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614 Summer Road Trip: Skydiving, wake boarding, more in Butler County, OH

614now Staff

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“Do you wanna go on a crazy adventure all over Butler County and do all sorts of crazy fun stuff?!” My editor spat out his words hurriedly. It was 8:45am.

“I think so?” I mumbled back.

“There will be ice cream…” he purred.

“I’m in,” I said instinctively. I have a habit of saying yes and I had been through Butler County a few times before, always having a great time. If he thought it was a good idea, I trusted him.

“So when do we wanna go? In a few weeks?”

“WE don’t go, just you,” he said. “And you’re skydiving. And you leave in 20 minutes.”

Like that, I was on the highway heading to Hamilton, OH, just 90 minutes southwest of Columbus. I pulled up to the stately Courtyard Marriott and admired the view. The hotel overlooks the Great Miami River, which cuts through the heart of beautiful downtown Hamilton, and it is every bit as exquisite on the inside as it appears from the exterior.

I stepped through the front doors and was immediately greeted by two extra-friendly receptionists. They handed me an itinerary but I was too nervous to peek inside.

The elevator carried me swiftly to the clean, spacious fifth floor room that I would call home for the next two days, although I unfortunately didn’t spend much time there. I dropped my bag and unfurled the tri-folded piece of paper that held my fate. Skydiving was the first activity on the list. The room was top-notch, but I had to go.

Before I could hurl myself out of a moving plane 14,000 feet above the surface of the planet, I knew I had to put something in my queasy stomach. I decided to go to Jungle Jim’s International Market, a wondrous bazaar of unusual sustenance carrying over 180,000 different edible items and almost seven acres of one-of-a-kind personality.

More amusement park than grocery store, Jim’s stocks foodstuffs from every country under the sun, if you can even look past the wild décor and animatronic mascots. They’ve got fresh-baked breads and desserts, to exotic meats and cheeses, unique candies and beverages, truly just about everything you could ever dream of stuffing in your face. Normally I would gravitate to the 1,400+ hot sauces, 4,000+ beers, or 12,000+ wines, but I figured drab would be the way to go before my jump. I grabbed some weird fruit, hot bread, and cheese I’d never heard of and hit the road. I’ll definitely be back to sample the really good stuff, and it will probably be a totally different experience. At least I used their award-winning ‘Best Bathrooms in America’ to empty my bladder before entering the stratosphere.

I had a thirty minute drive north to Start Skydiving in Middletown, OH, which I spent the entirety of thinking about my own mortality, especially when we passed the Butler County Coroner’s Office. As we got farther out of town the buildings peeled away, leaving just blue sky and green land. It was beautiful country, but all I could think about was plummeting quickly from one and forcibly into the other.

We pulled up to the facilities and I was immediately impressed, and relieved. Dozens of people milled around, packing parachutes, giving instructions, and high-fiving each other on successful jumps. Ranked the ‘#1 Drop Zone in the World’ (!), I could tell from the outset that I was in good hands. I do a lot of idiotic and reckless things, and suddenly I realized this might not even be the most dangerous thing I did today.

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After signing in, I was escorted to an open hangar to be fitted for a jumpsuit and to meet the other people who would be diving with me. Since it was my first time, I would be completing, hopefully, a tandem jump, which meant there would be an experience professional on-hand to handle the important stuff. We’d also be accompanied by a videographer to document things, for better or worse.

I met my expert for the trip, Aaron, who had more than eight hundred jumps under his belt including four already that morning. He walked me through the process and answered all my questions, which alleviated my concerns. Until he was tightening up my harness and mumbled, “Won’t let anyone fall outta one of these…again.” Very personable, these guys.

We climbed into the small eight-person aircraft and lifted off towards the heavens. My heart pumped harder with each passing second as the reality of the situation set in. Then at 14,000 feet, the door slid open. My throat clenched as I peered into the abyss, and there was no possibility I was going through with it. Before I could protest, military-trained Aaron stood up with my puny 140lbs. hanging from him like a fanny pack and we jumped out of the freaking airplane.

The rush was unlike anything I had ever felt, smashing through clouds at 125 miles per hour as we hurtled nearly TWO MILES through the sky before Aaron pulled the rip chord. We glided through the warm afternoon air, still thousands of feet above the Earth, and surveyed miles and miles of land. Aaron had me pull down on yellow straps hanging from either side of the parachute, sending us spinning rapidly, and real life ceased to exist. It was a completely surreal experience and my stomach flutters just recalling it.

We gently thudded to the ground and I could barely stand up, the emotion of the experience still hung so heavy on my shoulders. We had survived, and I needed a beer.

Truly, if you’ve ever had the inclination to engage in this insanity, do it at Start Skydiving. And throw down the extra couple bucks to get photos and video, as I still go back and check them at least once a day to assure myself I lived through it.

I headed back to the hotel to change into my bathing suit, as I had a few hours of wake boarding up next, but I really thought a cold beer would do me some good after the incredible events of the morning. Luckily, not 30 yards from the Marriott was the perfect oasis…

Municipal Brew Works had everything I needed at the moment, a giant patio and a dozen delicious beers for me to drink on it. The staff were welcoming and let me try a handful of their options, all brewed on-site, before I selected. My favorites were the dark, chocolaty Midnight Cut Porter, the fruity Woltermelon Blonde and Center Of It Ale, and best of all the Free City Ale, but the beers are constantly rotating so I’ll definitely be back to see what future concoctions they’re offering.

After a little lubrication it was time for some wake boarding at Wake Nation, just four miles from the hotel. As a total novice to the sport, I was welcomed by the crew who helped me pick out just the right board, life vest and helmet, and sent out onto the practice pond to try my hand at things. Wake Nation runs a cable system to pull boarders, unlike the traditional boat-pulled method, so it’s very easy to get a quick handle on the basics and after just a few tries I was zipping along like a seasoned pro, even trying out some advanced techniques. I credit my trainer Trey, who quickly spotted my trouble areas and knew just how to correct my form.

After an hour on the practice pond we moved over to the larger lake for some knee boarding, a variation that doesn’t involve standing all the way up. The main cable system runs a little faster than the practice version, resulting in a couple solid wipe-outs, but that’s really part of the fun. Wake Nation, now under new management after nine years of operation, also offers a giant inflatable aqua-park with a giant trampoline for propelling yourself into the water, and will debuting a super-slide, restaurant and beer garden in 2018, so obviously I’ll be back to partake in all of those.

If action-packed water activities are your jam, this place really can’t be beat. An all-day lake pass is just $40, and they offer lessons and camps for those just getting started. Wake Nation also hosts contests and events for the more experienced, but I’ll need a few more trips around the practice pond before I give one of those a try.

For more information on the places I visited, click below!

Courtyard Marriott

Jungle Jim’s

Start Skydiving

Wake Nation

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It’s Lit! Tips for creating a light display that’s the envy of the neighborhood

Linda Lee Baird

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Byron Gunter has always been a holiday light enthusiast. While most kids save their allowance money for candy, toys, or new clothes, Gunter saved his for Christmas lights. “As a pre-teen, my display got so large it was featured in the local paper, and the rest was history,” he said.

It was an interest Gunter maintained into adulthood and brought with him when he moved to the Lucy Depp Park community in Powell in 2014. “One of the largest factors in buying my house was the ability to have a large Christmas light show,” he said. When Kevin Rhodus moved into the neighborhood a few months later, one of their first conversations was about the possibility of organizing a large-scale holiday light show. “Kevin brought the technical background needed to make it happen, and here we stand today, with one of the largest neighborhood light shows in Central Ohio,” Gunter said. The show now includes five neighboring houses over 7.5 acres in the Lucy Depp Park community.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

Gunter and Rhodus, along with their neighbor Dave Johnson, answered some questions for (614) about how to set up your own fabulous holiday light display, and how they are giving back to the community through their show.

(614): Tell us about your setup process. What does it look like to organize this show?

BG: We start hanging lights in early September. It takes over two months to get everything up. There are over 200 trees, bushes, and props that are each individually controlled. We lost count of the exact number of strands a long time ago. In addition to hanging lights, we have to set up controllers, run data cabling, mount antennas and get all the infrastructure in place to make the show happen. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes involved to get 7.5-acres to all turn on and off at the same time.

(614): How do you organize the display across houses? Is the design collaborative, or does each house create its own display?

KR: Each year we have a dinner in early fall with all the families involved with the show to finalize our plans. Each house involved creates and hangs their own displays. Then we work collaboratively together to program it into one large continuous show.

(614): What is the process for programming your light show? Does the programming take the same amount of time every year?

KR: We start off programming the show by making our own soundtrack each year. We spend most of the spring and summer deciding what songs we want to use next year. From there, we use software to synchronize each tree to the soundtrack and create what is called a sequence. As we add more houses and more complex displays, the amount of time required grows exponentially. Last year it took approximately 80-100 hours to sequence the six-minute show. This year that number will increase a lot with all we added. Once the show is sequenced, we load it to multiple mini- computers (Raspberry Pi’s and Beaglebone’s) that control sections of the show and are tied together via a large network. We monitor everything connected to the network 24/7 and instantly get email alerts if any problems occur.

(614): How does the show change from year to year?

BG: Each year the show gets larger and larger. We have kept a tradition of adding another house (or more) every year. We also are constantly evolving our displays. For example, pixels allow us to control each individual bulb in a string of lights. We grew from just one pixel tree last year to wrapping over 100 trees in pixels this year.

(614): Last year, you collected donations at the show to raise money for a local charity. Are you planning to do so again this year?

DJ: For the second year in a row, we are raising money for Peace for Paws Ohio. This organization is very close to us, as my wife is the Medical Director and on the Board of Directors. Peace for Paws rescues pets from high kill shelters across the state of Ohio. Many of the pets in the neighborhood are rescues from Peace for Paws.

(614): How much was raised last year?

DJ: Last year we raised over $5,000 dollars for Peace for Paws. The money went directly to help with the vet bills for many dogs and cats in their care.

(614): Do you have a sense of how many people visited?

DJ: We don’t have a final number but most nights we averaged somewhere between 200- 400 cars.

(614): What’s the cost of putting on this annual light show? Do you accept donations?

DJ: The cost of doing this is way more than our wives know. Almost all the lights are LED so there is very little increase to our electric bill. Almost all the cost is tied up in lights, extension cords, and controllers. Any donations we receive go to Peace for Paws.

(614): What’s an unexpected challenge you’ve experienced, and how did you overcome it?

BG: By far, traffic has been our largest unexpected challenge. We had no idea what the turnout would be the first year when we simply put out on Nextdoor that we were doing a light show. Within a day we had cars trying to go the opposite directions on one-lane roads and driving through yards to get around stopped cars. We quickly realized we needed to control the traffic and make the show one direction.

(614): What advice would you give to anyone who wants to elevate their holiday lights this year?

KR: Do it! There are tons of great online and local communities, [such as] Light Up Ohio, of Christmas light enthusiasts. It’s very easy to start with a small display and grow it each year. A lot of our fun we get out of doing the show is experimenting and trying new ideas each year.

(614): Anything you’d like to add?

DJ: We all got really lucky with the light show to be able to have a group of neighbors turn into a close group of friends. It has really brought our neighborhood together and gives us an amazing opportunity to give back to the surrounding communities.

This exchange has been lightly edited. For times and directions to Lucy Depp Park,, visit lucydepppark.wordpress.com.

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The Wilds celebrates the birth of another rhino calf

Mike Thomas

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It isn't deja vu. For the second time in a little more than one month, The Wilds is celebrating the arrival of a female white rhinoceros calf. The calf was born in the conservation center's large, heated rhino barn during the early morning hours of Friday, December 6, 2019.

This calf, who has been named “Bing” as recognition of donors Drs. Hetty and Arthur Bing, is the 22nd white rhino to be born at The Wilds.

“Each birth of a rhino here at The Wilds is an incredible achievement as all rhino species continue to face significant threats in their native range," said Dr. Jan Ramer, vice president of The Wilds, in a statement. "Over the years, we have learned more about rhinos, contributed to scientific knowledge about them, and helped raise awareness to inspire people to take action to help protect them. Our work is not done! However, the birth of this rhino calf is certainly exciting as the calf represents hope for the future.”

Bing and her 10-year-old mother, Anan, who was also born at The Wilds, are doing well and continue to bond. Animal Management staff note that Anan, who has previously given birth to two other calves and is an experienced mother, is being very attentive to her newborn. This is the second offspring for Bing’s father, 21-year-old Kengele, who was born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. His first calf, Scout, was born at The Wilds on October 23, 2019 to mother, Agnes. 

Guests may have the opportunity to view Bing and Anan, along with the other rhinos, in the rhino barn during a Winter at The Wilds tour within the coming weeks. Tours are available at 11 AM and 2 PM through April. Reservations must be made at least 72 hours in advance. For more information, visit TheWilds.org

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Hunger Games: Wendy’s tabletop RPG is a fast-food fantasy feat

Mike Thomas

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Distracted by the raucous sounds of the festival beyond the garden walls, you almost don’t notice the shrouded figure emerging from behind the old statue. You and your companions turn to leave, but hesitate when the mysterious man calls out to each of you by name. When pressed, the stranger warns of a malevolent force known as “Hunger,” which is gathering its power somewhere deep in the nearby forest. He knows you and your stalwart party of adventurers will do what must be done...

If you’ve spent any time with Dungeons & Dragons or its various progeny, you can probably guess where this is going. A journey into the enchanted forest, traps, treasures, attribute checks and plenty of scribbled notes on pieces of scratch paper. But even if you’re an old hand at the tabletop stuff, odds are your campaign never included golden chicken nuggets and sentient cheeseburgers.

Dublin-based fast food chain Wendy’s has never shied away from the improbable. When nearly all of burgerdom had settled on circular patties, Wendy’s went square. Competitors hocking frozen meat? Wendy’s tackled logistical challenges to serve “fresh, never frozen” burgers. Even in the new frontier of social media, the brand was an early standout in the trend of corporate-tied accounts adopting sassy, comical voices.

The trick with innovation is that it’s hard to stay ahead of the curve. With a Twitter war raging between two Southern-style chicken sandwiches, or Colonel Sanders launching a finger lickin’ good dating app, a witty online presence can only take you so far. In the increasingly polarizing and absurd meta-conversation surrounding fast food online, how’s a brand to stay above the fray? If you’re Wendy’s, you swing for a critical hit by launching a comically overwrought, burger-themed D&D-style table-top game.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

At first blush, the rulebook for “Feast of Legends: Rise From the Deep Freeze” seems like nothing more than a marketing campaign disguised as an absurd extended joke. Upon cracking into the 91-page tome, (made available by Wendy’s as a free downloadable PDF) would-be adventurers will discover that this game actually packs some beef.

If that last pun caused you to cringe, this is probably not the game for you. The adventure depicted here takes place in “the realm of Beef’s Keep,” located in the kingdom of Freshtovia. Ruled over by the good queen Wendy, Freshtovia is locked in an eternal struggle against the wickedness of the United Clown Nations and its Jester king (a thinly-veiled allusion to Ronald McDonald).

In spite of never letting the user forget the Wendy’s angle, the Feast of Legends rulebook is every bit as thoughtful and detailed as many traditional, non-burger-based RPGs. Before tackling the main adventure, the reader can peruse around 25 pages explaining everything from gameplay mechanics to character creation and the various “orders”— think classes in D&D—that a player can elect to join. OK, so maybe the weapons sheet includes sporks and spatulas for your warrior from the esteemed “Order of the Chicken Sandwich” to wield—the fact remains that this RPG seems like it might have some real potential for fun (in addition to the fun of mocking its very existence, that is).

Eager to put this theory to the test, an enterprising group of (614) staff set out on a quest to explore the realm of Freshtovia. Our goal? To put the playability of this bizarre game to the test, and to perhaps uncover why, if for any reason, Wendy’s made the damn thing in the first place.

From the beginning, some members of the party were less than enthused at the prospect of playing a tabletop RPG, let alone one with references to Frostys and spicy nugs jammed in at every turn. By the time the group was confronted with its first puzzle—a riddle scrawled on a statue of the late Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas—all trepidation had subsided. Marketing ploy or not, the players were consumed by the game world.

Playing through an early level of mazes, the absurdity of the French Fry Forest or stumbling upon a golden baked potato was all but moot. By the time the party encountered the game’s first boss—a dreaded monster called “Hunger,” the supplied character sheets had all been personalized with care, complete with detailed portraiture of each player’s imagined warrior. The buy-in was complete. We were actually invested in an imaginary land populated by Wendy’s foodstuffs.

Without question, the minds at Wendy’s marketing department had crafted a game that could hook players and keep them hungry for more. The only nagging question that remained was, why? The intricate rulebook and campaign, complete with countless maps and professional illustrations, was surely the work of hundreds of hours of effort. Would anyone really go to such lengths for a joke with no punchline? Is Wendy’s really that desperate to target the tabletop gaming crowd?

One possible answer comes via the rulebook’s explanation of “buffs” and “debuffs,” or powerups and hindrances that will affect characters during gameplay. According to the rules, eating Wendy’s products in real life will yield various advantages to your in-game character (+1 strength for any cheeseburger item) while consuming competitor’s food produces an undesirable effect.

Whether produced to sell burgers-as-powerups to a select group of fast food and RPG-obsessed basement dwellers, or simply existing as one of the biggest viral marketing flexes of all time, Feast of Legends provides a surprisingly immersive and enjoyable play experience. Will it bring gamers to Wendy’s in droves? Probably not. But if our office’s experience with the game is any indication, it might be enough to hook unlikely RPG players on the tabletop experience—one enchanted burger at a time.

To embark on your own adventure, download the Feast of Legends rulebook at FeastOfLegends.com.

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