Soarin’ Over California lifts people in the air and then takes them on the journey of a lifetime. Riders thrill at the sensation of flying, as they are provided with a bird’s eye view of the breathtaking scenery below.

There is no other ride in the world that simulates an entire day of activities in California. Only Disney would be so daring as to sweep riders up in front of an IMAX screen and then take them on a voyage across the state where Walt Disney’s empire was built.

In roughly five minutes, people on the attraction hit all of the popular tourist attractions such as the Golden Gate Bridge, wine country and even Disneyland during its nightly fireworks display. Soarin’ Over California is one of the signature rides at both of Disney’s American theme parks, and its standard wait-time of 45-100 minutes, depending on the park, demonstrates its lasting appeal over time. You know Soarin’ and you love it. Let Theme Park Tourist take you behind the ride so that you can better understand it.

1. Building the impossible

Image © Disney

The Experience: Lifting 87 passengers at once into the air in a way that allows each one to have an optimal view of an IMAX screen

The Trick: The premise of Soarin’ Over California was always to provide the sensation of flight for theme park guests. Imagineer Kathy Mangum described it thusly: “The genesis of the idea goes back to our dream of being able to fly, along with the impressive natural beauty of California” As originally envisioned, however, Soarin’ was determined to be impossible by Disney Imagineers in 1996. The ride was initially conceptualized as a hang gliding simulator. The infamous “dry cleaning idea” presumed that individual seats would rotate on a moving conveyor, with guests hanging from hooks like laundry. Alas, designer Barry Braverman noted that it “had all kinds of problems.” Presumably, theme park visitors don’t enjoy feeling like they just came out of the dryer.

Several other strategies were examined, all of which had the same intended goal of giving the rider a great IMAX view plus the sensation of flight. None of them was deemed feasible. In the end, inspiration came from an unlikely source. Imagineer Mark Sumner happened to discover his childhood Erector Set during a weekend visit to his parents’ house. While playing with his forgotten toys in the attic, Sumner was struck with inspiration. He returned to work with a functional design on the following Monday morning and promptly became known as Mr. Erector. Okay, nobody ever called him that, but his creative solution was immediately adopted.

The only difference between the model he displayed during that Monday meeting and the ride we have today is an apparatus built from a million pounds of steel capable of lifting 37 tons. The underlying design of the Erector Set prototype remains the same, though. Guests all board at once and then are simultaneously lifted to the appropriate level for their part of the IMAX viewing screen. It’s an elegant solution to a seemingly impossible problem.

2. Filming the land

Image © Disney

The Experience: Riders watch video that provides a bird’s eye view of California.

The Trick: In order to provide the perfect cinematography, Disney embarked upon a quest to film the finest landscapes in the Golden State. Ramping up the difficulty is the fact that the video has to match the meticulously calculated movements of the ride lift above.

Imagineers were forced to create a projection system that delivers a bird’s eye view. In addition, they needed a film format as well as a film process that would allow for the peculiar type of cinematography required for this project. The Soarin’ IMAX experience occurs in an inverted dome, meaning that filming would require a conversion after the fact.

Disney settled upon an IMAX 15 perforation/70mm format at 48 frames per second featuring a take-in lens. The unusually high frame rate for the time was selected to provide ultra-clear detail to the proceedings. The camera possessed the equivalent of a peripheral vision in that anything that the viewer can see with their eyes is recorded by their equipment. In order to capture the majesty of California, camera operators flew in helicopters as they roved across vaunted tourist attractions.

Of course, selecting the equipment was only the first step in the process. Disney had to negotiate with government officials in order to film some of the key segments. In fact, the Department of the Interior only provided a tight four-hour window for filming the Yosemite Park segment of Soarin’. There was also no ability to reschedule, meaning that inclement weather or any sort of technical disaster would have prevented Yosemite’s inclusion. Similarly, Monterey’s status as a marine sanctuary led to a year of bureaucratic negotiations to obtain the requisite permits.

In total, there are 13 different regions of California featured in Soarin’, all of which came with their own set of filming troubles. The next time you enjoy the ride, take a moment to appreciate how many tight scheduling windows Imagineers had to overcome in order to achieve every segment of the ride that they wanted.

As many readers know, a new version of the Soarin’ film is rumored to have been completed in 2014. While Disney has thus far denied the rumor, the ride is closed at Disneyland until May, ostensibly as part of the refurbishment for the park’s 60th anniversary. While a digital print may become standard in the near future, the original version remains as a work of art.



Really don't get the seemingly universal love for Soarin'. The lazy jarring editing and a screen which is very much in front of you rather than surrounding you destroys the feeling of flight. It's a pretty simple set up too, not really the technological marvel this article wants to think it is. It doesn't draw me in to feel like a participant at all, I feel very much like a spectator sitting there.
This may well be much more refined, but the actual experience of something like the ancient cine180 system was far superior, leaving the seating system feeling like a gimmick rather than something that really adds to the overall effect.
I really like the idea, but unusually for Disney I don't think the execution is right at all.

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