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Lost Legends: Why Disney Designed, Dropped-In, then Disassembled California Adventure's Tower of Terror

A Beacon of Change

Image: Disney

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened at Disney’s California Adventure on May 5, 2004 in a most unusual way – it was struck by lightning. Or at least, it appeared to have been. The celebratory opening ceremony signaled the first major E-Ticket investment at the height of the park’s creative drought. When all else seemed lost, Disney called on the fan favorite to reenergize the park and breathe new life into Disneyland’s stumbling little sister.

And indeed, after consecutive years of attendance decline, attendance jumped 9% at the park from 2003 to 2005.

What fans and Imagineers knew, though, was that even the E-Ticket headliner was nothing more than a Band-Aid on a broken bone. The problem with Disney’s California Adventure wasn’t just that it didn’t have enough rides (though it didn’t), or just that it didn’t have enough Disney-quality details (though it didn’t have those either). Even if Tower of Terror gave the park a new ride with new details and new stories, it didn’t fix the real problem: California Adventure was broken at its foundation.

The park was designed to be “edgy” and “modern” with a bit of an “MTV attitude.” California Adventure in 2001 set out to recreate a modern spoof of California. The time is now, the place is here. Forget the Golden Age of Hollywood… Instead, step into a modern look at moviemaking on a Hollywood backlot set… of Hollywood.

It failed. We chronicled the full, in-depth story behind Disneyland's second gate in its own standalone Disaster File: Disney's California Adventure feature that's a must-read for Disney Parks fans. 

A reborn park. Image: Disney

But in 2007, Disney did something unprecedented: they admitted defeat and announced a massive 5-year, $1.2 billion redesign effort that would turn back the clock and follow Disneyland’s lead, rebuilding each of the park’s themed lands as historic, reverent, idealized versions of their former selves. Paradise Pier had its neon signs, stucco walls, and circus freak posters removed, as it became an elegant turn-of-the-century Victorian boardwalk with strung popcorn lights, Edison bulbs, classic pie-eyed Disney characters, and Victorian architecture.

Image: Disney

The park’s entrance was demolished and rebuilt as a charming Los Angeles of the 1920s called Buena Vista Street. This new entry into a reborn park took guests to the bustling Los Angeles Walt must’ve seen when he first arrived, with grand department stores, bubbling fountains, and sunset-tiled roofs with the park’s new icon – the historic Carthay Circle Theatre – reigning over it all. Of course, the electric Red Car Trolley also glides down the street, carrying guests and newsboys who sing of the California dream: “Extree! Extree! Read all about it! Spirit of Optimism sweeps California!” Indeed, Buena Vista Street might be the most intricate and emotional land Disney’s built since New Orleans Square.

Continuity

And there on Buena Vista Street, catty-corner to the Carthay Circle Theater, you could step into the Fiddler, Fifer, and Practical Café (named, in reality, after the Three Little Pigs of Disney’s short, but here explained in the park’s continuity as being the Silver Lake Sisters Jazz trio) where you’d find gorgeous 20s art posters of the three girls performing at the Tip Top Club at the Hollywood Tower Hotel.

Image: Disney

You read that right – 15 years before that ill-fated storm, the Tip Top Club was the place to catch all the best musical acts in Los Angeles, according to the detailed world-building Imagineering achieved.

As if that’s not impressive enough, guests could board the Red Car Electric Trolley as it glides down the street beneath the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge en route to Hollywood Land (a transformed Hollywood Pictures Backlot).

The inside of the Trolley was decked out with '20s advertisements for Buena Vista Street and Hollywood Land shops, including one for the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Though, in one of the simplest yet most jaw-dropping bits of world building at the resort, you’d notice that back here, in the early 1920s of Buena Vista Street, the Hollywood Tower Hotel hadn’t added its main guest tower… yet.

Image: Disney

In any case, you could ride the Red Car Trolley through Hollywood Land and to the “Hollywood Tower Hotel” stop, as the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was firmly built into the park’s overarching continuity and its new, historic California story. How brilliant!

Elsewhere

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror debuted at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 1994 in what may be its most noteworthy form – a technological marvel that forever shaped Imagineering and its storytelling prowess.

There’s no denying that the follow-up at Disney California Adventure was a more cost-effective version, lacking in some of the frills and thrills that Florida’s version of the ride pioneered. What California’s version did do was to shape the narrative of an entire theme park and its rebirth, granting Disney California Adventure with a new life and a headlining fan-favorite ride that still managed to elicit excitement and stun a generation of West Coast fans.

And the terror didn’t stop there.

Image: David Jafra, Flickr (license)

As we mentioned earlier, Disneyland Paris was an early candidate for Geyser Mountain, a technological redesign of the Tower of Terror system ready to stand tall in Frontierland. But if you can imagine, Paris’s second park was in even worse shape than California Adventure. We chronicled the in-depth story of what may be Disney's worst theme park ever in its own standalone Disaster File: Walt Disney Studios. Walt Disney Studios needed an even bigger boost than California Adventure had.

So Geyser Mountain was axed from Paris’ Frontierland, too, and in December, 2007, Walt Disney Studios got its own Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, identical to California’s but for its construction in cement instead of steel (due to building codes) and its narration in French. The park also recieved a Hollywood Blvd. to accompany it, with architecture that mirrors the blue domes and pueblo accents of the tower beyond.

While the French Tower of Terror didn’t break new ground, at least it enlivened the tired and wilted Studios Park there, which, truthfully, needs a billion dollar overhaul like California Adventure and then some.

Tower of Terror – Tokyo

Click and expand for a larger view. Image: Ruth Hartnup, Flickr (license)

Then there’s Tokyo. Tokyo DisneySea – often recognized as the best theme park in the world – is a pinnacle of Imagineering. The $4 billion park was built the same year as the original California Adventure (which, again, cost only $650 million) and is by far the most sought-after of all Disney Parks on Earth – a veritable Mecca that all Disney Parks fans aspire to visit. The park is packed with outstanding original rides (Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage), and when rides are shared with other resorts, DisneySea’s version is always the “Blue Sky” one with no cut corners and every detail in tact (Indiana Jones Adventure, Toy Story Midway Mania, Raging Spirits).

In 2006, DisneySea opened their own Tower of Terror. However, The Twilight Zone is relatively unknown in Japanese pop culture, necessitating a change. As always, Tokyo Disney Resort’s owners, the Oriental Land Company, went all out. While the ride is structurally identical to the ride in California and France, Imagineers crafted an entirely original story for the Japanese ride. Forget the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Forget a lightning strike. Forget The Twilight Zone.

Image: Bong Grit, Flickr (license)

Instead, the Tower of Terror in Tokyo is located in the park’s American Waterfront – an idealized New York City in the 1912. The Californian tower has here been reskinned as a looming, gorgeous Moorish revival building of Islamic arches, weathered domes, oriental patterns, and stained glass. The fascinating backstory tells of Harrison Hightower, a ne’er-do-well member of S.E.A.: The Society of Explorers and Adventurers whose incredible interwoven story connects Disney rides, lands, and even parks across the world.

Mr. Hightower was a menace, scouring the world for remnants of ancient civilizations and stealing priceless artifacts to hoard in the dark vaults of his New York hotel. However, he made one fatal mistake – he stole an ancient idol named Shiriki Utundu from an African tribe who seemed all-too happy to part with it. On New Years Eve 1899, Hightower proved to his hotel guests that he didn’t fear the supposedly “cursed” idol by putting his cigar out on the statue’s head. A few minutes later, his ride up to the Penthouse came to a sudden, crashing end, with Hightower’s body never discovered and Shiriki mysteriously found back on his pedestal in Hightower’s office without a scratch.

Image: Cory Doctorow, Flickr (license)

The ride is a wonder, employing the same basic scenes as California’s (albeit, in reverse order) as a well-meaning preservation society tries to raise money to restore the dilapidated hotel by offering tours under the catchy, attention-grabbing name… “Tower of Terror.” Perhaps the most detailed ride in Disney’s repertoire, this Tower of Terror is, like so much at DisneySea, at the top of many Disney Parks fans’ bucket lists, and for good reason. Trust us.

Back in California

Image: Disney

So, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is inarguably a starring E-Ticket at a reborn Disney California Adventure – a triumphant piece of a careful new story and identity, folded into the continuity of a park determined to tell California’s stories and legends.

Would you believe that it would be replaced by a science-fiction space warehouse looming over Buena Vista Street?  Just wait until you hear how this Lost Legend met its demise what we consider one of the most shortsighted and ill-conceived ideas Disney has ever had... Read on...

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There are 18 comments.

I am unbelievably saddened to see this ride go. Really a bizarre move on Disney's part.

I thought that in Florida, "Ellen's Energy Adventure" is supposed to be replaced with Guardians of the Galaxy and that the Tower of Terror there is "safe." Hope so, EEA is sooooo dated. Maybe do a story about the Universe of Energy.

That's the rumor, but tbh if they're going to replace any ride in Disney World with the only Marvel movie that they can use (at this point), they should gut and retheme the Rockin' Roller Coaster in Hollywood Studios: in all blunt honesty, Aerosmith is pretty much irrelevant these days (they're pretty much a quintessential example of what us millennials call "dadrock") and on top of that, they can theme it to the Awesome Mix (both Vol. 1 and a couple tracks from Vol. 2).

IMHO, that would be a fair compromise insofar as Orlando getting a Marvel attraction and the Tower of Terror there is safe. I could even go so far as to say they could potentially truncate the Mission: Breakout material and adapt it for a roller coaster, but that might be more work and money than what Disney is willing to spend on such a thing.

As for Ellen's Energy Adventure, they could replace that with an Inside Out-themed ride. I know people will gripe about "muh originality", but given Disney is trying to implement their properties more into the parks these days, that's probably a better choice and fit for Epcot over GOTG.

First, just a minor correction - Guardians used primarily a 1970's soundtrack, not a 1980's one. Second, I agree that the conversion of this great ride instead of the building of a complete new ride based on Guardians shows Disney at its cheapest yet again. And apparently even the detailed redesign of the outside has been downsized, so it's less about pipes and more about colors (and cheaper to make).

I must say, this was an incredibly well-written article, and I could not agree more; the loss of Tower of Terror is a huge loss here. I remember California Adventure at the very beginning. My family and I used a park hopper for it, and we didn't even stay an hour; we were surprised that it had ever been built, and never planned to return to it again.
The Hollywood Tower Hotel is the only thing that brought me back to it. After a decade had passed, I was surprised with how much I loved the new and improved California Adventure. It created instant nostalgia, and the pinnacle of it all was, of course, the Tower of Terror itself. It was the gateway into the park, and I loved it.
Loosing that ride now, especially considering the disastrous results that came from when the park was initially opened, I would say put a nail in the coffin for this park. It may not die right away, but even still it will only limp, if even that. If I were them, I'd promise a return to the original Tower within the next year or so; as so eloquently written here, it would be the best thing to do at this point to salvage this mess.

In fairness, I recall James Gunn (the director of the movie) saying at one point that he wasn't terribly thrilled with the idea at first (and that he's also a fan of the Tower of Terror as well), but someone, somehow, made a convincing enough elevator pitch to him about this that not only changed his mind, but managed to get him to film stuff with the movie actors while they were filming Vol. 2. So who knows, maybe there might be something redeemable about this after all, if only for the authenticity in the ride's show itself. :T

Honestly, I get that GOTG is pretty much the only Marvel property they can have in WDW (Doctor Strange is... debatable),and I'm a huuuuuuuge fan of the movie (I saw it 12 times in the theater, albeit most were $5 Tuesday nights, lmao) but if they put both Mission: Breakout in Hollywood Studios _and_ that rumored replacement to Universe of Energy in Epcot, that's going to be overkill for just one property IMHO.

While I agree that removing the Hollywood Tower Hotel from DCA is a major ding to the narrative, that wing of the park is ripe for rejig anyway. The Hollywood Land area - despite the HTH lending some narrative backbone to the park at large - definitely got the short end of the stick in terms of place-making in the Enhancement Project. It's attractive enough - certainly more than it was originally - but it remains relatively shallow, lacks narrative cohesion and the unceremonious way sections of it were essentially lopped off to save operating costs during the dark old days has never fully been resolved, meaning there are spots where it just sort of...Stops.

Those kind of unnatural boundaries, though slightly better themed now than before the enhancements, ding the narrative and diminish the sense of place. And if we're talking buildings not fitting the theme of the area, have you SEEN the Hyperion Theatre building? It's a fantastic theatre inside, but the outside is utterly graceless - barring the left over backdrops at the entrance. The "painted on sky" motif that is also a holdover from the dark old days looks positively goofy, especially given how elaborately themed other areas of DCA are.

The whole area needs to be re-done, and if it's going to be Marvel-themed (Spider-Man & Captain America already live there so that does appear to be the long term plan) then the existing HTH wouldn't necessarily fit. While I agree it will be sorely missed, I'm willing to see how the whole plan looks before writing off the idea of the replacement out of hand.

And I get where you're coming from on the fact it wasn't unique not necessarily mattering because of how well integrated its story was, but I feel like the above issue of the new narrative not being completed or even revealed yet blunts that somewhat. And regardless, with the ride experience largely unchanged and an identical ride in Walt Disney Studios which is currently not planned to change in anyway, it really is hard to see this change as the massive betrayal it is being painted as. Frankly, Space Mountain: Mission 2 was - for my money - a more regrettable permanent re-theme, despite it being a much more limited one.

Thank you for your well written comments! I'm in the minority who's excited for the retheme and I agree, Space Mountain: Mission Space 2 was a terrible version. Hopefully if Disneyland Paris' 25th anniversary is a success, maybe after Hyperspace Mountain they can bring the original version back.

While I loved the Twilight Zone theme, I do understand Disney wanting to bring Marvel in to the park. What I can't understand, is why Disney didn't keep the hotel theme and change it to Captain America? It certainly would have worked better for the era that section of the park represents. That power plant/ prison thing is going to look as out of place as Jacqueline Kennedy at a monster truck rally!

Bob Chapek told everyone at the recent D23 event that the Tower in Florida wouldn't change and frankly I don't see it changing there, either. It's too much of a draw for that park - especially for the next 4-5 years. Plus it's become an icon both in the themed entertainment business and at Walt Disney World, whereas the one in California was always the cheap little brother of Florida's version.

Also while I understand your point about the benefits of the altered ride system in Florida, the new ride system was vastly inferior. Not only removing the uniqueness of the horizontal movement but also adding that dumb hallway between the elevator doors and the actual lift. It takes you entirely out of the moment and experience.

I really don't understand where Disney execs are helming the parks. It really started with Frozen in terms of changing the narrative and mission statement of an entire park. IMHO that overlay was done very well and at least it is a worthy attraction successor to the original. Then there is this Guardians of the Galaxy overlay which is incredibly stupid and vapid. But Bob Iger's recent comments about the direction that the reboot of Epcot seems encouraging that they will be true to the original vision of Epcot. I don't know it really is hard to tell which way Disney is going.

Also I doubt it if us East Coasters are happy with the demise of the West coast version of the TT but at least we do still have a version of it that exists over here. Like the example in the article I would be upset if they removed Pirates but it would be at least somewhat of a consolation if it existed in Disneyland.

I feel that the Tower of Terror will return in the future. With the backlash, and from I know about life, karma has a way of bitting back. In other words, the decision to change ToT will come back to haunt Disney and they'll bring back Tower of Terror.

Thank you for this article; it was extraordinarily well written -- so much I could see myself telling almost a similar story and narrative. My feelings towards DL and the Walt Disney Company are very mixed this year. As the cost of our passes continually rise, things are cheapened by overpromotion (Epcot's all year festivals now) and the rushed feeling of new rides and attractions, I worry about the Disney brand. The brand represented to me a feeling of doing things right and being original and forward thinking -- some of these newer projects don't feel that way at all. All the excitement not withstanding about the Star Wars project and Toy Story Land at DHS, we did lose a great many things as well. The Osborne lights will be greatly missed; and DHS will be the newest half day park for awhile. Thank you for this well written tribute to the HTH (to which I'm a gigantic fan, just look at my collection around me in this very room I'm typing to you in) and for mimicking my feelings about the great loss of an icon. I'm also disappointed in Joe, as I thought he was better than cheap overlays and hasty remodels - DAK is a gorgeous park with great attractions, but this felt entirely beneath both his abilities and his talent.

While I dislike this idea of the Guardians of the Galaxy taking over the Tower of Terror, I disagree with the argument about Disney World visitors not being able to visit California. If people from Disney World have to go out to Disneyland to experience the Indiana Jones Adventure and Cars Land, then why can't people from Disneyland come to visit Tower of Terror in Florida?

I don't at all mind each resort having its own attractions! I didn't mean to argue that at all. I was trying to pre-empt the many arguments I expected from people saying, "Who cares if California loses its ride? Florida's is better anyway." I'm sure you'd agree, that's a callous and small-minded way of putting down the generation of Disneyland guests who grew up with and adored the Tower of Terror.

The harsh and sad reality is that most Disneyland visitors (and I mean MOST) will never get to visit Disney World, which means they've taken their last ride on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

Conversely, the harsh and sad reality is that most Walt Disney World visitors (and I mean MOST) don't know a ride called Indiana Jones Adventure exists and will never see it in their lifetime. You and I know that that's a shame. But what would be worse is if Disney World HAD an Indiana Jones Adventure and had it replaced by a permanent, hasty overlay based on a flavor-of-the-week action film that foundationally uprooted the narrative of the land – and indeed, the entire park – that it was in. Imagine an Indiana Jones Adventure in Magic Kingdom's Adventureland becoming a Captain America ride. That may sound silly, but that's literally analogous to what's happened here.

SHHHHHHHHHHHH.......They'll HEAR you......

I am from Europe and visited the California-parcs in 2016. I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the Disneyland-parc. California Adventure had also some atmosphere, but it wasn't fully convincing to me (e.g. shops were still decorated too modern/standard, although lukily with a touch from the past). Particularly, I liked the Vineyard, Grizzly River Run landscaping (unfortunately not open), the bakery, Carthay Circle, Cars land landscaping... and of course the Tower of Terror. These design elements were highly important for my satisfaction and memories.
The Studios-parc in Paris is clearly too industrial (although slowly improving via investments in new 'lands'). Disney knows that reparing such design mistakesis is difficult and costly. Therefore, I don't understand how the new industrial design of Guardians of the Galaxy will bring any value to California Adventure parc. The new attraction might be good inside, but for me the parc will loose much of its atmosphere with this building design.
Disney appeared to have learned from mistakes in the past and now Disney seems to make the same mistake again... I don't understand this, particularly, as Disney management can see the overwhelming atmospheric investments of its competitor nearby...

100% agree with you on the "Guardians of the Galaxy" makeover. CA now has it's own "Journey Into YOUR Imagination," albeit one whose visual pollution can be seen throughout the park. Let's hope it's more temporary than Disney lets on.

As for Ellen's Energy Adventure: as long as they've hobbled the original theming of Future world, the space available (between EEA and the criminally underused Wonders of Life pavilion) would be sufficient to duplicate Shanghai's TRON coaster in full, rather than a truncated version rumored for Tomorrowland. Then put the "Inside Out" attraction in Imagination.

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