Soarin' Over California
Updated: Aug 17
Have you ever just been out and about and smelled something that instantly transports you back to a very specific, cherished memory? Or it happens when you hear a certain song, or see a certain movie. Nostalgia hits us "right in the feels". It brings us back to times in our life when we were happiest. For some its fond moments we like to remember, for others it could for people or places. And for some, it comes flooding back through the eyes of our children.
That’s how Walt Disney found himself sitting on a crummy bench, eating peanuts, watching his two girls go round and round on a dumpy carousel. Walt hated carnivals. They were dirty, dangerous, and just a collection of cheap tricks and freak shows to weasel people out of their money. But there he was, watching his daughters brimming with joy, a toothy smile from ear to ear, teleporting him back to his own youthful adventures with his brother Roy.
Walt Disney may often be thought of as a lord of the entertainment business, but he was really just a down to earth, people person. His genius didn't lie in shrewd wall street dealings, and he didn't make decisions based on shareholder satisfaction statistics. He just wanted to create content that would remind us of that long dormant, tiny forgotten part of the brain that stores the pure and innocent joy from happier times.
And now sitting watching his daughters, he was dreaming of a kind of sanctuary that would preserve that feeling. It would be a place where children and adults alike could embrace their own imaginations. Where dreams were born, and our nostalgic feelings could be turned into reality. That was his true dream for Disneyland. It was Walt's vision to design a park that felt like a world of it's own, full of attractions that took visitors of all ages into a physical world of imagination, allowing them to become an active member in the story telling process. The creative minds behind his new ride experience, which he named“imagineers”, were a group of uniquely talented individuals that could act as both conceptual artist and engineer. At Walter Elias Disney Enterprises, or WED as it was known, imagineers were encouraged to think outside the box, be playful, and let their imaginations know no bounds. Inside the walls of WED Enterprises, the word impossible ceased to exist, where fantastic worlds of imagination were born using state of the art technology, often of their own design.
For over sixty years, imagineers have been re-inventing the theme park experience, upping the "wow" factor, and attracting audiences of all ages and nationalities. In 1996, the great minds at WED had come up with the idea to create an attraction that would allow visitors to experience flight from a birds eye view. The idea was awesome, but as it was seen then, technologically impractical. The attraction eventually got near to the point of being cancelled,when over Thanksgiving weekend, imagineer Mark Sumner, discovered that maybe a complicated idea could be created simply.
Tinkering in his garage with an erector set, he took a seemingly crude, but simple construction and turned it into a revolutionary experience that completely immersed guests in a gentle but thrilling flight through the state of California, where they would be able to smell the pine of its lush forests, the sweet aromas of orange groves and the sharp, brisk scents of the sea.
The ride was genius, but even with new effects of all kinds, it was still missing that little extra bit that would make it completely one of a kind. The final step in the process was to “plus it” as Walt would say, and add in the last, seemingly obvious, ingredient- the music. In the fall of 1999, legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith was invited to WED headquarters in southern California, where he could preview the ride, and hopefully, be interested in joining the project.
Within a period just under five minutes, Jerry was transported back to his childhood along the sunny coastline of Southern California, hand gliding among the sand and sea with his father. With the smells of his childhood in the air, that long forgotten part of his brain had been re-awakened, and when he came off the ride, he was in tears.
There was no need for any further sales pitch, he was in. "I'd do anything to be part of this project, I'd even score the film for free". Although the powers that be refused to let him work for free, Jerry was thrilled to take part in a project that married his earliest, lifelong passions- music and flight.
The trick to writing for film is that the composer needs to be an impartial story teller, using their music to enhance whatever emotions the film makers are looking to convey, making the audience believe the story they are seeing is real. As difficult as that can be, a ride is an even bigger challenge, where the audience now has to believe the story and also believe that they are a part of the story.
Attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean (1967) have a catchy tune that plays in a loop that sets the atmosphere, while others rides like Rockin' Roller Coaster (1999), use the driving music of Aerosmith to keep the excitement and adrenaline going. But Soarin' wasn't an intense roller coaster, or a gently meandering boat ride. Even with the ground breaking technology, the audience was still basically just watching a film, and paying a lot of money to go to Disneyland and watch a very pleasant movie wasn't going to live up to Walt's dream.
But with new creations come new problems, and Jerry was posed with a unique task. The music had to set the mood, make the experience believable and also distract the audience from the mechanics of the ride. He had to write something that would instill the same emotional reaction that he had, by marring what the audience was seeing on the screen, with what their other faculties were experiencing. Instead of writing music that would emphasize every little action that happened in the film, he decided to use music as a narrative.
The music begins gently, suddenly bursting into a majestic, breath taking chord emanating from the entire orchestra as the riders get their first experience of flight over the Golden Gate Bridge. Arriving next in a tranquil forest, the orchestra now calms, resting on a gentle, flowing melody that is sung like a lullaby in the strings, colored by the orchestra. The melody continues on in different forms with subtly affectations, tying the scenes together and matching the vast depth of the imagines, but always remaining tender and keeping the audience in a relaxed but completely engaged state.
Like Aaron Copland’s revivifying Appalachian Spring, or John Williams heavenly reverent Jurassic Park, Jerry Goldsmith's score for Soarin’ Over California summons surrealistic images in our minds, replacing the tangible surroundings of an attraction, with an imaginary journey full of awe and wonder. Becoming emotionally attached to the project, he left a big piece of himself within the music, a piece from that little part of the brain that Walt Disney spent his life trying to help people rediscover. His nostalgia, became our nostalgia, bringing us on a wondrous journey though time and space, leaving audiences in applause ride after ride since it's debut.
The music can be rented for live performance from JoAnn Kane Music Service: