Imagination takes flight at air museum-attraction

October 01, 1995|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Imagine stepping onto the deck of an aircraft carrier, climbing into the cockpit of a Navy Corsair fighter and taking off to duel in the skies with Japanese Zeros.

Or making your way across a catwalk in a B-17 bomber, watching the bomb bays open and bombs fall away toward enemy territory. Or walking through World War I trenches as a British Nieuport fighter buzzes overhead.

These are some of the experiences that await visitors when a new aviation-themed attraction opens in Polk City, Fla., Oct. 19.

Fantasy of Flight, created by former Miamian Kermit Weeks, is neither totally museum nor totally attraction, but a bit of both, with some serious restoration work as well. And it is meant to appeal to all, not just aviation buffs.

"Everyone has a fascination for flight -- even if it's fear," said the 42-year-old entrepreneur. "That's the universal concept."

Like other aviation museums, Fantasy of Flight will have a hangar full of vintage aircraft -- everything from a 1916 Avro to a biplane Mr. Weeks himself built while attending Palmetto High School in Miami 25 years ago. Among the 20-odd aircraft are a Japanese Zero, a Grumman Wildcat, a Ford Tri-Motor, a B-24 Liberator, a Spitfire and a MiG-15. Mr. Weeks has just flown in "the most accurate" replica of the Spirit of the St. Louis, the plane in which hTC Charles Lindbergh made the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic, and, in a lake that is part of the Fantasy of Flight complex, he has parked a Short Sunderland, the last four-engine flying boat in the world that still flies.

But what makes Fantasy of Flight different from other aviation museums is what Mr. Weeks calls the "immersion environment" -- its theme-park aspect.

This is the touchy-feely part of the attraction -- peering into the radio room tucked into the trenches of German-occupied France in World War I, feeling the cold wind at the open door of a paratroop plane in World War II, walking past an ambulance to enter the briefing tent of an American air base in England during a wartime winter, flying (via simulator) a Corsair in the Pacific.

"[Fantasy of Flight] isn't just a couple of hangars with a bunch of old airplanes in them," Mr. Weeks said. "Entertainment is No. 1."

It almost has to be, given its location in Central Florida's theme-park country. Fantasy of Flight is just off Interstate 4, about halfway between Tampa and Orlando. "This is a very competitive market, what with Disney and the others around here," Mr. Weeks said, "and that influenced me early on in the direction I've taken with this thing."

Mr. Weeks has carried on a lifelong love affair with aviation. Not only did he build his own airplane while a teen-ager, he has flown many historic aircraft and performed aerobatics in air shows.

One of his criteria for Fantasy of Flight is that every displayed plane be flyable.

Motorists on I-4 can't miss the place. A tall red-and-white checkered water tower hovers over the tract, which lies a few hundred yards north of I-4 about 10 miles northeast of Lakeland.

Expected to be one of the most popular features at Fantasy of Flight is Fightertown, where visitors can try their skill in real flight simulators. "It's themed like the deck of an aircraft carrier, and you feel like you're really on the flight deck," said Debra Johnson, the attraction's director of marketing.

In the center of the space is a real Corsair, with eight Corsair simulators surrounding it. While Fightertown is part of the Fantasy of Flight, it will have a separate admission.

A third aspect of the attraction will be its restoration facility. Visitors will be able to look into this workplace from an elevated walk, watching skilled craftsmen repair and/or rebuild such aircraft as a Wright Flyer and a German Bucker-Jungmann. Mr. Weeks emphasizes that Fantasy of Flight will be an evolving attraction. "I want to break out the important periods of aviation -- I would like to have done something with the period between World War I and World War II, but I didn't have the space, and World War II was a great period of [aviation] development. In the long run, I hope to do all kinds of immersions."

Cost shouldn't be much of a stumbling block. Mr. Weeks put up all $15 million of the hard development money for Fantasy of Flight, and has another $10 million to $15 million in vintage aircraft.

"I'm in a fortunate position," Mr. Weeks admitted. "My grandfather was a petroleum geologist who made major oil discoveries in Australia. He took overriding royalties in place of a fee and split it up with the family. The first check was just $600, but later on it became a windfall." The circle comes around. Now Mr. Weeks' fortune is becoming aviation's windfall.

If you go . . .

Admission: $8.95 adults, $7.95 seniors, $6.95 children ages 5-12. Fightertown admission, all ages, $5.95.

Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily in summer peak season, Easter and Christmas holidays; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. rest of year.

Information: Fantasy of Flight, P.O. Box 1200, Polk City, Fla. 33868-1200; (941)984-3500.

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