional relationship with gravity.
At iFly, the building that promises "INDOOR SKYDIVING" in giant letters alongside the northbound lanes of I-294, visitors get to simulate that freefall portion of a skydive. You stand at the edge of a tube, lay yourself forward, and let the strong upward breezes do their thing. If you are any good at it (more on that later), you are, in a sense, flying, although probably not in the way you fly in your dreams.
A pro training technique made public, iFly's vertical wind tunnels are popping up across the country and the world. The Rosemont location opened in May in the MB Financial Park entertainment district; the company's Naperville outpost should be accepting people into its jumpsuits and helmets in early July.
The concept carries all kinds of potential for everything from childhood milestones to corporate retreats. Think of it: You and your colleagues could practice a kind of ultimate trust fall, or your kid, after you've coughed up the necessary thick wad of cash, could do something beyond the usual Chuck E. Cheese-laser tag-trampoline birthday party.
The Rosemont location (chicago.iflyworld.com) is already filling its weekend time, said Josh Ruiz-Velasco, a manager and instructor at the facility. "By next week, it'll be booked up two weeks ahead."
The first iFly opened in 1999 in Orlando. Corporate headquarters are in Austin, Texas. The Rosemont location is the company's 31st, and, with a wind cylinder that is 14 feet in diameter, one of its largest, which makes it ideal for practicing with, you know, your skydiving team.
Those facts came courtesy of Stuart Wallack, the company's chief marketing officer, who was in town for the Rosemont opening. Wallack further explained that the company is now on its 9th-generation wind-tunnel technology, and he walked me upstairs, to where the four 10-foot, 350-hp fans create all that churn, sending the air at 50 mph down through chambers in the building's perimeter and then right back up the middle, into the fly tube, where wind speeds run about 115 mph.
For reference, hurricane wind speeds are 74 mph and up, which brings to mind another good use for iFly: TV news reporters could enter the chamber to practice their severe weather stand-ups.
The recirculating wind tunnels demonstrate the "Venturi effect," Wallack said, to a blank stare. "That's a physics principle." (Essentially: Narrowing the tube through which the air flows increases its speed.)
People as young as three and as old as 103 have flown, Wallack said. And although the official weight restrictions say "those over 6 feet must weigh less than 250 pounds," Wallack said that "We've actually flown Shaq three times." (That's Shaquille O'Neal, of course, 7-feet 1-inch and 325 lbs. in his NBA playing days.)
O'Neal can afford it, but iFly is not cheap. Two "flights," of about a minute each, which also includes training and assistance in the tube, costs $69.95; four flights are $109.95. For savings, Wallack pointed to the $299.95 Family Flight Package, which buys you ten flights that can be used by up to five people and five video clips of yourself in action.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the tube was being rented by what looked like professionals. Up to four of them at a time climbed, swooped, flipped and spun.
"I'm surprised they don't hit each other," said Matt Miller, of Oak Park, who had come in with his 14-year-old daughter to size the attraction up for a possible future visit. "Crazy."
"Wow," said another spectator, Brian Nathanson, a CPA from Corona, Calif. "I want to do it. It's just fun to watch even."
Nathanson would not have said that a couple of weeks earlier, when I took my turn in the tube.
After donning the necessary helmet, jumpsuit, goggles and ear plugs (it's loud in there), I got the same instruction everyone else does: a short video then a live conference-room session with an instructor who runs you through the basic hand signs and principles, such as "If you flail, you fail." (Small movements have a magnified effect.)
My teacher and tube partner, Christian Rosas, was exceptionally patient with me.
But still. Once I was in the tunnel, my hips were too high. My head was too low. My legs, in the video that I have studied but would really rather erase, were kind of floppy. My hand positioning was inconsistent. Instead of relaxing into the "jump," as Rosas had counseled beforehand, I almost fought against it, trying, in a sense, to out-muscle the wind. When I got out, my shoulders ached.
There were moments during the last of my three attempts when I finally sort of got the hang of it. I hung there suspended in the air, experiencing a feeling that people who have actually jumped out of an airplane say is a first-rate simulation.
But then I would drift too close to the clear side wall, push off a bit too hard, and need to be re-stabilized.
There were other moments when Rosas, who maneuvered through the air as if winged, would take me up to the top of the tube, and then plunge me back down. This feeling -- of cutting through air under control -- was the best part.
Well, no. In all honesty, for me the best part was returning to solid ground, outside the tube, an environment in which I am an absolute master. You might, but iDon'tFly.When: Hours vary
Where: 5520 Park Place, Rosemont
Tickets: Start at $69.95; 779-368-4359 or chicago.iflyworld.com