In February 2001, I was invited to attend the press opening of Disney California Adventure. Disney paid my way, but the offer was only good for a single journalist acting alone. If I was to bond with anyone on this working trip, it would be with the media representative Disney had assigned to guide me through the brand-new Anaheim theme park.
It was not a good week for me to visit what had been freshly re-named “The Disneyland Resort.” I’d just broken up with a girl two weeks before, and I truly wasn’t feeling up to the single-rider experience. (Solo Disneyland can be fun, but Doombuggies and Mad Teacups are meant to be shared.) But work is work, and if Las Vegas Life magazine was to get the travel and lifetstyle piece it wso richly deserved, I had to mouse up, paste a convincing fake smile on my face and try to have real fun. There was no other way to approach it.
Days one and four were “travel days,” during which I enjoyed half-days in Disneyland proper, forlornly riding the train around the Park over and over again. On day two—February 7, 2001—the gathered press was invited to preview the bars, shops and restaurants of Downtown Disney, as well as some of the DCA attractions. That night was a party for B-list celebrities and other dignitaries, a sneak preview before the new park opened to the public on February 8.
I was not amused. I liked Downtown Disney’s bars and restaurants—finally I could get a Cuba Libre withing staggering distance of Pirates of the Caribbean!—but the breakup painted everything dark, and Disney’s nice gestures (including a comped room at the Disneyland Hotel, complete with swag bag and the latest issue of Brill’s Content) only served to make me feel worse than I already did. If a swag bag lands on a hotel bed and there’s no Facebook to share it with, did it really happen?
And there was something else, a truth I was loath to admit even to myself: Disney California Adventure paled terribly in contrast with its neighbor. I didn’t dislike the new park then, and I never have — but even then I could see that a tremendous opportunity had gone only partially recognized. There were too many shops and restaurants and not enough attractions. Dark rides, the bedrock of any Disney park, were in critically short supply; DCA only opened with one, the justly maligned Superstar Limo (now replaced by a Monsters Inc. dark ride). The bulk of the new park’s attractions were either films, which you could watch once and be satisfied, or carnival-style attractions that were best enjoyed in summertime. (Disney California Adventure opened in the midst of a cold winter downpour.) Such were DCA’s failings that, a scant five years on, Disney would commit upwards of a billion dollars towards “fixing” the park — a process that will be completed this June, with a “grand re-opening” that I hope I’m invited to.
Anyway, on that preview night, I was mostly unhinged. Disney was serving up free vodka martinis and I slammed seven of them in quick order. I was wounded, spoiling for a fight. (Finally, I heckled the Brian Wilson-less Beach Boys, which got much of the bile out of my system.) I was in a perfect place to receive one of Disney’s patented magical surprises, and to my delight, I received one in Soarin’ Over California.
If you haven’t experienced this flight simulator attraction, either at DCA or at EPCOT, I advise you to skip the rest of this paragraph; it’s really something you have to enjoy firsthand. Its component parts are simply understood: a large, curved IMAX screen, an innovative gondola system that hangs you above that screen, and a magnificent score by the late Oscar-winning film composer Jerry Goldsmith — to my mind, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written for a Disney theme park. Taken individually, these things give you a notion of how Soarin’ Over California works, but they can’t tell you how Soarin’ feels. For that, you need to wait in a 70-minute line, chuckle through the Patrick Warburton safety video, and take a seat in one of those suspended gondolas.
Soarin’ Over California is a dream. Pure and simple. In one guileless, inspired stroke of genius, Walt Disney Imagineering has managed to capture the sensation of flying in your dreams. The California scenes, sun-dappled and perfect, are projected at a sharp 48 frames per second, and the suspended gondola places you inside of them; your vision is deliberately fixed on the screen. almost without distraction. (You can see the dangling feet of riders above you, but that only enhances the experience; it’s fun to watch other riders “running” over the Pacific coastline, and lifting their feet to clear the harmless, projected obstacles.) Evocative scents are sprayed into the gondola at key moments: pine, ocean, orange groves. And as cheesy as it all must look from the ground (or on YouTube), there’s something that happens to you in those five minutes that can’t be explained by simple mechanics. You come to believe.
Goldsmith reportedly came down from his first ride on Soarin’ in tears, and truth be told, so did I. I couldn’t believe that Disney had found the place inside of me that wanted to fly and played directly to it. When the ride ended I burst into spontaneous applause, and I wasn’t the only one. All the assembled guests cheered wildly, and guests continue to applaud the conclusion to Soarin’ to this day. While Disney California Adventure was not a perfect theme park when it opened its gates, it did boast one perfect attraction—one that reminded me there’s always a blue sky above low-hanging clouds.
Writer Dave Hickey once complimented Disney’s ability to “invest anything with the pulse of human aspiration,” from mice to rocks to hanging gondolas. The machinery that runs Soarin’ thrums with that lifeblood. For all of Disney’s talk of “dreams” and “magic,” it has been a rare occasion these past 20 years that Disney has built an attraction that is truly dreamlike, magical. Soarin’ Over California, pardon the pun, rises to the occasion.