In 1996, as part of the upcoming Disney’s California Adventure theme park, a concept called “Ultra Flight” was imagined. It was a new take on the theme park motion simulator that Disney helped popularize in 1987 at Disneyland (Anaheim, CA) with Star Tours. In this attraction, a large Omnimax dome screen imagined and a movie shot in the IMAX 15 perforations/70 mm standard at 48 frames per second would be projected on it. It was the highest resolution movie format available at the time, but it has severe limitations: first, the projection room has to be sterile and climate-controlled to preserve the fragile rolls of films. Then, when shooting the actual movie, the highest capacity container for the IMAX only has around 90 seconds of film time when using it at 48 frames per second. It meant that only two 45 seconds sequences could be shot before the camera had to be reloaded and that meant stopping the shoot and landing the helicopter.
Now, for the actual ride component, the original plan was to have suspended ride cars on cables that would be driven forward on a large scale dry cleaner rack like apparatus. It would have required building three separate levels, but the significant construction cost and labor required left that idea on the drawing table. Later, Imagineer Mark Sumner came up with the idea to use a large Erector set. Nine ride cars would load on a single level and then would lift up and then slowly raise and lower in conjunction with the movie. This helps create the illusion of swooping movements for the cars. The A and C cars each have nine seats, and the B cars have 11 seats. There are three sets of car for a capacity of 87 passengers per theater. The ride restraint is a double locking seatbelt with an additional loop for smaller guests to prevent them from sliding forward. Unlike the traditional airline-style seatbelt tongue used elsewhere around the industry, the belts used on Soarin’ have a double tongue, adding a level of redundancy. Disney later went to a different style of the tongue for the male/female part in Shanghai and Tokyo.
AGRA Coast Limited, a steel manufacturer, based out of Vancouver, BC was selected to manufacture the Erector Sets. Disney had previous experience with them as they had assisted them with troubleshooting the problematic Test Track attraction at Epcot (Lake Buena Vista, FL) and their assistance was so valuable they allowed Disney to finally open the attraction after a close to two years delay. In 2001, AGRA was acquired by the British company AMEC who renamed it “AMEC Dynamic Structures.” In 2007, the company again returned to Canadian ownership when Empire Industries purchased the company, now known as Dynamic Structures. The ride manufacturing facette is now marketed as Dynamic Attractions.
The theme is chosen for “Soarin’ Over California”: a hang glider flight over the various wonders of the state of California. It opens with the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and then we go around the State. During the Orange grove, desert, Sea and Redwood forest scenes, various scents are projected at us, and this is accomplished using the wing that lowers toward us before the Erector Set lifts. It concludes with a beautiful sunset over the ocean in Malibu, a drive on the I-110 Freeway in Downtown Los Angeles at night and finally, Disneyland. Filmed in 1999 during the holiday season, the movie concludes with fireworks and Tinkerbell appearing on the screen.
Jerry Goldsmith composed a triumphant and beautiful score. It captures the spirit and emotions of the film perfectly, even causing some guests to feel so moved by it that they shed tears at the end of the attraction along with a large round of applause.
Soarin’ Over California made its debut in 2001 as the flagship attraction of Disney’s California Adventure. Set in the Condor Flats section of the park with the area looking like a dusty airfield in the desert. In 2015, when they changed the format of the movie, they also used the opportunity to redress the surrounding area. Gone was the desert and in was Grizzly Peak Airfield. It became a lush airstrip in the middle of a forest and a logical extension of the nearby Grizzly Peak recreation area.
In 2005, Epcot replaced Food Rocks! At The Land pavilion with the entrance and waiting line for Soarin’. It played the same movie as in California, and two theaters constructed on what could have been an expansion pad for the Canada pavilion in World Showcase. Given the high water table in Florida, burying it in the ground was impossible, and they instead painted the huge theaters the same blue tones as a clear blue sky. The stand-by waiting line consisted of the long corridor leading to the two concourses with various interactive games installed to entertain guests waiting in the massive line. Two theaters were not enough as over at Epcot; Soarin’ is the premier attraction with Test Track while over in California, you can also ride the Tower of Terror (now Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout!), California Screamin’ (now Incredicoaster) and a lot more things perceived by guests as “on the same level.” Over at Epcot, running out of fast passes quickly in the morning was the norm and 180 minutes wait in the stand-by queue typical.
In 2015, in preparation for a movie change, Soarin’ Over California closed in California and reopened later that year after some technology changes. The issue with the original OMNIMAX format is that it is difficult to maintain in top condition in a theme park setting. The 5 minutes movie plays every 8-9 minutes on average in each theater for 12-13 hours straight. The film reel wears out so fast that often, you see visible damage during the show on the screen. Plus, OMNIMAX requires a nearly sterile projection room and again, with the maintenance needed to keep the projectors active, it is almost impossible to keep the projectors clean. In addition to the damage, you also see dust, which given the ultra high definition format make those flakes very distracting. Since the new film was to be projected digitally at Shanghai Disneyland, it was decided to switch the OMNIMAX technology for new digital 4K projectors at Disney’s California Adventure and later at EPCOT. What loss there is in the definition is counterbalanced by having a source that never wears out. Only regular projector lamp bulbs will be necessary and giving nature; it is a perfectly reasonable compromise.