POLK CITY — The Polk County aviation attraction whose iconic DC-3 aircraft has been a landmark for Interstate 4 motorists since 1998 — particularly when it was displayed nose-down as if it had crash-landed — will close to the pubic after April 6, but continue to stage private events.
Fantasy of Flight, which opened in 1995, is preparing to restore its business model not unlike the restoration of historic aircraft that will remain a part of its operation.
It will reopen to the public in late 2014 as a scaled down museum rather than an attraction open four days a week, with admissions prices reduced from the current $29.95 for adults and $15.95 for children, operations manager Kandice Stephens said. Extra cost features such as “wing walk” challenges and a zip line ride will be eliminated.
Then, owner Kermit Weeks will build on Fantasy of Flights’ weddings, business meetings and corporate events function to transform the business from a museum to an attraction whose appeal could stand alone to draw visitors to Central Florida, with Walt Disney World just 25 miles to the east.
“After 18 years of operation, it’s time we close the attraction and move forward toward creating the vision for what I know Fantasy of Flight can become,” Weeks told employees Tuesday, an unspecified number of whom will lose their jobs.
“We’re currently outside the center of mass tourism and not perceived of as a destination. We have a great product, but people have a misperception of what we offer.
“This isn’t the end of Fantasy of Flight. It’s just the next step on the company’s journey to become what it was always meant to be, a quality attraction.”
Weeks brought his collection of aircraft from South Florida to Central Florida after his museum in Miami suffered through Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The expansive Polk County site has two runways, 5,000 feet and 2,500 feet long.
Weeks last year was working to recreate the flight of the Benoist, the world’s first commercial airliner, following the same flight path over Tampa Bay taken by Tony Jannus on New Year’s Day 1914. Those plans were scrapped as Weeks was unable to get his replica to fly.
Weeks founded Fantasy of Flight from a trust fund inheritance, previous Tribune news accounts indicated, and did not make any money in the first 10 years of operation. Stephens said Fantasy of Flight does not reveal attendance figures.
Some visitors have confused Fantasy of Flight, which has as many as 140 vintage aircraft on display or in restoration, with the Florida Air Museum at Sun ‘n Fun at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, which hosts one of the nation’s largest annual air shows about 25 miles away.
“Kermit brought a lot of planes up here,” said Jim Agnew, a Tampa retiree who is a private pilot and longtime Sun ‘n Fun volunteer who knows Weeks. “As a attraction, he has a good place there to do it and he can trade planes in and out.”
Although the attraction never gained traction, Meeks clearly grabbed the attention of thousands of I-4 motorists over the years.
The DC-3’s nose-down display along with a dummy mascot dangling by a parachute named Gee Willie fooled enough people who would call in a 911 report of a crashed airplane that Meeks eventually restored the aircraft along the Interstate to its normal, parked position.