Since 1991, Malcolm Jones has run the world's most unique hang gliding park and flight school from the flat fields of Central Florida. Whether you want to check off hang gliding from your bucket list or invest the time to fly solo, Wallaby Ranch near Disney World gives the ultimate thrill ride. We took a tandem flight with Jones to find out just how awesome it is.
From skis to sky
Some of the first hang gliders in the U.S. were water skiers at Cypress Gardens.
“That was basically the beginning of the sport.” said Jones, who was 17 and growing up in Tampa the first time he hang glided from a motor boat. “In the early days we flew these Delta Wing Kites, and I loved that feeling of the skis coming off the water.”
Love at first flight
Since those teenage years, Jones was hooked.
“It’s a real tangible feeling of freedom and openness. You can’t really be up there flying around and thinking of anything else. A lot of people get a magic feeling about flying. And there is really no type of flying that’s more pure than hang gliding.”
Apologies to Tom Petty
Jones is not into free falling.
“People always want to compare this to skydiving. There’s a big difference between flying and falling. I love to fly but the idea of falling creeps me out. Flying is mellow.”
After living in California and Tennessee and traveling the world to hang glide anywhere he could, Jones moved back to Central Florida with the idea of aerotowing, where a plane tows a hang glider up to 2,000 feet then releases.
“It wasn’t until this idea of taking a tandem glider, mounting wheels to it, and towing it behind an ultralight [plane] that made me realize I can have a hang gliding school here, where I’m from. So I bought 500 acres and people thought I was crazy.”
A teacher at heart
Hang gliding has always been a solo sport, where a lone jumper leaps off a mountain, but Jones wanted a way to teach others how to fly with duel instruction.
“It’s my personality. I like to share the experience. If I’m going to do something fun, it’s gonna need to be with somebody. There’s something about the first time you fly, the discovery of that magic feeling, and since I’m almost every day taking people up who have never been up before, I get to experience it with them. It rubs off. My favorite flight was still my first flight.”
Creating a community
Jones has created a hang gliding commune, complete with cabins, a screened-in kitchen with chef, swimming pool and outdoor living spaces under massive oak trees.
“That’s part of the routine; we take people up, they have brunch with us and hang out. One of the coolest things is you meet people from all over the world. There are a lot of beautiful places in the world to fly hang gliders but there are very few places to learn.”
For the young and young at heart
He takes students of all ages. His youngest tandem hang glider was 3 and his oldest was 100.
“The 100-year-old, she was strong, physical and feisty and just wanted to do it. The 3-year-old came with his family and watched all his older brothers do it and then was flabbergasted he wasn’t getting a turn. So his dad asked if he could go up, and I took him.”
Bird’s eye view
At Wallaby Ranch in Polk County, you’re just beyond the tourist areas to see scenic lakes, citrus farms and cow pastures.
“One beautiful, clear day I saw a shuttle going up from Cape Canaveral, and we see bald eagles all the time. They’re definitely making a comeback.”
Getting high with the rich and famous
Jones has made tandem flights with such celebrities as Al Roker, Matt Lauer and Kate Hudson.
“Most recently we hosted Mike Rowe for ‘Dirty Jobs.’ It’s an unusual business, but it’s fun.”
His morning commute
Jones lives in Winter Park which is an hour’s drive to Wallaby Ranch in Davenport on Interstate 4, notorious for road construction and traffic.
“It only takes me 14 minutes,” he said smugly. “I have a sea plane and can land right on Lake Rowena at my house.”
No FastPass for Soarin’
Thousands of visitors line up for this virtual hang glide adventure at Epcot every day, but at Wallaby Ranch it’s the real deal.
“When they introduced Soarin’ at Epcot, they had us come over and set up a bunch of gliders. We did a show for Disney with about six hang gliders. Show flying is a different kind of thing with smoke, fireworks and all kinds of crazy things.”