Your Souvenir Guide

Disneyland Ex Machina

Author: Geoff Carter (page 1 of 13)

Saving Private EPCOT

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is the Mars movie Disney should have made. It’s kind of remarkable, considering how much deep and important thought Disney once gave to Mars, that they didn’t get it first; given all the legwork Werner Von Braun and his ilk did for the studio back in the 1950s, it’s amazing to me that their two Martian expeditions were such expensive, baffling and generally unsatisfying projects. Disney has made films like The Martian before: what are the National Treasure films, if not a tribute to Boy Scout training and Yankee ingenuity?  Just make a National Treasure, but set it on Mars. Drop Nicolas Cage in the Cerberus Province with a years’ worth of beef jerky and send his ride home without him. It’s actually a plan that the film industry is working on right now, though they might forget to film it.

This brings us, naturally, to EPCOT. It’s the weird uncle of Disney’s Florida holdings, a park modeled on world expositions—the last one of which to open stateside did so more than 30 years ago. For a quarter-century or more, Walt Disney World has received visitors who crowd into EPCOT without fully understanding what in the hell it’s supposed to be. Flummoxed by Walt Disney’s untimely death, his people delicately set aside his plans for a future Waltopia and went back to what they knew and understood: They rebuilt the 1964 New York World’s Fair, right down to the big metal ball.

That’s probably why Disney has no earthly idea what to do with EPCOT now. How do you get people excited for a cultural touchstone that hasn’t been seen in this country since 1984? And how to you appeal to out-of-country guests who’ve maybe been to recent Expos in Shanghai, Milan or Yeosu, and who aren’t impressed with Ellen DeGeneres’ fumbling attempts to understand sustainable energy? It’s a real goddamn problem, and Disney, apparently, still doesn’t know how to remedy it. Walt Disney World’s other three parks are all receiving huge, game-changing capital improvements: Magic Kingdom has its plus-sized Fantasyland, Hollywood Studios is getting Lucas’d, Animal Kingdom Avatar’d. By comparison, EPCOT’s 2016 resolutions are to re-skin the Norway pavilion’s Maelstrom boat ride with a story that has only a desultory connection to Norway, and to make the popular Soarin’ ride, y’know, bigger-er.

Technology isn’t the problem. Nifty though the ride mechanisms of Universal’s big-deal Harry Potter rides may be, Disney has already arguably matched them with the giant slot cars of Test Track and Radiator Springs Racers, the RFID-guided vehicles of Mystic Manor and Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters, and the relatively simple mechanism of Soarin’. (That’s saying nothing of the other ride mechanics Disney has pioneered or successfully adapted to new mediums, including those behind Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest and, hell, the Haunted Mansion. The humble Omnimover, turning people into moving cameras since 1967.)  The problem isn’t that the hang-time shenanigans of Soarin’ are passé, or that we can duplicate the Circle-Vision 360° experience with an app we can download free to our phones. The problems are in theme, story and cultural relevance, three things Imagineering is supposed to be good at.

For an example, I’ll skip over the two most obvious choices—Universe of Energy and the despairing wreck that is Journey Into Imagination—and consider the case of Reflections of China, the Circle-Vision 360° travelogue that replaced Wonders of China in 2003. Wonders needed badly to be replaced; I mean, gosh, China’s changed just a little bit since 1982. But given an opportunity to make something truly new and different, Disney acted clumsily: They paid just enough for a few minutes of new footage and, inexplicably, kept the Li Bai storyline from 1982, replacing the original actor—the great Keye Luke—with a double who doesn’t resemble Luke even in long shots. (Gone, too, is Luke’s splendid voiceover, replaced by a scab who doesn’t possess a tenth of Luke’s avuncular charm.)

Look, I’m just going to say it: There are at least a dozen Chinese actors recognizable to American audiences, from Michelle Yeoh to Steven Chow to Jackie Chan. Any one of these would make a suitable narrator for a 21st Century China, for a country that’s rapidly moving beyond our perceptions both good and bad. (And about the technology: I’d be willing to bet that somebody has already rigged up a drone-mounted, lightweight digital Circle-Vision 360° rig in their garage, something with greater maneuverability than a chopper. Just as long as we’re committed to the 360-degree thing.) The sequel to Wonders of China could have been entertaining, visually-dazzling and, y’know, informative.

(Though to be fair, I don’t suppose I should have expected quality filmmaking from last-gasp Eisner regime Disney; Reflections of China is imbued with just as much quality and sense as the Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion and Disney California Adventure 1.0.  That Disney did only as much for China as necessary to get Hong Kong Disneyand open, and to  keep the film distribution pipes clear.)

EPCOT’s biggest current failings are in theme, story and cultural relevance, three things Imagineering is supposed to be good at.

Moving around the lagoon: Tromsø, Norway has an influential electronic music scene. The renewable energy sector of Germany is among the world’s most successful. Italy has a truly rich legacy of cinema, without which the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino probably wouldn’t exist as we know them now. And the United Kingdom is so very united that Scotland recently considered leaving it. EPCOT’s view of the world has always been sanitized and small, but now, in an age of Googling Up Stuff, its tiny planet schtick is at best embarrassing, at worst xenophobic. And when you take the extra step of replacing a country’s entire culture with an animated landscape and population created in Burbank … well, there’s really no point to having a World Showcase at all, if your idea of travel is getting people to take your cruise lines to man-made beaches, or simply to drive across town to see Frozen on Ice.

And it’s not as if the restaurants and retail of World Showcase are picking up the slack:

The World Showcase – A lot has changed in my opinion from what it used to be. I remember when I was a kid I bought a little Mercedes model car, kind of like a HotWheels car but German. … I thought it was so neat, even (had) Made In Germany (written) on it. Nowadays, apart from the Japanese market (Mitsukoshi) every one of the stores in the countries have a bunch of crap. Want a keychain with Downton Abbey on it? They’ve got that in England. Do you need Maple syrup that’s available at Publix? They’ve got that in Canada. It’s pretty sad that every country just sells t-shirts with what the country is known for, not actual products from the country.

We ate at Via Napoli in Italy & were pretty disappointed with the food/price/service. We told the hostess we were celebrating a birthday & she made note of it but nothing was done. We had some pastries from Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie, they weren’t thing to get excited over. Maybe the food is better during Food & Wine time (which we missed by a few days, unfortunately).

That was TripAdvisor reviewer Billy H, a visitor from Nashville, Tennessee, in a review titled “EPCOT needs to go back to its original mission statement.” It’s not just the Disnerds blog who’ve noticed EPCOT sliding into irrelevance; the marketplace is beginning to catch on.

Back to The Martian. One of the things I liked best about it was the easygoing, unfussy way in which Ridley Scott presented the future. In a way, it’s the bright flipside to what he did with Blade Runner in 1982; he identified which present-day trends were likely to expand, and turned up their volume while leaving everything else untouched. Meaning: Rick Deckard hunts down advanced artificial intelligence in a heavily globalized Los Angeles while still eating modern-day street food and drinking brown liquor from regular glasses, and the crew of Ares III listens to seventies disco and maintains a treadmill regimen. The future isn’t about a whole-scale change to the way we live; it’s all about incremental change. And incremental change is easy to portray and maintain, if you do it right the first time.

EPCOT 1.0 embodied this principle much better than its present-day iteration does. One of the first things to wow me when I first visited in 1983, aside from the sheer scale of the place, was its interactive features. The WorldKey information kiosks were the first touchscreens I had ever seen, and now that technology is on a device I carry with me (and probably look at too often). Ditto the voice-to-text technology of AT&T (in CommuniCore West, RIP) and the social media-style instant polling of Future Choice Theater (CommuniCore East, gone too soon). A new EPCOT doesn’t need to be conceptualized from the top down, beginning with the multimillion-dollar ride vehicle and a new warehouse-sized dodecahedron or whatever; it can begin with something as basic as showing off what’s new in UI, or sacrificing some of Germany’s retail space so the country can talk up its Energiewende. Or by simply committing to improving the quality of EPCOT’s dining and imported goods to a level slightly above Cost Plus.

It doesn’t need to be a billion-dollar improvement initiative, and it doesn’t need to wait for an EPCOT-themed movie to help visitors to understand the place. (This seems a good time to say that I was in tune with Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland until its dreary, exposition-heavy final third. The film’s showpiece “Pin-Ultimate Experience” sequence, buoyed by a Future World loop-ready Michael Giacchino score, reminds me of how I felt when I saw EPCOT for the first time. ) The future, and the world we live in, are concepts that are already familiar to every one of us; Disney only needs to make them personal again. Walt Disney’s original EPCOT was intensely personal, arguably being the world he wanted to live in. Disney’s current, cynical approach to EPCOT is worse than impersonal; it is personality-free, an empty vessel. And with the Frozen boat ride, the company is making it plain that EPCOT is about championing Disney’s own aspirations, not our own.

“If (kids) go to bed dreaming about science, they wake up with ideas,” a character says in Eric Stephenson’s graphic novel series Nowhere Men. Whenever Disney gets around to noticing EPCOT again, they should consider the dreams that EPCOT once hoped to inspire … even if some of those dreams were Made In Germany.

Disnanisqatsi (Parks Out of Balance)

I started this blog for three reasons. First and foremost, I did it for my love of Walt Disney’s original Magic Kingdom in Anaheim, and to a lesser degree for my appreciation of the theme parks he inspired but did not personally create: Disney California Adventure and the parks of Walt Disney World in Florida. Secondly, I needed a place to test out ideas and concepts from the Disneyland-based coming of age novel that—it is becoming increasingly clear—I may not complete before Disney and others unknowingly use all the story conceits I’m employing in their own projects. (See: Saving Mr. Banks, Jon Favreau’s rumored Magic Kingdom movie and Brad Bird’s upcoming Tomorrowland, plus Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, among others. I’m not suggesting that my own story is as good as any of these [well, maybe Escape from Tomorrow], but the longer I “revise,” the greater the chance these storytelling avenues will be discovered and traversed by others.)

But the primary reason I started Your Souvenir Guide was because at the time, there were a bunch of blogs about what Disneyland looked like, but few talking about how it feels. And Disneyland is a place that one feels their way through—an emotional truth so widely accepted that Disney gets away with using it in their advertising, over and over, and no one says boo.

The precise nature and working mechanics of Disneyland’s emotional appeal is not something I can pin down in a few words (that would take, oh, the length of a novel), but I can give you the elevator speech, like so: Disneyland is a place where remembered feelings collect and stick. While the Park has substantially changed over the course of sixty years, the old hooks remain firmly in place: Space Mountain has always been a kid’s first thrill ride, and always will be; the Haunted Mansion has always been terrific theatre, and always will be; Main Street has always had a castle at the end of it, and always will have. The “basement” of Pirates of the Caribbean has always smelled the same; Dole Whips have always tasted the same . And you have always experienced these things through the channel of your emotions, and you probably always will. Your eight-year-old self is still caught on those old hooks, and he waves to you as you get caught on them again.

I’m happy to say that there are now several blogs exploring the history and psychology of Disney’s theme parks, and they’re doing a better job of it than I ever could. My favorite of these blogs is Passport to Dreams Old and New, by a longtime themepunk who writes under the name FoxxFur. (I don’t know her real name, and I’ll never ask it.) Passport to Dreams knocks my socks off. She provides exhaustive histories of Walt Disney World attractions, both deserved and undeserved; she produces sharp, hyper-literate theses on theme park design pretty much by the pound; and she’s sat through some Disney movies that, my God, I will never watch again. She’s got entries tagged “Park Theory” and “Presentationalism,” for chrissakes. It boggles the mind that Disney hasn’t hired her outright—if not to inform their design choices and efforts to maintain thematic continuity, then to keep her singular genius inside the beltway.

Disney is attempting to contain and manage our stampede. Club 33 is exploding because we have a terrible craving to feel special. And heaven forbid we take our kids to an amusement park without giving them games to play on top of everything else.

But earlier this month, FoxxFur tossed a bombshell into the mix. In a post titled Notes on a Time That Was Not Happy, she says right out: “2014 was the year I lost faith in Disneyland.” She goes on to say that Disney has failed to engage her personal fandom, which is built upon “three poles: excellent design, historical legacy, and conceptual integrity.” To her thinking, the design failure of Disneyland’s Club 33 expansion (resulting in several blunders, key among the the loss of the Court of Angels, one of the Park’s few quiet spots), the removal of the waterfalls from the lobby of WDW’s Polynesian Village resort (her “historical legacy” item), and the failed concept of EPCOT (manifested in the decision to open a “Frozen”-themed boat ride in the Norway pavilion), were all crimes unforgivable.

“I want to see passion projects, not spreadsheet low-risk investments,” she writes. “Disney controls the most remarkable creative staff in the industry and they set them to work toiling out things like Cars Land: beautifully done, emotionally hollow. Is it any wonder so many Imagineers are jumping ship to Universal Creative?”

Well, okay. First things first: She’s one hundred percent correct about the Club 33 expansion and the plotlessness of EPCOT. (I can’t speak to the Polynesian waterfalls; I’m a product of west-coast Disney.) Considering how beautifully the expansion of WDW’s Fantasyland was done, it’s utterly remarkable how artlessly EPCOT is being handled, and just how ugly and wrongheaded that Club 33 expansion is.

I’m in lesser agreement about the ascension of Universal Creative. I don’t think they’re all that. Without a J.K. Rowling riding herd on a project—essentially shepherding work done by other, more experienced artists and designers into another medium—you don’t get a Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. Universal did not invent the look of Diagon Alley; they merely inflated it to hide the show building. It amazes me that Universal continually gets a pass for its wearying assortment of shitty, TV-in-a-moving-box rides and strip-mall facades. Say what you will about Disney’s underwhelming Little Mermaid dark ride, but it will chug on, transporting thousands of visitors daily, long after Universal has swapped out Transformers and Despicable Me for some other 3-D motion crap. The human eye wants real dimension and real shape, and 3-D rides can’t deliver it. The best thing I can say about the beautifully-executed Harry Potter attractions is also the most damning: They are Disneyesque.

And as for Cars Land: Gee, I like it. But I liked the first Cars movie, too, seeing it for what it was: a love letter to a vanishing time. That phrase describes more than half of what is successful and beloved at Disneyland. Even if you have no prior knowledge of the Cars movies—as my girlfriend did not, when she saw Disney California Adventure for the first time last October—it’s possible to appreciate Cars Land simply as a preserved Route 66 desert town, with all its Googie neon signage intact. (Ironic that Disney should build such a thing, after it conspired with the city of Anaheim to eliminate such signage from the resort corridor surrounding Disneyland.) Cars Land is impeccably designed and beautifully lit, and its rides are legit fun. The photos I took of my girlfriend and me at the head of its “street,” framed by neon signs and the Cadillac Range, matter just as much to me as the photos we took in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle. The feeling was there.

We ask Disney to transport us. Cars Land does so. It makes me want to go on road trips, just as Pirates of the Caribbean makes me want to burn down villages. The “emotionally hollow” argument seems attached to the common dislike of the Cars film, and frankly, I don’t agree with it at all.

But I’m not trying to diminish FoxxFur’s main point, which is a valid and important one: In many important respects, Disney seems to be losing the plot. But I would add a level to the discussion that none of us will like to hear: At least half of Disney’s recent blunders can be attributed to us, the theme park-going public.

It’s our own fault that the Enchanted Tiki Room and Country Bear Jamboree have been hacked down to accommodate shorter attention spans. It’s our fault that Club 33’s membership has swelled to the size of a religion. And it’s indisputably our fault that Disneyland is losing all its quiet spaces and out-of-the-way spots. Such things are difficult to maintain when nearly a tenth of Disneyland has become a parking lot for Volkswagen-sized double decker strollers.

To a large degree, Disney is reacting, not acting. Like Disneyland’s founder, who once demanded that a concrete walkway be laid over a path that visitors were cutting through a grassy knoll, Disney is attempting to contain and manage our stampede. Club 33 is exploding because we have a terrible craving to feel special, to be part of something exclusive—and a willingness to throw money at it. The Park walkways are being widened into freeways because we take up larger footprints than we once did. (The family with a Hummer in the driveway will easily convince itself that it needs a Hummer on the walkway, too.) And heaven forbid we take our kids to an amusement park without giving them games to occupy their diminished attention spans. MagicBands, dining plans, the cartooning of EPCOT—these are all monsters that we had a hand in making. We gain nothing by pretending that Disney made these decisions in a vacuum.

The only remedy I can suggest for these problems is that old chestnut, dollar voting. Club 33 won’t keep growing if less of us try to bust down its doors. But that only takes us so far. The sad fact is that both FoxxFur and I will keep attending our respective Parks even if the popcorn is replaced with buckets of warm butterfat with straws. We have to acknowledge, in our heart of hearts, that the Magic Kingdoms of our youth have been trampled down. Some of those old hooks have been wrenched free by the crowds, and our memories lost with them. And all we can do in the face of that chaos is find some new hooks, and allow ourselves to get caught on them. Maybe write about how that feels, once in a while. It would be nice if we could get back to the things that matter to us, like our unfinished novels, or who in the hell wants a goddamn Avatar-themed ride, anyway.

Regarding the Disney Purchase of Lucasfilm

This is what happened the last time George Lucas and Marvel worked in close quarters.

By the way, the narrator of this trailer is my late friend, Gene McGarr. He didn’t write this shit; he just read it aloud for money, “trapped in a world he never made.” Rest in peace, Gene.

What I Talk About When We Talk About Disneyland

This is easily the most popular photo I’ve ever taken. It has thousands of likes on Flickr; it’s made the Reddit rounds; It Could Haz Cheezburger. I snapped this at Off The Page in Disney California Adventure in October 2009, and yes, I moved the figurines together; they weren’t positioned like this when I discovered them.

I have two reasons for posting this image here today. First and foremost is that this shot has found its way into the Tumblr/Pinterest realm of hazy authorship, and I need to assert my claim to this thing before it ends up being credited to some other horny idiot. (At this time I’d like to express my gratitude to Heather at I Can Haz Cheezburger?, who responded to my pissy email with more politesse than it deserved.)

The other reason I’m posting here today is because I think the October 2009 visit that produced this irresistible image was my most recent visit to the parks. Three years ago. I can’t believe it, either. I’ve been to Walt Disney World twice in the last three years, and have enjoyed my visits there–but I haven’t been back to the theme park(s) that inspired the creation of this bl-g for three years, due to financial hardship and simple bad luck.

Obviously I miss it. I miss the ways it feeds, and feeds on, my imagination. Some criticize Disney’s theme parks for being tightly-controlled experiences; they compare it to stuff like Burning Man, where you can pretty much write your own dusty-dicked adventure from start to finish. I’m not criticizing that–in fact, I’ve just agreed to attend my first Burn next year, in spite of my intense dislike of portable toilets. But it’s unfair to criticize Disneyland or Disney California Adventure for telling stories in their own way. No two people hear stories the same way. And where someone else sees a shelf of expensive figurines from Disney’s animated movies, I see the inset photo.

Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield at Romanoff's, 1957. Photo by Joe Shere.

Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield at Romanoff’s, 1957. Photo by Joe Shere.

In a way, that’s what Disneyland has always been about, to my thinking: It’s whatever you bring to it. If you’re a collector, you see the shopping. If you’re a parent, you see the Park through your children. And if you’re like me, you see the artistry, the detail, and the coincidences. You look for these coincidences, these strange connections, and if you’re lucky, every so often you get a photo of one of them.

I’m happy to say that I’m a full-time working journalist once again. (You can read my stuff at Vegas Seven, a Las Vegas alternative weekly magazine, if you’re into that sort of thing.) And I’m closer to Disneyland, financially and spatially, than I’ve been in years. If I wanted to, I could drive there right now; it’s only three to four hours’ drive from Las Vegas to Anaheim, and a 40-minute walk to the three-hour line for Radiator Springs Racers.

But today, I find it’s enough to want it. In a way, missing Disneyland fills the heart as much as actually being there does. The imagination stretches beyond the berm; you wonder what it would be like to go there with a friend who hasn’t been there yet (I yearn to be the Ray Bradbury-like guide to someone’s Charles Laughton), or you wonder if there’s something there you haven’t yet seen–some strange and wondrous coincidence, waiting to jump in front of you and challenge you to take its picture.

Orange Clockwork: Soarin’ Over California, in review

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.

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