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Travel Trends Reach New Heights: Aerial Attractions Soar In Popularity



Travel Trends Reach New Heights: Aerial Attractions Soar In Popularity

All around the world, tourists are paying good money to be taken to new heights, and aerial attractions have suddenly become a sky-high trend in travel.

As long as there have been skyscrapers there have been views from the top, but the most recent iteration of the scenic observation trend is much different.

The current movement most likely began in 1954, when the small Sugar Bowl ski resort near Lake Tahoe put one of its chairlifts up for sale. Everett Kircher, founder of Michigan-based Boyne Resorts, which operates golf and ski resorts around the country, decided to try something new. He bought the lift and moved it to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a spot hat has absolutely nothing to do with skiing.

But what Gatlinburg does have is multiple tourist attractions and immediate access to the most popular National Park in the United States, Great Smoky Mountains NP. It also has a large drive market Southern population, many of whom had never been on a ski lift. Kircher started running his scenic chairlift rides to an amazing mountaintop viewpoint in the Smokeys, proving the Field of Dreams adage, “If you build it, they will come.” Tourists have been flocking to the attracting for 70 years, but the Kirchers were hardly done.

Inspired by the decades of success, Everett’s son and current Boyne Resorts President Stephen Kircher built a massive bridge in 2019—the largest pedestrian cable bridge in North America. It sits at the top of the chairlift, and hundreds of thousands of travelers each year (privately held Boyne Resorts won’t confirm more detailed numbers) pay $38-$51 to ride the lift and walk across the Gatlinburg SkyBridge. The area gets a lot of repeat visitors, and many of these consider the SkyBridge an indispensable part of their vacation, experiencing it every time they come.

“We are in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, abutting the National Park, and the bridge connects two ridges with views of three of the tallest mountains on the East Coast, higher than 6,500 feet. The views are so spectacular they are hard to describe,” said Kristen Lodge, Marketing Director for the Gatlinburg SkyPark, which includes the lift and SkyBridge, as well as the SkyTrail hiking path and an observation tower viewing station.

They sell both single ride and unlimited one day tickets, and surprisingly, many visitors opt for the latter because they want to ride it in the morning, afternoon and after dark for the different views. “Gatlinburg goes crazy with lights during the holidays, and we also decorate the bridge with lights, and that’s a really popular time to come at night and see all the holiday displays. The views have always been what we hang our hat on. At the beginning there was just a view deck at the top of the lift, now there’s the bridge, and we are building a new viewing pavilion with restaurant at the other side of the bridge, opening September 1.”

The Gatlinburg SkyBridge sits 500 feet off the ground and in a single span covers 700 feet, complete with a 30-foot stretch of see through glass floor panels in the middle to further appreciate the dramatic views. It takes most people 15-20 minutes to cross, and then you walk back across.

Five years ago, when the bridge opened, it would have been easy to question Kircher’s judgment, but its wild success has proven him right, and he followed up with the peak-to-peak pedestrian SkyBridge Michigan in summer 2022. The world’s longest timber-towered suspension bridge, the 1200-foot-long beauty is a marvel of engineering with its impressive wooden frame, and connects two peaks at the Boyne Mountain Ski Area, one of the most popular in the Midwest.

Like its predecessor in Tennessee, SkyBridge Michigan is accessed by a ski chairlift, and includes a glass-floored section in the middle. There are multiple food and drink options available, and the pedestrian bridge is open year-round. In winter Boyne Mountain is a ski resort, but non-skiers flock to the bridge, and in summer it has many other activities, including two high-quality 18-hole golf courses, and Boyne operate another half dozen courses including the highly-ranked award-winning Bay Harbor course, at its nearby sister properties. The area is a popular summer destination thanks to it its standout golf and fishing, and the SkyBridge makes for a new and unique extra attraction or activity that you will find in very few places.

But while they are at the forefront, Boyne Resorts is hardly the only one adding these kinds of scenic aerial attractions that are all about the views. The Hualapai Tribe famously opened the Skywalk at Eagle Point, a glass-floored U-shaped observation platform jutting out over the Grand Canyon, in 2007. Built at a cost of $30 million this engineering marvel was the world’s largest glass cantilevered bridge until a similar attraction opened in China in 2016. In fact, according to website, which compiles a list of skywalks and viewing platforms, there are dozens of cantilevered scenic glass platforms and bridges in China, including eight of the world’s top ten, many of them opened since 2020. The Grand Canyon Skywalk is the only one on the site’s Top Ten outside the Pacific Rim.

The Skywalk is suspended 4.000 feet above the Grand Canyon, and is not part of the National Park, but like Gatlinburg, is very convenient to Park visitors, part of an attraction area known as Grand Canyon West. Additional activities here include rafting, scenic helicopter rides, zip lines and more.

France’s Chamonix is at the base of Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the Alps and Western Europe, and is the birthplace of the sport of mountaineering and first-ever Winter Olympics venue. The premier “mountain town” of the Alps, it draws a steady stream of tourists, summer and winter, and among the outdoorsy is famed for its skiing, hiking and adventure sports. But many travelers come simply for the stunning mountain views and ride the many cable cars in the region. The most famous of these is the Aiguille du Midi cable car, the world’s highest when it opened in 1955, reaching about 12,000 feet. It claims to receive half a million visitors annually.

In 2013, Step Into The Void, “Europe’s highest attraction,” was added at the top. This is a five-sided glass enclosed room of sorts, with entirely transparent walls and floor, cantilevered out as an enclosed viewing platform over a 3000-foot abyss.

From Michigan to France to Canada, ski resorts have been at the forefront of this aerial tourism trend, and just this past fall, one of the nation’s most famous got into the high-altitude attraction game when Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR) in Wyoming debuted the Grand Teton Skywalk. This is circular viewing platform at the end of a concrete and steel bridge/walkway, jutting out from near the upper terminal of the resort’s iconic aerial tram. Like the Gatlinburg SkyBridge and Grand Canyon Skywalk, JHMR sits near the entrance to two stunning National Parks, Grand Teton and Yellowstone, and offers amazing views and an additional major tourism attraction to those visiting the Parks.

In 2018, Canada’s Whistler/Blackcomb, the largest and most visited ski resort in North America, added a double dose of aerial attractions. Raven’s Eye is a triangular viewing platform above Whistler Bowl, cantilevered out 40 feet with stunning long-range views. The resort also has its own pedestrian bridge, the Cloudraker Skybridge, running about 500 feet from the West Ridge to Whistler Peak. But even before these opened, the resort had one of the most unique such activities anywhere, the Peak 2 Peak gondola. This connects the tops of the two adjacent ski mountains Whistler and Blackcomb and was the longest single span gondola in the world, with some cabins featuring glass floors for downward viewing. The Peak 2 Peak runs for skiers in winter and as a scenic attraction in summer, taking 11 minutes to make the 2.7-mile crossing nearly 1,500 feet above the ground.

The latest entrant into this niche is the Nautilus Observation Tower in Virginia Beach, VA. Scheduled to open this fall (2024), it’s part of the Adventure Park at Virginia Aquarium, which combines visits to the aquarium with aerial ropes courses and zip-lines. With 258 treetop platforms, 17 aerial trails and 33 ziplines, it has a lot of up in the air action. But the new Nautilus Tower is different and claims to be the first of its kind in the United States. It is 80-feet in diameter and 15 stories tall, with a circular series of open sided platforms spiraling up from the ground, so as you walk up the corkscrew you get 360-degree views during the entire ascent. You can also opt to go up more directly via central staircases. But the big surprise is on the way down—you can retrace your steps, choose whichever option you ignored on the way up, or for a bit more excitement you can jump into the nation’s longest stainless-steel slide and let gravity take you down as you spiral through the center of the tower. The Nautilus will also have a Canopy Walk system of aerial bridge trails connected to it, 40 feet off the forest floor. It sits on 38-wooded acres on the water’s edge.

Some other notable aerial attractions in this vein include the Cabo Girao Viewpoint, jutting out from the highest promontory in Europe at 1,800 feet, on the Portuguese island of Madeira; the 5-Fingers Viewing Platform, which is hand-shaped with five metal viewing protrusions over a 1,200-foot abyss in the Austrian Alps; and the Il Spir Observation Platform in Switzerland, over the Upper Rhine Gorge or Ruinaulta, the “Swiss Grand Canyon.”

These sky bridges and cantilevered platforms are a category all their own, but many big cities have taken an urban spin on the concept, with top level observation decks on skyscrapers all over the world. Many of these in turn have added scarier outdoor sections, or in the case of Chicago’s Willis Tower, the second tallest building in the country, with its Skydeck at a staggering 1,353 feet, The Ledge, a city version of the cantilevered glass decks with transparent boxes jutting out.

New York alone has at least five notable examples, including the iconic One World Observatory, at 1,265 feet on floors 100-102 of the nation’s tallest building, One World Trade Center. Almost as high is the Edge, the tallest outdoor observation deck in the Western Hemisphere at 1,130 feet, and the Big Apple also has the famed Empire State Building (King Kong’s favorite), Top of the Rock and Summit One Vanderbilt.

Other notable examples include the Eiffel Tower in Paris; The View From The Shard in London; Sky Tower in Auckland, New Zealand with an open air Sky Walk around it; Toronto’s CN Tower, the world’s tallest structure with an outdoor Edge Walk option; Tokyo Skytree, the world’s second tallest structure; The Stratosphere in Las Vegas; Petronas Towers. Kuala Lumpur, Malayasia; and Taiwan’s Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world when it opened, and still the tallest LEED certified one, which has long housed a major observation deck attraction but recently opened an outdoor area, Skyline 460.

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