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

Good ideas never die at Disney, and that meant that Soarin’ Over California (and its stellar technology) was destined to expand across the Disney Parks chain.

Soarin’… Over Florida

Image: Disney

By the early 2000s, Walt Disney World’s Epcot was in an unusual state. Self-serious educational dark rides from the 1980s comingled with character-infused attractions and one-off thrills that only tangentially related to the park’s original thesis. Disney knew the park needed new life, and Imagineers concocted a plan to make it happen. We chronicled the full rebirth in a standard feature – Possibilityland - Epcot’s Project: GEMINI – but here’s what you need to know: while most of Project: GEMINI never came to pass, a few pieces did.

Among them was idea of duplicating California Adventure’s single hit.

Nestlé – the sponsor of Epcot’s The Land pavilion – was in the midst of a contractual refurbishment to freshen up their exhibits at Epcot, and a version of California’s hang-gliding adventure would be the perfect headliner, sending guests soaring over the ecosystems of the world.

Image: Disney

On May 5, 2005 – about four years after California Adventure’s opening – Soarin’ opened inside The Land pavilion at Epcot. Replacing the pavilion’s animatronic “dinner” shows and fellow Lost Legends: Kitchen Kabaret and Food Rocks, the ride’s queue was designed as a minimalist, glowing futuristic terminal to usher guests out to a showbuilding constructed behind the Imagination pavilion.

The ride itself was an exact duplicate of Soarin’ Over California. Which is particularly interesting when you consider that California's habitats are so varied and diverse that the Californian ride film could reasonably stand in for the rest of the country and few people would bother to notice that only one state is represented! And indeed, even if Soarin' at Epcot earned an eye-roll from Disney Parks fans who knew it was nothing but the Californian original in disguise, it quickly became one of Epcot's most popular rides often earning multi-hour waits. 

Image: Disney

That meant that the ride was an instant hit at Epcot. So much so that more than a decade after its opening, the ride was closed for a refurbishment and re-opened on May 27, 2016 with a third ride theater, Concourse 3, to help handle the multi-hour waits that plague the E-Ticket in a park with far fewer rides than California Adventure. Put simply, Soarin' at Epcot is now irrevocably tied to the park and to The Land pavilion and Walt Disney World visitors have embraced it with tremendous fervor. 

Soarin’ Over Tokyo

Image: Disney

On April 27, 2016 – just before the opening of Florida’s Gate C – officials with the Tokyo Disney Resort announced that a version of Soarin’ would soon come to the world-renowned Tokyo DisneySea.

DisneySea is a veritable Mecca for Disney Parks fans, seemingly built without a budgetary restriction in sight. Most of the park’s attractions and lands are stunning, groundbreaking, sought-after originals that top fans’ bucket lists (Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage, Mysterious Island, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta…). When the park does borrow from stateside originals, it tends to improve dramatically upon them (as in their built-out Indiana Jones Adventure, Twilight-Zone-free Tower of Terror, and gorgeous Toy Story Midway Mania).

Image: Disney

So far, it seems that their Soarin’ will fit into the latter camp. The ride will be built in the park's gorgeous and sprawling Mediterranean Harbor within an Italian "Museo Del Volo" (Museum of Flight). In true DisneySea style, the ride is expected to be wrapped into the massive, cross-continental story of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (SEA) and guests will fly over wonders of the ancient world aboard Leonardo da Vinci’s fabled flying machine invention. Tokyo’s version is expected to open in 2019.

Soaring Over The Horizon

Image: Disney

On June 16, 2016, the highly anticipated Shanghai Disneyland opened in Mainland China. Most every attraction and land at the Chinese park was custom-designed to be one-of-a-kind. In place of Disney’s classic Adventureland, Shanghai is home to Adventure Isle, which comes complete with its own pulp-adventure setting (a lost tropic isle in the 1930s, home to the ancient Arbori people who live in harmony with the recently arrived League of Adventurers).

There, fans expected the runaway hit to be Roaring Rapids, a waterlogged journey through the island’s mysterious Mount Apu Taku, guarded by a massive crocodilian guardian (who ranks high on our must-read countdown of the best animatronics on Earth). But the surprising headliner for the Chinese is Soaring Over The Horizon. Cast as part of Adventure Isle, the ride invites guests to journey deep into the mountains (entering beneath a carved eagle in Apu Taku's side) to the ancient Observatory of the Arbori where a mystical shaman connects the island to the world.

Image: Jeremy Thompson, Flickr (license)

The queue winds through an otherworldly temple with the endless night sky above, where guests commune with the ancient powers. The result is a new ride film sending guests from the savannahs of Africa to Sydney Harbor, and from the pyramids of Egypt to the Lau Islands in Fiji. The international tour represented the first Soarin' ride to not feature the original Californian ride film. 

Soaring Over the Horizon expanded upon the success of Soarin’ Over California and presented the perfect opportunity to update Epcot’s ride. But that’s not the only attraction that changed…

Condor Flattened

In 2007 – just six years after California Adventure first opened its gates – Disney announced something unprecedented: a complete transformation and rebuilding of the park. So much more than piecemeal additions, the park would receive an intentional, foundational shift that would turn back the clock on its themed lands and redesign them as idealized, romantic, historic visions like the lands at Disneyland.

Image: Disney

The park underwent five years of construction, recieved an official name change (Disney California Adventure) and closed for a single symbolic day. When it re-opened on June 15, 2012, the park was reborn. Its four themed “districts” had become eight (including two brand new ones: Buena Vista Street and Cars Land). On that day, Condor Flats was exorcised from the gargantuan Golden State and given full “land” status (see map, above) alongside Grizzly Peak (now an authentic 1950s National Park rather than a modern extreme sports takeover of one) and Pacific Wharf.

Still, Condor Flats just wasn’t quality enough for the renewed park. Even the light place making offered during the park’s Grand Reopening couldn’t convince guests that they were in a remote high desert. Not with the looming Grizzly Peak and its dense evergreens on one side and the charming Buena Vista Street on the other.

And it took a few years, but in 2015, Disney proved they were willing to invest in California Adventure in the long haul.

Image: Disney

Condor Flats was flattened and the area around Soarin’ Over California was enveloped into nearby Grizzly Peak, taking on its 1950s National Park theming. Now, it makes absolute sense that the craftsman-style Grand Californian Hotel serves as the land's backdrop – it's the National Park's lodge! And the towering, grizzly-shaped peak looming to the south is an icon of the land. Disney did the transformation right and designated the new area Grizzly Peak Airfield.

Image: Disney

In all ways more believable than Condor Flats, the new Airfield is an extension of the National Park theming nearby, with towering pines, limitless details, the inclusion of Walt’s long-lost 1950s character Humphrey the Bear, and authentic and instantly-recognizable National Parks signage that hearken to the days when families would pack up the Rambler and hit the great outdoors.

And most importantly, it's packed with the details that set Disney apart – the kind of intimate storytelling the original Disney's California Adventure lacked, and that simply couldn't have called the cold, sterile Condor Flats home.

Images: Disney

Suddenly, the rusted rocket jet positioned outside Soarin’s hangar showbuilding became a Lookout Tower. The punny Taste Pilot’s Grill quick service restaurant became the detail-packed Smokejumpers Grill with its own mythos. The changes were stunning, as documented in Yesterland’s Then & Now: Grizzly Peak Airfield and in a fascinating interview on the change with Executive Creative Director at Imagineering Ray Spencer.

Image: Disney

Finally absorbed into the new narrative that powered a reborn Disney California Adventure, Soarin’ Over California seemed poised to soar into the horizon as a classic for generations to come. But that’s not what happened… Soarin’ Over California is a Lost Legend, after all. Find out what happened on the last page…

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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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