Written by Robert Niles
Published: May 5, 2004 at 1:02 AM
My first home, an apartment really, stood in the shadow of the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. Fantasies of mingling with stars outside the Cocoanut Grove had lured my parents from Kentucky to the corner of Wilshire and Alexandria a year before my birth. Only when they arrived did they learn that "Hollywood" -- the industry, not the town -- had long ago decamped for more fashionable environs west. And that the Ambassador's best days lay behind it.
It wasn't a lightning bolt that doomed the Ambassador. A changed neighborhood, shifting fashion and the infamy of Sirhan Sirhan's bullet took care of that. Travelers checked in elsewhere. My parents moved us to Canoga Park. But I'm always reminded of the Ambassador when I enter the lobby of Disney's faux Hollywood Tower Hotel.
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror's conceit offers that a bolt of lightning knocked the 13th floor of Hollywood's favorite gathering place into the fifth dimension. And that the tale of that supernatural event is told in a "lost episode" of Rod Serling's television series.
That Hollywood Tower Hotel looms over California Adventure's Sunset Boulevard, as its predecessor does at Disney-MGM Studios in Walt Disney World. But while the Florida version bears a passing resemblance to the real Hollywood Tower (after a visit to BALCO), California Adventure's hotel evokes Pasadena's Castle Green, with a kick of art deco flavor.
This tower's crammed into too small a space, with no room for Disney World's gardens that there provide a haunting prelude to the show within. Here, you're expected to get a ride reservation in advance through Disney's Fastpass system, as there's little room for a standby line. So it's straight into the lobby and on with the show.
Last year, I finally got the chance to return to the Ambassador, for a performance art/dance program. We followed the troupe throughout the hotel, from the pool through the arcade and coffee shop, upstairs into the Cocoanut Grove and the lobby. There, in a moment of reverse karma, I remembered the Florida Tower of Terror, and noted how cheap and artificial the real decay of the Ambassador's lobby looked compared with the lush "disrepair" of Disney's fake shuttered hotel.
That same thought returned as I entered the nearly identical lobby at California Adventure. Cobwebs, cracked plaster, rusted pipes, oxidated copper -- let Six Flags and Knott's bring you the real decay. Nobody does fake busted like Disney.
From the lobby, bellhops beckon you into the library, crammed with authentic Twilight Zone TV props and a short video featuring the Tower's back story, narrated by a cleverly edited Serling himself. You are to enter the tower through a service elevator, and to experience for yourself the journey into the Fifth Dimension where the hotel's previous guests were lost. So it is through the back door into the boiler room, where the elevators await.
Here you will find another difference from the Florida original. The loading deck is split on two floors, and the elevators here travel in a single shaft. Florida's Tower of Terror takes riders up one shaft, where the elevator pauses for a few show scenes. Then the elevator follows a vanished family through the fifth dimension and into a second, drop shaft, where a blast of lightning sends riders into one of a randomly chosen sequence of drops and launches.
In California Adventure's version, your first movement is back, not up. Sticklers might complain that breaking out of the vertical shaft right away cheapens the elevator theme. Whatever. How many elevators come with benches and seat belts? (Though Toronto's CN Tower ought to consider investing....) We know what's gonna happen here. Let's get on with the ride.
Which this Tower of Terror does. And well. Too well, in fact. The shaft melts into a star field as the elevator shoots upward to lobby level, where riders can gaze at themselves in a mirror, only to watch their images dissolve into apparitions. Go ahead, wave your arms and watch the ghost "you" wave back. Then it's swiftly up another level, where you meet up with that vanished family, beckoning you down the hall.
In Florida, your elevator would leave the shaft and follow. Here, you remain, watching them board an elevator which drops into space. As yours does immediately after. The drop surprised me, as it led immediately into this Tower of Terror's drop sequence.
The fifth dimension scene in Florida, just a slow creep through barren room, does not add anything to the narrative of the ride. But it works well to provide a few extra moments of anxiety before the inevitable drops. Here, those drops strike quickly, like a group of hungry teens raiding your fridge. And they are gone, just as fast.
When did the lightning hit? I missed the lightning effects that enliven Florida's drop shaft. Perhaps Orlando, with its frequent thunderstorms, gets lightning for every Tower of Terror visitor. But in the L.A. basin, where thunderstorms are as rare as a waiter without a headshot or a script, the Tower of Terror gets one strike to knock it into the fifth dimension, and that's it.
Disney consistently minimizes the scares in its thrill rides. By putting the drops and launches in a darkened shaft, one loses the visual cues that tell you how fast you're dropping, and how quickly the ground comes near. That's fine, so long as the Mouse provides a story and an environment to engage your spirit as the drops engage your stomach.
Ten years ago, when Tower of Terror debuted in Florida, I was captivated by the opportunity to step into a Twilight Zone episode. I wanted to follow that vanishing family, to discover who they were and what awaited them at the end of their journey. (Just as I later eagerly followed those dancers through so many hallways of the shuttered Ambassador Hotel.)
Now there's a new Tower of Terror, and I'm still waiting for those answers. Rather than develop the ride's story in a nod to Serling's rich narratives, Disney's just given us a tighter edit. In today's DVD era, I want to see more extras on a second release. Not fewer.
Couple the shorter ride with the slimmer thrills, and this Tower of Terror left me indifferent about riding again. Yes, it's an entertaining ride. And in the words of one especially disdainful TV campaign, "if you haven't seen it, it's new to you!" Even Disney World veterans should welcome the chance to take at least one ride on this version. But those committed theme park fans deserve even better from Disney.
Yes, Tower of Terror marks Disney's welcome recognition of what California Adventure should have been all along: a visit to the California of dreams and legend, and not to facsimiles of stuff we can see elsewhere today. But to say that Disney's no longer letting the chuckleheads call the shots at DCA is to damn the company with too-faint praise. Disney once sought the spectacular. Now, no serious theme park fan looks for that in Disney. The company could have used a tighter Tower of Terror as the foundation to expand the story and develop the adventure. But it didn't. It just gave us a stripped down rerelease instead.
Perhaps Tower of Terror will get the turnstiles spinning at DCA, and convince the powers that be that this park's worth even more investment. Maybe. But money's never been that big of a problem for the Walt Disney Company. Putting those bucks behind a creative vision -- now that's another matter.
Disney wants its visitors to believe in magic. Perhaps I'd be more likely to feel that way if I saw some tangible evidence that the company's leadership believed in it, too.