In Praise of…Soarin’
Even when Disney park planners misfire, something glorious often happens.
Such is the case with Disney California Adventure (DCA), whose disastrous launch is well-covered territory by now.
Over the years, DCA has improved dramatically, but one part of it started perfectly anyway.
Today, I come in praise of Soarin’, an attraction that embodies the spirit and ingenuity of Imagineers.
The Toy Set That Became a Ride
When Disney plotted the sibling to Disneyland Park, its executives knew something that its Imagineers didn’t.
Budget shortfalls would hinder the creative process repeatedly, forcing Disney to create opening day attractions that frankly didn’t live up to the company’s standards.
Attractions like Superstar Limo and the Maliboomer didn’t stand the test of time because tourists soundly rejected them.
Meanwhile, one Disney attraction held modest ambitions but somehow succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
On this ride, guests were swept into the sky and went on an aerial tour of California.
The sensation mimicked hang-gliding, which admittedly isn’t a recreational activity for most people.
Thanks to a sprinkle of Pixie Dust, Imagineers turned the idea into one of the most brilliant ride carts and experiences ever. And all it took was one little spark.
An Imagineer named Mark Sumner knew what his bosses wanted Soarin’ to accomplish. However, nobody had any idea how to make the magic happen.
During a family visit, Sumner kicked around through his closet and found an old erector set. In playing with his old toy, the Imagineer had an epiphany.
The toy set’s underlying physics would work just as well on a larger scale. They could form the basis of a new ride cart.
Sumner pitched a room-wide vehicle that guests would board. Once they had positioned themselves comfortably, the structure would do all the work.
This unprecedented ride cart would lift guests into the air and then gently sway them as if they were flying through the sky.
In the process, Sumner tripled the potential throughput for Soarin’ and added the motion that differentiated it from a ski lift-style ride.
The Best View of California
When Disney California Adventure opened, its questionable theme was…California. That wasn’t a concept that appealed to out-of-state tourists.
Even worse, the Disneyland locals already lived in California. Why would they care about that theme?
Somehow, Soarin’ Over California immediately overcame those objections.
Disney officials utilized a complex camera system to film many of the most recognizable landmarks in the Golden State.
Also, the story paid tribute to the history of Disneyland Resort, which Walt Disney himself built on what had once been 160 acres of orange groves.
One part of the ride showed such orange groves and added an additional element. Disney infused the Soarin’ auditorium with the scent of oranges.
This small touch elevated the ride experience, as it enhanced the illusion of flying through this fruit farm.
Imagineers used existing Smellitzer technology in new ways on the ride, and it imbued the entire building with a pervasive aroma.
More remarkably, the scent changed depending on the current part of California demonstrated on screen.
In this way, Imagineers identified a new way to enrich attractions. It wasn’t new by any stretch, but Soarin’ elevated the concept in a way that Disney has mimicked ever since.
Of course, the augmentation wouldn’t matter unless the story had already captivated guests. That’s the primary reason why Soarin’ is a classic.
Soarin’ swept guests into the air and carried them across the Golden State.
Travelers started in California at the Golden Gate Bridge and then visited memorable locales like Lake Tahoe, Malibu Beach, and Yosemite Falls.
Along the way, Disney provided a novel view of a golf shot and a brief glimpse at the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Fittingly, the journey ended at the Happiest Place on Earth, which has become a Soarin’ tradition.
The Best View of…the World
After 15 years of excellence, Soarin’ changed dramatically. Various filming limitations had grown more apparent, while IMAX technology had improved.
So, Disney finally settled on a new version of Soarin’. While you may not remember the drama, I can assure you the choice proved divisive.
Disneyland Resort fans had grown oddly protective of Soarin, which had been the one good ride at DCA during the park’s first decade.
Park planners had made up their minds, though. They envisioned a more global version of Soarin’, and I mean that in two ways.
Other Disney parks pointed out the incongruity of telling a story that ended at Disneyland.
This new version of Soarin’ would finish at the applicable park. For instance, EPCOT’s Soarin’ would show Spaceship Earth rather than Sleeping Beauty Castle.
More importantly, Disney expanded the Soarin’ story to highlight international landmarks.
The current version of the attraction displays famous landmarks like The Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, and the Egyptian Pyramids.
However, Disney also included breathtaking but largely unheralded locales like Iguazu Falls and the ice fjords of Greenland.
The result is an impeccable demonstration of the majesty of planet Earth.
Disney Imagineers allow us to hang-glide around the world in a matter of minutes.
Along the way, we’re treated to unprecedented views of the harbor beside the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, and Neuschwanstein Castle.
Disney fans know that last place as the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Once again, Imagineers have paid tribute to the company’s roots with Soarin’ Around the World, just as they did with the original.
Still, that wasn’t enough for Disneyland fans. Park officials eventually came up with a plan to satisfy them.
Once a year, the original Soarin’ Over California returns as part of the Food & Wine Festival.
In Praise of Soarin’
Something that fascinates me about Soarin’ is that few Disney fans name it as their favorite attraction.
However, when you ask the average person to rank their top 10, Soarin’ typically earns a spot on the list.
So, everyone loves the ride, even if few say it’s the absolute best at Disney.
In California, other attractions have come and gone at DCA. Fans remain evangelical about two of them, though. Those are Radiator Springs Racers and Soarin’.
Disney has brought together multiple forms of storytelling to perfect the ride concept Walt Disney himself envisioned with Peter Pan’s Flight.
The Soarin’ structure has proven so ideal that Disney recently recreated it for the even more popular Avatar Flight of Passage.
Many cast members smile as they refer to the Pandora attraction as Soarin’ on Steroids.
Personally, I prefer the original. The combination of sights, sounds, and yes, smells, makes it a perfect theme park attraction.
In fact, The Simpsons once lampooned the ride experience:
And everyone had so much fun with the process that this exists!
Yes, someone turned the idea into an Oculus Rift game! That’s how devoted some people are to the Soarin’ concept!
PS: I’m one of them.
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Feature Photo: Disney