Disney is Changing California Adventure's Condor Flats into Grizzly Peak Airfield

January 8, 2015, 5:16 PM · As we mentioned at the end of yesterday's post, the Condor Flats land at Disney California Adventure has closed, and it is not coming back. At least, not with the same name and theme.

The park's new guidemaps have greyed out the area,

DCA map

And the construction walls have announced the new name, "Grizzly Peak Airfield."

The main reason for the refurbishment is to upgrade the projection systems on Soarin' Over California, the only attraction in the land. Screen-based attractions in theme parks ought to look better than anything a visitor can see on his or her television at home. With recent rapid advances in consumer electronics, that's not a sure thing any longer. Expect to see parks move toward more aggressive refurb schedules for screen-based attractions until either we hit the next tech plateau or the parks just surrender and decide they can live with an inferior product. (Some will. Some won't. Your predictions welcomed in the comments.)

While they're at it, Disney's taking this opportunity to strengthen one of the weaker themed areas in the park. A test pilots' desert airstrip could provide a solid theme for an entertaining land, but Disney didn't really develop that theme in any meaningful way. Soarin' Over California is a gentle tour of the state in vehicles that look like giant hang gliders, not a high-G thrill ride through the skies in high-tech jets. There's nothing in Condor Flats that evoked a feeling of exhilarating, seat-of-your-pants, "The Right Stuff"-style exploration of the frontier above us. Instead, we get a rather barren short transition between the lush Grizzly Peak and the delightful new Buena Vista Street.

Timing didn't help anyone develop fondness for this area, either. California Adventure opened in early 2001, just months before the 9/11 attacks that created a national fear of flying. Instead of providing an inspiring narrative that could help visitors move beyond that fear, Disney made ham-handed design decisions that, if anything, subconsciously referenced the attacks, with an airplane flying through the facade of the Taste Pilot's Grill restaurant and having the center stripe of the Condor Flats runway line up perfectly with the scorched exterior of the Tower of Terror across the park.

Disney's new plan for the area will make the former Condor Flats an extension of the much more beloved Grizzly Peak, with better landscaping and decoration to match the rest of that land. The "Airfield" part simply acknowledges the presence of Soarin' Over California, which — as one of the more popular attractions in the park and its original hit — ain't going anywhere. But instead of being contained within a desert testing ground, Soarin' Over California now will take off from something like a mountain valley national park airstrip, which is probably a more appropriate way to frame the attraction. Heck, cut the opening shot of the Golden Gate bridge and the film could start with us flying above a "nearby" Sierra Mountain river.

The new Grizzly Peak Airfield, with the refurbished Soarin' Over California, is scheduled to open by this summer.

Update: If you're wondering where to get a burger at California Adventure, now that the Taste Pilot's Grill is closed, Disney is serving burgers at the Paradise Garden Grill during the Grizzly Peak Airfield refurbishment. So it looks like we'll have to wait a few more months for the skewers to return to the PGG, after their annual disappearance for the Viva Navidad holiday menu.

Replies (17)

January 8, 2015 at 5:58 PM · I agree completely with the idea to refurbish attractions with old projection systems. I was just talking about this with my wife the last time we were at WDW. Mickey's PhilharMagic, One Man's Dream, Muppetvision, It's Tough to be a Bug are just examples of attractions that need to be taken care of.
January 8, 2015 at 6:06 PM · "Screen-based attractions in theme parks ought to look better than anything a visitor can see on his or her television at home."

That is a false statement. The quality of film based projection, especially 15/70 IMAX, far exceeds that of anything we can view in our homes. If you were to attempt to project a 1080p image on the screen in Soarin' it would look awful. Our home televisions, even the newer 4K, are not superior to what Disney has had in that attraction since January 2001.

IMAX 15/70 film is the equivalent 19k digital projection which does not exist. The best digital projectors in wide use today are 4K. If Disney is downgrading to 4K digital projection then they are making a mistake and the result of this downgrade will be noticeable. In fact, today's 4K digital projectors will be unable to fill a screen the size of Soarin' Over Calfornia with a evenly illuminated, clear image.

Please don't make the mistake like so many reporters make and suggest that digital projection is superior to 15/70 film. It is not. And it won't be for many more years to come. This is not an upgrade, but a downgrade.

The only hope here would be for Disney to deploy one of IMAX's upcoming laser projectors.

January 8, 2015 at 8:23 PM · Grizzly Peak Airfield sounds great. I hope that Disney does not bring Soarin' Over the World to California Adventure. Disney fans would enjoy a new and improved version of Soarin' Over California, but Disney should keep the magnificent Jerry Goldsmith musical score and the same beautiful locations showcased in the original Soarin' Over California. This is my favorite Disney attraction. I hope they don't ruin it.
January 8, 2015 at 9:14 PM · Just got back from a trip to Florida and I was shocked at how outdated the projection in some of the attractions seemed. Worst was Mickey's Philharmagic. The screen was so ludicrously dim a packed holiday theater could barely make out the characters. Last time I rode Simpsons in Hollywood it was similarly lacking in brightness.

In EPCOT, the clatter from the Circlevision projectors and the often apparent lack of color correction between films was another relic of another era. With digital projection's correction for keystone effect, shouldn't we be have a Circlevision with no bar between screens by now?

January 8, 2015 at 9:31 PM · Not so sure about this one. I don't think it was executed well, but I appreciated the homage to the salt flats and architecture at Edwards Air Force Base, which hosted Chuck Yeager's Glamorous Glennis, the space shuttle, and all. That is such a huge part of California's history. Changing it to a mountaintop air strip, like Catalina Island's Airport in the Sky, just doesn't seem as fitting. I will be open to seeing what the changes are, but I do hope they do indeed have "The Right Stuff."
January 8, 2015 at 11:25 PM · I really like Grizzly peak absorbing the condor flats
miniland. Without soarin there is no reason to visit that land as the author notes. Now grizzly peak has 2 e tickets and the wilderness explorers play area, and a restaurant. Feels like a full complete land which is awesome. My only gripe is I wish the grizzly river run store could be moved to the new Grizzly peak airstrip area and convert the store to a mid level restaurant with large windows to see the rafts, forest and peak across the way. How great would that be?!
January 9, 2015 at 2:09 AM · Great news! I can't say I've been to California Adventure in the last ten years, but when Disney wants to, they can really theme a land, and I'm ecstatic to see that this is happening. It sounds like it's going to be well worth the investment.
January 9, 2015 at 7:45 AM · There's space for a small ride there! While quite repetitive, they could put a ride similar to the jets at Disneyland so that kids could fly around the peak! DCA still needs a bit more to do. They could also reduce the restaurant size to add something... Thoughts?
January 9, 2015 at 8:35 AM · So glad they are finally doing something with this area. I didn't know what the area was supposed to represent until someone pointed out the air field painted on the asphalt. With other more iconic airstrips in California like Moffett Field or the old LAX air tower, I really didn't understand the theming here. Still not sure what the monorail has to do with Grizzly Peak, but glad to see it is finally getting some love.
January 9, 2015 at 8:52 AM · Robert, about your 9/11 comments: Didn't the Tower of Terror open a few years after the park opened, as one of the fixes for the park's lack of popularity? In which case, the designers of Condor Flats couldn't have predicted that the runway would line up with the Tower of Terror. It was just an unhappy coincidence with where they decided to locate the new attraction.
January 9, 2015 at 9:03 AM · Why wouldn't they call it Piston Peak Airfield? They should use their own IP.
January 9, 2015 at 9:41 AM · Perhaps they should refilm the pre-show of Soaring with Patrick Warburton wearing Ranger outfit. That will change the effect from an airline feel to the recreation and parks feel. Any ideal of what the store will change to?
January 9, 2015 at 11:36 AM · Two replies:

To Two other factors come into play. First, I'm sitting much closer to my screen at home than I am in a theme park theater. That creates a different personal impression of the image than I get in the theater, which needs to be better than the home screen to overcome that (especially for people without 20/20 or corrected vision, which is a big chunk of the population). Second and more important IMO, as others have mentioned, is luminosity. Great resolution is no good if people can't see it. Upgraded projection systems can create more reliable lighting for the screen, enhancing the in-park viewing experience. Sure, in a perfect world, we'd be watching everything projected on pristine film, with perfectly calibrated projectors casting abundant light. But no one but the most hard-core cinephile wants to spend that kind of money, so digital projection it is. Also, of course, the projection system is only half the issue here. The quality of the image being projected is the other half.

To It's still ham-handed design. Yes, the bad decision decision was the placement of ToT, but it affected the user experience in Condor Flats.

January 9, 2015 at 12:51 PM · I just wish they would finally install Soarin' Over the World. How long have we been hearing about that new version? Five-six years? What's the hold up?
January 10, 2015 at 2:47 PM · Film projection is not prohibitively expensive and calibrating a film projector is very easy to do.

This change will result in operating cost savings for Disney, but comes with a significant compromise in image quality. The only reason they're going to get away with this is because of the public's ignorance and their false belief that digital projection is superior to film.

One only needs to look at The Simpsons Ride at Universal to see the result of downgrading to digital projection on an IMAX sized screen. The illumination of the screen is uneven and the overall picture is dark, grainy, and lacking of consistent luminosity from edge to edge.

IMAX film projectors offer the brightest, clearest picture possible. The lamphouse of an IMAX projector houses two 15,000 watt bulbs which result in light output of about 600,000 lumens. In comparison a Christie 4K digital projector is only capable of outputting 35,000 lumens with a 6kW lamp at the center of the image.

Digital IMAX uses two 2K projectors projecting the same image over each other to make the image brighter. However, neither a 2K or 4K projector or IMAX Digital setup is capable of matching the screen brightness of an IMAX film projector or projecting an an image large enough to film a true IMAX sized screen. This is why Digital IMAX theaters are just converted regular movie theaters with a screen that is only slightly larger than a standard screen. IMAX has used perception tricks to fool the audience into thinking the screen is large when it is in fact not.

If Soarin' Over California used a standard sized screen then the switch would be a non-issue, but it uses a giant IMAX dome screen. Maybe Disney will significantly reduce the screen size, but again that will compromise the experience.

If folks think that the image is bad now, just wait until they see digital Soarin'.

January 11, 2015 at 12:51 AM · Robert Parker: I had a similar thought! How cool would it be to be able to glide over the raft attraction in a chair-lift! From the "flats" up to the top of Grizzly Peak and back. That shouldn't be to expensive to build.
January 12, 2015 at 12:03 PM · The Simpsons Ride debuted at both Universal parks on 2008. That's 7 years ago. In technology terms, its about 2 generations ago. Perhaps it is a hope, but I'm sure Soarin' will get a significantly better result.

What about Digital 3D IMAX? IMAX has gone digital. In fact, The Transformers Age of Extinction was filmed with the new 3D Digital IMAX camera.

Here's an article that's describing movie theaters changing out their film IMAX for digital IMAX in 2015.


Here's an article describing the next generation IMAX. Maybe Soarin' is getting too?


"Pacific Science Center has partnered with IMAX since it innovated spectacular giant screen projection systems,” said Bryce Seidl, President & CEO Pacific Science Center. “The technologies in the new laser-powered IMAX digital projection system will provide unparalleled image quality and sound that will allow us to continue to educate audiences with the highest quality images on the largest IMAX screen in the state.”

"Under the terms of the agreement Pacific Science Center will install IMAX's next-generation laser projection system, which is expected to set a new benchmark as the industry’s premium entertainment experience. The system, which represents the culmination of the largest R&D initiative in IMAX’s history, incorporates the laser digital intellectual property IMAX exclusively licensed from Eastman Kodak and Barco's unique laser innovations. It will enable IMAX’s largest screens to deliver the highest-quality digital content available with greater brightness and clarity, a wider color gamut and deeper blacks."

Coincidental. The timetable for installation is same as Soarin'.

"The Boeing IMAX® Theater will close after the final showing of Interstellar: The IMAX Experience in 70mm Film on Jan. 4, 2015 at 9 p.m. and is scheduled to reopen in May 2015."


Bottomline: IMAX has gone digital and there's no going back. Whether the film is better is not in argument, the technology has changed.

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