POLK CITY — If there’s one thing that a lot of Americans are doing right now, it’s taking to the skies and flying.
June marks the end of the spring school semester — and, more importantly, the start of the summer vacation season, and that sends families packing. For many of them, Central Florida’s ever-expanding theme parks will naturally be a huge draw for family fun.
What some of those families may not realize is that there’s an attraction in Central Florida devoted to something special: flying itself. Located in Polk City, less than an hour’s drive from the big theme parks, it’s known as Fantasy of Flight — an attraction that showcases the rich history of our desire to get where we’re going by air.
This is also an attraction that is undergoing some changes, including new hours.
On May 6, Fantasy of Flight introduced new operating hours, and is now open Thursdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Kermit Weeks, the founder and creator of this attraction, said he opted for the four-day schedule because it offered Fantasy of Flight the chance to refine existing elements of what they offer, while also developing new experiences for guests to enjoy.
“Over the years,” Weeks said, “I’ve realized there are a number of people fascinated with aircraft — but there are even more fascinated by flight.”
It is, he noted, sometimes that taps into a deep-seated desire we all have to be truly free to go anywhere we want to.
“Flight is a powerful metaphor, which more than anything symbolizes pushing our boundaries, reaching beyond ourselves, and freedom,” Weeks said.
With that in mind, he decided to close on days that had not been traditionally as busy, and use the time to focus on developing the attraction.
“We see the new operating schedule as a win-win for both the public and us,” Weeks said. “By reducing our days open, we will be able to deliver more focus to our daily customers and use the closed days to focus on developing an even better product that will touch even more people.”
Closing on several days during the week meant the attraction had to eliminate some members of its staff.
“After weighing options for several months, some difficult decisions have been made,” Weeks said. “But from change comes opportunity.”
The new features there include the introduction of 20,000 additional square feet of space that has been filled with rare and vintage aircraft, aircraft parts and flight artifacts.
This marks Phase II of what Weeks has dubbed “Golden Hill,” named after Silver Hill, the nickname for The Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility of the Smithsonian Institution’s Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Suitland, Maryland.
Phase I of Golden Hill, which opened last summer, was built specifically for public viewing. When it drew strong reviews from guests, Fantasy of Flight decided to open up its entire storage facility last January for Golden Hill Phase II, which includes:
• Awesome Amphibians: PBY Catalina and Grumman Duck.
• Carrier-based Conquerors: Fairey Swordfish and Grumman Hellcat.
• The world’s earliest jets: Gloster Meteor and DeHavilland Vampire.
• Heroes of the Soviet: TU-2, Lavochkin La-11, and Antonov An-2.
• War Changers: Mitsubishi Zero and Lockheed P-38 Lightning.
• The legendary CalTech Wind Tunnel used to test innovative technology ranging from the first P-51 to the Venus Probe.
• and the Sikorsky S-55 Helicopter.
Accessible only by escort, guests are loaded aboard the vintage, open-air “Orlampa Express” trolley where they can view the planes on display on the tarmac.
These projects have been a long time in coming.
Weeks acquired his first collectible airplane in 1979, and has been collecting more ever since, searching the globe for vintage planes, parts and components that can be used to bring aircraft back to original condition.
“Since I’ve had a fascination with airplanes, I’ve had the opportunity to pick and choose over the years and acquired things for reasonable prices,” he said. “There have been a few that have eluded me because of price at the time. For the same amount of money, I could purchase several other historic aircraft for one I might have passed on.”
Weeks opened this aviation attraction in 1995 as a way to display and share his growing vintage airplane collection with the public.
In the past 18 years, it has grown steadily, even becoming the world’s largest private collection — including being home to the World’s Greatest Aircraft Collection, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to “rebuilding and reliving the passion of the past.”
The attraction is located just outside of the city of Lakeland, and is part of a small cluster of nearby attractions. Just up the road is the American Water Ski Museum, also in Polk City, and in neighboring Lake Alfred, visitors have long enjoyed the town’s host of antique shops and quaint family-owned restaurants.
Despite the change in schedule, Fantasy of Flight will continue to offer attractions that have appealed to visitors in the past, including the Wing Walk Air Ropes Course & Zip Line, the Art Deco-themed Compass Rose diner — which aims to recreate a 1940s-style roadside diner, and adds to the attraction’s nostalgic buzz — its gift shop, scheduled tours, the Golden Hill storage facility and Flight of the Day.
“My commitment to moving the mission forward is stronger than ever,” Weeks said. “More than just an aviation museum, we are truly an ‘Attraction on a Higher Plane.’ I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, but even more excited about what I know we can create in the future.”
Fantasy of Flight is located at 1400 Broadway Boulevard SE in Polk City, just off Exit 44 on Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando. For more information, call 863-984-3500.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book A Christmas Eve Story. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.