This post offers a mostly spoiler-free review of Soarin’ Around the World, which debuted recently at Epcot and Disney California Adventure, comparing it to Soarin’ Over California, and providing general thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the attraction. If you want to get technical, it’s actually a review of Soaring Over the Horizon at Shanghai Disneyland, since I haven’t been on the new stateside Soarin’ attractions. They’re all the same, though, minus the pre-show and finale scene.
Let’s start with the good: the core of the experience that made Soarin’ a new classic remains unchanged. The free flight simulation of soaring above the land and epic score still make this attraction a must-do. Those two things are the heart and soul of Soarin’, and are what made the original one of the best attractions of modern Imagineering. I don’t care if you swap the ride video out for “Soarin’ Over Indiana”, so long as the two core elements of Soarin’ remain, you have at least an 8/10 attraction.
That’s true in theory, and it’s true in practice. Some of the locations here are jaw-dropping, and you’ll have a “can’t believe your eyes” feeling marveling at some of the footage (I assume the same would hold true when seeing some of these places in real life). While I joke about the greatness of California, opting for locations that are far more grandiose and aspirational was a wise move. With no shortage of beautiful places in the world, it’s difficult to quibble over what was or wasn’t chosen here (especially since the Chinese government no doubt had some input on what could not be included).
The problem is that the visuals in the Around the World incarnation of Soarin’ are a mixed bag in what is very much a departure from the documentarian style of Soarin’ Over California. Although it debuted in Epcot at Walt Disney World later, Soarin’ was a circa-2001 film from the opening of Disney California Adventure. Think back to the most visually-stunning nature documentaries you’ve seen.
When I do that, almost everything that comes to mind is post-2000. I would say that Planet Earth(2007) redefined the concept, and raised the cinematographic bar in a number of ways. Disney has followed suit with its Disneynature series, and further advances in technology have made it easier for hobbyists to produce stunning films (just check out this time lapse by a pair of backpackers).
Of course, Disney has the distinct advantage of incorporating its film into a theme park attraction, so no direct comparison can be made between Soarin’ and other travelogues that you just sit and watch. Nonetheless, it’s probably fair to say that the Imagineers didn’t want guests shrugging and saying, “I’ve seen better on YouTube” as they left Soarin’ Around the World.
This is evident in the end product, and clearly more shooting was done during at the beginning and end of days when natural lighting is best, and less during the middle of the day when lighting is often flat. That’s definitely an improvement upon the original, with some footage that gave a surprisingly bland impression of places that are actually pretty stunning. It’s also demonstrated in post-production, where the film has a decidedly more polished, vibrant, and hyper-realistic look.
As someone who similarly takes an aggressive approach to photo editing, I get the appeal of this. I also think such a punchy style with exaggerated detail doesn’t work in every setting. Photojournalists could never edit in such a manner because authenticity would be questioned. It’s fair to say a theme park attraction isn’t an exercise in journalism, but probably somewhere in between. Ideally, the visuals should push the envelope as far as they can without pulling guests out of the moment by questioning whether what they are looking at is real.
There are several scenes in which this is not a noticeable issue during Soarin’ Around the World. Unfortunately, there are several places where it is a problem. Save for one glaring exception that I doubt was even filmed on location at all, this isn’t entire scenes. It is due to the addition of little details to the scene, such as people, boats, balloons, or–mostly–animals. I assume these are meant to be icing on the cake, but the visuals could have stood on their own without being “plussed” like this.
The CGI animals don’t necessarily look fake. They don’t have that early 2000s Scorpion King kinda cheesiness, but you do get the feeling that someone at WDI learned CGI and got a little carried away. Fortunately, the technology has evolved enough that even heavy-handed CGI isn’t necessarily noticeable. With the animals, it’s more a sense you get as a viewer that these are not serendipitous moments, they are after-effects. This knowledge, as a viewer, takes you out of the moment. There’s a reason why so many film-goers complain about the overuse of CGI, and that’s it. (Additionally, it’s easier to stomach CGI when you’re watching Godzilla destroy a city–something you know isn’t real–than it is when you’re flying over real world locations.)
On the plus side, the animals do provide transitions, the lack of which was a common complaint about the original Soarin’. This probably feels like a no-win scenario for Imagineering: people complained about the lack of transitions, and now people complain about contrived ones. It just feels like they went from one extreme to the other. There is one scene during the new Soarin’ where a visual symmetry approach was used to transition, and for me, that works incredibly well. Likewise, ascending into clouds and swooping out of them also works for transitions, and also reiterates the whole ‘hang gliding’ pretense of the attraction that has more or less been abandoned on everything except signage at this point.
If you want overlycritical, you could lament how the attraction doesn’t simulate hang gliding. The thing is, it’s close enough. (Probably?) I don’t think I’m going out on a limb or exaggerating with an estimate that 99%+ of Disney-goers has never gone hang gliding. If there were a Venn diagram of “hang gliding enthusiasts” and “Disney enthusiasts” not only would there be zero overlap, but the sets would be so diametrical that they’d have to be on different sheets of paper.
Hang gliding is for thrill seekers who obtain a sense of exhilaration from participating in one of the world’s deadliest hobbies. Disney fans are exhilarated “racing” to Frozen Ever After at rope drop (mortality rate not yet available). Just as those bros who free-climbed El Capitan’s Dawn Wall aren’t going to the climbing walls at a local wall and complaining that the experience isn’t authentic, “famous” hang gliders aren’t complaining that Soarin’ isn’t the real deal. It’s not meant for them. It’s a simulation of free flight for us mortals within the theme park constraint of needing to be operationally efficient. From that perspective, it is most definitely “close enough.” In fact, the sensation of flying, coupled with that enchanting score and cool in-air visuals–no matter what the visuals–will always make Soarin’ a winner, even if it does have some shortcomings.
Overall, Soarin’ Around the World retains the core elements that made its predecessor such a success with guests. In the sense that it doesn’t try to fix something that isn’t broken by altering the fundamental formula of what worked, I guess it’s a success. The thing is, I think we should have hoped for more than “don’t screw it up” with Soarin’ Around the World. I know it’s difficult for the rest of the world to stack up to California in terms of beauty, but there is a ton of natural beauty out there. So much CGI wasn’t necessary. The vast majority of guests will never see any of these places in their lifetimes–let alone fly over them–so why not let the majestic awe of that experience speak for itself? It’s disappointing that the Soarin’ Around the World team felt the need to get so heavy-handed with “producing” this attraction, but at the end of the day, it’s still an incredible, must-do experience at Epcot or Disney California Adventure. Even with all of my complaints, I’d still give this version a 9 or 9.5/10.
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Have you experienced Soarin’ Around the World? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? What did you think of the original? Share any questions, tips, or additional thoughts you have in the comments!