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.

The Experience: Old ride, new destination

The Trick: Filming an entirely different movie  

Since Disney wanted to present Soarin’ to the world, they had to ditch the gorgeous California landscape. While nobody likes ditching a proven commodity, Imagineers felt a bit of liberation in the planning phase. Disneyland’s home state claims countless impressive landmarks, but expanding their horizons added a whole new world, so to speak. Anything on Planet Earth was now available for potential placement in Soarin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Basically, Disney had its pick of the Seven Wonders of Nature and the New7Wonders of the World (the actual name coined by New7Wonders Foundation) plus any other parts of the world they felt would look majestic on camera. I would imagine that the arguments in these boardroom meetings were intense. Take a moment to think about the places you’d select. Now compare your list to others you find online. You’ll quickly appreciate that universality of opinion is an impossibility with this exercise. Disney’s Imagineers had to settle on a final list, even if the results were vociferously debated, and then film the international replacements for the visual highlights of California.

Disney was a bit cheeky with some of its selections. They chose the Matterhorn as a clever tribute to the world’s first steel roller coaster, not coincidentally hosted at Disneyland. They also selected Sydney, Australia, for its dazzling harbor and world-renowned Sydney Opera House. Their tributes to the ancient wonders are the Great Wall of China and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Natural landmarks such as Mount Kilimanjaro and Isfjord in Greenland are featured as well.

Imagineers also added more modern triumphs of architecture such as Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, the Taj Mahal in India, and the Eiffel Tower in France. It’s the last of these selections that has caused a bit of an uproar. Soarin’ riders seated on the sides of the attraction rather than the middle have noticed a problem with the appearance of the Eiffel Tower. It leans. The one flaw Disney has yet to correct with Soarin’ Around the World is that they’ve somehow managed to make the Eiffel Tower look more like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s an issue Disney expects to correct someday soon. Then again, they said the same thing about the Yeti at Expedition Everest.

Overall, Soarin’ Over California highlighted 13 of the best locations in California, all of which were in a 770-mile region. Soarin’ Around the World takes the ride on a worldwide tour of 13 different countries, all without requiring any luggage or a passport stamp. Also, Disney cleverly chose to end each trip at a different location. Whichever park you’re visiting is also the last place you’ll soar during the ride. Imagineers filmed special endings for Epcot, Disneyland, and Shanghai Disneyland.

The Experience: Bettering visuals that were sadly outdated

The Trick: Honestly, 15 years of HDTV improvements did most of the work for Disney

Where to film wasn’t the only integral part of the planning phase, either. In the 15 years since the original Soarin’ had become a staple of Disney theme parks, video recording technology had expanded mightily. IMAX was a novelty at the turn of the millennium. Today, many mainstream cineplexes have one. IMAX movie revenue has become so prevalent that it is tracked as its own box office category.

As more cinematographers have worked with the technology, IMAX has improved technically and visually. Also, the entire world switched from film to digital over the time. In other words, the timing of Soarin’ Over California was such that it just missed a new world of graphic storytelling.

In 2001, Disney employed the most established type of IMAX filming known at the time. Called IMAX HD, this style of filmmaking effectively tripled the clarity of 35mm frames. And it was HD by the conventional definition at the time, which was 1080p. That’s probably the same as your first HDTV television or possibly slightly better if you owned 720p or 1080i. The problem is that an IMAX theater experience is supposed to blow away home viewing.

Soarin’ Over California achieved this goal initially, but then it gradually degraded. I mean that literally. One of the principal criticisms of early IMAX was its artifacting. IMAX HD attempted to correct this by displaying at 48 frames per second, twice the cinematic standard. By the standards in place at the time, Soarin’ offered state of the art visuals. But…

How far behind were visuals in 2001? Consider that one of the biggest videogames of that year was Halo. And I mean the original one. State of the art graphics at the time were along the lines of Final Fantasy X, a game that has since been remastered for the express purpose of improving its graphics. A more Disneyfied example would involve a comparison of Toy Story 2 to a Pixar release today. It’s readily apparent how far the graphics technology has evolved in a relatively brief time. That’s true of home theaters as well. Virtually no one had HDTV in the early days of Soarin’, nor would they until a few years later. DVDs weren’t even in their glory years yet. That wouldn’t happen until 2005 and 2006.

Fast forward 15 years from the debut of Soarin’.

Image: Disney

The world has changed in terms of visual expectations. Today, most homes have at least one HDTV, and the graphics on smartphones and tablets display visuals at a higher quality than televisions available a decade ago. Now think about Soarin’, which used twin IMAX films to tell its story. Over time, those giant pieces of film (IMAX films platters used to weigh as much as 550 pounds) degraded. That’s why the artifacting became such a problem over time. Theme park tourists at Disney California Adventure and Epcot would scoff at the lessened quality of the once-stunning visuals.

For the new version of Soarin’, Disney once again employed the best IMAX product on the market. The difference is that it’s not a relic that will quickly become outdated. When Imagineers developed Soarin’ Over California, arguments were still ongoing about HDTV standards. Today, 4K isn’t even widely adopted yet, but it’s expected to become the standard for the next several years. The IMAX 4K Laster Project System eliminates the need for ridiculously heavy film stock with digital files that are lossless, which is to say it’s perfect video. Artifacting is a solved problem for the second version of Soarin’.

From the viewer perspective, Soarin’ Around the World provides true HD imagery that’s technically twice as good as the previous iteration. In reality, it’s quite a bit better. 1080p and 2160p are just numbers. Other facets of the conversation such as aspect ratio and film rate (Soarin’ still operates at 48fps, but 60fps is a possibility) factor in, but the most important one is that digital prints never age. This version will look example the same in 15 years, whereas the Soarin’ Over California film prints became laughably degraded. The new iteration is twice the HD quality without dirty projection issues.

Image: Disney

The result of all these improvements to the Soarin’ premise is unmistakable. Soarin’ Around the World absolutely dwarfs Soarin’ Over California in terms of scope, scale, and visuals. While it’s not perfect (yet), the advancements in technology over 15 years enabled Disney to tell a better story that covers the entire world rather than Disneyland’s small (but wonderful) part of it. My only lament is that the orange grove smell is lost in the exchange. To me, that’ll always be the greatest part of Soarin’.


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