In Florida's Horse Country, A Community with Jet Appeal: Jumbolair

April 11, 2005
John Travolta has a thing for airplanes. He likes flying them. He likes hearing them. When he wakes up, he likes looking out the window and seeing his Gulfstream II jet and Boeing 707 in the front yard.

OCALA, Florida (AP) -- John Travolta has a thing for airplanes. He likes flying them. He likes hearing them. When he wakes up, he likes looking out the window and seeing his Gulfstream II jet and Boeing 707 in the front yard.

As it so happens, whenever Travolta steps out _ say, to a movie set or one of his other homes in Maine or California _ he hops into one of his jets, taxis on down the street to the community runway and lifts off, unfettered by autograph junkies, Sunday drivers or road hogs.

Ah, the joy of residing in Jumbolair Aviation Estates, an exclusive, 550-acre (220-hectare) ''fly-in community'' with a $6 million (euro4.7 million) runway - the largest, paved, private airfield in the United States.

Once a home to African crocodiles, elephants, white rhinos and a 400-pound (180-kilogram) gorilla named Mickey, Jumbolair is fast becoming a sanctuary for comfort creatures whose most common desire is to eat, sleep and play within shouting distance of their flying machines.

The idea of parking one's wings next to one's abode is hardly novel; there are roughly 400 airparks across the United States where homes with private hangars are built around tarmacs and airstrips.

But some fly-in communities rise above the rest.

There's ''Spruce Creek,'' in Daytona Beach, Florida, which offers 18 holes of golf, a clubhouse and a flying school; there's ''Mountain Air'' in Burnsville, North Carolina, which has an 18-hole mountaintop course, an award-winning clubhouse, lodge, and eight miles (13 kilometers) of hiking trails through the Blue Ridge Mountains; there's ''Lajitas,'' in Lajitas, Texas, between the Big Bend National Park and the Texas State Park, which has two championship golf courses, quail hunting grounds, equestrian activities, tennis courts, a spa, and gourmet dining.

And then there's Jumbolair.

Carved into the hilly horse country of central Florida, this retreat markets itself as America's ''premier residential aviation community.'' For day-trippers, it promises ''extreme luxury''; for homebuyers, ''a lifestyle and a dream that few people will ever experience.''


There's a Nautilus Center, a wet bar with billiard table, Olympic-sized pool, tennis center, conference halls, 9,000-square-foot (810-square-meter) ballroom (where two gourmet cooks, Sean and Farrell, spoil guests at tea-time with sweet-potato pancakes layered with salmon, poached eggs and dill hollandaise), stables, and, for residents who walk their stallions daily, several hundred acres (hectares) of untrammeled pasture.

Along a sandy road lined with monstrous, 200-year-old oaks and a meadow of grazing thoroughbreds, stands a white, Old South-style mansion decorated with fine-art antiques: the Jumbolair Inn and Country Club.

There are five suites at this inn. Each has a huge bathroom with stuff like bright red, claw-footed soaking tubs, gold-plated fixtures, porcelain tiling. Two share a balcony with vistas of meadows, horse barns, and, not to forget, the mansion of Mr. Saturday Night Fever himself.

What makes Jumbolair the envy of all airparks is not Travolta, though; it's the runway.

This one is 7,550 feet (2,265 meters) long, 250 feet (75 meters) wide, and elevated (100 feet or 30 meters, to keep the runway from flooding during downpours). At the north end is a 10-acre (4-hectare) landing pad. Along its sides, there is ground lighting, for night owls.

Taxiways lead to the pilots' homes. (To avoid chance run-ins between aircraft and four-wheeled vehicles, each home-site has a street in the front and a taxiway at the rear.)

And, although commercial airports often build runways longer than 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), a private airstrip the magnitude of Jumbolair's isn't likely to be duplicated soon, the pricetag being the main inhibitor.

Terri Jones-Thayer, a one-time model (Revlon's perfumed ''Charlie'' girl of yore), and her husband, Jeremy Thayer, owner of an upscale custom-jewelry outfit, are developing Jumbolair together. They take a certain pride in knowing that any jet, fighter or otherwise, can land just a few hundred yards (meters) from their mailbox.

To borrow a term used by some locals, they are ''unique.''

Says Jones-Thayer, ''You know, we have never had to advertise Jumbolair. Not once. It's all word of mouth.''

Says her spouse, ''We're private, secluded, very discreet. And just imagine: You can fly any sized jet in here, and after just a few steps you're at our inn.'' How much does a night at Tara cost? Four hundred dollars, which, in Thayer's estimation is a real bargain.

''The Tennessee Blackberry Inn costs $1,000 (euro780) a night. Of course, you can't compare that to this. This is a lot nicer.''


This, at one time, was a Vanderbilt retreat, a headquarters for Nautilus, a playpen for baby elephants.

Its name, Jumbolair, was the invention of Arthur Jones, the man who brought us Nautilus, and it happened this way:

In the '70s, the 54-year-old inventor was looking for a youthful, diamond-cut face to attach to his fitness equipment, and he found it on a Pepsi billboard: the mug of Terri Brantner, 16, a former ''Miss Florida Pre-Teen.''

Jones married his spokeswoman when she turned 18, and in 1980, bought 80 acres (32 hectares) and a villa from Muriel Vanderbilt Adams for weekend getaways. Since both were avid pilots, they built a mammoth airstrip in 1984 (to accommodate Jones' trio of 707s) and before long, were flying in corporate clients and making deals after horseback rides.

One night, a TV news program reported on the slaughter of scores of adult elephants in Zimbabwe. The babies were being left to die in the brush.

Jones had lived in Africa for years. Terri loved animals almost as much as jumbo jets. So, they air-dashed to Zimbabwe, loaded the baby elephants into the 707s, and flew 68 back to Ocala. (The on-board meal was hay and bottled water, served through Coke bottles.)

They also airlifted a gorilla, three rhinos, and about 3,000 African crocodiles, one of which, ''Gomek,'' measuring 18.1 feet (5.43 meters) long, was determined to be the world's biggest.

Suddenly, the Ocala retreat felt crowded. The Joneses expanded it to 350 acres (140 hectares), declared it a haven for orphaned African wildlife, and named it Jumbolair - a blend of the African word for elephant, ''Jumbo,'' and ''lair,'' a den of animals.

(The elephants eventually came to number 98, the largest herd in captivity. When the couple divorced, amicably, in 1989, the animals were donated to theme parks and zoos.)

Terri then married Jeremy, bought out Arthur's share of the property, and settled down in Jumbolair, at times entertaining folks such as John and Bo Derek, Judd Nelson, Rob Lowe, Lou Ferrigno and the Beach Boys.

In 2000, however, the couple put the property up for sale. ''It was a lot of land and we didn't know what to do with it anymore.''

Until Travolta touched down.

''He looked at it and he loved it,'' Jeremy Thayer says. ''But then John said, 'I don't want to live on 350 acres (140 hectares) by myself. If you ever decide to develop it into an aviation community, I'll be your first buyer.'''

And he was.

On eight acres (3.2 hectares) on the north side of the runway, the actor constructed a 6,400-square-foot (576-square-meter) home (it resembles an airport terminal), jet pavilions, a Par-3 golf course, and a 10-car garage with eight efficiency apartments on top for his staff.

The house cost Travolta about $10 million (euro7.8 million), Thayer says. That, to his way of figuring, was a heck of a deal. ''In any other fly-in community, he would have paid 30.''

These days, the actor commutes to work by private jet. He isn't alone. An air traffic controller who lives at Jumbolair works in Jacksonville. ''It takes him no more than 20 minutes to get to work,'' Jones-Thayer says. ''If he drove, it would take him over an hour.''


On the first Sunday of each month, Jumbolair holds a by-invitation-only, gourmet brunch for 300 guests. They normally attract about 200 or so ''bugs'' (flying fanatics, in the language), but on this Sunday there are twice as many, which the Thayers chalk up to soaring interest.

At one table, four couples who flew in from Tennessee, Georgia and southern Florida are finishing dessert and chatting about the ABCs of life - airplanes, boats and cars, in their view.

Bill Sport, who dabbles in real estate, just completed a 110-mile (177-kilometer) hop in a $1 million (euro780,000) Prop-Jet. He is saying, ''When you own an airplane, the biggest problem is finding a reason to use it.''

One of his friends, Jerry Freed, CEO of Gator Cases, a briefcase manufacturer in Tampa, couldn't agree more. He flew up with his wife, Gail, in their A-36 Bonanza, a $200,000 (euro156,000), twin-engine turboprop.

Freed is disappointed; he's spotted only shiny, new planes, no vintage aircraft. What's vintage? ''The real old ones,'' Sport interrupts, with a wink, ''the ones about Jerry's age.'' (Jerry Reed is 64.)

''Hey,'' Reed interrupts, ''I've still got the biggest plane on that runway.''

Sport, unimpressed, says, ''Jerry may be driving the SUV of the skies, but mine is the Ferrari of the airways.''

Gail Freed shakes her head. ''Boys and their toys,'' she laments. ''They always have to compete.''

Outside, on a bluff overlooking Jumbolair's runway, Jamie Wallace and her son are watching a parade of aircraft buzz about. They flew up from Fort Lauderdale and are now hoping for a glimpse of Travolta - whom they've heard is going to take off soon.

Brian, 24, concedes he's caught the flying bug.

''How can you beat this?'' he asks. ''I mean, with your own jet, you wouldn't have to put up with the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) at the airport anymore, right?''