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Another Roadside Attraction - Fantasy of Flight

Fantasy of Flight
1400 Broadway, Polk City 33868
(863) 984-3500

Admission: dults $26.95, seniors (55+) $24.95, children (6 to 15) $13.95. Annual pass $59.95
Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Closed Christmas and Thanksgiving, Restaurant open 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Location: Exit 44 off I-4, about 50 miles west of Orlando

Vintage aircraft collector Kermit Weeks has turned his avocation into an irresistible roadside attraction that is definitely worth a visit if you are traveling between Orlando and Tampa. Just off I-4, Fantasy of Flight, with its Compass Rose restaurant, makes a great place to take a breakfast or lunch break. You can tour the exhibits and have a meal in less than two hours. Come for lunch and the afternoon if you want to take the free tours.

There are three major sections to Fantasy of Flight. The first is a walk-through history of manned flight, with an accent on its wartime uses. Using dioramas, sound, film, and life-sized figures, it’s the equivalent of a Disney World “dark ride” without the vehicles. You start your journey in the hold of an old war transport. Suddenly, the jump master is ushering you out the open door of the plane. The engines roar, the cold wind whistles through your hair, you step out into the pitch blackness of the nighttime sky; all you can see is stars. Soon you find yourself at the dawn of flight, as a nineteenth century hot-air balloon is preparing to take off. Then you are in the trenches of World War I, a tri-plane about to crash into your position. Next you are at a remote World War II airstrip. As a new replacement in the 95th Bomber Group, you receive a briefing and then step aboard a restored B-17 Flying Fortress. As you walk through the aircraft you hear the voices of the crew during a mission over Europe, antiaircraft fire bursting all around you. Stepping across the bomb bay catwalk, you see the doors open beneath you as 500-pound bombs rain down on the fields and cities below. All of this is beautifully realized. The sets are terrific, the lighting dramatic, the soundtrack ingenious, the planes authentic in every detail. I found the B-17 mission to be truly moving.

The second section is a large, spotless, sun-filled hangar displaying Weeks’ collection. There are reproductions of the Wright brothers’ 1903 flyer and Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis.” There are a few oddities, like the 1959 Roadair, an attempt to build a flying automobile. But most of the planes are the real thing. The oil leaks, captured in sand filled pans, tell you that many of these planes still fly. You’ll see the actual 1929 Ford Tri-Motor used in the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There are World War II immortals as well, the B-24J Liberator, a heavy bomber, and the Grumman FM2 Wildcat, the U.S. Navy fighter that shone in the early days of the war. There’s even a Nazi short-take off and landing plane, the Storch, that once saved Mussolini’s neck by plucking him from a remote mountain resort.

There are several guided tours given in the afternoon; arrive by 11:30 if you want to take them all. The Tram Tour provides a good overall look at the hangar and some otherwise restricted areas. Other tours focus on various aspects of vintage aircraft restoration and will be especially interesting to aficionados. The aerial demonstration of the day, however, which takes place in the late afternoon (weather permitting), will appeal to just about everyone.

By this time, you may wish you were able to get behind the controls of one of these great machines. Fortunately the price of admission includes unlimited flight time aboard the eight simulators in Fighter Town, Fantasy of Flight’s third main section. Aboard the Yorktown aircraft carrier, you can strap yourself into a virtual Corsair and go gunning for Zeroes over tropical islands in “Battle over the Pacific.” Each sortie lasts seven minutes.

The experience is surprisingly realistic. A flight instructor monitors your progress and provides helpful hints — like don’t fly upside down. You can fly against the computer or against another pilot in a different simulator. It’s also possible for teams to fly against each other. After your own flight, you’ll probably want to go to the control tower to see how things look from the flight instructor’s point of view.

When you leave the hangar area, you find yourself back where you began. If you’d like to walk through the dioramas again (and you might), help yourself. Otherwise you can visit the gift shop (leather bomber jackets just $300!) or stop into the Compass Rose restaurant, a beautifully designed re-creation of the kind of Art Deco restaurant you might have found at a fancy airport in the 1930s. The Compass Rose opens at 11:00 a.m. and makes a good choice for lunch. If a visit puts you in the mood to take to the air, check into the hot air balloon and plane rides available here (see Chapter 16: Moving Experiences).

Nearby: Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, Polk Museum of Art, Water Ski Experience.

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