Wyatt Toral celebrated his third birthday by scrambling up colorful walls with replicas of King Kong atop the Empire State Building, an Egyptian tomb, a rocket ship and scenes from fairy tales.

It was his third trip to ClimbZone in Laurel, Maryland, where children of all ages pull themselves up by hand but rappel or float gently back to earth thanks to a safety rope attached to a hydraulic system.

Wyatt was introduced to ClimbZone at a playmate’s birthday party. Sedef Toral said her son has been asking to return ever since: “He says, ‘Let’s put on the harness and climb!’”

ClimbZone is an import from New Zealand, where entrepreneur Nico Buik opened the first one a decade ago.

With guidance from SelectUSA, a Commerce Department program that shows foreign investors how to start businesses in the United States, Buik opened a prototype ClimbZone in Laurel in 2014 and now has begun selling franchises.

James and Kristine Holden’s athletic 5½-year-old twins, Kaitlyn and Dane, had the gym almost to themselves on a weekday afternoon. Holden, a U.S. Army major, says, “The physical part of this is great, but it’s really more about helping them overcome their fears and giving them the confidence to do stuff they thought only big people can do.”

ClimbZone hosts not only parties for kids but also office outings for adults. A lot of parents wind up trying it themselves. “They want to climb with their children. It’s a nice bonding experience,” says Buik.

Toral herself made it nearly to the top of one of the hardest walls — which are 28 feet, or 8.5 meters, tall — “before my arms started shaking,” she said with a laugh.

Several designed climbing walls with people on and around them (ClimbZone)
Children scale the Mount Rushmore wall at ClimbZone by themselves, thanks to a hydraulic safety rope. (ClimbZone)

Unlike the typical climbing walls found in gyms and shopping malls, there’s no one holding a rope to keep a climber from falling or to hoist them up. The hydraulic “auto-belay” system ensures a soft landing.

Buik calls it daunting to open up shop in another country. But, he says, SelectUSA gave him “a rock to stand on in the turbulent waters.”

ClimbZone manufactures its custom-designed walls in the United States. The 75 walls take up lots of space: 20,000 square feet, or 1,850 square meters.

“We employ carpenters, painters and others in our production facility,” says Buik. “I’ve had an incredible experience with the workforce in America. They’re not afraid of hard work.”

The 2017 SelectUSA Summit, held June 18–20 at a Maryland convention center across the Potomac River from Washington, will help investors make connections and business owners find opportunities to expand across the U.S.