A ride on the Tower is just as it has been since opening: Riders enter the hotel lobby and pass through the library and boiler room before coming upon a maintenance service elevator, still in operation, waiting for them. Should they dare to step aboard, they will travel in that elevator directly to the Twilight Zone. At least, that is the deal during the day. At night, however, the attraction is transformed into a new experience. Dubbed "Late Check-Out" by Disney, this attraction promises something guests have never experienced before as the ride occurs in complete darkness.
What is complete darkness? That is the question I pondered while waiting in the 75 minute line on Friday night to try this attraction for myself. When the concept was announced, I thought it sounded like a gimmick. From the queue, I could see that the doors at the top of the tower were still opening as normal, negating a rumor that they would remain closed during the experience. So, what is different about this version? My thoughts jumped to Six Flags, as they promote operating their coasters in the dark during Fright Fest. Essentially, this amounts to switching off all lights in the ride area. While it does create a different environment, the ride experience is more or less the same. As Tower of Terror has a number of lights in the drop shaft, my assumption was that these would simply be switched off, and given that the ride normally occurs in semi-darkness I wasn't sure how much of a difference it would make. Would the ride be worth the line, or would I feel disappointed that I had spent so long in line for an attraction I've ridden numerous times (and had, in fact, already experienced that day)? As I would find out, Disney was right...I've never experienced the Tower quite like I was about to.
Unlike other overlays Disney has done, there is nothing in the queue area that promotes the altered experience. All that mentions Late Check-Out is a sign in front of the attraction. The outdoor queue is normal, the lobby is normal (apart from a small stage to allow the Silver Lake Sisters to perform), and the background music is exactly the same as it has always been. Once in the Library, guests view the same Twilight Zone pre-show as always, then they wait to be seated on an elevator. If I didn't know better, I would have thought I was just going for another ride on the attraction, and it was obvious that not everyone knew about the special version.
Before continuing, I'd like to warn everyone that there are spoilers ahead. Below is a complete description of the experience, detailing what you will find inside the Tower of Terror. If you plan to experience this attraction and want to go in blind (which I recommend), skip from this paragraph to the End of Spoilers statement. The one thing I will tell you is this... Late Check-Out is a different experience, but not a more extreme one. If you are okay with the regular Tower of Terror, have no fear in this being something you can't handle. It may scare you more, but that's kind of the point.
Warning: Spoilers Below!
"You are the passengers on a most uncommon elevator..." Rod Sterling begins as the elevator backs into the ride shaft. Just as in the normal Tower of Terror, a starfield appears as the room fades away. Once the narration ends, the doors close and the elevator ascends to the first show scene. Typically, the doors open here to reveal guests looking into a mirror, but this time...nothing. The elevator stops in complete darkness, so dark that those in the back will barely be able to make out the front of the elevator. Then the narration resumes, but it is not what you expect to hear...
"What happened here to dim the lights of Hollywood's brightest showplace is about to unfold once again."
As the audio track continues, the elevator moves to the second show scene and again...nothing. Complete darkness, yet with the regular audio.
"One stormy night long ago, five people stepped through the doors of an elevator and into a nightmare. That door is opening once again, and this time it's opening for you."
Those who have experienced the ride know that this signals the start of the drop sequence. This time, however, just as the anticipation builds and the music swells, everything goes silent. And you wait...
And begin to wonder if the ride broke down...
And then you drop. I have been on numerous drop towers across the country, and I have been on Tower of Terror dozens of times. I knew what was coming, but that drop still caught me completely off guard and, from the sound of screams and words not typically heard at a Disney park, everyone else was in the same, er, elevator. On most rides, there are cues that will alert an experienced rider that something is about to happen (with a drop tower, it is usually a click or a air hiss just before the drop), but with the audio and visual cues of the ride absent and the remarkably quiet ride system of the Tower of Terror, that elevator went from stationary to full velocity almost before I realized we were dropping.
The remainder of the ride consists of the standard drop sequence, but with the exception of the doors at the top everything happens in complete darkness. If you know what is coming, a little bit of the surprise is lost, but for infrequent riders it will likely be unnerving. Robbed of any frame of reference, a 50-foot drop might as well be 500. And, due to the unique forces felt on the ride, there are moments where you may feel like you are falling while you're actually moving upward (or vice versa). Once the drop sequence ends, the doors open and the final scene of the ride plays out as normal.
End of Spoilers
So, was Late Check-Out worth the wait? After riding, I would say yes. The experience is certainly different enough that even a seasoned rider will appreciate the variation, and those who feel there aren't enough thrills at the Disneyland Resort will likely get one out of it. That said, it is not an experience that will appeal equally to everyone. Unlike Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy or Haunted Mansion Holiday (which, by the way, has something new this year...no spoilers), there are no additional story or visual elements added to the attraction. Instead, this is all about maximizing the thrill, and in this case, Disney opted for addition by subtraction.
Is it better than the regular ride? No, but I wasn't expecting it to be. It is instead an alternate version that, while not something I would purchase a ticket just to try, is still well worth checking out for anyone visiting the resort between now and the end of the year.
If you will be visiting Disney California Adventure in the near future, note that the impending closure of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror has caused lines to swell significantly (on my visit, it was consistently the longest line at the park...yes, longer than Radiator Springs Racers), so for the regular version of the attraction I recommend grabbing your first Fastpass (Racers or Soarin') at opening and then heading directly to the ride. If you're relying on Fastpass, secure one by 1pm. For Late Check-Out, keep an eye on the Disneyland app and try to snag a Fastpass for 7pm or later (I'm not sure what time it begins, but I'm guessing it should be running by then). If you can't get one, I suggest making it your last ride of the day, as the line will double in speed once the Fastpass queue closes at park closing. Even if the wait is an hour or more, it is worth it for the experience as, after all, there will probably never be a chance to do this again.
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