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


In early 2016, a very strange rumor began to spread. Sources began to report that Guardians of the Galaxy, a surprise hit Marvel superhero movie from 2014, would take up residence inside the Towers of Terror in the United States.

To be clear, the rumor was instantly derided as insanity, and many fans (this writer included) wrote it off as a prank. So outrageously stupid did it sound that a futuristic sci-fi superhero movie would take over a 1920s art-deco hotel reigning over a newly-redesigned Golden Age California park, many in the Disney Parks fan community literally, sincerely imagined that the rumor was cooked up just to see how much fury and chaos such an obviously fake rumor could provoke.

Image: Disney

A decade ago, maybe! Back then, Disney’s California Adventure was a creative mess, and it would’ve made sense for Disney to throw anything at the wall just to see if it would stick. They could've made the floundering California Adventure into a west coast Hollywood Studios, serving as a catch-all for any intellectual property that wouldn't reasonably fit in the other parks. Big, boxy tan showbuildings lend themselves to such a strategy, since it can be excused away as being a “movie studio” where cohesive themes, immersive environments, and intellectual properties need not be treated with much reverence.

But c’mon. California Adventure was fixed! It was saved! No more irreverent jokes, no more modern music… It had a new lease on life with a refreshed, reverent, historic California story. Guardians of the Galaxy taking over the awesome Twilight Zone Tower of Terror? Decimating the careful continuity and storytelling Disney just spent over a billion dollars to craft? A sci-fi superhero ride looming over a 1920s Los Angeles? A 1950s High Sierras national park? Pushing Marvel super heroes into California Adventure when next-door, Disneyland’s Tomorrowland is as creatively desolate and in need of new stories as California Adventure used to be?

It sounded unthinkable.


Image: Disney / Marvel. Click and expand for a larger, detailed view.

At the 2016 San Diego Comic Con, Imagineer Joe Rohde was on hand to announce that Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! would replace the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure in 2017. The detailed lobby, library, and boiler room would be gutted and redesigned as an industrial futuristic prison owned by the enigmatic Collector from the 2014 film. Of course, the drop ride within would be retained and reprogrammed, but everything around it would be completely redesigned and not an ounce of Tower of Terror would remain in the brand new attraction...

...Unless you count the exterior clearly being a 1920s art deco hotel affixed with pipes and satellite dishes, reskinning it to capture "the beauty of an oil rig."

Image: Disney / Marvel. Click and expand for a larger, detailed view.

Rohde explained that the hotel would become an interdimensional “warehouse fortress power plant” (his words, not ours) with the queue and ride rebuilt entirely to incorporate the “irreverent” superhero team from the PG-13 movie and feature its 1970s and '80s musical soundtrack... Yes, in a park that just spent a billion dollars to get rid of irreverence and modern pop music.

Perhaps most suspect, this floor-to-ceiling rebuild would take only five months... A worrying signal to fans that not only would this new ride overtake the Tower of Terror; it probably wouldn't do it in a very convincing way. And indeed, an overlay so easy to install should be easy to remove, too, right? Which is why fans were stunned that Disney didn't simply make this a temporary overlay to promote an upcoming invasion of Marvel rides rather than a permanent, unrepentant replacement skewing the reborn park's path forward.

Image: Disney

Curiously, the announcement also left many fans again rethinking their allegiance to Joe Rohde. Disney Parks fans know Rohde as the creative lead on Disney's Animal Kingdom – an artistic triumph, to be sure. That's why fans cast him as a symbolic figurehead; a creative constant who could keep Imagineering on track and ward off executives' hair-brained, short-sighted, tone-deaf schemes after Tony Baxter's departure.

Evidence like this suggests that either Rohde is less of a savior than fans thought, or he's too firmly under the fist of executives to exercise any common sense or consideration for the future (in which case, we'd suggest he cut his losses and go to Universal Creative ASAP, lest he risk tying his legacy forever to detested projects like this one and whatever fodder comes next). As it is, it seems deeply odd that this new creative figurehead would buy into the idea of scrapping the 1940s Hollywood area of a California-themed park with a superhero prison... and yet... 

Image: MintCrocodile, Magic Eye Disneyland Resort Pictoral Blog (Used with permission)

In a most astounding and unthinkable move, Disney began to literally disassemble the attraction while it was still operating, pulling down the neon “THE HOLLYWOOD TOWER HOTEL” sign and the ride’s rusted blue domes in September 2016, and covering the entire hotel in tarps by October.

All the while, they initiated a “Late Check-Out” promotion wherein the ride itself took place in pitch-black darkness after dusk each night, with the Silver Lake Sisters of Buena Vista Street fame performing live in the lobby, earning multi-hour waits for the starring attraction. It didn’t matter.

The transformation continued. On January 2nd, 2017, the last of the Hollywood Tower Hotel’s guests ascended into the Twilight Zone.

Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!

Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! opened May 25th, 2017 at Disney California Adventure – after less than six months of construction. And indeed, that sci-fi space warehouse based on the beauty of an oil rig (you can't make this stuff up) now reigns over Disney California Adventure, visible from Buena Vista Street, Grizzy Peak, Pacific Wharf, Paradise Pier...

Inside the fortress, guests are toured through the Tivan Collection of interdimensional artifacts (from across the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a few ham-fisted nods to Disney Parks history) gaining security clearance to access the Collector's newest and most prized addition: the Guardians of the Galaxy themselves. But Rocket – ever the escape artist – has a plan, and it involves you.

Rocket explains (via a sincere redeeming point: an amazing Audio Animatronic) that he'll hitch a ride atop the Gantry Lift meant to carry us to the Guardians... and the massive generator that's keeping all of those locked cages closed. When the time's right, he'll cut the power to free his friends.

Strapped into a Gantry Lift, Rocket unplugs the power and plugs in the Walkman, sending the Lifts past two action-packed floors (brought to life through Parallax screens) to the sounds of Pat Benatar, the Jackson 5, or Elvis. Re-rides earn you new songs, new scenes, and new elevator drop profiles in this high-action thrill ride that trades Tower of Terror's eerieness and subtlety for irreverence and speed.

Don't be surprised when the "gantry lift" doors open to reveal the same bird's eye view of the resort with Rocket now narrating by saying, "Disneyland?! That's thematically inconsistant!" It's obviously a nod to (or perhaps an "irreverent, MTV-attitude" jab at) fans and how very silly they are for caring about old-fashioned things like continuity and subtlety. We'll see how cute the reference sounds in fifteen years. 

Here's an official glimpse at what awaits inside the new Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!: 

Let's be clear: Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! is a rip-roaring thrill ride adventure that's stylish, loud, and fun. Far from the dismal failure some fans hoped and predicted, BREAKOUT is an E-Ticket that only Disney could conjure with all the comedy, action, music, and characters you love from Guardians of the Galaxy. It's too bad that it looks, feels, and sounds like the wrong place for them all.

The thought that's meant to "reassure" fans is that, eventually, the entire Hollywood Land will be torn to the rivets and redesigned as a futuristic super hero city, rumored to be heavily modeled after New York with the Avengers Tower looming over it all... somehow, that's not very comforting for fans who just saw Disney California Adventure earn and then erase a billion-dollar rebirth on Californian stories and settings...


Image: Disney

For a few years now, we’ve been slowly building our library of Lost Legends – the in-depth stories of rides that were beloved and celebrated icons of Imagineering and storytelling; guest favorites that were taken too soon. To be clear, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is another legend lost. And if you ask many fans, its also a grim harbinger of change for the future. 

While Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! is a fun, loud, gleeful, thrilling E-Ticket in its own right, few would bother arguing that it's a smartly-backed concept fueled by a long-term vision. It feels like a knee-jerk race to get a hot intellectual property into Disney Parks as quickly as possible. And that's exactly what it's supposed to be. Guardians is neither the first nor the last example of DIsney's newest strategy: packing the parks with current box office hits come hell or high water... even if it means that ride lifetimes are measured in seasons rather than decades. 

It's a strategy that many industry fans will recognize... 

Image: Universal

It's what Universal has been doing nonstop for the last decade, cannibalizing their own classic attractions (Kongfrontation, Jaws, Back to the Future: The Ride, Earthquake, Twister) for whatever's hottest (The Mummy, Harry Potter, The Simpsons, Fast & Furious, and Jimmy Fallon, respectively). Sure, the strategy has catapulted Universal's parks into the limelight with earth constantly moving... but nothing – and we mean nothing – is sacred, and Universal will topple any opening day favorite to get a hot intellectual property in. 

But Disney's caught onto this new strategy, literally reading off of Universal's playbook... perhaps without accounting for the fact that Disney Parks were special precisely because they played the long game and had thoughtful, timeless, spectacular rides such that even movie-based rides amount to much more than "riding the movies." People feel a deeper connection to Disney's rides than to Universal's, and – admittedly – expect more from Disney. With Guardians, it may feel that they're getting less in the form of a more short-sighted IP-invasion at the expense of a ride that could've been a star for decades.

As for the new ride, we can't say whether or not Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! will still feel like a good choice in 10, 15, or 20 years. Frankly, it probably won't last that long. The plug-and-play design makes it easy to update this adventure to whatever's new and next in the Marvel universe... just like Universal would. 

Image: Disney / Marvel

Still, when we look up at the towering art deco prison painted in stripes and silver pipes rising above Disney California Adventure blaring The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" though sliding elevator doors, we'll wonder if this was the best course for Disney's underdog – the reborn park given a new lease on life, now risking it all on an unexpected intellectual property.

If you made it through our most in-depth Lost Legends entry yet, you're just the kind of Disney Parks fans to make the jump to our In-Depth Collections Library where the full stories of closed classics come alive. As always, we invite your thoughts and comments below. We want to know your memories of California Adventure’s Tower of Terror and your thoughts on the new Marvel attraction that’ll take its place. All Twilight Zone stories end with a moral lesson – what will we as fans learn from Disney’s twist ending here?

We’ve done our best here to capture the story behind the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and celebrate its magnificent presence in a park tailor-made for it. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t say goodbye with a friendly word of warning – something you won’t find in any guide book: the next time you check into a deserted hotel on the dark side of Hollywood, make sure you know just what kind of vacancy you’re filling, or you may find yourself a permanent resident… of the Twilight Zone. 

Image: Disney

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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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