I am fairly jaded when it comes to amusement parks in general, and Disneyland in particular. Don't get me wrong, roller coasters are a kick, and I enjoy taking the family to Disneyland, it is pleasant, well run, clean and fun. The fireworks display (particularly the 50th anniversary version) is unique and spectacular, coming as it does from many angles in synchronization with music. However, even the best amusement park has nothing to offer that compares with climbing, trail running or ultra-lighting. That having been said, if you find yourself in the hell that is LA, spend the $60.00 for a day pass to California Adventure and check out the "Soarin' Over California" ride.
I had no real idea of what to expect, having heard vague descriptions of being flown over some kind of a simulated landscape. We used Fast Pass, so we did not have to wait more than about five minutes in the line, which meandered through the large hangar-like structure past posters of famous aviators and their aircraft - the Wrights, Otto Lilienthal, Curtis, Burt Rutan, and many more.
At the end of the queue, we were led inside to a staging area in groups of 90, and lined up in three sets of three rows of ten riders. We watched an amusing video of "Patrick" the Flight Attendant, who cautioned those who might have fear of heights, told us how to stow our gear under the seat, to refrain from any photography, etc. They opened the doors and led us into a large, dimly lit room filled with a huge, marvelous machine - a gigantic flight simulator brooding on a balcony, 30 feet above the floor, separated by a railing from a 4-story high Omni-Max screen. In "rest mode", the simulator's three sets of 10-rider wide banks of seats are positioned three deep on the balcony. We happened to be in the best seats, in the front row of the center group.
Everyone strapped in, the attendants checked us, and then the monstrous machine came to life. We were lifted smoothly up and over the railing into positions in front of the soft blue glow from the screen. Soon the machine was primed and ready; all nine rows arranged in a 3x3 grid about 20 feet in front of the giant curved screen.
Then, as the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith filled the air, the lights dimmed to blackness for a few seconds, and suddenly we were rushing through a sunlit cloud. The effect was breathtaking, accompanied by a cool mist blown in our faces from tubes mounted above and in front of each rider. An ear-to-ear grin was plastered on my face as we burst out of the clouds into clear, sunlit air over the Golden Gate Bridge and into a splendidly coordinated right turn, swooping down over the roadway filled with cars crossing the bay. The simulation was astonishing, flawless in every way - perfectly focused, zero spherical aberration regardless of the direction one gazed - I immediately forgot I was inside a building and instead just relaxed to the sensation of flying through cool, moist air under a brilliant blue sky.
For the next four and a half minutes, we swooped and soared over a variety of landscapes. The simulator mechanism was powerful, silent and precisely programmed, applying the correct G-force for every maneuver. After the Golden Gate sequence, we raced down Redwood Creek, three meters over the heads of rafters, then to drift with hot-air balloons above Napa Valley. Each scene-transition was beautifully coordinated with the music's subtle changes in theme. Speeding along the rocky coastline of Monterey Bay past sea lions, the smell of salt spray filled our nostrils. Arrowing over the Lake Tahoe ski area, we pulled up just in time, feeling the G’s, to arc over a snowy ridge and a group of skiers. Skimming a So Cal grove of orange trees complete with citrus scent, the effect was so realistic we lifted our feet to avoid the branches. Diving over the desert mountain cradling the Palm Springs PGA West golf course, we buzzed the greens and a golfer driving a ball directly into our faces. We flew in formation with a hang glider past climbers on a route near Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite, then high above horseback riders heading up an arroyo in the Anza-Borrego State Park just as the Air Force's Thunderbird jet team screamed by. We cruised over the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of active flight operations just outside San Diego harbor, then beside surfers catching the last waves of the evening at Malibu Beach, and along I-10 at night through downtown LA as the lights of the city and the cars twinkled below.
As each maneuver was executed the simulator would raise, drop, and adjust the pitch of all 90 seats in unison, so that everyone experienced the same G-forces that the helicopter pilots felt while filming the sequences.
As the music swelled to a magnificent crescendo, the ride culminated in a pass over Disneyland's Main Street at night while fireworks exploded above Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Then it was over, the lights came on, the screen went blue, and the machine sighed and folded itself back up, returning us gently to the balcony. We were stunned; everyone burst out in thunderous applause.
We rode it two more times. My only criticism is that it was way to short!
The experience served to remind me that Mankind's presence in the Universe is, on balance, a good thing. " Soarin' " represents the fusion of many exemplary achievements - flight, music, photography, physics, climbing, surfing, agriculture, computer science, art, choreography and much more. The wilderness rules, but at least some aspects of city life are worthwhile.