Robert Niles Reviews California Adventure's Tower of Terror

It's a good ride, but 10 years after its initial release, shouldn't it be even better than the original?

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Published: May 5, 2004 at 1:02 AM

RIDE REVIEW: Decrepit Southern California hotels occupy a special place in my heart.

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.

Readers' Opinions

From Coaster Enthusiast on May 5, 2004 at 9:17 AM
So sad the ride is a 'shortened' version of WDW's. With all the hoopla and added costs, one would have thought there be more to the story at DCA. I also thought there where to be several scenarios of the original story. As I had been planning a trip to LA next season, I may postpone that adventure a couple more years when CA parks offer something an East-coaster can see which is new.

The cloning of Orlando has got to stop (i.e. Tower of Terror, Mummy ... etc.) if the parks want a higher attendance. I've been to CA a few times, the sights do not change, but amusement attractions can add a world of difference.

BTW - Robert, your story was very insightful and has lent a hand in my decision for next season's adventures.

From Jason Moore on May 5, 2004 at 10:11 AM
I'm not really a fan of TOT myself. I'm not a heights and drops kinda guy. In fact, it's the only ride I've ever ridden that actually made me queezy and ill feeling. All that aside though, I still had to ride it at least once (Fl version I'm talking about) for the sake of admiring the theming and the story and everything else that makes this ride great. It would probably be one of my favorite rides if it weren't for that dang drop at the end.

What gets me about this new version is the complete disregard for the rules of sequel. I have no problem at all with them building a new version of this concept for the west coast. Money making hits get follow ups on an almost daily basis. The problem here is that with a sequel everything is supposed to be bigger, better, more exciting. Instead they have given us what sounds like the readers digest version.

This is yet another example of clueless management reigning supreme. If you want a blockbuster, park saving ride experience, you have to invest the proper effort into it. I don't they they pulled it off, but I guess we'll have to wait and see the response from the general public who may not be as well informed as those of us who follow this news everyday.

From Ben Mills on May 5, 2004 at 12:18 PM
I'm surprised that no-one has yet made the comparison to Disney's movie sequels. Its a perfect match, don'tya think?
From Mr. D. T. on May 5, 2004 at 8:46 PM
I read in another sneek peek review that this ride starred Mickey Mouse and Heimlich from A Bugs Life. They probably changed it a bit since.

So this is a shortened version of the ride. Big deal, MK did the same thing with POTC. And I admire the old-fashioned charm on THAT ride.

From Robert Niles on May 5, 2004 at 9:08 PM
Okay, but what if Disney World had the guts to say no to the marketing folks who wanted to immediately satisfy demand for a PotC and held out for Western River Adventure? Or something even better? Wouldn't have fans enjoyed that just as much, if not more, than the butchered version of Pirates which runs in Orlando?
From Kevin Baxter on May 6, 2004 at 12:26 AM
I don't buy the whole PotC being fine in Orlando. That version really sucks and people who visit Florida should be mad they got their version later but a far worse one. If you are going to clone something, which I am not fond of, then you need to make it better, not worse!

Glad the whole story of ToT was brought up, because that is the one thing that always bothered me about it. Part of Spider-Man's ascension to Best Ride in the World status has a lot to do with it actually telling a complete story. ToT is all first act. In fact, it's the first act TWICE. We see a video about those tourists, then we head up and see those people AGAIN. Then we drop. Huh? People scoff at how many rides have Until Something Goes Wrong moments, but they are effective.

Maybe if we didn't get all the setup and this was treated just like a regular elevator ride. Like we are headed up to the penthouse for a wild party (which could be seen atop the hotel) and then Rod Serling stops you on the way up and gives you some spiel about how your elevator has somehow entered the fifth dimension and good luck getting out. Then maybe the elevator could do a few drops and stop on another floor, which would look normal but could dissolve into the fifth dimension (the dissolving scene). Then a few more drops. Then up to the penthouse finally, where the host or hostess takes one look at the carload and suggests everyone look a little more presentable if they expect to participate. Then the elevator could return slowly to the strains of the TZ theme.

Not the greatest, but at least it is complete. I'm really tired of how muddled the scripts are for so many Disney rides lately.

From Mr. D. T. on May 6, 2004 at 8:44 PM
I understand the Orlando POTC was cut in half, but this is the only POTC I've been on, so I can't give you opinions about the California one. I did hear that it has TWO drops, which does make it better.

As for TOT, the mentioned above info would make a perfect storyline, but it would probably lengthen the duration of the ride as well as the wait time. :D

From Kevin Baxter on May 7, 2004 at 12:09 AM
That does pose problems. My original idea was to have the library video happen on the first floor, something else (which happened to be exactly as long as the library video) occur on the second floor and another thing on a third floor. Then the car could move into the drop shaft and do its drop sequence. I guess my story idea could still work, but it would have to be wrapped up right before the unload station.

I think the biggest problem Disney has with its preshows is that people don't view them as part of the ride. If the library video was part of the ride itself, instead of before yet another line, people wouldn't think the ride is so short. Disney seriously needs to rethink the way they are using preshows.

From Themepark Guy on May 7, 2004 at 7:24 AM
I remember when I rode the first generation of freefall ride as an operations supervisor- the electrician next to me passed out-pretty funny actually.....That ride was down more than it was up.
From Philip Curds on May 7, 2004 at 9:26 AM
Interesting analysis Richard. Although, I fear your references to the Ambassador Hotel leaves your international audience slightly unsure of what you mean. At least, this clone/copy is a decent attraction, recent Disney clones have been weak, anyone enjoy Muppets 4D for the second time? Not me.
From Robert Niles on May 7, 2004 at 9:57 AM
Here's a short history of the Ambassador, though it is about six years out of date. Trump no longer owns the site; the L.A. school board controls it and wants to destroy the hotel to build a school.
From Coaster Enthusiast on May 8, 2004 at 12:33 PM
Party in the penthouse?

The door opens and the party is going strong. But, ... there's something not quite right 'bout the guests in attendence. The host (or, hostess) pokes his/her moldy, rotting, worm filled head at the elevator: "Oh, you're not ready for *this* party. All my guests are DEAD!! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaaaaa ...."
... as the elevator p l u m m e t s !!!!!

From Kevin Baxter on May 8, 2004 at 11:58 PM
It's a dead man's party.
Who could ask for more?
Everybody's coming,
leave your body at the door!
Leave your body and soul at the door!
From Andrew Rothman on May 10, 2004 at 12:38 AM
Now, I may be biased being an opening crew cast member on TOT, but from the response that I have received from the so many guests that I have dispatched and interacted with in the Tower I would have to say it has been a huge hit so far.

Yesterday (The first Saturday after the grand opening May 8th, 2004) we had a very long line that ended up being about two and a half hours at park closing. Now I know this is not THAT long of a wait time, but the summer season has yet to hit the resort and I'm certain that time will be doubled.

Our Fastpasses have been selling out every single day we have been in operation (and distributing fastpass) sometimes within two hours, on slow days within six hours.

If you were to take a birds eye view of the park during the day you would notice that most everywhere else in the park it is deserted compared to the Hollywood District... mainly all traffic from TOT. For instance, the other day I was listening to a cast member who had been playing in the park tell everyone that all of the other large attractions in the park had between a five and fifteen minute wait time, while TOT was keeping a steady hour or so wait time.

From all of this, I can safely conclude that TOT is doing what everyone way way above me hoped it would do. There's no telling what kind of a drop in attendence there will be once the summer season is over, but for the time being it has been THE thing to go on while visiting the resort.

Now, for my opinion of the ride (or attraction, whatever): I did not start getting used to it until about ride thirty or so. The first two times riding it my arms were sore from being clenched in my lap. I was so anxious to ride it and to be apart of it being that I worked in the Animation building, directly outside of the TOT's gates. Seeing it being built from the foundation up and then being part of the opening crew has been a real treat and it is my number one attraction that I prefer to work and ride.

But then again, this is all my biased opinion since I work it =P

From Jason Moore on May 10, 2004 at 10:16 AM
if anything, i would think that the above comments merely point out what we all already knew, there is nothing else in this park worth doing. Success would mean that these crowds were spread out over several attractions, not that everyone in the park was simply there for this one new attrcation.
From Nathan Caban on May 10, 2004 at 11:39 AM
Exactly Jason.
The idea that all disney parks to be clones of each other has to be considered. If a ride is to be cloned, at the very least it should be an improvement over the original, not an inferior simulation. Sure, the ride mechanisms can be similar but how hard is it to come up with a new story? After all, a rollercoaster, is a rollercoaster, a free fall is basically a free fall anywhere you go. Few people go to a theme park just once. So to keep it fresh, it should be unique and different. You dont go to a park for another been-there-done-that experience. With the exception of Soaring over California, CA Adventure suffers from exactly that.
The addition of TOT(2) is a minor improvement for CA.Adv, but, nothing I've hear or seen tells me that the TOT2 experience will be any different or better than TOT1.
What you're probably seeing is alot of first timers and park enthusiast (pass holders) just overjoyed that there is a new, if recycled attraction.
From Kevin Baxter on May 11, 2004 at 1:13 AM
Andrew, the reason for ToT was not so all the locals would go and stand in line. The reason for the ride was to encourage tourists to actually visit the park and not go home thinking it sucked. Is ToT making people all of a sudden love the park, like they do Disneyland? I seriously doubt it, so it isn't doing what it was expected to do, which was save the entire sorry park.

Longer lines aren't going to make things better. They'll only make things worse. If people have to wait 4 hours to get on one of two decent rides in the park, then they aren't going to be very happy, are they? And seeing other parts of the park be deserted all day isn't good for the park either. Those sections have to be manned, and if no one is visiting those attractions, then Disney is wasting money. That definitely won't be making Disney execs happy.

Disney needs to start weeding out the APs. And I say this being an AP myself. I would immediately stop selling the SoCal APs and increase the prices of the Deluxe APs to about 200 bucks. With, we'll say 720,000 APs just to make the math easy, 60K APs would come due in June. Same with July and August. Getting rid of the SoCal and raising the price could get rid of at least 100K APs over the summer. This would mean somewhat shorter lines at ToT, meaning actual tourists - the only ones Disney makes money from - might not get pissed off and might return in the future. That's far more important than APs. And if too many APs don't return, they could always restructure the program. But until ToT stops being such a focus - which might not happen until the park opens another really good E-Ticket - the SoCal Passes need to disappear.

From Robert Niles on May 11, 2004 at 10:05 AM
No matter how lousy the attraction -- and this ToT is *far* from lousy -- an energetic cast member can make that attraction enjoyable entertainment.

One of the reason I hate reviewing attractions during press events is that you don't get the "normal" cast member interaction that a guest would get. (As a journalist, you typically get a *worse* experience, as cast members stop "performing" and start simply conversing. It is informative, and the CMs are almost always professional and courteous. But it is just not the same experience as visiting as a guest.)

I've been on ToT in Orlando with some outstanding cast members who have made the experience of visiting that attraction far, far more entertaining that it would be with a CM going through the motions to do a bare-minimum job.

So, please CMs, ignore what we say about the design and concept of your attractions and bring your best performance every single time. Yeah, I know the pay is lousy and you don't always get the respect you deserve from your managers and your company. (And that's true for all theme parks and all theme park companies, by the way.) But your performance will help delight the people who visit your attraction. And they'll love you for it. Even if too few of them ever make their way to City Hall to commend you.

Developing the habit of bringing your best every day will serve you well throughout your career, even as it takes you away from theme parks. And helping or entertaining people always comes back to your benefit -- somehow, someday.

From Miguel Millares on September 22, 2004 at 8:14 PM
I truly Dont know why some of you critizice the cloning of the ToT when most of rides in the Magic Kingdoms are clones of disneylands rides. I had the chance to ride the new ToT and I think that its as good if not better than the original given the circumstances. I have to say the new ToT has smoother drops, better drops and Im glad they got rid of the "5th" dimension scene which made no sense at all. I also agree with the fact that the overall look of the hotel was changed and made to look like a diferent building and not the same one. I think the reason the lines are also shorter because there is now a third drop shaft.
From Anthony Murphy on April 1, 2005 at 9:29 PM
Well done Robert! I totally agree with you! I feel that this version of the ToT is made for the "cheap thrills" of theme park goers. I feel that thought the WDW one may not have the wham bamm feel that DCA has, it has a storyline with paticular details that makes the ride more than a ride, it is a show. I think that is what is miussing from DCA. It is too much like a ride and not like a show!
From Julie P on April 30, 2005 at 10:35 PM
I completely understand that many people have been to the TOT in Florida, however, for those who haven't, TOT in DCA is a real treat.

I don't think it's fair to say that Disney doesn't do as good a job as others in faking rot in a "nice way", you must remember that many children go to Disneyland/world and Disney's main focus and target is on children. Children get spooked easily, and having a Disney (ahem, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Lion King, etc.) theme park made dark and scary mainly for the adults' entertainment should not be, and is not, considered a goal of theirs.

Also, I understand that it may have been a disappointment to not be able to see where the family went and follow them to a second elevator shaft, but there might not have been enough space to do something like that or it may not have been safe given the ride location, there are mechanics and a certain science that go about building a ride that only the highest and most intelligent engineers hold.

And I think it's important to remember that we are the riders. We are not the Hollywood Tower of Terror researchers. If you like to follow the family and know more about them, you can indulge in books about old haunted places or watch old Twilight Zone shows.

I think that, given the space and potential that the area had, DCA offered a great new attraction that should keep visitors coming for quite some time. And personally, I prefer DCA over Disneyland any day. It's less crowded and there are a lot more rides and high-paced thrills than Disneyland, since DL is all over kid-oriented(as it should be).

If you like roller coasters and other fun and exciting thrills, and that's it, then go to Knott's or Six Flags. But if you like those things and still want a bit of a Disney touch, go to DCA.

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