As you step off the platform and the world falls away, the balmy Hawaiian air becomes a roar in your ears and the lush, green canopy gives way to a view of the valley floor nearly 100 feet below. It’s a view like nowhere else on earth. Yet for some reason, the scene looks very familiar.
Nestled several miles from the white sand beaches and turquoise waves of Oahu’s Windward Coast, the Ka’a’awa Valley is a surreal setting, where brontosaurus once grazed among the tropical foliage and velociraptors clawed and gnashed their way through one of the best-known adventure parks in modern cinema. The Valley, often referred to as “Hawaii’s Hollywood Backlot,” provided the setting for the original “Jurassic Park” and the most recent sequel, “Jurassic World,” as well as a slew of other films.
Today, visitors to Kualoa Ranch, the Valley’s real adventure park, get some of their thrills courtesy of its newest attraction: an entirely off-the-grid zip line tour. The three-hour Treetop Canopy Zipline Tour is the greenest of the various tours offered by Kualoa Ranch, which include horseback, ATV, and movie site and expedition tours, among others. Consisting of seven tandem zip lines, two suspension bridges, and three hikes that lead guests in a horseshoe path around the valley, it’s one of only two zip line operations on Oahu, and the only one that operates completely on solar power.
A VERY GREEN VALLEY
“We wanted to figure out how to share the valley with our guests without overbuilding,” explains CJ Hughes, zip tour operations manager. “We wanted to build something special so that people could enjoy where they are, and I think that by choosing to do this in a green way, we have added to that experience. The idea is that by the end of the tour, people had fun on the zip lines, but they’ve also had an educational experience and made a connection with a beautiful place.”
The breathtaking valley is part of a 4,000-acre private nature preserve that’s been in company president and CEO John Morgan’s family for 165 years. The initial 622-acre parcel, the first of three, was purchased in 1850 by Morgan’s great-, great-, great-grandfather from King Kamehameha III, who ruled Hawaii from 1825 to 1854.
Despite the long and storied history, it’s been just three decades that Kualoa Ranch has been running commercial outdoor recreation operations. And while the sustainable operation of the zip line tour certainly fits with Kualoa’s brand image (“Natural Beauty. History and Culture. Stewardship and Preservation.”), it wasn’t an entirely environmental decision to take the green route—with the tour’s remote location, it also happened to make really good economic sense.
“Our goal is to preserve [Kualoa Ranch] in perpetuity,” says Morgan. “In order to do that, we need to be economically viable. [The zip line] is far away from any utilities, so being off the grid was a bit of a no-brainer. It’s just what we needed to do.”
Morgan, every bit the island cowboy in boots and hat, who often explores his ranch by horse, explains that the zip tour’s location deep in Ka’a’awa—two miles from the main Kualoa Ranch resort—was dictated by both the ideal topography offered by the valley and the opportunity to create a sense of adventure for guests.
Still, the remote location presented some unique challenges. While zip lines are human and/or gravity powered, the supporting infrastructure would still require water and electricity to operate. Not only would running utilities to the zip line’s headquarters be more environmentally invasive than Kualoa wanted—it is an area that Morgan calls “a bastion of undeveloped pristine beauty”—it would be expensive and time consuming, from the zoning permits to the labor, materials, and ongoing operating costs.
SHAPING THE PROJECT
When Hughes first heard that Kualoa Ranch was looking to staff a new, yet-to-be-built zip line tour, he was working at Tree to Tree Adventure Park in Oregon. Having grown up just down the road from Kualoa Ranch before heading to the mainland for college, he jumped at a chance to return home and pursue his passion for the challenge course industry, which began in the Boy Scouts of America and was honed post college with the CLAS Ropes Course in Utah, and later at Tree to Tree.
When Hughes landed back home on Oahu in March of 2014 less than a year before the zip line tour was scheduled to open, the project was little more than a concept. Hughes was tasked with everything from finding a builder to figuring out how to get the water and power needed to the remote location.
“We need electricity here,” he recalls thinking. “We need bathrooms here. How are we going to do that?”
Hughes rejected the idea of generators, which were the obvious practical solution. The noise, exhaust, and need to constantly haul fuel up and down the valley didn’t fit with the brand image of “stewardship and preservation.”
Wind and solar were next on his list of considerations. Solar won out due to the island’s abundant sunshine—more than 270 days per year, on average.
Today, 30 solar panels charge a dozen 12-volt 200ah deep-cycle batteries. Through two inverters, that’s enough to power a water pump, lights in the bathroom and staff facilities, a refrigerator, microwave and water cooler, and an entire off-the-grid automated photo system designed to capture guests mid-flight (more on that later).
“Starting at 100 percent charge, we can run tours for about three days,” Hughes says. “And it’s always 100 percent, unless it’s been raining for three or four days in a row.”
And as it turns out, rainwater is as precious to the park’s green mission as sunshine, and the solar panels are used to help collect it.
Shortly after opening, while operating briefly without plumbing, Hughes noticed sheets of water pouring off the panels every time it rained. “Instead of having big diesel trucks going up and down the valley all the time, hauling water, we thought, ‘We’ve got these solar panels, and it rains a ton out here. Why don’t we just catch all the rain?’” he notes.
So operators figured out a way to use the solar panels to help collect it. Gutters were affixed to the edges of all 30 panels, collecting the runoff and channeling it into a 3,000-gallon water catchment system that, aside from a small solar-powered pump, is gravity fed.
Since installing the system last spring, the ranch has only had to truck water out to fill the tank once. The catchment system supports 10 daily tours, totaling 100 guests on average, and a staff of 20 guides and four drivers.
STRIKING A BALANCE
Maintaining a green operation is important to the Ranch, but ultimately, the guest experience is the number-one focus. This includes limiting numbers and growth to keep a healthy balance.
“It’s all about the experience the guests are having,” says Hughes. “If we brought in more staff, we could probably run more tours every day. But if it’s so rushed and so fast, the guests don’t really enjoy themselves.”
Keeping the numbers in check not only allows each guest to take more from the experience—which Hughes designed to be not just exciting, but educational, touching on culturally and environmentally significant aspects of the valley and its history along the way—it also helps lower the human impact in the area. Of course, zip lines themselves reduce impact, since the tour mostly sends guests over rather than through the valley’s sensitive ecosystems.
In keeping with the sustainable spirit, the staff even planted a vegetable garden out back to help make employee meals easy, sustainable, and healthy. “Right now it’s mostly sweet potatoes,” Hughes says.
CAPTURING THE MOMENT
Once the zip tour was up and running, one unique challenge remained. As with any memorable experience, guests wanted photos of their Hawaiian zip line adventure. And like any upsell opportunity, the resort was keen on the revenue. The question was, how best to deliver what the guests wanted?
While automated photo systems are not a novel idea in the industry, operating those systems off the grid is not the norm. Kualoa turned to Ben Kottke and Snapsportz, a vendor specializing in automated photo systems, for a solution. Snapsportz has cameras in a variety of venues, from ropes courses to ski resorts.
Kottke, in turn, enlisted the help of Gabriel Riela-Enoka and Wendy Ernst, tech gurus turned photographers. Using Snapsportz’ camera technology, Ernst and Riela-Enoka engineered a wireless automated camera network that runs completely on the existing solar power system. (The experience also led to the launch of a new company, Aloha Pixels.) Finally, a wireless Internet connection was created, using relays and boosters to transmit images from cameras to the controller station at the Aloha Pixels base camp.
“You take a lot of stuff for granted when you have Internet and power and everything right at your fingertips,” says Ernst. “It’s a bit of a challenge [in the Valley], but we like the whole green factor, and I see that there is a trend going to these green solutions. Tour operators try to get into more exclusive locations for adventure tourism, but there is a need to be low impact.”
SHOWING THE WAY
Other than one truck full of water, Kualoa Ranch’s zip tour operation has been entirely self-sustaining since opening in January 2015.
Even within Kualoa Ranch, the zip line tour is setting an example. The Ranch holds Sustainable Tourism Certification from the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, but the zip tour is the only part of the property that is entirely self-sustaining. It’s become a local beacon of environmental, economic, and social responsibility—something Morgan calls “a triple bottom line.”
While the solar equipment and installation represented a substantial initial investment, it was still less costly than traditional solutions. And the tour’s virtually non-existent operating costs have more than paid for the initial investment, in the form of ample revenue and happy guests.
It’s been so economically viable, in fact, that solar panels are finding their way onto other roofs around the resort. “It’s been working so well with the zip tour, that they thought, ‘Why not for the rest of the ranch?’” Hughes says proudly.
“I think in the future we’ll see more people [adding solar],” says Hughes. “A lot of our guests have commented on it. They like that it’s green, and their adventure is something they can feel good about.”