Family Radios Keep You In Touch

It’s a holiday nightmare: your child, found tearfully tugging at the skirts of a grinning theme park employee, has ratted you out as the parents that lost him.

As hundreds of university students in air conditioned fur character suits have your description, the net closes in. Goofy’s speaking into his wrist and pointing at you!

Now you’ve got to face dozens at the dreaded Guest Relations, where you collect your wayward child and sheepishly explain that, “I only turned my back for a SECOND!” For families and groups of even two visiting American theme parks or malls, Walkie Talkies on the new US Family Radio Service can be a Godsend.

A new range of inexpensive handheld radios operate on the FRS, a set of US radio frequencies that are available to users without an FCC license. Hand-held CB radios, while powerful, couldn’t provide a traffic-free channel, and carrying a roaring pocket full of “good buddies” through the Magic Kingdom just didn’t seem practical.

So radio manufacturers Motorola and Radio Shack made the FCC a deal: loosen restrictions on the airwaves, and they would produce low-cost walkie talkies that would allow friends and families to communicate. Say, across the wilds of a theme park, shopping mall, park or forest.

The FCC passed the Family Radio Service act in 1995, clearing the way for Motorola, Radio Shack and other manufacturers to produce some of the coolest little handheld radios on the market.

Motorola’s main entry, selling at around US$89 a piece in shops (but listed as $129 by Motorola), is the neon-colored TalkAbout: very colorful and retro-modern looking (think Buck Rogers) two-way radios with a range, they claim, of up to two miles.

Radio Shack’s 2-Way Personal Radio models, which are actually built by Motorola and cost about the same as the TalkAbout, look somewhat more Mission Impossible. They’re clumsily marketed, but the Radio Shack models, along with FRS walkie talkies from companies including Kenwood and Midland, are very good products with just about the same technical specs as the Motorola branded models.

I recently took the Motorola radios on a little trip through Walt Disney World, the Sawgrass Mills Shopping Mall, the Kennedy Space Center and the entire state of Florida, and the Radio Shack radios through Orlando. I’m happy to report that when you’re in the theme parks or on the same floor of a mall, these things are absolutely fantastic.

Plop! One shortcoming was that despite the rugged looking case, the TalkAbout is by no means waterproof. While planning our day poolside, I read with interest the TalkAbout manual, which said, “Water Resistant…” and before I finished reading the sentence I tossed the little yellow box into the pool, expecting it to float.

I have never seen something sink so quickly.

I dived in after it, and when it surfaced, I turned the power switch on. It made the most pathetic electronic noise since R2D2 was deactivated: Beeeeeewooop. After an hour with a newly-bought six-point star socket wrench and a hair dryer, I’m happy to report it worked as good as new.

“Water resistant”, apparently, means it can be rained on lightly. Tempting as it may be, don’t expect the thing to work under water unless it’s in a waterproof plastic bag.

Vowing to use it only as intended, my wife Corinna and I set out for Orlando and the theme parks.

Disney
The thing to remember is that the range conditions stated on the box are optimal – as in, optimally you’ll use it at night, at sea level, with clear skies, and in Tahiti.

The actual range we found was just about a mile, which is perfect for, say, the whole family in the same Disney park. Across the Magic Kingdom, we were able to communicate perfectly, making this a natural for parents to let their kids run off with one radio while they keep the other.

We did a range test, with my wife on the monorail to Epcot. We were able to hear each other only for a little while before her comments became just about,

“Im gzzrbth with baazrrrb CRACK Epcot”

But within the parks themselves, the radios functioned absolutely as promised. We even had no interference – our own private channel – despite the sight of about seven or eight other families in the area using their FRS radios.

That’s because all brands of these radios allow you to broadcast subaudible tones which effectively multiply the available channel sets tremendously: there are 14 channels and 38 subtones from which to choose.

The Radio Shack model worked great throughout the Belz discount outlet mall. We had some fading in and out, but could always hear each other.

Since specs are all very similar, your choice is really which one you like best or, more likely, which one’s cheapest at the time you;re shopping for them.

The TalkAbout and TalkAbout Plus, while not water resistant, are certainly rugged, and stood up to drops and bumps. We saw a kid at the Kennedy Space Center kicking his radio and then speaking on it. The manual didn’t mention anything about this but I assume it is not recommended.

The best place to buy the radios – whichever brand you decide on getting – is in the States, where the prices are better than in Europe. They’re sold at many electronics shops, all Radio Shack locations and in ham and commercial two way radio shops. You can also buy them over the internet, and have them delivered to your hotel in the US, saving on international shipping and import duties.

Motorola’s website is www.motorola.com. Radio Shack’s website is at http://radioshack.com. Midland and Kenwood FRS Radios are available through Northern Mountain, www.northernmountain.com