Today’s ride is one I have been waiting for 2 years to cover. It is one of my family’s favorite rides, and one you have heard me talk about a good deal on the WDW Ride Guide already. Believe it or not though, we have yet to focus a whole episode on Soarin’!
The real reason for the long build up to this ride is that I was waiting for a chance to experience the new version which opened in 2016. Now, if you have been following closely, you know my last trip to WDW was in January of last year. You also know, from last week’s episode that Soarin’ didn’t reopen until June of last year. So, how did I ride the new version? Well, if you have been paying really, really close attention you also know the ride was updated in Disney’s California Adventure park and I was out there in October. In fact, I even listed Soarin’ at DCA as #5 in our list of Top 5 Rides Disneyland Does Better.
Don’t worry though, Soarin’ at Epcot is still one of my absolute favorite rides and one I am super excited to share with you today!
Speaking of which, let’s get this episode started with some…
Know Before You Go Essential Facts
- The ride is located in The Land Pavilion at Epcot
- You must be 40” tall to ride
- Fastpass + is available and recommended
- The fright factor is 2 out of 5
- Guests must transfer from a wheelchair/ECV
- Video captioning is available
- Children under age 7 must be accompanied by a person age 14 years or older
- Rider Switch is available
- The ride is 5 minutes long
- The ride opened on May 5, 2005. A third theater, new film, and digital projectors were added in 2016, with the new version opening June 17, 2016.
Those are the facts. Now, time to take flight!
The original soundtrack to Soarin’, is one of the things that makes this ride so successful. We will get into the music more in just a bit, but first let’s talk about how this breathtaking journey of simulated flight all began.
Back in 1996, Imagineers were already working on ideas for the unbuilt Disney’s California Adventure theme park. Chief among those ideas was something brand new, something so cutting edge they didn’t even know how to make it a reality. That something was a ride then called Ultraflight, that would hover guests over a large IMAX screen and take them flying through the wonders of California. I have to pause here and just say that I love hearing about the genesis of rides. It reminds me of stories from 40 years earlier, when Walt and his crew were dreaming big and figuring out the technology as they went along. It seems fitting that this ride began just across the way from the original Disneyland park. Well, much like Walt’s original rides, this one had a technical aspect that hadn’t yet been figured out. How do you take a large number of guests and elevate them in the air, facing a giant screen, and then simulate flight?
This challenge proved so daunting that it had the Imagineers stumped for a time. The solution, as it turned out, was to go home and play with some toys. Well, not exactly, but that’s how I picture it. Imagineer Mark Sumner took the project home with him one weekend and decided to work it out using his erector set! He took his little metal pieces and put together a ride system that had never existed to that point. How cool is that?! The next week he brought his erector set creation back to Walt Disney Imagineering and showed his fellow Imagineers. They looked at the creative solution to the problem they had all been working on and thought Mark had something. Of course, going from an erector set to a ride mechanism capable of hoisting eighty-seven people up to forty feet in the air took a little more engineering and time. The result, like the ride, is really stunning. Next time you are filing into the Soarin’ theater and about to take your seat, take just a moment to look up at the complexity of the vehicle you are about to board.
With the ride mechanism figured out, the project was back in motion and next up came filming some amazing scenery around the state of California. All of the footage was shot from a helicopter using an IMAX camera, so that everything within periphery vision was captured. The result is a completely immersive film that has no border when you are in flight. Of course, you still have to have capture something worth viewing in that state of the art camera, and Disney did not disappoint. The original version of Soarin’ Over California took you hang gliding over the Golden Gate Bridge, Napa Valley, Yosemite National park, Palm Springs, and The Monterey Coasts, just to name a few. Each site was something to behold, and came from a vantage point most never experience.
This wasn’t a static flight though, and the ride mechanism moved seamlessly with the surroundings, simulating a real hang gliding experience. On top of all that, Disney incorporated the sense of smell to heighten the reality of each location even more. While flying over the coast you could smell the fresh sea air, or my personal favorite, you could smell the orange groves as you flew over Camarillo.
Oh, and I almost forgot about the music! Remember I said that was a key element in the success of this ride? Well, if you didn’t have goosebumps from the wind blowing in your face, or the smell of redwoods in your nose, you definitely got goosebumps when the majestic french horn belted out a triumphant note as your feet seemed to clip the tops of the waves. Jerry Goldsmith wrote the score for Soarin’ Over California and it is clear that this project was near to his heart. Jerry’s dad was a pilot who loved California and Jerry wanted to honor his dad by contributing to the Soarin’ project. It was reported that Jerry had Disney worried as he came off his first ride of Soarin’ in tears. He quickly assured them, they were tears of joy. His passion for portraying an optimistic spirit while gliding over the state his dad loved proved to be another perfect note in this ride’s composition. The engineering, the creativity, the technology, and the artistry, all came together just right. Every detail of the simulated experience was thought of, and the resulting ride was as close to being outdoors in the crisp California air as possible.
Soarin’ Over California opened in DCA on February 8, 2001 and audiences immediately fell in love. It was actually one of the only bright spots in what proved to be a disappointing debut of Disney’s newest theme park. While the new park received a fair share of criticism, Soarin’ received an overwhelming show of support. So much so, that Disney decided the ride needed to be duplicated in Walt Disney World. In this way it is very unique. While many rides originated in Disneyland and were later recreated at Walt Disney World, Soarin’ is the only opening day ride from Disney’s California Adventure that was later added to Walt Disney World.
On October 10, 2003 Disney officially announced Soarin’ would be coming to The Land Pavilion at Epcot. That announcement meant The Land pavilion was about to undergo a major renovation. The theaters for Soarin’ are massive structures by necessity. The ride structure contains about one million pounds of steel, meaning each ride has to lift about 37 tons, and all in front of a massive 80 foot wide OMNIMAX dome. With over 58,000 sq. ft. of space needed, the ride wouldn’t fit into the existing pavilion. Instead, the theaters were built outside of the existing structure with a long corridor connecting the new theaters to the Land pavilion. Sadly, this meant the Food Rocks theater had to be closed and completely reimagined as the entrance to the long queue of Soarin’. You may not remember Food Rocks, but it was a fun Audio Animatronic show were foods from a refrigerator would put on a rock concert to educate guests on the importance of the different food groups. As a kid I always thought it was a fun show, even though I was secretly being taught about nutrition!
Eventually, the entire Land pavilion was closed for 3 months and given a complete makeover as part of the Soarin’ project. One of my favorite boat rides, Living with the Land, got an update during this period, along with the adjacent food court area. The entire space got a new color scheme to fit in with Soarin’. After a lot of work, the pavilion, the long corridor of the queue, and the new ride theaters were completed. Soarin’ began boarding passengers on Flight 5505 on May 5, 2005. See any correlation there?
Much like the original version in California, audiences in Epcot quickly fell in love with Soarin’. The ride became extremely popular due to its multi-generational appeal. Funny enough, the ride did not seem out of place in Orlando. Soarin’ in Epcot ran with the same film featuring the best of California. However, the queue and pre-show film were very different from the California version. At Epcot passengers were boarding different flights with different destinations. It just so happened that the ride always landed on the destination of California and so you experience the same hang gliding adventure that had become famous in DCA. The subtle change in theme and concept was just enough to keep audiences satisfied and coming back for more.
In fact they came back for more and more and more! At least, I know my family did. Soarin’ remained so popular over the next decade that Disney decided it was worthwhile to add a third theater to the version in Epcot. At the same time a new film was shot for a new version of the ride. Digital projectors were added to upgrade the technology of the theater and ensure the new film was crystal clear for the viewers. This new film would make its debut at the new Shanghai Disneyland as Soarin’ Over the Horizon. Disneyland would also enjoy the update with the title there being Soarin’ Around the World. Epcot still list the ride online or in the app as simply Soarin’. Don’t worry though, this too is the new version of the ride as evidenced by sign outside of the ride and in the pre-show.
Before I get into what has changed with the new film itself, let me give some peace of mind to any Soarin’ fans out there who have yet to ride the new version. One of the most asked questions about the new Soarin’, has been, “Is Patrick still in the pre-show?” Well, here is the new pre-show audio, take a listen:
Yes, my friends, that is the manly voice of Patrick, your favorite Chief Flight Attendant. He is back in the new version with the same entertaining safety information. Even if you haven’t been on the ride, you might recognize this voice. The actor portraying Patrick, is actually Patrick Warburton. He is a tremendous voice talent with a long list of roles. He is probably most famous for playing David Puddy on Seinfield, but my favorite character of his is Kronk from the Emperor’s New Groove! My second favorite character is Patrick the Chief Flight Attendant on Soarin’. His role in the pre-show is simple, but it has become one of the things people most associate with this ride. Disney wisely recognized this when they updated the ride, and kept the same video of Patrick in the pre-show. It is now preceded by an Indiana Jones-like montage of a red line connecting one city to another all across the world. This gives you a sneak peek of the new locations featured on the updated film.
The other thing you will notice about the pre-show, and then again once in flight, is how familiar the music sounds. This is actually a new piece of music, scored by Bruce Broughton, but it echoes so many of the classic Soarin’ themes. Bruce does a fantastic job of carrying the torch from Jerry Goldsmith. Where the original piece focused on California, this new theme brings in touches from all the different destinations. With each new country found in the film, you can hear instruments relative to that region, giving the entire score an international feel while remaining true to the ride’s roots. The London Studio Orchestra recorded this new music in the historic Abbey Road Studios.
So, what audiences loved about the pre-show and the music have both remained intact. What about the rest of the ride? Soarin’ Around the World no longer takes you over the slopes of Lake Tahoe, but it does take you to the real Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps! That is just the beginning of a tour showcasing the wonders of the world. The Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, these are just 3 of the 13 different destinations you will see in the course of your 5 minute flight.
The other new element of the film is the transition between these destinations. In the original version you would be gliding over San Diego one second, and then suddenly Malibu the next. There was not transition between the different destinations. However, in the new film there are some, what I consider clever, transitions from one scene to the next. For example, in the new film you will be gliding over a glacier in Greenland when all of the sudden a killer whale leaps out of the water towards your glider. As the massive mammal crashes back into the ocean he shoots up a large spray of water that fills the entire screen. When the spray is clear, you are now gliding next to the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Each scene has unique transitions like this that fills the screen and allows a brief second for the next destination to appear. I think this is a nice addition to the ride and makes the flight feel seamless.
The other addition visitors to Walt Disney World will appreciate, is the last scene in Soarin’ Around the World. The show now concludes with fireworks being shot over Spaceship Earth in Epcot. Previously, the original version ended over Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland. I always thought the Epcot version needed a nod to its own WDW surroundings. Well, now each version of Soarin’ does just that. DCA still finishes the ride with a flourish in Disneyland, Epcot in Epcot, and Shanghai Disneyland with fireworks over Shanghai, China.
So there you have it, a brief rundown of what makes Soarin’ unlike any other Disney ride to date. Before we go though, let me tell you why I love this ride. To me this is a modern Disney classic. There are no franchises tied to this ride and there are no characters that make this a must see for little ones. Yet somehow it never fails to bring wonder and amazement to the faces of 7 year olds, 70 year olds, and everyone in between. The first time I saw the new version of Soarin’ I think I spent the first half of the ride with my jaw dropped down to my chest. The scenery was breathtaking. Add the gentle swaying motion of the ride vehicle, subtle wisps of air blowing in your face, the scent of your surroundings, and then the music to top it off and you are elevated to some rare air in the world of Disney rides. Soarin’ is just pure joy!
What truly makes it magical though, is experiencing this ride with family. No matter how many times I ride Soarin’ with my mom, it feels like I am riding with her for the first time. She giggles like a little school girl, lifts her feet in the air so they don’t touch the simulated mountain peaks she is gliding over, and she has the biggest smile on her face. My wife and I spend a good portion of our time on the ride just watching my mom sometimes. The ride envelopes her and the joy on her face is priceless. I love riding Soarin’ with her and with all of my family members as each one has a great time on this ride. Our family is certainly not alone either. Every single time I have been on Soarin’ the audience gives a round of applause as their feet slowly touch back down on the ground. Any ride that garners cheers and clapping at the end is ok in my book.
If you have never been on Soarin’ I truly hope you will make this part of your next Disney vacation. I promise it will be a memory you won’t forget!
Ok, let’s review. That is music, ride history, cutting edge technology, state of the art filming, OMNIMAX dome, DCA version, Land Pavilion renovation, 2016 update, family experiences… Anything else? Oh yeah, have a nice flight!
As always, thank you so much for joining me! Have a great week, and I hope to hear from you soon. Until then, make each day a ride worth taking!
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