We’re Soarin’, Flyin’
Updated: Apr 16
Unpack the details surrounding Disney’s acclaimed Soarin’ attraction
The original attraction, Soarin’ Over California, opened on February 8, 2001, at Disney’s California Adventure, but the concept for the ride was created back in 1996. “UltraFlight,” as it was known, would have an OMNIMAX screen with an inverted track so that guests could fly over the landmarks of California. Imagineers planned to use the ride cars from Star Tours and cut out the floor to achieve the hang gliding effect.
The problem with this setup was that there would have to be three load levels, so the idea was abandoned due to estimated construction costs and accessibility issues. That is, until Imagineer Mark Sumnar got to playing with an old Erector Set over his Thanksgiving break from WDI. He made a toy model with a crank and strings to demonstrate that an electric motor could be used to lift the ride vehicles into the air for the show, and then lower the guests back down to unload. And with that, construction began!
In the DCA version, the ride building and queue are themed like an airport hangar in the area of “Grizzly Park,” which honors California and its natural beauty. In Epcot’s Soarin’, you visit the Land Pavilion and make your way to a movie theater style entrance. The queue of this ride is themed like a commercial airport with cast member costumes resembling pilots’ uniforms.
Guests are then sorted into three sections: A,B,C. A is the hang glider closest to the screen, and C is the furthest away. Each “row” gets slightly longer by adding more seats. A television screen plays a video of your flight path on loop. Then, your “chief flight attendant,” Patrick Warburton, provides a short safety demonstration.
After entering the theater, you board your hang glider which is seated in front of a big, blue OMNIMAX screen. The lights dim, air is released in a whoosh sound. A mechanical motor moves you forward and up 40 feet up in the air. You hear the crescendo of composer Jerry Goldsmith’s (Mulan) soundtrack, and you start to make your way through clouds that take the place of the black void in front of you.
Throughout the show, you’re tilted and turned to match the screen footage. The ride simulates sideways motion by physically moving the glider forward while turning the screen image. The canopy above also rocks back and forth and includes a fan and scent dispenser for a 4D experience. In the original attraction, this includes pine, ocean breeze, and California orange groves, a nod to the area where Disneyland was built. The ride also flies over the Golden Gate Bridge, the Redwoods, Monterey Bay, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park, PGA West Palmer Course, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a Naval Air Station in San Diego, Malibu Beach, and Downtown Los Angeles.
The research and development team at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) had to invent a camera with one of the highest resolutions in the world in order for the footage to fit the screen properly. This camera ended up being a combination of 5 HD cameras filmed at 60 frames per second (fps) and would eventually be scaled up to 120 fps. They even developed an algorithm to stitch together the five images into one cohesive, final shot. In order to preview the final product, Imagineers built a quarter-scale dome for reference.
Due to the popularity of the ride, Soarin’ Over California was built in Walt Disney World and rebranded as “Soarin’” in 2005.
Flash forward to the development of Shanghai Disneyland. Soarin’ was planned as an attraction for the “Adventure Isle” section of the park. It’s sort of like WDW and DL Adventureland with an emphasis on treasure, jungles, and rapids. Footage of flying over California wouldn’t fit the theme, so it was the perfect time to update the film for all versions of the ride.
Imagineers decided to go “around the world” to capture the new footage which features the Matterhorn, Greenland, Sydney Harbour, Neuschwanstein Castle, Kilimanjaro National Park, The Great Wall of China, The Great Pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal, Monument Valley, Fiji, Argentina, Paris, France, with the final scene being the park the ride is in. Imagineers also crafted three new scents: rose blossom, grass, and sea breeze to accompany the footage.
This final product was called “Soaring Over the Horizon” which opened at Shanghai Disneyland in 2016. In Disneyland and Walt Disney World, the film was shown as the newly rebranded “Soarin’ Around the World.” At this same time, the WDW version also went through an expansion to add two additional theaters. This accommodates an extra 500 guests an hour!
But the story didn’t end there. In 2019, “Soarin: Fantastic Flight” opened at Tokyo DisneySea. This is the first ride to completely deviate from the storyline of the original attraction. In Tokyo, the attraction takes place in the Museum of Fantastic Flight. It celebrates Camellia Falco, an innovator in aviation. You travel through the museum, and are greeted by her spirit before experiencing flight in her “Dream Flyer.”
If we had to change something about the ride, we would probably alter the footage to appear less realistic. Hear us out: the more frames per second the film is shot with, the more digitized the footage looks. In the scene with the Eiffel Tower for example, the weird angle and high resolution actually distorts the image so you can tell it’s fake. The California footage, on the other hand, looks just real enough without breaking the immersion.
That said, Soarin’ is still a phenomenal attraction that was ahead of its time. We wouldn’t have rides like Avatar Flight of Passage without it. So whether it’s the inspiring music, the thrill of flying, or getting to dangle your feet after a long day of walking, this attraction reminds you of all the places you can go.