Welcome Home Soarin' Over California!by Lisa Stiglic, contributing writer
"Nice work pal." - Chief Flight Attendant Patrick
Yes, that's a "thank you" to the-powers-that-be at the Disneyland Resort who brought back a bit of nostalgia to Disney California Adventure Park this month. As part of a special encore engagement, guests can hop aboard the hang-gliding extravaganza attraction and soar over the Golden Sate once again.
As I was an opening Disney California Adventure cast member, I have a bit of fondness for the original Soarin' attraction. For guests who've never experienced the California version or those (like me) who wish it was back permanently, I thought a little trip down Disney California Adventure memory lane would be fun to commemorate the return of the park's original E-ticket attraction. So, buckle up and get ready to smell those orange blossoms once again.
Soarin' Over California debuted February 8, 2001, with the grand opening of Disney's newest theme park—Disney California Adventure (then Disney's California Adventure). It was an attraction like no other and quickly became a favorite in the park. The concept was a simulation hang-gliding experience over California's iconic images. Footage was filmed using an IMAX system and then projected onto an 80-foot tall, concave screen, which wrapped around the studio wall 180-degrees. The seats would move up, then forward toward the screen to immerse the rider fully. To enhance the attraction even further, several scents were dispersed during specific scenes. Reminiscent of Disneyland's CircleVision of the 1980s, Soarin' Over California completely engrossed the rider in a visual experience.
Disney does details like no other, and the Soarin' Over California queue is a perfect example of this. The hangar for the flight attraction is set in Grizzly Peak Air Field (then Condor Flats), with a backstory of retired aircraft personnel who opened up a flight tour operations somewhere in the California desert. When waiting through the line, guests can view the homage displayed honoring the aviation marvels who forged ahead including The Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, Chuck Yeager, and even Howard Hughes. Music from Hollywood aviation-themed movies is piped in throughout the waiting queue to enhance the experience even further with soaring scores from The Last Starfighter, Apollo 13, and Disney's own cult-favorite The Rocketeer.
Once through the mini-museum, guests are directed to specific gates to await boarding the aircraft. While waiting, video monitors highlight the California locations on the hang gliding tour—Redwood Creek, Napa Valley, Monterey Bay Sanctuary, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park, Palm Springs, Camarillo, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, San Diego Harbor, Malibu, Downtown L.A. (nighttime), and, finally, Disneyland Park.
The pre-show wouldn't be complete without everyone's favorite Chief Flight Attendant, Patrick (actor Patrick Warburton and the voice artist for several Disney characters including Kronk from The Emperor's New Groove). Patrick's no-nonsense delivery of the safety guidelines—"store all carry-on items in the underseat compartment; this includes cameras, purses, hats, and of course 'these little beauties' [Mickey ears]"—is alone worth the wait for the attraction, not to mention a glimpse of some early 2000s Disney Parks fashion.
Riders filter into the studio and secure themselves in rows of seats. Upon take-off, the seats raise up, one row above the next, and the simulation begins with what seems to be the impossible—flying over The Golden Gate Bridge. The next four minutes or so take riders high above California offering a bird's eye view of iconic Golden State images.
From San Francisco, riders find themselves above Redwood Creek in Humboldt County, just north of the big city, where fly fishermen are busy casting around rafters floating down the river. As the seats seem to soar past the river, scents of pine can be detected. Napa Valley is next with a stunning aerial shot of hot air balloons floating effortlessly in the sky. Next up is the Monterey Bay shoreline; then the grandeur of Lake Tahoe. Make sure to look for the skier who falls! Fliers then join other hang gliders at Yosemite National Park soaring in front of El Capitan and Half Dome formations. From there, the flight crosses to the desert to Palm Springs where golfers are enjoying a sunny afternoon. But be forewarned, a golf ball is coming at you! The next transition is to Camarillo and plenty of orange groves with a zesty citrus smell. Up and over the orange trees to the next stage, the hang glider seemingly hovers over Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. (This is the part where I always cover my ears because the oncoming Thunderbird jet fighters are EXTREMELY LOUD!) The flight returns to the shoreline, but this time to the Malibu beaches with a touch of suntan lotion in the air as surfers catch the last waves of the day. As nighttime approaches, the flight soars over the Downtown L.A. traffic scene. The tour concludes with a dazzling Disneyland Park fireworks show complete with Tinker Bell and her pixie dust magic.
Filming the locations was by no means an easy feat. Since airspace over National Parks is protected, it took crews several months to obtain permission from the Department of Interior to enter the Yosemite National Park airspace. The crews ran into similar issues with filming over Monterey Bay because it is a sanctuary. One of the boats seen in the shot is actually a National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration boat that is there to ensure the wildlife and marine life remained protected during the filming.
Did you know the three aromas dispersed throughout the attraction have specific names and are each patented by Disney? The pine scent emitted during the river rafting scene is "Disney Forest."; the orange zest smell is "Orange Blossoms"; and the sun lotion aroma riders smell along the beach scenes is "Ocean Waves." Are these air fresheners yet?
One of my best memories as a cast member opening Disney California Adventure was during set-up for Soarin' Over California. The attraction needed riders for test runs, so areas would send out "all-calls" to cast members on site that day. Since I was working in the Greetings From California store (now Elias and Co.), I was next door to Soarin', so I always volunteered for the "all-calls". On one of the runthroughs, the scents were being tested and apparently it was just one scent because the whole test cycle smelled of orange....all four minutes of it! Everything the rest of the day was citrus for me. Hey—I had to take one for the team!
Of course the flight has many Disney references, including hidden Mickeys. There are three reportedly hidden Mickey heads, four if you count the mouse ears the man in the preview show stores underneath his seat ("these little beauties"). The first is in the Napa Valley scene with the hot air balloons hovering in the shot. Eagle-eye fliers will spot three balloons that combine to make Mickey's head and two ears. The second Mickey reference is on the golf ball that is shot at the screen during the Palm Springs scene. Now there has been a rumor since the opening of Soarin' that Michael Eisner (then CEO of Disney), was the one to hit that ball but after much research, there has never been any confirmation on that—only Michael knows. The third hidden Mickey is not so hidden—it's in the fireworks display above Sleeping Beauty's Castle in the final scene.
Disney California Adventure has had several major overhauls since its inception in 2001. Along with the changes, Soarin' Over California had a brief closure to update its own designs. The original IMAX system was changed to a digital projection system in 2015. The attraction eventually gave way to a newer version a year later. Soarin' Around the World incorporated the newer digital aspects as fliers took an aerial view to worldwide icons, such as the Taj Mahal and The Great Wall of China. (Luckily, our Chief Flight Attendant Patrick remained on the new version). The original California version landed in aviation retirement, until Disney announced last month that the original favorite was making a limited return for the month of June. Apparently, I'm not the only one who has missed this attraction as lines have been filled with those of us thrilled with the return, and with newer guests who hadn't yet experienced the smell of the pine trees and explosive throttle of the Thunderbird jet engines.
If you haven't had the chance to enjoy this original Disney California Adventure attraction, you have even more time than originally expected. Disney last week announced that Soarin' Over California will remain at DCA through August 31, 2019. See it before it flies away once again—but hopefully, not forever. After all, Disney California Adventure Park turns 20 in less than two years. Maybe Disney will even invite back our favorite Chief Flight Attendant for a rededication event.
"Have a nice flight." - Chief Flight Attendant Patrick