In college I had a hamster named Hecubus who loved to roll around in his plastic ball. One day when I wasn't paying attention, he accidentally rolled down the stairs.
Now, thanks to local entrepreneur Robert Pelon, I know exactly how poor Hecubus felt that fateful day.
You, too, can feel like a human in a hamster ball, compliments of Pelon, who envisions a Sphere USA chain modeled on the center recently opened in Brighton, the first of its kind in North America.
Pelon, 33, is originally from Northville, a clean-cut, all-American former MSU Spartan, who just had his first baby with his wife. A few years ago he was a nice, respectable options trader in Chicago. Now, as president and CEO of Sphere USA in Brighton, he rolls people down a hill in a giant ball.
As Pelon tells the story, it all started one day in January of last year when he was watching a reality show where poor suckers were strapped into a giant inflatable ball and pushed down a hill. Intrigued, Pelon wanted to try it for himself only to find that there was no place in North America where you could, although it's very popular in Australia, the UK and New Zealand, where it originated in the late '90s via a company called Zorb (zorb.com).
So, the industrious Pelon started researching. A business trip to England, a couple of recruited buddies and a year-and-a-half of planning later, Pelon acquired all North American rights to the UK company SphereMania (www.spheremania.com), a competitor of Zorb. And thus, Sphere USA opened at the Mt. Brighton ski resort in June.
Pelon won't go into details about the cost of the operation, but says each sphere costs "about as much as a used car." (He didn't specify Volkswagen or Pinto.) He's hoping the investment will pay off; given how popular the activity is in other parts of the world, he thinks sphereing could be huge in the States. And thus far he's had a solid response; on word of mouth, he's getting 10 to 20 riders a day (he'd eventually like to have 50) and has gotten inquiries about a franchise from business owners in Atlanta.
Pelon has three spheres; each is 12 feet in diameter, made of clear PVC and weighs about 350 pounds. In each, an inner chamber is surrounded by a 3-foot cushion of air and nearly 1,000 nylon support straps tethered to an outer shell.
Pelon has adapted the ski hill's snowboard half pipe; the slope is about 700 feet, and bordered by berms. There are two entry points: You can either gently roll from the top of the hill (refered to as the "shooter") or you can choose to be pushed off a 20 foot drop before hitting the course this is referred to as the mixer, because the fall and the resulting bounce cause the sphere to richochet off the berms. Feeling queasy yet?
There are two kinds of "sphereing" aqua and harness. For the aqua sphere, as many as three riders climb inside along with 5 gallons of water. When you careen down the hill, you and your co-victims ride on a cushion of water Pelon describes it as the spin cycle of a washing machine.
Harness sphereing, however, is an entirely different matter. You and a partner are strapped to the interior of the sphere before being pushed down the hill. After the third or fourth roll, centrifugal force takes over and your body is plastered against the sphere wall; by the time you hit 4 or 5 g's, the 45-second ride is nearly over.
All patrons are required to sign a waiver, and Pelon, who tested the course extensively before opening to the public, says no one has even been injured in a sphere. In fact, no one has even thrown up on his track yet. "If you do throw up, we'll give you a free T-shirt," he says.
Pelon says he plans to eventually franchise Sphere operations across the country.
"It's for anyone who's a thrill-seeker," Pelon says, adding that the choice between the mellower aqua sphere and the intense harness experience has brought both families with small children and suburban weekend warriors looking for an extreme sport experience.
Zorb plans to open up operations in Tennessee in the fall, but until then, Pelon's little slice of orbital vertigo is the only outfit in North America. He charges $28.50 per person for one ride, and two rides for $45; kids as young as 3 years old have ridden the aqua sphere, but you must be at least 56 inches high to experience the harness sphere, and there's a 500-pound limit.
And what is it like?
Despite the fact that I have a weak stomach, fear heights and have a propensity toward injury (and I don't like my ankles going over my head, unless ... er, as I was saying), I do my duty as a reporter. Which takes me at the bottom of Mt. Brighton, where I stare up at a giant plastic ball containing humans hurtling toward me, the occasional blood-curdling scream and panicked obscenity emanating from the rolling beast.
With me is trusty photographer Cybelle Codish, who's accompanied me through reporting trenches filled with fire-breathers, pole dancers and medieval knights wielding Nerf weapons in the forest.
But Cybelle ain't havin' it.
"No," she says flatly, when Pelon asks if she's going to accompany me in the harness sphere. There's no argument in her tone. The girl ain't going.
Ten minutes later Cybelle and I are at the top of the hill and she's cursing my existence. We're both wearing the awkward harness, and facing the daunting task of getting into the damn thing; there are two entrances, but it's a hot day, we're sweaty and the PVC sticks to the skin as we struggle to squirm inside kind of like birth in reverse. Once we've gracelessly entered, an employee (having perfected the wiggle entry technique) effortlessly slides in to strap and lock us into our final positions, one of us on each side of the ball, facing each other. The transparent plastic sphere is like a mini-greenhouse; it's oppressively muggy and stifling inside.
We're locked, loaded and ready to go. As they gently roll us toward the 20-foot drop, all I can see is the wild, terrified look in Cybelle's eyes.
Then, suddenly I know how a daiquiri in a blender feels. I quickly lose track of sky and ground as we tumble upside down, left, right and I'm suddenly plastered to the wall as the full 4 g's punch me in the face. We're both laughing and screaming and the first 20 seconds feels like a lifetime.
The final leg is the worst as the ball slows down the ride gets rougher. My only injury is a small friction burn on my shoulder where the harness rubbed my bare skin.
Breathless, exhilarated and more than a little discombobulated, Cybelle and I stumble like drunks to the bottled water Pelon offers.
Was it fun? Hell, yes.
Would we do it again? Hell, no.
Sphere USA is located at Mt. Brighton, 4141 Bauer Rd., Genoa Township; 810-229-9581. On the Web at spheremania.us.Sarah Klein is the culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org