Of all these tropes, flight might be the most popular theme in the parks. Whether we are riding on the back of a flying elephant, a magic carpet, or mountain banshee, knifing through the air like Superman, soaring around the world, or blasting off to the stars, we can find flight-themed attractions in all of the world's top theme parks. Why do we love flying so much?
Because from the time we first entered consciousness, we've wanted a better view of the world around us. Being a short a little kid stinks, having your view of the world restricted to the legs of the adults around you. Even as we grow, there's still someone, or something, blocking our view, even if it's just the limit of the horizon. How wonderful would it be to soar above all that, to see the to the infinite horizon, and to fly to the destinations of our heart's choosing, without gravity — and traffic — holding us back?
That's why theme parks provide us so many different ways to fly. Or, at least, to engage our imaginations to pretend that we've taken flight. But which attractions do that best? Which theme park rides most make us feel like we really are flying?
Like with all acts of magic, the key to success with theme park rides lies in getting us to buy into their illusion. In Life, the Universe and Everything, the third book of the five-volume Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (yes, I know — that's part of the joke), Douglas Adams wrote, "There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."
I think that gets to the heart of it, no?
So the first step in creating the illusion of flying for theme park designers is to place us into a physical position where we feel like we're falling — like we are throwing ourselves at the ground.
To me, there's a huge difference between feeling like I'm flying and feeling like I'm riding in an airplane. Sure, both technically qualify as "flight," but I've flown on an airplane a bunch of times before. I might have even flown on a plane to get to this theme park. It's nothing special. It's not the dream of taking off from the ground and flying into the air all by myself.
For that, I need to feel like I've thrown myself at the ground... and missed.
Again, it's all about positioning. If, on a theme park flying ride, I am sitting upright in a chair, then I feel like I am just on another airplane flight. That's nice, but hardly special enough to send my heart and imagination soaring. As much as I enjoy rides such as Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and even the urtext of theme park flying rides, Dumbo, it's my chair that is flying... not me.
So think about the position that you're in when you throw yourself at the ground. You're not lounging comfortably with your head above your chest, your knees pulled up level to form a lap, and your feet hanging perpendicular below. No, you're sprawling forward, with your face on course to plant into the ground, your arms pushing in front of you to break the fall, and your feet an afterthought, trailing somewhere behind.
In other words, you're Superman.
The best "flying" theme park rides put us into that prone position. Think about Bolliger & Mabillard flying coasters, or even dive coasters on their initial drops. It's not enough to slice through the air, stories above the ground. The real flying sensation comes when we feel like Superman, arms extended, our bodies stretched, and our ever-grounded feet nowhere to be seen.
As much as I love flying coasters such as SeaWorld Orlando's Manta, though, their pesky (yet very necessary!) restraints undermine the illusion. They remind us that we remain physically connected to a track. We might be twisting through the air, but we're not yet really flying. To get all the way there — to buy into the illusion — we need a restraint system that we cannot see as we lean forward into the abyss.
And that is why my favorite "flying" experience in a theme park to date has been... Walt Disney World's new Flight of Passage ride. Themed to a flight on the back of a Mountain Banshee on the moon Pandora from James Cameron's Avatar, Flight of Passage helps sell its illusion by confessing it. Yes, you're inside a building, and not outside, flying through the air. No, you're not actually sitting on the back of a living, flying creature, but instead straddling a machine that will replicate that experience. Yes, this really is an illusion.
It's a wonderful con. By admitting that we are experiencing an illusion, Disney tricks us into suspending our disbelief and skepticism of it. Physically, we will straddle a motorcycle-style seat and stretch into that prone position that makes us feel like we are throwing ourselves at the ground (and missing!) The restraints will hold our backs and our legs — out of sight and out of mind. And mentally, we've abandoned our skepticism to put ourselves in position... to believe.
So when the chamber's front wall pulls away to reveal Pandora on the screen behind it, and we feel that Banshee "breathe" between our legs as we dive forward into the air... we forget not to believe the illusion. Disney has invited us to throw ourselves into skepticism. But we missed.
And then, we fly.
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