By James Natsis
I’ve lived in Louisville for many years now and embrace the call to support local, independent businesses — and to keep Louisville eclectic and weird. There is much oddity and particularity here, and the city has fared well in conserving these values many wield as a badge of pride and honor.
The theme even has been addressed formally on occasion as to what it means to keep Louisville weird. I’m not sure how to define it, but I know how to recognize it. And nothing sums it up better than a 100-acre, 30- to 100-foot-high limestone cavern that serves as an underground adventure wonderland — located hardly five minutes from the core of the city’s restaurant, cafe, craft beer, bourbon distillery and boutique weirdom.
The signage on Poplar Level Road just north of the Watterson Expressway exit to Taylor Avenue is barely visible and easy to miss. But once on Taylor Avenue, after about a one-mile banal stretch of two-lane road, a series of signs begins to appear boasting various aspects of the Louisville Mega Cavern experience.
The road gradually descends and a limestone cave wall appears along with three large entrances. A small parking lot is tucked away to the left, and guests enter from there through a gazebo into the main entrance.
The feeling of being in the middle of a metropolitan area of approximately 1.2 million inhabitants has completely dissipated at this point. The visitor exits daylight and external climate conditions and enters a cavernous world that maintains a year-round constant temperature of 58 degrees.
“Everytime we open an attraction, it sort of writes itself — the world’s only underground zipline, bike park, etc.,” says Mega Cavern marketing manager Jeremy Priddy as he guides Insider on a behind-the-scenes tour.
Priddy joined the company five years ago as a general staff member doing odd jobs to get by as he completed a marketing internship at the University of Louisville. He took the initiative of starting a newsletter and taking care of the cavern’s social media at the time, which eventually landed him a full-time job in his current role.
Priddy explaines the evolution of the cavern that started as a limestone mine in the 1930s. It was purchased in 1989 by a small group of investors who wanted to develop it for underground storage since it had a constant atmospheric temperature, and it could be easily secured because of its limit to only three exits located in the same area.
It took about 12 years to procure permits for expansion due to the dual zoning of being above and underground. Then in 2007, the first tram tours were offered.
“They opened the tram tour just because people seemed interested in it,” says Priddy.
In 2008, the Lights Under Louisville was added; in 2009, the Mega Zips; in 2013, Mega Quest; and in 2015, it was the Mega Bike, followed by the Electric Bike Tour.
When guests first enter the cavern through the gazebo, they are led along a dry-walled hallway that opens into a large, modestly lit section of the cavern that serves as a gathering point for tours and workers crossing about in the course of their daily business.
Located beyond a door behind the tour waiting area is a large, colorful room where guests sign in for their chosen activity. There is an event space in the foreground, flanked by a birthday party room, a gift shop and the Mega Quest in the back section. The colorfully lit Mega Quest is an aerial ropes challenge course that can accommodate up to 70 climbers at a time. The 76 challenging elements are fun for visitors of any age.
Mega Zips is the most popular attraction. On Fridays and Saturdays, there are usually 14 total tours of 12 people per tour leaving every half-hour. The zipline adventure lasts for two-and-a-half hours and includes a 30-minute orientation and training and a course of six different ziplines.
Chase Cannon has been working as a zip monitor for the past year. He is one of a number of hosts who assure the safety and enjoyment of visitors. He feels the Mega Zips offers a unique experience of zipping through a dark cavern and believes it is a great place for beginners since it’s not as high as other places. Cannon and Priddy also note their tours are fully guided, as opposed to other zipline adventures that set you up and then leave you on your own.
The Mega Bike Park is located in an area comprising 320,000 square feet with 45 trails, jump lines, pump tracks, dual slalom, BMX, cross country and single track. The 30-foot-high space is vast and offers enough variety in its terrain to accommodate riders of all levels.
The Mega Tram and Electric Bike Tour offer two types of tour experiences for those interested in a visual overview and in learning more about the cavern and its origins.
And Lights Under Louisville, the only fully underground drive-through lightshow of its kind anywhere in the world, is offered over the six-week period spanning the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays. It attracts about 250,000 people a year and is a holiday ritual for many people who return every year with their families and friends.
This year, the 30-minute show will be a bit longer with the addition of six new attractions. Crews are already preparing that particular section of the cavern for the more than 2 million points of light display that takes several months to assemble.
The offerings of the Mega Cavern are impressive indeed. But the totality of these attractions — ziplines, bike park, drive-though light show, aerial ropes challenge course, storage areas, etc. — is only half the story. Or, more accurately, only about 20 percent of it.
According to Priddy, the Mega Bike Park occupies about 8 percent of the total cavern while all the other attractions take up another 12 percent. That leaves about 80 percent of the 100 acres available for some type of future development.
The original local ownership has been involved each step of the way and decided to make some recent changes to bring the cavern to the next level, explains Priddy. The arrival of Charles Park as the executive vice president this past January was a step in that direction.
Park has been engaged in all aspects of the cavern and has been tweaking each area and working on new ideas for the future. Priddy tells us they are not yet ready to share those future plans, but we should stay tuned.
The Louisville Mega Cavern attracts most of its visitors from outside of Louisville. This was clear during our visit, as the guests we spoke to were not from the immediate area. One couple was originally from Israel but resides in Youngstown, Ohio. They came to Louisville with their three young children specifically to visit the cavern.
The children played on Mega Quest, Mom did the Mega Zips, and the family did the Mega Tram tour.
“I would have done the zip as well,” said the father, “but I had to stay with the babies.”
A group of 11 young ladies were heading into the orientation room for the Mega Zips experience. Several from Michigan said they were in town for a wedding and this was their bachelorette outing.
When asked why they chose the Mega Cavern in lieu of a bourbon tour, one quickly replied, “Oh, we’re doing that, too,” as the others laughed.
Outside interest in the Mega Cavern also was evident as the out-of-state license plates outnumbered those from Kentucky and Indiana in the small parking lot during our stay. People were coming from places such as Utah, New York and Maryland, just to name a few.
This is a good time to plan a visit to the Mega Cavern, as the warm season gives way to colder days and the holiday period approaches. Reservations for Mega Zips are highly recommended, especially during the weekend. Lights Under Louisville also is very popular during the weekend, so be prepared for a long but worthwhile wait if you go during those days.