Sunday, 31 July 2016

Requiem for a Tower

We have undoubtedly all heard the news by now: at the San Diego Comic Con, Disney announced that the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure will become a Guardians of the Galaxy ride in 2017.

When the rumours first broke, I immediately shot it down as too ridiculous to take seriously... that Disney would never be so foolish as to take down DCA's best, headlining attraction with its own fanbase and brisk merchandising... but apparently nothing is impossible for Disney. It was also very wise of Disney to confirm these rumours at the SDCC, in the Guardians of the Galaxy panel, and not the D23 Expo. I'll never quite forget the footage from several years ago when the Fantasy Faire was announced at the Expo, and the only applause was for the affirmation that swing dancing would be retained in the bandstand (which ended up being a falsehood). At SDCC, surrounded by Marvel fans, this undoubtedly went over better than it would have at D23. More likely than not, surrounded by Disney fans who love Disney enough to attend an expensive official Disney convention, they would have been booed off the stage.

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was not only my favourite attraction in Disney California Adventure, but constituted my only substantive reason for going into that theme park at all. Other attractions are appealing once you are through its gates, and they have done so much to improve the park, but it was the Tower of Terror that made me want to cross the Esplanade to begin with. In fact, no Disney attraction won me over in quite the way that Tower of Terror did.

Ordinarily, I would stay as far away from a drop ride as practicable, given my healthy respect for gravity. But Tower of Terror was a practically perfect ride in its theme, its execution, and its setting. It perfectly captured the romance of Hollywood's Golden Age, thus perfectly capping off that section of the park. On the one hand, it captured the mystique of the time period... The elegance and glamour represented by Hollywood in the Twenties and Thirties, the lifestyle of leisure and affluence represented by a beautiful hotel like the Hollywood Roosevelt, across the street from Grauman's Chinese Theatre.... On the other hand, it reflected on the melancholy of its passing. It is an elegant, affluent, glamorous Hollywood hotel in ruins, covered with dust and cobwebs, filled with ghosts of better days. It was the Sunset Boulevard of attractions, or to pull from The Twilight Zone's own catalogue, the episode Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.

The Tower of Terror followed the cardinal rule of truly great themed attractions by making the guests the centre of the action. I've written on the subject of spectatorship vs. experientialism in attractions before, and not only did Tower of Terror come out on the right side of that, but it was one of the most clear, succinct, and intelligent articulations of it. The premise of both the Haunted Mansion and Indiana Jones Adventure are that we, the guests, are tourists visiting this place.Their set-up even explains the fundamental fact that we are all tourists queuing up in lines. In the library of the Tower of Terror, we discover that we have, in fact, been drawn into a special episode of The Twilight Zone in which, Rod Serling's soundalike intones, we are the stars. We are not merely watching an adventure happening to someone else, which any superhero ride must necessarily be. There can be only one Iron Man, one Captain America, or one Guardians of the Galaxy, and our relative position to them can only be as passive spectators. Tower of Terror drew us in, as the doorway to the Fifth Dimension opens again for us, in a way that a Marvel ride simply will not be able to no matter how many "interactive" geegaws and gimcracks they put in.

Nor was it only what was inside the building that counted: its placement at the far end of DCA's Hollywood fit perfectly into its context... Better, even, than many other buildings throughout the area. Disney's schizophrenia about DCA - was it the past or the present, the idealized romanticism or the modern reality, a Hollywood studio backlot or an actual Hollywood street - lead to many poor artistic choices. Tower of Terror was a right and proper choice, by virtue of being a definitive choice and being done very, very well. The rest of DCA began to change to follow suit. Disney appeared to finally make a decision about what Hollywoodland was going to be, and how it tied to the new Twenties-themed entryway, and how the resurrected Los Angeles trolley system logically tied Buena Vista Street to the Hollywood Tower Hotel. And just as they have done that, they are getting rid of it... "Fixing" it to be more schizophrenic than it ever was.

The Tower of Terror was so good that it turned me into a fan of The Twilight Zone. Debuting in 1959, The Twilight Zone challenged public perception about Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy as mere b-movie drive-in fare. Creator Rod Serling and a handful of writers (including legendary author Richard Matheson) created taut half-hour dramas that used the "Fifth Dimension" of imagination to tackle themes of racism, war, political strife, materialism, and alienation in modern society. The show ran for a troubled five seasons, but in the ensuing decades has stood the test of time as one of the greatest television shows of all time. When Disney Imagineers looked to make a haunted hotel-themed drop ride in Disney-MGM Studios, they passed through ideas involving Vincent Price and Mel Brooks to settle on The Twilight Zone. For me, the Tower of Terror came first. I knew of The Twilight Zone, but I was not overly familiar with it. Since my first trip to Disneyland in 2005, when I first rode the Tower of Terror, I sought out the original series and completely fell head-over-heels in love with it. An attraction like Haunted Mansion already played to existing affections for spooky, Gothic things. The Enchanted Tiki Room did inspire an interest for Tiki culture in me, but even that did not accomplish quite the same thing as the Tower of Terror. That attraction made me so completely fall in love with a TV show I had never seen despite being exactly the sort of ride I completely hate.

I'm sure that Guardians of the Galaxy will be a success. That's not really in question. I'm sure it will be done well, for being nothing more than a chintzy overlay to cash in on a momentarily hot IP, and it will serve as the cornerstone in a new Marvel-based section of DCA. It will resonate with guests who aren't as... particular... about issues of theming, the sort of people who think the addition of Jack Sparrow to Pirates of the Caribbean is great because they loved the movies. Marvel fans will love it, I'm sure. And that success will demonstrate to Disney that they are (financially) right to let Universal Studios take the lead on sacrificing the concept of themed design in favour of amusement parks with a random allotment of rides and stores driven by currently popular IP. At one time, Disney was an industry leader in creating successful, immersive environments that didn't even need a connection to an IP to be successful. Think of the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Jungle Cruise, Enchanted Tiki Room, Frontierland, Epcot! Now, the order of the day is reactionary, running-to-catch-up to the faddishly popular with no regard to dusty, old, outdated ideas about escaping into worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.

For me, for one fan who only comes every other year or so, it saves me quite a few dollars by not bothering with a Parkhopper pass. DCA only had exactly one reason to make me want to cross the Esplanade, and in six months it will have none (and just as I was beginning to like DCA too). The cost is greater than the savings though, because it whittles away at Disneyland as a whole. In my rundown of favourite Disney parks, Disneyland USA took the top spot because of nostalgia, sentiment, and historical cachet. Considering the resort as a whole, that is rapidly unraveling. It is looking less and less like a place I want to visit, or even being pleasant to visit. I could already care less about Marvel or Star Wars, and truth be told, I almost resent Marvel for forcing itself on me, forcing me to be aware of it because it's so popular. At least I have the option of not going into Star Wars Land. I will not have the option of not seeing what has become of the ride that I loved so much that it made me a fan of the show it was based on and a go-to example of how to design an attraction well. Even on the approach to the parks, I will no longer see that stunningly gorgeous hotel I wish I could be staying in. It will just be some big pile of something that doesn't look like anything, reminding me of everything wrong with theme parks today.


  1. It's seriously depressing news, for all the reasons you state. I am actually toying with the idea of letting my Annual Pass lapse. I'm not quite sure when Disneyland stopped being Disneyland, but what we're seeing now is the gradual fallout from that shift.

    What might be even more depressing is a reaction I'm seeing on Micechat, summarized as "This is great news - I've never watched The Twilight Zone [usually including some disparaging remark about it being "outdated"] but I love GotG." I mean...really? I love GotG too and I have hardly ever watched TTZ, but that's *why* the Tower of Terror is so good - it's something we don't see every day. It being based on an old black-and-white show (and themed to periods older yet) contributes immensely to its transportive effect. In my own blog post on the matter I make a blink-and-you'll-miss-it comparison to the Haunted Mansion, but in some ways it's actually more like Pirates - you stumble across the aftermath of events long past, only to have a supernatural force violate time and space to get you more acquainted with those events than you might prefer.

    I'm sure the GotG ride will be fun. I am equally sure that stylistically speaking, it won't hold a candle to what it is replacing.

  2. I've read elsewhere that Disney has a reboot of The Rocketeer in the works. I wish they had used that as the premise for the ToT remake, and kept the period as is.

  3. I'm not surprised that the folks at MiceChat are excited about it. Like I said, this will be popular with the sort of people whose only real criteria is "do I recognize the movie?" and "is it an E-ticket?" Considering that they seem to think that Universal is the hottest thing going, of course they would like Disneyland to become more like Universal, including everything that's wrong with Universal.

    Nor do I blame you, Karalora, for reconsidering renewing your AP. I alluded to it at the end of my post, Disneyland is becoming less and less of a place that I recognize as somewhere I want to go. I still don't know where the line is that will make swear off it, if there is such a line, but suffice it to say that we've been investigating what kinds of travel deals there are for WDW.

  4. "people whose only real criteria is "do I recognize the movie?" and "is it an E-ticket?""

    In other words: Space Mountain and Mickey Mouse.

    What happened to make people balk at the idea of experiencing something new?

    1. What really gets me are all the people I've seen in comment sections and so forth, who are saying "Don't worry, it's still the same ride system, just with a different theme" as though the ride system is what really mattered about Tower of Terror.

      I would also like to know what happened... Or more precisely, why could the public at large "get" what Disneyland and WDW were trying to do with the concept of themed experience for so long, only to have it fall apart so horribly today, where people only seem to care about the ride system? Was it a social shift? Was it deliberate on the part of Disney? (I hate to say that maybe it's true that the marketeers are deliberately trying to dissolve the concept of theme) I wish I could figure it out, in the hopes of curing it.

    2. I'm sure there are a lot of things contributing to the current culture, both on the guest side of things and the corporate side. To go over all the factors I suspect are in play is probably beyond the scope of a blog comment.