The day after Thanksgiving 2016, large crowds resulted in average lines of between one and two hours per attraction at both of the Disneyland Resort’s parks. As I was nearing the halfway point of a ninety minute queue for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, I began to hear shrieks and screams – not from the tower hidden above me behind a brown construction tarp, but from two young children in line behind me.
“I’m scared,” said one. “I don’t want to do this,” chimed in the other.
The young lady accompanying them did her best to reassure them. “It’s a frog hopper,” she told them, “Just like at the fair. Except here they’re going to do some magic tricks to make it seem scarier than it really is.”
As we entered the lobby, the Silver Lake Sisters, a trio of beauties belting out hits from the 30’s, livened up what was otherwise a decrepit and abandoned space. Then it was on to the library for the intro video, followed by the Tower’s boiler room. After that, everything was abnormal.
With just over a month left before the attraction’s closure, the park was offering “Late Check-Out.” When the doors opened to the two visual effects rooms on the ride, everything was dark. I could hear the soundtrack and see the outline of the screen and the physical props, but not a single light shone. It was disconcerting. I felt like the ride was malfunctioning. For the first time on any of the Tower of Terror attractions, I held onto my handle for dear life.
As I stood in the exit hallway, looking at my pose in the souvenir photo, the two children showed up. Both were shaking, but both had a big grin from one cheek to the other. They had survived the Tower.
A PARK IN NEED OF PEOPLE
When I first visited California Adventure in 2002, the park was much different. If EPCOT was the Disney Imagineers’ version of a permanent World Expo, then California Adventure was their concept of a state fair. Most guests entered the park missing out on its biggest illusion. If you knew where to stand in the esplanade between the parks and what you were looking at, you’d realize that the giant letters spelling CALIFORNIA in front of the entrance, the murals on each side, the condensed Golden Gate Bridge crossed by the monorail and the giant sun sculpture at the end of the entrance walkway all combined to form a giant postcard.
To the right, past the entrance corridor, known as Sunshine Plaza, and its 1950’s train, was the Golden State zone, comprised of Bountiful Harvest Farm, Pacific Wharf, Golden Vine Winery, Pacific Wharf, Bay Area, Grizzly Peak Recreation Area, and Condor Flats. Past Golden State was Paradise Pier, the park’s homage to seaside amusement parks. On the left side of Sunshine Plaza was Hollywood Studios Backlot, the park’s representation of a Hollywood studio, with backlot sets and soundstages. There was no thematic connection between the Backlot Studios and the rest of the park, with the giant sun sculpture placed between it and Golden State. This would later be remedied with the 2012 redesign of Sunshine Plaza into Buena Vista Street and small cosmetic overlays that converted the movie studio motif of much of Hollywood Studios Backlot into Hollywoodland, with the two linked not only by architecture, but by a new electric railcar that traversed both lands.
In 2002, there was no Tower of Terror. If you were looking for a tower thrill ride, it was the Maliboomer, an S&S Space Shot with the unique addition of plexiglass face shields to quell rider’s screams. This ride was one of many attractions throughout the park where themed off-the-shelf rides existed without story (a giant orange called the Orange Stinger with swings inside themed to bees being another). As a result, attendance at California Adventure after its first year of operation was far below predicted numbers and Disney was doing all it could to build up visitation. That Summer, a dirt arena was built next to Pacific Wharf with a motocross exposition themed to ESPN. The roar of the engines could be heard throughout the park. A concert series was set up on the shores of Paradise Lagoon. On the day I visited, the narration of Whoopi Goldberg as Califia, the Spirit of California, in the park’s flagship film Golden Dreams (its version of American Adventure) was drowned out by the spirited tunes of Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones just outside the theater’s exit doors.
Disney knew that motocross exhibitions and concert series would not be enough to turn around attendance and work began immediately on two big money projects – Bug’s Land, which would take up the majority of Bountiful Harvest Farm, and a new version of a Walt Disney World favorite, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
SHAFT WITH A VIEW
Opened in the Summer of 2004, The original Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios was the focal point and terminus of that park’s Sunset Boulevard expansion. Much like the Haunted Mansion, which is a guided tour of a haunted house and graveyard, the Tower involves riders as participants in a “lost episode” of the classic television show “The Twilight Zone.” After queuing through the lobby, guests enter a library where an introduction to the episode, about the disappearance of part of the Hollywood Hotel and five guests in an elevator, is told by series host Rod Serling. They then enter the hotel’s boiler room and board one of the service elevators for their own trip into the Twilight Zone. As the doors open, the five elevator passengers of the storyline appear, then disappear into a flash of electric charges. Seconds later, the room turns into a starfield and a special effect from the show’s opening credits appears. One floor up, the elevator, actually an autonomous vehicle, leaves the shaft and travels forward through the Fifth Dimension room to enter the drop shaft, where it goes up and down via random programming, with doors opening at the top of the shaft for a view of the entire park.
In Florida, four boarding/show shafts merge into two Fifth Dimension rooms leading to two drop shafts, which end at the ride exit. The vehicle then returns unoccupied to the boarding position. At California Adventure, the Fifth Dimension room was dropped in favor of three single shafts. Boarding took place on two levels, with the ride vehicle traveling a few feet back and forth between the single load/unload position and the elevator shaft. This allowed two vehicles to operate per shaft – one loading on either the first or second floor while the other was in the shaft going through the ride cycle. A second effects room was also added, this one with a mirror showing the attraction’s riders, who suddenly disappear in a visual effect. The California Adventure layout is also used in the Tower of Terror attractions at Walt Disney Studios Paris and Tokyo DisneySea, which has a unique storyline involving an evil idol and the disappearance of hotel owner and international explorer Harrison Hightower, who also makes an appearance at Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor.
On January 2, 2017, California Adventure’s Tower of Terror took its final riders into The Twilight Zone. It will be replaced in the Summer with a new attraction themed to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. This is not the first time that the Disneyland Resort has conducted a thematic layover to the existing infrastructure of an attraction, be it promotional (Disney Afternoon Avenue), seasonal (Haunted Mansion Holiday), or permanent (Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage). It is, however, the first time in decades that an E-Ticket attraction will open in sync with the film it promotes, a somewhat rare occurrence these days.
When the Tower first opened in 2004, it was a bit out of place. Hollywood Studios Backlot was a cacophony of concepts and attractions (about half of it still is), evocative of what one would find on an actual Hollywood studio lot. Take a stroll to the end if its main thoroughfare and one encounters the Broadway-caliber Hyperon Theatre. What appears to be the theater entrance at the end of the road isn’t real, it’s a façade, and there’s no grand lobby like one would find at the Pantages in Hollywood. Instead, there’s an outside courtyard on the right side of the building where guests wait for the doors to open, with stairs on the exterior side of the building to take them to higher levels of the auditorium.
By contrast, the Hollywood Tower Hotel, the Tower of Terror’s alter ego, wasn’t designed as a recognizable physical illusion. It was fully imagineered to convey its story and ambiance, both in its external queue and within the building itself. When it opened, it was an outcast on the far edge of the park, with only the vague notion of Hollywood linking it to the rest of its land. One could argue that the Tower was the first stage in the evolution of the park, a move away from creating suggestive theme out of limited symbols and icons to creating a solid place with a backstory all its own. It was followed by the redesign of Paradise Pier, the integration of Condor Flats into Grizzly Peak, and the new lands of Cars Land and Buena Vista Street. It was the catalyst for the transformation of a Hollywood Studio (for half the land at least) into Hollywood itself.
There is a running line in the film “The Big Lebowski” concerning a stolen rug – “It tied the room together.” In many ways, the Tower tied the park together, especially after the 2012 opening of Buena Vista Street. No matter where you saw it from, it just seemed to fit. It fit perfectly behind the Carthay Circle Theater. And it fit perfectly seen from Bug’s Land, ironically not because of the film “A Bug’s Life” on which the land was based, but a competing studio’s film about ants – “ANTZ.” The Dreamworks/PDI film ends with the camera zooming out, where we learn that the ants live in the middle of Central Park and that it’s surrounded by tall towers. Had that been California, the Hollywood Tower Hotel could easily have been one of them.
MORE PIPES THAN UNIVERSAL’S SUPER NINTENDO WORLD
The new Guardians of the Galaxy attraction threatens this synergy. Even though architecturally the building does seem to fit the Hollywoodland theme with its strange pipe-encrusted art deco design, something feels off. Marvel executives and Imagineers are quick to point out that in the Marvel universe, anyone and anything can suddenly appear out of nowhere from anywhere in time and space, adding that such is the case here. But, if I understand properly from reading the comics and watching the film over and over, this attraction will take place during modern times in a futuristic outer space environment supported by an 80’s rock music soundtrack, all in a land designed to evoke Hollywood of the 1930’s.
There’s little doubt the ride will be a hit. As such, it could be the catalyst for even more change at the park – such as the conversion of Hollywoodland into a Marvel land. The newly opened Iron Man Experience in Hong Kong would be quite easy to port over with a California-centric film. The Animation building has the space for such a ride and precedent exists for closing a popular animation attraction, such as the one at Walt Disney World, which was replaced by a Star Wars showcase. As for the role of a Hyperion Theatre in a Marvel land – Spider-man seems to be popular in the musical genre (“Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway and “Spider-man Rocks” at Universal Studios Hollywood), while a new effects laden Doctor Strange stage show will be premiering in the Disney Cruise Line’s Walt Disney Theatre during Marvel Day at Sea.
Of all the lands at California Adventure, Hollywoodland, where only half the land has a coherency, is the one most in need of direction. Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout has the potential to become the template of a new land of adventures and discoveries in much the same way the Tower of Terror redefined the entire park. Whatever happens, one thing won’t be changing. Young kids will still be scared to ride, and they’ll still exit shaking and grinning.