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Who is Disney's Harrison Hightower?

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Published: May 23, 2012 at 8:14 PM

In just a couple weeks, we'll be getting our first look at the completed changes underway at Disney California Adventure. Disney's poured $1 billion into the changes and additions at the Disneyland Resort's second gate, and the glimpses we've seen so far have been dazzling.

But in a few years, when Buena Vista Street and Cars Land have grown familiar and Disney's looking for something else to do to add a little more spark to DCA, I hope that they'll think about giving Harrison Hightower a call.

Who is Harrison Hightower?

Harrison Hightower, in stained glass
Harrison Hightower, in a stained glass tribute to himself

World traveller. Real estate developer. Collector of rare antiques and antiquities. Billionaire. Celebrity.

And, oh yeah, completely fictional.

Harrison Hightower is the protagonist in Tokyo DisneySea's version of Tower of Terror. Without a Twilight Zone overlay for the ride in Japan, Disney's Imagineers concocted Mr. Hightower (get it?), the wealthy, vain, and egomaniacal (not necessarily in that order) developer who built the Hotel Hightower at the corner of Broadway and Park Avenue in New York. (Look at a map of Manhattan for the joke.)

Hightower Hotel

And, I hope, one day he will become the proprietor of Disney California Adventure's Tower of Terror, as well.

Why? Because California Adventure's Tower of Terror, while great fun, isn't as good an attraction as the original in Florida, which Theme Park Insider readers consistently rate among the very best in the world for its wild ride of random drops and special effects. If Disney isn't about to spend tens of millions of dollars to improve the DCA ToT's ride to that level, it could, with much less expense, improve its story.

California Adventure Tower of Terror

I love The Twilight Zone. The best episodes of Rod Serling's anthology series from the 1960s brilliantly illustrated irony in the human existence, often using the supernatural to place in sharp relief our very natural, human flaws. No one believes the crazy man on the airplane, even though he turns out to be the only one who's right. A selfish man wishes away all of mankind so he can read in peace, only to be left with no one to repair his eyeglasses after a holocaust. Invaders hold back, allowing the residents of Maple Street turn on each other out of fear and eventually do themselves in.

Disney did amazing work to craft a video introduction for the Florida and California Tower of Terror attractions. Smart video editing allows Serling himself (long dead at the time of the ride's development) to set up the story, which involves a lightning strike sending visitors at the Hollywood Tower Hotel into the Twilight Zone.

But something's missing: the irony. Why are these nameless guests destined for oblivion? What did they do to deserve or enable what ought to be a deliciously ironic punishment? Heck, who are these people, anyway? We never get to meet any of them. Without any emotional stakes, we're left with the supernatural gimmickry of the Twilight Zone, without the human insight that made the series so special.

In Tokyo, we instead get the story of one Harrison Hightower, a pompous man who's returned to America with his greatest prize, the Shiriki Utundu idol from Africa.

Hightower in the news
Newspaper account of Harrison Hightower's fateful journey, on display in the attraction queue.

To the natives, Shiriki Utundu is no mere idol. He is their god - an angry god, ready to curse whomever takes him from his people. Hightower, being the arrogant man he is, will have no such silliness, and he invites the press to a party where he will show off his new prize.

But on "that fateful night," Shiriki Utundu has his revenge. In an amazing pre-show, we learn Harrison Hightower's fate, then are ushered into the hotel's elevators to see the outcome for ourselves. As we ascend, we see Shiriki Utundu deliver Harrison Hightower to his fate before turning to face us, to ensure that we get the message: Don't mess with Shiriki Utundu.

Harrison Hightower paid for his sins of arrogance, excess, and hubris. The prize he thought would validate him became his undoing. The ironic punishment is served.

Rod Serling would approve.

So, perhaps, we've found our irony, after all: Disney best expresses the spirit of The Twilight Zone in the one Tower of Terror that never mentions its name.

Readers' Opinions

From David L. on May 23, 2012 at 8:57 PM
This would be great, but it would need some big changes from TDS's version to fit the Hollywoodland theme. Great Idea!
From Tony Perkins on May 23, 2012 at 9:12 PM
I agree that I find the stateside ToT story lacking. There's no emotional connection with the characters, while the Tokyo version gives us real stakes. As much as I love the Twilight Zone, the Tokyo story is a more immersive narrative.
From Robert Niles on May 23, 2012 at 10:27 PM
As I mentioned in our Twitter chat on the topic, if there had been a TMZ back in Hightower's day, he'd have been all over it. He is exactly the oversized character that'd fit perfectly in Hollywoodland. Just swap the locale from NY, and we're good to go.
From Json Son on May 24, 2012 at 6:01 AM
There is a ToT movie with Kristen Dunst, that is pretty good, but it doesn't have the Twilight Zone theme. I associate the movie as an extension of the attraction and not an adaptation.
I believe the 4 victims in the attraction, show up as ghosts in the attraction. So yeah, there is depth here.

One question, why does DHS's narrative work over DCA's? Why are the plot holes in DHS overlooked while the DCA ones are criticized? Aren't they basically the same attraction with different show buildings and drop sequences?

(Maybe I'm answering my own question here) I do agree, however, that the Twilight Zone theme fits in DHS while Hightower's personality and story would be more suited for DCA.

From Anon Mouse on May 24, 2012 at 7:30 AM
Harrison Hightower wouldn't work in the states. He is such a throwback to our real legends like William Randolph Hearst or John D. Rockefeller that the public will have a whiplash to remember what has happened. As much as I enjoyed "The Aviator" starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the legendary Howard Hughes, which like Hearst, would be an excellent candidate as the model for a Tower of Terror remake, most people just don't care or relate to them.

DCA's Twilight Zone didn't work because the new Tower of Terror building is much shorter ride than the original Florida version. It is a big disappointment. They should have went with a new storyline. I prefer they go with a fantasy version, into a totally new dimension. They should have started with the pre-show where you immediate enter into a new realm. It proceeds into the waiting area, then into the elevator a la "Stargate". Only during the drop portion do you get the reality/fantasy dichotomy and we get our own version of the Fifth Dimension room.

The thing about the Twilight Zone is it isn't very scary anymore. I enjoyed it immensely as a kid, but today's movies and shows are clearly over the top.

From Neil Trama on May 24, 2012 at 7:29 AM
The irony is in the fate of the guests, not the riders in the pre-show. It's all in what Sterling says at the end of the drop sequence. "Next time you check into an abandoned hotel on the dark side of Hollywood, make sure you know what kind of vacancy you're filling..."

The irony is the riders, who see this old derelict hotel, are warned in the lobby of this terrible fate that befell the hotel, and still brazenly (like Hightower, perhaps) get into the service elevator only to, well, we know what happens from there.

The people in the pre-show are just backstory. The riders are the main characters who are given comeuppance. We're the Hightower in this Tower of Terror.

From nick stechman on May 24, 2012 at 8:28 AM
It's an interesting idea, but I think on balance I would keep it the way it is.

My main problem, having ridden all four versions of this ride, is that none of them are as scary as the WDW used to be. I had until recently, assumed that this was isolated to the cheaper socal and Paris versions- but last year I was lucky enough to visit TDS & Orlando, and these seemed just as bland.

My mind may be playing tricks on me, but didn't the Florida one used to be much more extreme in the 90s - I think you used to drop a couple floors - surge to the top- the windows would open, you wait, then you would hear a click, nothing would happen & then silently you would drop 13 floors - so fast that your legs hit the lap bar(now a belt) then up again and finish. Now you just seem to bounce around like a yo yo, with a total lack of intensity.

Does anyone else remember it being more exciting?

From Ricardo K on May 24, 2012 at 8:42 AM
The idea of a new theme is really interesting.

Just comparing, I love Test Track at Epcot and I like that we'll have Radiator Springs Racers. Similar rides, different themes and experiences.

Another one I love is Soarin'. It'd be really interesting if the one in WDW had a different film...

From Pyra-Danny V on May 24, 2012 at 9:55 AM
I didn't get the Broadway and Park Ave joke. All I could find on my map is that Park Ave turns into Broadway...
From Robert Niles on May 24, 2012 at 9:58 AM
As to the question about DHS's theme vs. DCA's... Florida's version of Tower of Terror, having the same narrative, has the same narrative weakness as California's. But the ride's so great that it's clearly the superior attraction. Since we can't get a different ride for California, I'm just wishing that maybe someday we on the west coast can get a better story than Florida's. And since Disney's already created that story in Tokyo, I see that as a nice fit.
From 204.128.192.33 on May 25, 2012 at 1:21 PM
Yeah, I don't understand either why Broadway & Park Avenue is supposed to be a joke. They meet up at Union Square.
From Robert Niles on May 25, 2012 at 2:37 PM
There is no corner of Broadway and Park Ave. They run parallel until Park Ave ends at 17th Street. That's where Park Ave splits into Fourth Ave and Union Square East. South of Union Square Park, Union Square East turns into... Broadway, which had turned into Union Square West at 17th Street.
From Larry Zimmerman on May 26, 2012 at 8:24 AM
Maybe they stiffed the bell hop, or failed to say thank you to the conductor on the train. But sometimes bad things happen to good people, whether they deserve it or not.

Wrong place, wrong time.

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