Fantasy Camps Offer Thrills of a Lifetime

Whether they are big-wave surfing, bull riding or race-car driving, more people are spicing up their free time by attending extreme fantasy camps.

"It's people who are looking for something different that's not your typical golf vacation or cruise," said Greg Claxton, sales director for Incredible Adventures, which hosts camps for people who want to fly jets or dive with sharks, among other things.

Such high-flying activities used to be only for the rich and famous -- or the highly trained -- but now ultimate adventures are geared toward regular vacationers who, for a fee, can fulfill their most outrageous dreams. And the possibilities far exceed sports like bungee jumping and parasailing, once considered extreme activities.

During Incredible Adventures' "Covert Ops" program, for example, participants see what it's like to be a clandestine officer a la "Mission Impossible," learning high-speed evasive driving, combat pistol shooting, unarmed self-defense and espionage techniques.

And that company's "MiGs Over Moscow" adventure allows people to fly aircraft from the Zhukovsky Air Base near Moscow and travel at more than twice the speed of sound -- all accompanied by a professional pilot. (The United States won't allow flights to break the sound barrier; Russia does.)

So, who pursues such edge-of-your-seat stunts?

"There's a component of people that are the adventure-seekers," said Denise Jennings, marketing director for Air Combat USA, where guest pilots take the stick of a state-of-the-art military trainer aircraft and engage in aerial dog fighting. "There are others who just spent their lives thinking 'I should have been a fighter pilot but my eyes were bad, my grades weren't good' … There's just this fantasy about being a fighter pilot."

The first time Bill Dimich of Billings, Mont., signed up for "MiGs Over Moscow," he said he was "absolutely scared to death," but after a handful of flights, he's become the poster child for Incredible Adventures flights.

"It's a little unusual to get in a MiG and get into 85,000 feet and pulling Gs and wonder if you're doing the right thing in life here," said Dimich, a 55-year-old, single co-owner of a Pepsi distributing business who's been on four flight trips.

As he looked at the curvature of the Earth from the MiG-25, "what popped into my mind was 'Christopher Columbus, you were right,'" said Dimich, referring to the explorer's journey to prove the Earth was round. "That just made the whole thing worth it."

But not everyone is keen on the camps.

"While I understand seeking out adventure, some of these fantasy camps could be potentially fatal," said Michelle Crispino, 26, of Gaithersburg, Md. "These are not activities I would find fun or risk my life to participate in."

However, those who run the extreme camps say most are exhilarated by the experience.

"The most common reaction we get is, 'I should have done this years ago, this is the most fun I've had in my whole life,'" said Dan Dineson, spokesman for the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Arizona.

The National Safety Council hasn't issued any specific warnings about such camps and recommends people use common sense when participating in high-risk activities.

"Life is not without risks, so even though we are a safety organization, we don’t say that anything that's risky, people ought not to do," said spokesman John Ulczycki. "If you are sky diving or driving a race car, one would hope the risks are clearly defined."

And he added that camps "should have some sense of their accident record and should provide it to their clients."

Participants in most camps are required to sign waivers agreeing not to hold the camps responsible for injuries. Camps contacted by said no serious injuries have resulted from the activities.

Fears aside, the price tag can make these experiences a once-in-a-lifetime event.

"Will they want to do it again? Absolutely. Do they have the money to continue this racing hobby passion that they've just gotten into? Probably not," said Andrew Torres, marketing manager for the Skip Barber Racing School. "Money is the big obstacle for people who come through our programs."

The company's three-day car racing program costs about $3,500. Incredible Adventures' "Covert Ops" program costs $3,795 for three days -- including lodging and meals and their "MiGs" adventure costs between $6,105 and $6,585 for three days.

For those who don't have pockets deep enough to cover the cost of flying planes and racing cars, there are less expensive options.

The Sankey Rodeo School for bull riding costs $350 for three days, excluding meals and housing, and a five-day storm-chasing tour in Tornado Alley from Storm Chasing Adventure Tours costs $1,900.

But Dimich said price isn't necessarily an issue -- especially once people get a taste of adventure.

"For what you get out of it and knowing that you're alive, I don't know if you can put a price on that."