DERWOOD — High up in the trees at Rock Creek Regional Park, 19-year-old Lauren Hurley is walking a tightrope. She makes it to the next platform, attaches her two safety carabiners to the next zip line and sails hundreds of feet to the ground.
Hurley is one of dozens who came out to the park on a 90-degree day in July to try Go Ape’s treetop adventure course.
Go Ape is new to the U.S., but has been around in the United Kingdom for nearly a decade, with more than two dozen courses. Dan D’Agostino and his wife, Jenny, opened the park in the spring of 2010.
Dan D’Agostino, 32, studied business administration at McDaniel College, had worked for consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and also as a project manager at the Olympic stadium in London for the 2012 games.
“I always had interest to run my own business, but it wasn’t until coming across Go Ape that I thought that this is the entrepreneurial pursuit for me,” he said. “I thought, you know, Olympic stadium? Go Ape? There really was no contest.”
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The D’Agostinos approached the owners of Go Ape in the U.K. in late 2007, he said.
“We developed a partnership. They were really excited about the opportunity to expand in the United States,” he said.
By late 2009, they had solidified their plans, and also formed a partnership with the Montgomery County Department of Parks to set up shop at Rock Creek Regional Park.
But despite their confidence and optimism — and the backing of an established company overseas — D’Agostinos are aware of the risk they are taking with Go Ape in a down economy.
“Our motto is ‘Live life adventurously,’” he said. “We live by that, Jenny and I, and really believe in that. And I think a lot of that has to do with, kind of, our belief in this business and our belief in what we’re providing to our visitors and to our park partners.”
D’Agostino would not provide a dollar amount for how much they had invested to get Go Ape running in Rockville, but did say that it was in the hundreds of thousands.
“I think the best way to put it is that my wife and I have really, kind of, liquidated our entire assets, everything we’ve earned,” he said. “Cashed it out, and threw it into the business.”
The course, which includes zip lines, tightropes, Tarzan swings and more, takes about two to three hours to complete, D’Agostino said. A course for a “gorilla” — or adults 18 and up — costs $55, and for baboons — or those aged 10-17 — it costs $35.
D’Agostino said that they get about 250 visitors on a weekend day, and about 50 to 100 during the week. But weekdays tend to be better for corporate groups, family reunions and scout troops, he said.
There are other similar adventure courses in Maryland, such as Upward Enterprises in Adamstown, The Adventure Park in Sandy Spring and Terrapin Adventures in Savage Mill. Other courses have open field components, such as manmade rock-climbing walls and tire swings, whereas Go Ape’s course is entirely beneath the forest canopy, and nearly all obstacles are founded on or attached to the trees.
Marvin Schnitzer, a counselor with the nonprofit small business counseling service SCORE Baltimore, said that a hurdle for a recreational business like Go Ape is how much spendable income people have.
“It’s obviously a luxury item, and in difficult economic times, disposable or spendable income is often limited,” he said.
Schnitzer also said that location is very important to a business like Go Ape, so that those with more disposable income would be more likely to come. Rock Creek Regional Park is in Montgomery County, which has the second-highest median household income of all Maryland counties, according to 2009 U.S. Census Bureau data.
But locating among wealthy potential treetop adventurists is not all they’ll need.
“They would need a very aggressive marketing plan to inform the people about the service that they have,” he said. “Startups are tough today, even in good times.”
SCORE is sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Courses can be reserved on the Go Ape website, GoApe.com. Participants then show up to the cabin to sign forms and get fitted with a harness for the course.
One of Go Ape’s 12 instructors will talk to a group before they’re allowed on the course, teaching them how to use the harness, the safety lines, carabiners and the course itself. Then they’re allowed to wander through the course.
Instructor Mike Staley, who’s been with the company since March, says the best part about working at Go Ape is the attitude of the people that come there.
“Everyone that comes to Go Ape is coming to have a good time,” he said. “So you’re working with people that are in a good mood, ready to have fun.”
And everybody there that day seemed to be doing just that.
Hurley, a Gaithersburg resident who came with some friends, said she had done a lot of treetop adventuring that as a Girl Scout, but that Go Ape was “definitely bigger and better.”
“The other [courses] I’ve been to, it’s just like one site, and you guys have, like, five different sites, so I’m really enjoying it here,” she said.
Also enjoying his Go Ape adventure was Michael Ostrolenk of Washington, D.C., who took his nephew there for his birthday.
“This awesome, it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “My favorite part is when we’re sliding down the zip line, but the other stuff is really cool, too. Getting to the zip line. It’s a good time.”
D’Agostino admits that when they were putting the business together he questioned the decision he was making, particularly in the economic climate of the past few years.
“There’s a lot of adventure in setting something like this up,” he said. “It was nerve-racking coming back home in the middle of one of the worst recessions in modern times and thinking, you know ‘What are you doing?’”
But he says if you are passionate about what you’re doing, success will follow.
“And as shown in our first couple years of operations, that’s holding true,” he said.
D’Agostino said they are looking to expand Go Ape in the U.S., but would not comment on any specific plans.