Aerial adventure course may be coming to Mystic paintball park

Groton — The owner of "Fields of Fire" paintball park in Mystic plans to expand the business and open an aerial adventure park — an obstacle course suspended 20 to 40 feet off the ground — as early as Memorial Day weekend.

Tom Vignato, owner of the 50-acre paintball park at 715 Noank Ledyard Road on the Groton side of Mystic, has received wetlands permission and a special permit from the Zoning Commission for the expansion. He needs site plan approval from the Planning Commission before he can proceed.

The Planning Commission is expected to review his proposal at its next meeting April 14. Building the park will cost about $500,000, and Vignato said he has received a "commitment letter" from a credit union but must have all permits to close on the loan.

"We are really, really excited, and it's really, really close," he said. The expansion would also create an additional field for paintball, install a remote-controlled car track, build a mountain bike track, widen the access road from 16 feet to 24 feet and add parking.

Aerial adventure parks, popular in Europe and making their way to the United States, are like rope courses in the trees, where climbers move from one platform to another by crossing obstacles like logs, cargo nets and bridges that sway in the branches. Participants wear harnesses and go through training before attempting a course, then work their way from the easiest to most difficult.

Vignato would create five courses of varying difficulty to accommodate visitors with children as young as 7 to adults. He plans to build two beginner courses, typically 10 to 20 feet off the ground, two intermediate courses, usually 30 to 40 feet up, and one advanced course, as high as 60 to 80 feet in the trees.

"Now the fear of heights kicks in," Vignato said. "And the trees are moving because the wind is blowing. And it's really, really, neat."

Three builders have walked the property, and Vignato has hired the company "Tree-Mendous" to build the course if his permit and loan are approved. The company's courses connect wooden platforms with "Indiana Jones bridges," "Tarzan swings" and zip lines, according to its website.

Tree-Mendous recently completed the safari park at the San Diego Zoo and designed "Ramblewild" in Lanesborough, Mass., voted "Best treetop adventure" by Yankee Magazine among its Best of New England 2015, to be released in May.

Aerial adventure parks take eight to 10 weeks to build, and this one could be open as early as Memorial Day weekend, Vignato said. Expansion of Fields of Fire would result in about 15 to 20 seasonal part-time jobs and two to three full-time jobs.

Connecticut has three aerial parks, the closest of which is in Storrs.

Vignato is buying 150 harnesses to start and could accommodate up to 150 players at once, or 300 to 400 players a day. The course would be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week during the summer.

"We're starting off with five courses, but if the park does what I'm hoping it's going to do, we can easily add an additional five, 10, 15 courses," he said.

Town Manager Mark Oefinger said the expansion represents a substantial investment in the business.

The adventure park will take about 10 of the 50 acres used by Fields of Fire, but an aerial course also allows other activity to take place below it.

The paintball netting, now visible from Interstate 95 north, just before Exit 89, would be moved south and replaced by tree platforms and aerial zip lines.

Fields of Fire opened about two years ago, has drawn thousands of players and includes four fields for paintball battles, including one with props like a downed plane and cinderblock walls. Last April, the business hosted a party of 400 players battling each other as teams of Red Sox or Yankees fans.

Vignato cashed in retirement savings to make a down payment on the business loan to start Fields of Fire and was awarded a $100,000 grant by the state Department of Economic Development.

He said the game attracts mostly men and boys, and he wants to appeal to families as well.

He used to work as a guest service manager at Mohegan Sun, and he said every day, hundreds of families would ask, "What is there to do around here, besides the casino?"

He hopes to help answer that question.

"It's 50 acres and we want to use it, and try to become a destination," Vignato said. "More than just a paintball park."

d.straszheim@theday.com

Twitter: @DStraszheim

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