Month: April 2017

The Tower that Tied the Park Together. An Obituary.


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.



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.



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.



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.

CAGED MEN (and why they matter to experience design)


In 1915, the Panama Canal opened, linking the Pacific to the Atlantic through center of the Americas. To celebrate this momentous milestone, the city San Diego held a glorious world’s fair.  Here, the exotic animals that would become the basis of the San Diego Zoo could be found in cages for visitors to see up close.  As could aboriginal men, part of an analysis (true to scientific thought of the day) of what caused mankind to change from savagery to civilization.  Yes, men were on display in cages as a scientific display one hundred years ago.


Last month I attended the California Association of Museum’s annual conference in Sacramento, as a journalist intent on learning what the latest trends are in the museum community.  I found common themes of inclusion, race, diversity – not ironically the same themes that will appear over and over again at the American Alliance of Museum’s annual meeting next month in St. Louis.

During a session titled “The Work Inside: Case Studies in Developing Conversations about Race, Equity and Inclusion,” Jason Porter, the Director of Education and Public Engagement at the San Diego Museum of Man spoke about the radical transformation that the museum has undergone in the past few years – from being about what biologically makes us “human” to what entails “humanity.”  Playing a major role in this revised mission is an exploration of race and racism, with a permanent installation of the American Anthropological Association’s exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” as its centerpiece.

Combined with the former traveling exhibit are artifacts showcasing the history of race and race perception in San Diego – among these, a photo of an anthropological exhibit of live men in cages during the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Humankind has always been beleaguered by beliefs of superiority of one group over others – be it nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, gender, gender identification, height, weight, hairstyle, piercings….the list goes on.

This behavior is not unique to humans. In the natural world, prejudices exist within other species as well.  There is ageism, discrimination against the disabled, against those that look different, against those who act different.  One of the biggest differences between animals and humans is that we, as a species, take those prejudices and code them into law – be it religious, civil, or a combination of both.

It is not a coincidence therefore that both the San Diego Museum of Man’s exhibit on race and the Oakland Museum of California’s exhibit on the Black Panther movement featured redline maps of their respective cities.  Instituted in 1934 by the newly established Federal Housing Administration, the practice of redlining utilized “residential security maps,” where ethnic and minority communities were distinguished on the map as being ineligible for financial services, resulting in continued impoverished conditions while artificially inflating home and property values in white neighborhoods.

Museums are now looking at the past to create dialogue about our present and our future. One could say this is a response to the Trump presidency.  Certainly, there have been plenty of cries of racism during Trump’s first few months in office.  But racism did not begin with him.  Ferguson and Black Lives Matter took place under a different president.  Women’s equality did not begin with him.  The SONY hacks showing unequal pay took place under a different president.  Native American rights did not begin with him. The protests at Dakota Access happened under a different president. And countless incidents on the same topics happened before under numerous governments going back decades, if not centuries, within the United States and around the world.

As keynote speakers Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg of Lord Cultural Resources showed, museums are changing their missions and the design of their exhibits as they shift from a hard power to a soft power philosophy of operation.  The difference is night and day and comes from the world of international affairs, where “hard power” refers to military action, while “soft power” refers to diplomacy.  In the museum world, the “hard power” model has a collection made of animal and artifact trophies collected around the world, explores the traditional hierarchies of empires, and the “great men” of note in history.  A “soft power” museum influences through persuasion, attraction, or agenda setting.  It becomes the catalyst for activism and community change on one end and discussion within the community on the other.  Most “soft power” museums fall somewhere in-between on the spectrum.

Museums are not the only place “soft power” can have an effect.  In just a few days, a “soft power” moment will be taking place with the world’s leading themed entertainment designers.


As has been discussed previously on this blog, there can easily be confusion between museum exhibit design and themed entertainment design.  Themed entertainment is often equated with the fun to be had at theme parks.  But it’s much more, and museum exhibit design is actually a subset of themed entertainment design.  A theme is a topic or a setting.  Entertaining is another way of saying engaging – engaging the mind through sensory or intellectual stimulation.*

If there’s a theme to this blog post, it’s intolerance and how we examine it. On Thursday, themed entertainment producer Kile Ozier will be sitting down with Olympic Gold Medalist Greg Louganis during the 2017 TEA Summit to discuss the fact that being HIV positive in many nations where TEA members do business is illegal, and could result in prison (thus the men in cages analogy) and career destruction.  Kile goes into more detail of his own issues working within the UAE in this excellent blog post.

But the HIV restrictions in the UAE, a theological monarchy, are not just for health purposes.  They are a way of circumventing a human rights issue.

As a teenager growing up during the advent of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s, I was taught there were three ways you could get the HIV virus – homosexual sex, needles, and sitting on a public toilet.  Yes, we were actually taught in public school the importance of keeping our rear ends suspended at least an inch above the toilet seat.

By my twenties, it was well known that anyone could contract the virus.  I recall seeing a fax to a government official staying at a hotel I was working at.  Without disclosing the most confidential of details, the one line that caught my attention stated simply: “Magic Johnson is going to announce tomorrow that he’s HIV positive.”

Later that year, one of my co-workers was hospitalized and passed away.  We didn’t know until afterwards that he had died of AIDS.  We found out only because his wife sued the hospital.  According to her, he had been afraid to disclose the HIV to his family, co-workers, or his congregation because in the Conservative, Bible-thumping South, he feared that they would associate it with the lowest rungs of their perceived moral ladder – homosexuality, drug abuse, adulterous sex.  The lawsuit, which was settled out of court, showed that he had acquired it through tainted blood in a transfusion after a car accident.

But saying that HIV doesn’t affect just the gay community poses the same risks as saying “All Lives Matter,” when such a statement evades four hundred years of civil rights oppression among the African-American community.  HIV has had an altering effect both within the gay community as an epidemic and all too real threat and from without as an associated tool for bias.

As a straight man, I’ve had gay friends, gay co-workers and bosses, and gay relatives all my life, but I didn’t understand HIV’s effect on the community until about a decade ago.  It took the collaborative efforts of a playwright, director, actors, production designer, lighting designer, sound designer, costumer, and dozens of craftspeople and crew – a collaboration of the creative and the technical arts – for me to understand.

When I was the Audience Services Director at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, we suddenly changed our last production of the season to Steve Yockey’s play “Octopus.”  The plot is simple – an older gay couple has a one night tryst with a younger couple.  One of the older men acquires AIDS and dies.  But the anguish of both the surviving partner and that of the dead one – floating forever in an undersea abyss fighting off the eight-tentacled monster of the disease encircling him – are forever etched in my mind.

The arts and themed entertainment design have an ability to bring people together, to let them discover others and themselves in new and inventive ways.  From Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook’s “Foresta Lumina,” which uses universal concepts of folklore, to the moving 7/7 tribute and dance number during the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremonies (not seen in the USA as NBC opted to switch to paid advertising during this segment), there is an ability to transgress boundaries.

It would be great if theme parks could take on the great issues of our day.  But outside of conservation and environmentalism, they’re prone to leave societal issues to museums.  Even Epcot, founded as a showcase of the great power of humanity working together, years ago eliminated two attractions where questions of race and inclusion could be discussed – Electronic Forum and Wonders of Life.

What Kile is doing is a first step – and I applaud him on that.  He’s creating a dialogue within the creative community.  If it succeeds – if the industry can place pressure on governments or become a political force and encourage the US, Canada, and European governments to exert the pressure – the soft power moves towards advocacy.  And it can lead to advocacy on many other things.  Once the foot is in the door, it has two ways to go.  It can back out.  Or it can go further.

And maybe one hundred years from now,  a man with HIV in a cage won’t be a reality, but a photo of antiquated practices of the past in a display about humanity in a UAE museum.

*One important differentiating factor of themed entertainment, which is why it is inclusive of museums, is the OOH! Factor (trademark pending).  It takes place Out Of Home in an environment where strangers can congregate for a shared experience.