Prior to a recent trip to California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort, my wife Janet signed us up to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Soarin’ Around the World attraction. The one-hour tour is offered to members of the Disney Vacation Club.
Soarin’ Around the World is located in the Grizzly Peak section of the park, just a short walk from the Grand Californian Resort. We arrived for the tour early, grabbed a quick bite to eat at the Starbucks-sponsored Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe, then met up with the other members of the tour just outside the entrance to Soarin’.
Our tour guide led us to the entrance of the attraction, then we veered right to a “cast members only” door and were escorted to an open lot to the side of the main building. Here, our guide talked about how he was proud of the fact that he was a member of the attraction’s opening day team [California Adventure’s Soarin’ Over California opened on Feb. 1, 2001].
He explained the reasoning behind keeping the Soarin’ building just one story tall. “The designers felt that having a multi-story tall building in California Adventure would be too distracting. They had to work around the fact that the attraction’s screens are 85 feet tall, so they buried the building 25 feet into the ground.
“Then, three years after we opened,” he added, “they built the Tower of Terror” … the ultimate tall, distracting building.
We then re-entered the building and walked down a flight of stairs to the main boarding area of the attraction. As we exited the staircase, I noticed several animal cages in a corner off to my left. Ever curious, I asked a cast member standing nearby what the cages were for. “When guests with service animals ride the attraction,” she said, “we put the animals in these cages until the guests return.”
Prior to the pre-show, our guide talked about Soarin’s host, Patrick Warburton. Warburton has a history with Disney, having played Kronk in The Emperor’s New Grove and Steve Barkin in Kim Possible. It turns out that Warburton wasn’t the first choice for the Soarin’ assignment: Action film star Steven Segal was.
After the pre-show, our guide asked if anyone wanted to skip the ride for whatever reason. That was my cue to join him off to the side, where another cast member sat in front of a battery of computer monitors.
My wife and I were among the first guests to ride Soarin’ in Epcot when it opened in 2005. Initially, I embraced Soarin’ and even encouraged friends to ride it. I have been less than enthusiastic about it over the last few years.
For as long as I can remember, heights have been an issue with me. I get queasy sitting in the upper decks in baseball or football stadiums. The one and only time I made it to the observation deck of the World Trade Center, I had all I could do to keep from high-tailing it down the stairs. If we stay in a hotel room that’s above the third floor, I tend to avoid the balcony.
After about five trips on Soarin’, I started to experience waves of panic every time I approached The Land pavilion where Soarin’ is housed.
When I did muster enough nerve to ride Soarin’, I found myself gripping way-too-tight onto the handle bars. I even started to wear sunglasses to keep people from noticing that I had my eyes closed for most of the ride. When I did open my eyes, I’d spend more time glancing up than at the screen.
It just wasn’t fun anymore. To me, it was downright terrifying sitting 40, 50 or 60 feet in the air near the rafters, your feet dangling, with just a seat belt restraining you. Worse, I worried that if the ride somehow malfunctioned and we get stuck up there for longer than 4 and a half minutes, I’d probably lose it.
It’s silly, I know. The ride is totally safe. Hundreds of thousands of people have gone on it and raved about it. But I do know that there are countless people like me who have issues with heights. These days, I’m quite comfortable sitting on the sidelines, feet planted firmly on the ground.
Sitting off to the side of the Soarin’ screen gave me a totally new perspective on the attraction. For one thing, the IMAX screen is massive. It’s concave and made out of metal and mesh … metal, so that it won’t be damaged by anything falling onto it, and mesh so that sound is able to pass through it.
For another, the three rows of seats go way, WAY, WAY! up into the air. “The top row is between 60 and 65 feet up,” our guide said. It looks higher than that from ground level. And it’s amazing how every rider dangles his or her feet during the show.
At the end of the show, our guide gathered the group and took us truly behind the scenes … and behind the screen. From here, we could hear the beautiful score, view the projections on the screen and see the rows of seats as they were raised at the start of the show and dropped down at the conclusion.
Again, our guide was a wealth of information. There are 56 speakers positioned throughout the theater. In addition, there are scent canisters placed above the seats, which release a variety of smells to enhance the attraction. “The canisters dissolve very slowly,” our guide said. “They have to be refilled about once a month.”
The final leg of the tour took us into a corridor, where photos of the attraction, as well as scenes from the film, were on the walls. There also was a model of the erector set that Imagineer Mark Sumner used to come up with the cantilever ride system.
Another interesting aspect of the tour came when our guide talked about the thinking behind the updated version of the attraction. Indeed, there was a rhyme and reason behind the filming of each new scene.
For instance, the inclusion of the Great Wall of China sequence is a reference to Disney’s Mulan. The Great Pyramids are an homage to Indiana Jones; the Taj Mahal [Alladdin]; Fiji [Moana]; Argentina [Paradise Falls in Up]; the Eiffel Tower [Disneyland Paris and Ratatouille]. He went to explain that there’s even a Hidden Mickey located during the beach scene while soarin’ over Fiji.
During filming a sequence in Africa, the guide added, the helicopter used for shooting the footage was called into service when an elephant became separated from its group. “The helicopter was used in the search-and-rescue mission,” the guide said. “They found the elephant and it was nursed back to health. We were happy to help … it was worth the delay in production.”
According to Ryan March, editor of DVC’s Disney Files Magazine, “There’s a Soarin’ tour for DVC members at Epcot. It takes place most Wednesdays at 8 a.m.”
Here’s a link to details on our website: