Theme park fans find magic in the illusion of flight

June 16, 2017, 4:21 PM · At their most compelling, theme parks grant us the power to do the incredible. They allow us to travel through time — from the moment of extinction for the dinosaurs to a future when space is a tourist destination. They move us through enchanted portals into a wizard's universe or a cartoon playground. Theme parks allow us to defeat robot armies, survive attacks by mythical beasts, and to escape the bounds of gravity to fly.

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.

For the comments: What is your favorite "flying" attraction?

Replies (22)

June 16, 2017 at 10:36 PM · Has to be Soarin but also Superman Ultimate Flight at Six Flags Great America.
June 16, 2017 at 10:39 PM · The superman flying coaster at six flags over Georgia captures that flying feeling very well. I think I love manta more, but it's the first ride that made me feel like I could fly.

That being said, flight of passage is amazing. It just feels right. The sights, the feeling, the smell. Everything is spot on. Now if they could put those seats on a track so everything doesn't have to be a screen. (I know, pony express at knotts has a similar seat. Not the same.)

June 17, 2017 at 12:40 AM · For me it's Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. As soon as Hermione casted her Wingardium Leviosa spell on our bench I believed we were flying. The fact I never noticed the mechanism behind the illusion made it perfect for me.
June 17, 2017 at 1:28 AM · Excellent writing!
June 17, 2017 at 4:22 AM · 'Flight of Passage' walks (or rather "flies") away with this one. I have been on both FOP 'Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.' Potter lacks the grandeur and open skies of FOP. From being stuck in the Whomping Willow to the up-close moments with the dragon, dementors and spiders. Swooping along the beach and through the Pandoran rain forests makes FOP the easy choice.
June 17, 2017 at 9:18 AM · Tatsu at Magic Mountain does it well. I am happy for the restraints while lying face down.
June 17, 2017 at 9:35 AM · Actually Avatar was a perfect fit for this ride. Instead of actually, really flying on a real Banshee, you are 'experiencing' the flight through your Avatar. Disney lucked out when they did this one. I'm waiting for the day when you are riding on a 'real' animal, moving through 'real' space, not just on a motorcycle seat in front of a screen.
June 17, 2017 at 1:27 PM · As someone who's gone skydiving, no ride can replicate it, and a restraint is a restraint. FOP has a big screen, but that doesn't make the sensation any better. If all you are going to go by is being blinded by video, then that would make VR Kraken ride the best. I prefer the physical sets in Forbidden Journey to FOP, both are fun though!
June 17, 2017 at 1:33 PM · Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey takes this one! Flying on an enchanted bench, the Kuka robotic arm coaster, the practical sets mixed with screens -- it's very visceral.

Flight of Passage is good, but no practical sets? In the end it's just another screen simulator :-D

June 17, 2017 at 3:50 PM · X2 at Six Flags Magic Mountain - the first drop and raven curve - the ascent up the raven curve feels like you've got a rocket pack strapped to you, as you're sitting up right and go up very quickly, and don't rotate out of that position immediately. That bit feels more like flying than even their excellent B&M 'flying' coaster Tatsu.
June 17, 2017 at 6:01 PM · FOP does nothing for me. Not just that it's a simulator but because it's just pretty scenes that didn't mean anything to me (as a non-Avatar know-er). I have the same lack of knowledge with Star Tours except at least that has humour that doesn't require knowledge of the IP, so I enjoy that more.
TRON on the other hand - I could ride that all day. And I likewise have zero knowledge of the movie (movies?) there as well. But it's real vestibular, visual, and wind-in-your-hair motion. Maybe not flying but flying-adjacent.
June 17, 2017 at 11:39 PM · You all can have your Pandora Flying Banshee or Harry Potter Enchanted Benches, but the best "flying" ride was Back to the Future! A flying DeLorean that had us crashing through a Texaco sign and being eaten by 100 foot tall T-Rex inside a volcano, what can beat that?! Plus we kept getting called butt heads the entire ride.

Ahh... I miss that ride.

June 18, 2017 at 6:09 AM · Good but not great. I'm tired of screens.
June 18, 2017 at 9:53 AM · Soarin' Over California was all heart, not CGI crap. This generation has no soul.
June 18, 2017 at 10:09 AM · A really good way to experience flight at a theme park is via a roller coaster derailment.
June 18, 2017 at 1:38 PM · As a child, my favorite flying ride at Disney was the Peter Pan ride. I was in absolute awe as the boat/vehicle went out that bedroom window, curved above the shrinking backyards, and then soared high over London. Even then I knew it was all miniatures and lighting - but it was still pure magic.

Sure, it doesn't compare to flying benches, DeLoreans, Banshees, or suspended roller coasters. I just felt it needed nostalgia shout-out.

June 18, 2017 at 11:04 PM · I'm delighted that Disney hit it out of the park with FOP. I noticed that AK has been open later than MK lately. Who ever thought that would happen?
June 19, 2017 at 2:43 AM · 1) HP Forbidden Journey
2) Manta/ Tatsu
3) Skycoaster Orlando
4) ifly
5) Mission Space
June 19, 2017 at 8:58 AM · Not a fan of these Soarin type of rides and I never understood why that ride had a long wait time to begin with. However, I agree with those who suggested Tatsu. Yeah there are similar rides at other theme park, but only in Magic Mountain where that ride sits on top of the hill which makes it unique that you are very high vs being very low at other parks.
June 19, 2017 at 9:35 AM · Galactica f/k/a Air at Alton Towers b/c the fly-to-lie and lie-to-fly transitions are so smooth and b/c the restraints are relatively unobtrusive.
June 20, 2017 at 9:11 AM · "If You Had Wings"! ^_^
June 21, 2017 at 1:48 AM · What is my favorite "flying" attraction?

For my choice, at first, I exclude all on-screen, or virtual reality options. NO VIDEO ! ..I want to experience in a real life 3-D environment !
Then, suddenly, the choices become thin, because it requires a 1000 times more imagination and effort to create, then the on-screen simulation stuff.
Thin in numbers, except that those choices seem to possess everlasting high value and it's impossible to de-throne them !

YES, when you fly in a vehicle you sit in a seat, but that's not a flight experience excluding factor. It should not be !

The factors that really matter are:
- amazing detail (you must "look around" to experience everything = you must be stimulated/forced to move your HEAD & EYES as well! >> video based attractions in general are immobilising the natural physiologigal view experiences ! ...see note below)
- view-angle differenciation
- movement differenciation
- "rising" (you don't check in for 'flight', to look up, you want to look down !)
- is there an actual "take-off & landing" experience ? :-)
The illusion is just as well building up in your head but reinforced by the actual travel !

My choices, top 3 :
(1) DROOMVLUCHT ('Dream flight'), Efteling
(2) PETER PAN's FLIGHT (DL, MK, DL, DL.. lol)
and I make an exception for allowing some screens.. lol ,
with :
(3) ARTHUR (Europapark)

My screem:
Theme parks worldwide: "Please do better then just screens !"

NOTE. With screens. Why is "Soarin" (etc) a better choice then all other screen based simulation rides ? Because, the screen there is SO large, that you're still invited to look around, get your head and eye muscle in action! This is the physiological experience stimulance 100% lacking out with Startours, FoP, coaster-based screen-rides... etc... HEAD FIXATION !!)

ME. (Working myself at the concept of "ON OWL's WINGS", a scientific edutainment based darkride for a proposed new theme park)

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