While Soarin’ Over California holds a place in many a Disneyland fan’s heart, it was overdue for a makeover. Housed in a hangar-like amphitheater with three rows of seats that lift you up to a concave 80-foot screen, the ride simulated hang-gliding over famous California landmarks such as Yosemite National Park, Napa Valley, and the Golden Gate Bridge. The seats moved to simulate dips and turns as riders “flew” over the scenes, and scents were strategically released to further enhance the effect (think freshly cut grass for a Pismo golf course and pine in the redwood forests).
The ride was revolutionary when it opened in 2001 but didn’t age terribly well—no amount of faux ocean spray or eau de orange grove could compensate for 15-year-old graphics or a large, shadowy stain on the edge of the screen. When plans for Soarin’ Around the World were publicized, I kept my expectations low. Just clean off the damn stain, I thought. It’s been there for like five years now.
During a recent visit to the Disneyland Resort, I was surprised to see that the new Soarin’ was already open. The mechanics of the ride hadn’t changed—I was prepared when the Erector Set–like mechanics swept our seats up to the enormous screen with our feet dangling 40 feet above the ground—but I had no idea Disney was about to make me cry like my mom watching the end of Love Actually.
The updated ride expands its scope to six continents, hitting the expected in unexpected ways. Floating over elephants at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, we smelled dry earth and nearly sneezed at the dust. A wind current at The Great Wall of China boosted our view to reveal that we were fluttering amid a dozen kites. As we soared through Utah’s Monument Valley, it occurred to me that not many of my fellow passengers would be able to see all these sites in person, and none of us could do so at such gasp-worthy angles. Maybe you could swing it by skydiving in Utah or parasailing in Sydney Harbour, but flying between The Pyramids of Giza? Buzzing above the Taj Mahal’s reflecting pool? There’s no way. Just as that thought crossed my mind, we zoomed to the apex of the Eiffel Tower, the sky midnight black and the City of Light glimmering below.
Maybe it was the Bataclan attack still fresh in my mind. Maybe it was the orchestral score. Maybe it was the cinematography’s surprisingly immersive scale. Whatever the reason, tears trickled past my eyelashes and didn’t stop until my feet touched the ground. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the sites this planet has to offer, but I’ve stood in Rome’s Colosseum, performed in the Sydney Opera House, and kayaked with dolphins in Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay, and while nothing can replace the thrill and satisfaction of real travel, sometimes all you need is a five-minute ride to take you to new heights.