Five Fun Facts About Soarin’
In 2001, Disneyland expanded for the first time in its history, a history that dates all the way back to 1955. To justify this sort of growth, park planners understood that they needed to introduce a few anchor attractions. Otherwise, guests would walk through the park, nod satisfactorily at the theming, and then go straight back to the Happiest Place on Earth.
While Disney had high hopes for several new attractions, only two have stood the test of time. Today, we’re going to talk about the one that isn’t a roller coaster. Sorry, California Screamin’ fans! Here are five fun facts about Soarin’ Over California…and yes, we are only talking about the 2001 version of the ride today!
Based on a Children’s Toy
One of the strange parts of the joy as a Disney Imagineer is that you never know when inspiration will strike. You also have no idea what will inspire you. To wit, the complex lift system that provides the actual soaring in Soarin’ wasn’t the original plan.
Park strategists wanted an attraction that would mimic the sensation of hand gliding. To achieve this goal, they built a few hand glider prototypes, lift systems that would lift the guest into the air and fly them up to and eventually over the gigantic IMAX screen. You can imagine how well that worked in execution.
The first iteration of Soarin’ was called Ultra Flight. Disney started working on it in 1996! For several years, they toyed with several different versions of that same hand gliding experience. These attempts ultimately fell unsuccessful. After almost four years, park planners canceled Ultra Flight.
With no working lift devices in place, Imagineers went back to the drawing board and what one man invented during this timeframe was sublime. You see, Soarin’ primary mechanical structure is based on a children’s toy. Yes, the ride system has one million pounds of steel and lifts 37 tons during each ride, whisking 87 guests into the air at breakneck speed, but the underlying concept is one you learned as a child.
Imagineer Mark Sumner was spending a weekend at home when he noticed an erector set. After playing with it for a few minutes, the proverbial light bulb went off. He suddenly knew that the same premise would work for a giant structure, one capable of lifting dozens of guests at once. Yes, an accomplished Imagineer’s time spent playing with a construction set is why Soarin’ exists in its current form today.
The Most Thematic Ride in the Park
You may recall that when Disney California Adventure (DCA) first opened, guests didn’t love it. Michael Eisner, the then-CEO of The Walt Disney Company, famously cut corners on several of his theme parks, with DCA the most famous example.
Critics lamented the lazy theming, noting that the last thing that Californians needed was an entire park celebrating California. It’s a valid complaint that Disney has recently taken to heart. They’re currently re-theming DCA to emphasize licensed characters from the Pixar and Marvel universes.
When DCA opened, it was basically a debacle. One of the E Ticket attractions that Disney hailed as a breakthrough experience was Superstar Limo. You probably didn’t ride it because it was only open for 11 months. It’s the worst failure in the history of Disney theme parks. People loathed the conceit of a Hollywood setting with celebrity encounters. It was a blueprint example of how the California theme wasn’t interesting to residents of the Golden State.
Soarin’ Over California somehow avoided that fate. Despite having a specific California theme, the quality of the ride allowed it to overcome those negative perceptions. It’s the only truly thematic attraction at the park. And no, California Screamin’ doesn’t count since it’s just a roller coaster with “California” in the name.
One of the Most Difficult Shoots since Titanic
Filmmakers faced unprecedented technical hurdles in creating the IMAX presentation for Soarin’ Over California. They researched IMAX screens and settled on an 8-story tall system with 180 degrees of concave projection. Suffice to say that it was state of the art at the time. Realistically, it remained one of the best movie screens in North America for a decade after its debut.
Filming in IMAX comes with special challenges, though. The camera is approximately the same size as the Mars Rover, which makes it unwieldy. The filmmakers were shooting scenes in odd settings such as the side of a mountain or the middle of orange groves. Also, the filming took place above the action since guests wouldn’t feel like they were soaring otherwise.
Disney was also overly ambitious about their locations. Sure, filming at Disneyland was easy. They had no trouble getting permission to do that. Yosemite National Park, on the other hand, was a special circumstance. Government officials hadn’t authorized a helicopter flight there since back when Dwight D. Eisenhower was President.
The red tape involved to film here took several months. After a protracted discussion, Disney finally got its way with the California government, as they usually do, but this one wasn’t easy. One report indicates that Disney was down to its final opportunity to film. If they’d failed, the Yosemite portion of the ride wouldn’t have been included. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or based in truth, but the story does exemplify how touch-and-go the filming of Soarin’ was.
PS: Yosemite wasn’t even the most protracted negotiation. Filming at Monterey came with a special set of challenges. It’s registered as a marine sanctuary. Laws apply that are basically impossible to get around. Disney spent a full year trying to find an equitable solution to film there.
4K Back before Anyone Knew What That Was
Have you bought a 4K television yet? Here in 2017, this new technology is about to hit critical mass. New videogame systems and computers are finally capable of churning out these graphics. Meanwhile, televisions have only recently offered mainstream versions of 4K sets. Here’s why that’s amazing.
All the way back at the turn of the millennium, Disney filmed Soarin’ in 4K. The technology that you may not even be able to play at home right now was the basis of the attraction since 2001. When you notice the spectacular panoramic sequences on the IMAX screen, there’s a reason that they take your breath away. They were light years ahead of their time.
A Smell That Walt Disney Would Love
The scents of Soarin’ Over California are arguably the best part of the ride. Disney employs devices called Smellitzers to pump amazing fragrances into the theater during each show. Smellitzers are actually ubiquitous at Disney theme parks, as long as you know where to look for them.
On the attraction, Disney pipes in smells that mimic parts of California such as the mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and forests. The masterstroke, however, is the most authentic scent. Walt Disney famously purchased 160 acres of orange groves. Here, he constructed the Happiest Place on Earth.
For all the flaws that Disney California Adventure had when it opened, Soarin’ Over California got something very right. It added a sequence of flying through orange groves, with the smellitzer pumping out the scent of oranges to accentuate the onscreen imagery. It’s a loving tribute to the history of Disneyland and the special touch that elevated the attraction to its status as the best thing at DCA.