Up, up and away 

This time last year, all you were hearing about Disney's California Adventure was complaints. How Mouse House management had cut so many corners that the only thing the Imagineers could afford was off-the-shelf carny rides and recycled shows from Walt Disney World.

Well, California Adventure finally opened last week, and after getting a chance to sample all the attractions, the critics seem to have changed their tune. The most common comment seems to be: "When are the other Disney parks going to get some rides and shows like California Adventure has?"

Why the sudden change of heart? The chief cause is DCA's break-out attraction, "Soarin' Over California." Though initial descriptions of this flight-simulator show made it sound like a tame travelogue, "Soarin'" has quickly emerged as the audience favorite.

The real beauty of "Soarin'" is its simplicity. This attraction creates the sensation of hang-gliding over some of California's most spectacular scenery. As the wind blows in guests' faces, scents of what they're flying over fill the air -- like a hint of orange as the ride film takes them over an orange grove. "Soarin'" seems so realistic that some riders pull their feet up out of fear that their shoes will get tangled up in the treetops.

While the ride might seem simplistic, the technology necessary to pull off the illusion of flight is not. It involves a three-tiered series of seats that lifts 87 guests 50 feet in the air, then inserts them into an 80-foot-tall inverted Omnimax dome. As the guests look down into the dome, a four-and-a-half-minute movie is shown on the screen.

After adding the crucial finishing touches (that "wind in your face" feeling comes from a series of blowers hidden in the ceiling), this ride takes guests zooming over Palm Springs as a golf ball comes whizzing by, flying over Yosemite as a hang glider passes below, and high up in the nighttime sky over Disneyland as a fireworks display begins.

As soon as the park began holding previews, word quickly got out that "Soarin' Over California" was a must-see attraction. By the second week of January, guests were already eagerly standing in line for hours.

Just how crazy has the public become about "Soarin'"? On Saturday, Feb. 2, an electrical panel inside the attraction malfunctioned, filling the show building with the scent of acrid smoke. Worried that a real fire was about to break out, DCA cast members tried to evacuate the building. But many folks refused to leave the queue, out of fear that they'd lose their place in line.

The public's overwhelming enthusiasm for "Soarin' Over California" has not gone unnoticed by the managers of Disney's other theme parks. Gray-suited executives from the Oriental Land Co. -- the corporation that actually owns and operates Tokyo Disneyland -- quietly stood outside this DCA attraction on opening day, observing the crowd quickly queuing up.

And the folks who run Disney's Orlando parks already have made it clear they want a similar attraction installed ASAP. The big questions now are: Which of the four parks gets the ride, and what sort of story is Disney World's "Soarin'" going to tell?

One thing's for sure: The WDW version will not be "Soarin' Over Florida." "After all," quipped WDI vice chairman Marty Sklar, "it would be kind of hard to build a show around a flying tour of Florida, a state whose highest point is just 400 feet above sea level."

OK, maybe Sklar is right. A ride where you'd spend nearly five minutes circling Bok Tower doesn't exactly sound thrilling. Imagineer Rick Rothschild -- the guy who cooked up the whole "Soarin'" concept -- wouldn't go on record about what the theme of the Florida version might be. But in an interview with Orlando Weekly, he did drop some anvil-sized hints.

"I see this ride technology as being capable of telling some pretty complicated stories. Sure, we could use this to do yet another travelogue of memorable United States scenery. But wouldn't it be more fun, more intriguing to use this system to visit worlds of fantasy?"

Rothschild says the inspiration for "Soarin' Over California" came directly from that old Fantasyland favorite, "Peter Pan's Flight."

So will the WDW version of "Soarin'" really take tourists to a fantasy world? One learns never to say never -- particularly when there are fans of Peter Pan involved in the decision-making process.

Another part of DCA that appears to be heading for WDW is the "Sorcerer's Workshop" area that's located deep inside the new park's Hollywood backlot area. These interactive exhibits allow guests to learn which Disney characters they most closely resemble as well as dub their own voice into a scene from a classic animated film. Disney/MGM managers have insisted these pieces be added to the "Magic of Disney Animation" tour the next time this WDW favorite goes down for rehab.

One piece of California Adventure you definitely won't see in Florida is "Superstar Limo." DCA's one true dud, this satirical dark ride supposedly gives guests a stylized re-creation of what it must be like for a celebrity to arrive at a glamorous Hollywood premiere.

But visitors to California Adventure so far have shown little interest in pretending to be celebrities. So the next time you visit WDW, don't expect to go in a limo. But you might be able to go up, up and away.

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