Review of Soarin' Over California

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

••• Soarin's innovative ride system sends passengers flying. Disney. Used with permission.

2016 Update

Both the Epcot and Disney California Adventure versions of Soarin' will get a major makeover in 2016. Disney World has announced that it will be closing the attraction on January 4, 2016 and reopening it summer 2016. Disneyland has not announced any closing dates. Since it has already upgraded the attraction's hardware (see below), perhaps there would be no need to close Soarin' for any appreciable time to make the transition.

Disney will retire the original Soarin' Over California film and replace it with Soarin' Around the World. Presumably, the new footage will be in a high definition format that would take full advantage of the updated digital projection system and new screens that the parks installed in mid-2015 (see below). Disney has not released many details, other than that the new film will debut in 2016. Using my brilliant powers of deduction, I presume that the attraction will include scenes from locales around the world, rather than just California.

June 2015 Update

When Disneyland kicked off its 60th anniversary Diamond Celebration in May 2015, it reopened Soarin' Over California with a new digital projection system and new screens. The content, however, remained the same. Soarin' appears a bit brighter and sharper than it did in its original format, but not as eye-popping as the high-definition digital media in other attractions, such as the revamped Star Tours, I'd imagine that with the infrastructure in place, future presentations shot in high-definition will look appreciably brighter and sharper in the theater.

At Epcot, construction has begun to add an additional theater to its Soarin' attraction which will increase capacity and help alleviate wait times. Disney World has announced that it too will be updating its screen and projection systems which should debut at the same time that the third theater opens, in summer 2016.

Up-Front Info

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.

  • 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 at Disney World and at Disney California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort
  • Uses Fastpass at Disney California Adventure. For Epcot, discover how to use MyMagic+ and Fastpass+.

The vintage aviation hangar, located in the Grizzly Peak 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 the 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.)

Would You Be Able to Handle 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. (If you are something of a scaredey cat, see more rigid tips in Walt Disney World for Wimps.)

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 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'.