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Lost Legends: How California Adventure's One Soarin' Success Spread Around The World

Pre-Flight Developments

From the earliest plans for a California-themed park, Imagineers had envisioned a suspended simulator that would make guests feel they were flying over the Golden State’s natural and manmade wonders. By 1996, the plans had taken on a shape and name. “Ultra Flight” would see guests ascend to three load levels before strapping into seats suspended from an overhead track. Modeled after (of all things) a dry-cleaning rack, this arrangement would’ve seen the seats carried forward on horizontal cable mechanisms, positioned before a massive IMAX screen.

Ultimately, it was determined that the construction and operation of such a massive system was impractical. Such a ride system would require escalators and elevators to bring guests to each of the three load levels, and a separate team of Cast Members on each floor...

Image: Disney

It was Imagineer Mark Sumner who cracked the case, famously using an old erector set to prepare a working, crank-operated model of a ride system where all guests would board on the same level before being swung out and lifted vertically to "stack" the ride vehicles.

In retrospect, the idea seems simple; even obvious. By hoisting three rows of visitors sky-high, they’d align vertically, “soaring” together before a curved OMNIMAX screen. 

In practice, it takes a bit more work…

Image: Disney

The million-pound steel apparatus lifts 87 riders at a time forty feet high in 37-ton gliders. Once airborne, these seemingly delicate gliders park inside of an inverted OMNIMAX domed screen and subtly rise, lower, and pitch in sync with the ride film. Speaking of which, even with the infrastructure designed, Disney still had work to do before anyone would care to fly on Soarin’ Over California.

Flight Path

The process of filming the stunning camerawork for the ride was certainly not as easy as it would seem. First, Disney needed special permission to film in some of the ride’s most sought-after scenes. Obtaining permissions to fly helicopters through Yosemite National Park took months of bureaucratic compliance, marking the first time in nearly half-a-century that a vehicle had taken to the skies there.

Since Monterey is a marine sanctuary, Disney worked for years to secure clearance. In the final shot, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration boat would be visible in the water. Far from a staged shot, the NOAA representatives were on-site to ensure the safety of Monterey’s protected sea lions, brown pelicans, and sea otters.

Image: Disney

A scene where riders would glide over the Anza-Borrego desert over a team of horses and equestrians required that Disney hire archaeologists to perform a paleontological assessment to ensure no artifacts would be disturbed by the horses or helicopter. Put another way: a research team had to dust four square miles of desert before filming could commence.

In that same scene over the desert, Disney would meet many times with the U.S. Air Force to coordinate a team of Thunderbird planes to jet through. Careful charting and arranging was necessary, since the Thunderbirds travel too fast to sense whether or not the helicopter was within their flight path. The jets travel so fast, Disney’s film crew took off in a helicopter a few miles from the scene while the Thunderbirds took off from Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas – nearly 200 miles away – at the same time to rendezvous at the filming location.

Image: Disney

Another trick? Every human you’d spot during the ride (from skiers to surfers and everything in between) would be a plant, hired to add dynamic energy to the scene. The rock climbers in Yosemite literally hung around for six hours, dangling from their climbing ropes between takes.

Finally, with the gorgeous vistas of California captured on IMAX film in 48-frames-per-second (twice the frame rate of typical films), Soarin’ Over California was nearing completion… But it was missing one integral ingredient.

Music to Fly By

For Disney, no masterpiece attraction is complete without music. In this case, Disney approached composer Jerry Goldsmith, whose resume includes 1968’s Planet of the Apes, Alien, Poltergeist, Gremlins, five Star Trek films, The Mummy, and Disney’s own Mulan.

They’d picked the right person. Goldsmith was invited to Imagineering to get a test screening of the footage collected so far for Soarin’ Over California in a mock-up theater. As the story goes, when he descended at the end of the ride film, Imagineers were shocked to find him crying. Goldsmith reported that nothing had gone wrong on the ride. Rather, after more than four decades composing, he felt he had just stumbled upon his dream project, fusing his two loves: music and flight.

Especially given that he’d been born and raised in California with a father who was a pilot, Goldsmith apparently said, "I'd do anything to be part of this project. I'd even score the film for free."

For the record, Disney did pay him. But the resulting score has to be among the most moving pieces of composition in the Disney Parks songbook – an uplifting, powerful, majestic piece of music that perfectly underscores each progressive moment of the ride.


 If every Disney Park on Earth has a “thesis statement” ride – one that exemplifies the park’s principles and story best – this free-flying expedition would be California Adventure’s. A gorgeous masterpiece skillfully blending technology and artistry in the way only Disney can, Soarin’ Over California would be a headliner. 

It also meant that the technology behind Soarin' Over California was destined for inclusion in other Disney Parks around the globe. This is where the story gets interesting. On the next page, we'll see where Soarin' flew to next and why that expansion actually spelled the end for the Californian original. 

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There is 1 comment.

This is a good example of where I think Disney has proven to not listen to it's core fan base when it comes to theme park attractions. There is absolutely no reason that they can't at least show both films and have Soarin' be Soarin' over California and/or Soarin' around the world. I think it would be a good way to appeal to fans of both versions of the ride. And it would add rerideability to this attraction.


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