When Joe DeRing partnered with advisors Dev Pathik and Jason Clement to launch a sports business in Middletown, Connecticut, nine years ago, he could not envision at the time how far this new venture would span. The U.S. Army Veteran retired from the Army in 2008 following 10 years of service that included multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He made the decision to embrace his entrepreneurial spirit and open a business that could capitalize on the team-building and leadership training he had developed in the military and carry it over to a new audience, potentially making a difference in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.
“I was an infantry officer, so the skills and expertise of an infantry officer is all psychology, it’s learning how to interact with people and influence and read your platoon, company or battalion to lead them to their end game to achieve their goal. Those years in the infantry were like a master’s degree unofficially in psychology,” DeRing says.
After developing two zipline adventure parks just outside Hartford, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., DeRing got an opportunity to expand to Florida when the City of Oldsmar came calling. The City was looking to revitalize a park with plans to build an outdoor pavilion and wanted a unique way for visitors to experience the park. After an onsite visit to Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve and further analysis, DeRing and his partners came up with a plan and collaboration with the City of Oldsmar began.
Empower Adventures Tampa Bay opened in June 2016 at 423 Lafayette Blvd. in Oldsmar. Since the park’s launch, DeRing, who serves as President of the company, and his team have developed a series of group activities and programming across a total of about 3,000 feet of five interconnected ziplines and obstacle course featuring a 200-foot long wood suspension bridge, log swings, rope bridges, and a 60-foot tall start tower overlooking around 20 acres of the 400 acres of water and land preserves at the city park.
From professional groups that take part in teambuilding and trust exercises extending beyond the zipline and ropes courses to old friends catching up, milestone birthday celebrations or date nights, the team’s mission remains the same: help facilitate opportunities for people to overcome challenges and fears in a positive and encouraging environment. DeRing says even more than offering high-flying excursions, the park gives participants a special learning opportunity. “It’s our job to help people find the courage they already had –we are not building it or breaking them but facilitating opportunities for them to overcome fear that may be holding them back,” he says.
DeRing says that when guests arrive they are often intimidated by the course, and he sees it as his team’s job to silence those fears by reasoning with the participants. “Whether they’ve jumped out of an airplane or done bungy jumping before is irrelevant,” he says. “Their silence is an indicator that they’re dealing with that inner voice in their head to muster up the courage. We never assume that everybody’s ‘got’ this.” DeRing says they try to use an incremental approach to walk the more trepidatious visitor through the process one step at a time. “We have found that by being thoughtful and genuine it makes a real difference in whether or not they feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone,” he says. “We talk a lot about empowerment and overcoming fear in our lives. It is very difficult to get people to understand that from the get-go. We work them toward it. We ask them questions. The biggest thing that we do is create a trusting relationship with our guests within 5 or 10 minutes of them arriving.”
One look at Empower Adventures’ reviews on their Facebook Page indicate this approach is working and winning over visitors who show genuine appreciation for this personalized and thoughtful approach to adventure. Steven Santana Rueda writes June 1 in his 5-star review “My guides Steven and Chris were awesome! They had a great sense of humor while keeping everyone safe and educated on how to use the lines safely.” In this 5-star review from participant Chelsea Clawson from July 4, she comments, “they really do think of everything (ice cold water stations up on the course, fun challenges, cold towels at the end).” Guest Jill Johnson acknowledges she was one such visitor with some fear to overcome when she arrived, acknowledging in her 5-star review on July 8 “I was super nervous at some points and they were very encouraging without being pushy…cannot wait to return!”
Guests can schedule excursions through the office directly or online. DeRing says visitors frequently take part in zipline excursions in connection to special occasions such as bucket list adventures, girls’ night or couples’ date night, family reunions or milestone birthday events. But no special occasion is required. Guests can take part in a variety of fun activities in December including standard zipline tours which run 4-10 times daily, as well as the group’s special evening excursion, Moonlight Canopy Zip Tours which will next run Saturday, Dec. 29. These nighttime zipline excursions can be an exhilarating way to kick off date night or perhaps cap it off and are held in conjuction with the full moon. DeRing says they offer participants a spectacular experience, two hours traversing across all five zip lines to see the preserve lit naturally by the illumination of the full moon and a chance to witness nocturnal life from nearly 70 feet above and while walking upon the 200-foot wood suspension bridge.
A newer addition to the park’s activities is Zip Line Corn Hole offered Sundays through Dec. 30. Guests can make a reservation to take part in a kid-friendly, high-flying game of cornhole at 9:45 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. as they zip through the trees with prizes are awarded to the top players.
DeRing says as the park prepares for the new year, Empower Adventures will continue to optimize its facilities and find additional ways to work with the local community in all three of their locations to provide opportunities to those who are looking to zipline but also bring ziplining to those who may have never imagined they would have the chance or inclination to do it. “There are so many things in our lives that set ceilings for us. That is all a story in our imagination,” DeRing says. “If we can help them break through that story, we can help them break through that ceiling in other parts of their life, too.”
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