From flying over bison to coasting through redwood forests, wine tasting and beach cruising, visitors to California can do it all by gondola even when far from ski country. In every major region of the vast California Republic, gondolas greet more than 250 million annual tourists, providing unique experiences and spectacular views in one of America’s most diverse states.
California Trail – Oakland Zoo
California’s newest gondola debuted at the Oakland Zoo in June, whisking guests on a three minute safari to an $80 million experience called California Trail, which features animals native to the Golden State. In some ways this is America’s first urban gondola with the top terminal located in the basement of a combination transit station, restaurant and visitor center. The Doppelmayr UNI-G system sports 17 cabins that can move 1,000 guests each hour between California Station and the new hub for wolves, bears and mountain lions. Even though the exhibits don’t open until next year, the gondola is already so popular that the zoo’s chairlift rarely runs anymore as guests binge-ride the California Trail lap after lap.
Skyfari – San Diego Zoo
The VonRoll-built Skyfari is a big reason why the San Diego Zoo grew to become the most-visited zoo in America. Since 1969, 42 four-passenger cabins have transported some 75 million riders from the east side of the park to the west. Today, the Skyfari operates more than 3,300 hours a year and an impressive 60 percent of zoo guests choose to take the ride, making it by far the most-ridden gondola in this most populous state. The lift’s four towers reach up to 89 feet, yielding zoogoers spectacular views of their surroundings and downtown San Diego. Now presented by Alaska Airlines, the ride is impeccably maintained and features updated Doppelmayr controls and automated cabin launching. Just based on ridership, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it replaced with a modern system with more capacity in the coming years.
Bayside Skyride – SeaWorld
SeaWorld is struggling of late but the oldest operating gondola in California provides a classic experience that’s far from controversial. The 25-cabin Bayside Skyride leaves the park and traverses Mission Bay before turning around on the far shore. Riders must take the round trip and there is no option to disembark at the return terminal. Dating back to 1967, this is the oldest operating gondola in California and the fastest VonRoll 101 ever built with a maximum rope speed of 750 feet per minute. With SeaWorld’s live Orca shows going by the wayside in 2019, hopefully the Bayside Skyride enjoys many more years lifting visitors over San Diego’s natural waters.
Aerial Tram – Sterling Vineyards
When deadly fires engulfed parts of Napa and Sonoma counties this fall, I worried one of the most distinctive gondolas in the world would be lost forever. Thankfully, the town of Calistoga was spared, where Sterling Vineyards operates a totally unique gondola-based wine tasting tour. The Hall system runs one way in a triangle utilizing four-passenger Skycruiser cabins. Fire cleanup prevented me from riding this one on my recent trip but I will be back someday to check it out and drink some wine.
SkyTrail – Trees of Mystery
California’s northern coast showcases the incredible natural beauty of the state in a different way than Lake Tahoe or the inland deserts. Trees of Mystery is a roadside attractions anchored by a Coastal Redwood called the Brotherhood Tree. The 2,000 year-old behemoth stands just feet from the gondola’s drive terminal, itself a 15-minute forested walk from the highway and ticket office/gift shop. Leitner-Poma designed a pulse system which utilizes eight equally spaced cabins for six passengers each that first carried riders in 2001. The SkyTrail avoids some of the problems I’ve experienced at other pulse gondolas, namely closely-spaced cabins that obstruct views. The tradeoff is the ride slows to a fraction of its maximum 1,100 fpm line speed seven times during a round trip. That’s hardly a problem when you’re floating through 300-foot tall living giants.
Delta Flyer/Eagle’s Flight – California’s Great America
Another one I haven’t yet gotten to ride is a 1975 VonRoll that operates at California’s Great America park in Santa Clara (formerly Paramount’s Great America, formerly Marriott’s Great America.) The ride has two names depending on where you board but is setup as a traditional gondola with two stations. Like with other VonRoll skyrides, attendants physically turn every cabin around by hand. Unlike the five gondolas above that operate virtually every day of the year, Great America and its gondola operate only at peak times, so check ahead if you want to ride it.
When I drove the thousand-plus miles from San Diego to redwood country last month, I was struck by how gondolas can succeed just about anywhere with people, from a small hillside in a city park to a rural roadside or bustling amusement park. An exciting development is the possible return of a gondola to the ultimate California attraction in Anaheim. I’m told Disney executives are weighing a return of the Skyway, another VonRoll which operated at Disneyland from 1956 to 1994. Discussions with manufacturers are apparently underway and the park’s current holiday commercial could be a clue they are going well.