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Soarin' Over California

You'll Believe You Can Fly at Disney California Adventure and Epcot

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Soarin' Epcot ride image photo

Epcot's Soarin' takes motion simulation technology to new heights.

Disney 2005. Used with permission.

An instant classic and among Imagineering's best achievements, Soarin' Over California is the definitive attraction at the park where it debuted, Disney California Adventure: It's a captivating Disney E-ticket ride; it's all about California and its legendary sights; and it's a giddy adventure that engages your senses and figuratively, if not damn near literally, sends you soarin'. It's so popular that Disney cloned the ride at Walt Disney World's Epcot. Now Florida audiences can also experience the Soarin' hoopla.

Soarin' Up-Front Info

  • Thrill Scale (0=Wimpy!, 10=Yikes!): 2.5 Gentle motion simulation, moderate height and "soaring" simulation.
  • Attraction Type: Motion simulation attraction
  • Height Requirement: 40 inches (102 cm)
  • Location: Inside Epcot's The Land pavilion in Future World.
  • Uses Fastpass
  • Soarin' Photo Gallery

The vintage aviation hangar, located in the Condor Flats district of the California park's Golden State land, belies the high-tech attraction within. Instead of the aircraft hangar that houses the West-coast version of the attraction, Epcot's The Land is the place to go Soarin' at Walt Disney World (where it is known simply as "Soarin'"). Sharing the bottom floor with the huge Sunshine Seasons food court (where you can find some unique and delicious "fast-casual" fare), the entrance and queue area for the ride looks like a bustling modern-day airport terminal. Large murals of California's diverse ecosystems hang in the long walkway to the attraction and help establish the connection to The Land pavilion's theme.

In both locations, Patrick Warburton ("Seinfeld's" Puddy) delivers a brief pre-flight video. Passengers enter one of two identical theaters that each contain nine motion base units with ten seats. The units have no floors, allowing passengers' legs to dangle. After riders secure their seat belts, a roof swings down over each unit to both provide the illusion of a hang glider and to focus passengers' field of vision on the huge, domed Ominmax screen ahead. (Universal Studio's more intense Simpsons ride also uses an Omnimax screen.)

Should you try Soarin'?

The, um, soaring Jerry Goldsmith (composer of films including "Star Trek" and "Air Force One") soundtrack begins, the motion units rise up and toward the screen, and riders are soarin' over California. The illusion is stunning. The banks of seats have a fairly limited range of motion, but they sure make passengers feel like they're hang gliding.

If heights make you a bit queasy, let alone the thought of an actual hang gliding ride, don't necessarily dismiss Soarin's virtual hang gliding attraction. While the overall ride is exhilarating -- thrilling even -- the ride experience is quite gentle and doesn't contain any typical thrill ride gotchas. Once riders get past the initial sensation, it's smooth sailing. Very young riders might find the attraction a bit overwhelming, but the 40-inch height restriction will prevent them from riding anyways. If you're on the line, I'd say go for it; if you start feeling uncomfortable, close your eyes and the sensation should subside.

But most riders will want to keep their eyes wide open for Soarin's airborne journey. The adventure begins with a swoop above San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Then it's a float over a river alongside some majestic California redwoods. Other flyovers include a Sierras' ski resort, Yosemite Falls, the Anzo-Borrega Desert, and the California coast.

The transitions from scene to scene -- clouds and fog momentarily obscure the view and set the stage for the next vista -- are a bit perplexing. At some level, Soarin' demands a suspension of reality, but no amount of pixie dust can justify shifting from cacti to crashing waves in the blink of an eye. Also, unlike most vaunted Disney attractions, Soarin' doesn't tell a linear story; it's a bunch of wordless scenes mashed together into a grand travelogue.

Hangin' Around California

But these seem like petty quibbles for such a wildly unique attraction. A multi-sensory ride, Soarin' incorporates effects such as fans to lightly muss riders' hair and enhance the flying fantasy. The sense of smell even plays a role as an unmistakable citrus aroma accompanies a pass over an orange grove. It's the kinetic and perceived sensation of motion, however, that's most remarkable. Soarin' takes the concept of a flight simulator attraction, pioneered in rides such as Disney's Star Tours, and gooses it to a new level by using its innovative flying motion bases to conjure hang gliding.

While it represents a next-generation Imagineering feat, Soarin' also borrows from "speed room" technology used in past Disney attractions such as Disneyland's PeopleMover and Epcot's Horizons and World of Motion. In those relatively low-tech rides, vehicles on a track would travel toward a screen projecting images that suggested forward movement. Riders felt as if they were accelerating into the screens. The only remaining Disney speed room, I believe, is in Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. It holds over the effect from If You had Wings, the attraction that once occupied its Tomorrowland building.

Soarin's motion bases, however, offer greater freedom of movement than speed room vehicles and are more adept at tricking passengers into believing they are immersed in the screened imagery. The IMAX film is projected at 48 frames per second, twice as fast as a normal movie, which renders it amazingly lifelike and helps reinforce the illusion.

It's intriguing to think of the ways Imagineers could use Soarin' Over California's ride technology to develop new experiences. Instead of a travelogue, how about a fantasy-based flight into a dream world? The possibilities send park fans' imaginations soarin'.

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