/New flying theater ride gives visitors a birds-eye view of San Francisco

New flying theater ride gives visitors a birds-eye view of San Francisco

Arthur Levine, Special to USA TODAY
Published 1:38 p.m. ET March 25, 2019 | Updated 4:06 p.m. ET March 25, 2019

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Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but one of that city’s newest attractions takes its cue from another legendary crooner: Frank Sinatra, who famously sang “Come Fly With Me.”

The Flyer – San Francisco, which opened in January at Pier 39, takes visitors on a simulated aerial tour of the City by the Bay by placing them in what’s known as a flying theater. For tourists seeking a San Francisco experience, the ride offers a concise overview – both figuratively and literally – of many area highlights. It’s a unique and entertaining way to explore places like Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, the Castro and Alcatraz while also enjoying some mild thrills.

“I wanted to bring a real theme park-style attraction to the city,” says John Alter, the owner of The Flyer.

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Disney introduced the first flying theater when it opened Soarin’ Over California at Disney California Adventure in 2001. (Interestingly, among the ride’s original flyover locales was San Francisco). The combination of the attraction’s airborne footage shot from a first-person perspective, moving seats and wind effects creates a giddy, hang glider-like experience. Now known as Soarin’ Around the World, the ride is at multiple Disney parks and takes guests to global destinations.

The success of Soarin’ has inspired copycat rides such as The Flyer. While the Disney attraction is exhilarating, it is fairly tame. The San Francisco ride, by comparison, amps up some of the flyover action.

Before moving into the theater, visitors are introduced to James and Chloe, a couple about to get engaged. Standing in the preshow room, guests see their courtship unfold in a series of vignettes on multiple screens. Some of the scenes use projection mapping technology that gives the imagery a sense of dimension without the use of conventional 3D.

“I didn’t want the ride to be just a travelogue,” says Alter. By latching onto the characters, the narrative helps visitors engage with the story. “We thought a love story would be universal,” he adds.

Just as James is about to pop the question, Seymour the seagull swoops in to snatch the engagement ring and fly away with it. The stage is thus set for guests to follow the wayward creature as he gives them a bird’s-eye view of San Francisco.

Disney’s Soarin’ uses a domed screen and has rows of seats that rise up into the air. The Flyer’s main theater has 28 seats arranged in two levels in front of an enveloping, curved screen. The seats remained tethered to the floor, but each pair has its own actuator that allows them to have more freedom of movement than other flying theaters.

The footage for the ride is presented in 3D, which helps immerse passengers in the experience. One of the highlights is a journey to the city’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. After gently flying above the majestic structure, The Flyer sends riders hurtling down the other side towards the bay. The scene also follows the errant seagull up into the girders of the bridge for a few slightly harrowing moments.

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While the action is a bit frenetic at times, all but the wimpiest visitors should be able to handle it. (The minimum height requirement is 40 inches.) Unlike a roller coaster or other major thrill ride, The Flyer’s seats don’t actually move more than a few inches in any direction. The illusion of flying, freefalling and other sensations is impressive, but it’s just that – an illusion.

Instead of remaining high in the sky for the entire journey, some of The Flyer’s scenes take riders down to ground level. For example, they navigate Lombard Street’s famous hairpin turns and become embedded in a parade as it weaves through Chinatown.

So after following Seymour all over San Francisco, what becomes of the misbehaving bird? I wouldn’t want to give everything away, but let’s just say that love triumphs for James and Chloe.

The featured attraction at Lego Movie World, which is opening March 27 at Legoland Florida, will be a flying theater attraction: The Lego Movie Masters of Flight. There are other standalone flying theaters such as Wings Over Washington at Miner’s Landing on Pier 57 in Seattle, where a “spirit eagle” takes passengers on a journey above scenic spots in the Pacific Northwest state. In early 2020, The Island in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, plans to open a flying theater and in 2021, FlyOver Las Vegas is scheduled to open on the Strip.

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