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Behind the Ride: Soarin' Around the World

In 2001, Disney California Adventure debuted to mixed reviews. Even the naysayers found something to love, though. From the moment it was introduced, Soarin’ Over California garnered a reputation as one of the greatest theme park attractions ever built. It masterfully recreated the sensation of hang gliding by using a unique ride apparatus to mimic the sensations of flight. The best part was that unlike most of the new attractions at Disney California Adventure, its tie-in with the park theme was organic.

Theme park tourists who took a ride on Soarin’ Airlines received a breathtaking view of some of California’s natural wonders. Despite its West Coast specificity, Soarin’ Over California was so popular that park planners took notice. They translated the ride to Walt Disney World’s Epcot and then later announced plans to add an iteration of it at both Tokyo DisneySea and the recently constructed Shanghai Disneyland Park.

The catch was that a couple of issues existed. While the landmarks of California are known to many Walt Disney World guests, the same isn’t true of Japanese or Chinese visitors. Disney strategists accepted that they needed to redesign Soarin’ as a more global experience if they wanted it to expand its popularity abroad. From this point forward, multiple versions of the premise will exist, each of which is at least somewhat unique to its host park.

The primary one is known as Soarin’ Around the World, and it has quickly become the talk of Epcot due to its spectacular innovations. Imagineers performed changes under the hood, onscreen, and even in the line queue for the update. They had 15 years to think about what worked with the Soarin’ concept as well as what needed improvement. Ultimately, they made revisions both huge and miniscule in updating the concept. What they wound up creating is another instant triumph worthy of discussion. For the first time ever, let’s go Behind the Ride…again. Here are three more mind-blowing facts about the conversion from Soarin’ Over California to Soarin’ Around the World.

The Experience: Remaining true to the original vision for Soarin’

The Trick: Something old, something new (anything borrowed and/or blue not included)

Image: Disney

The problem Imagineers faced in re-imagining Soarin’ is that they loved a lot about it. Many of them even lamented that they had to change from the wildly popular storyline of the original. The sensations of flying through the grand mountains and breathtaking seas of the state of California still resonated 15 years later. Alas, not everything about Soarin’ remained as fresh-scented as the Smellitzer fragrance of California orange groves.

Soarin’ had a few areas for concern. The most important one was traffic flow. Park planners constantly stressed over attraction throughput, and that was an area where Soarin’ had never excelled. While each ride apparatus hosts 87 guests, two theaters hold “only” 176 theme park tourists per showing. Including the loading and unloading time for these complex structures plus the 4:51 ride time, Soarin’ could host approximately 1,200 guests per hour, 1,400 as a maximum. And that’s why Soarin’ always had one of the longest waits at Epcot.

A priority in renovating Soarin’ was to fix this issue. Fortunately, it was easy to do, at least at Epcot. The attraction has always featured theaters on the left and right, and the park itself is notorious for open space. So, Disney added a third theater, Concourse C, that’s straight ahead on the linear path rather than the turns to Concourses A and B. This modest improvement increased throughput by 50 percent without sacrificing anything. In fact, you should aim for Concourse C if you have the chance since the theater is 15 years newer. Since foot traffic is *ahem* less of an issue at Disney California Adventure, park planners chose not to add any new theaters there.

As far as something old, Disney left a lot of the basics of Soarin’ in place. They didn’t tinker much with the lifting apparatus, which everyone considered an engineering triumph. They also understood the popularity of the pre-flight film starring Patrick Warburton as the chief flight attendant. The timeless aspect of his instructions and warnings required no updates, and people really love that bald guy with the mouse ears. Plus, the technical side, improved video resolution, doesn’t apply to the line queue. So, Disney was able to keep its beloved Soarin’ introduction. For older theme park tourists, Soarin’ wouldn’t be quite the same without it.

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