TERROR DROPS INTO ANAHEIM

etixland's Review of DCA's Transplanted Tower

Two weeks after the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened at Disney's California Adventure park, I took my first tour of the newest high flying and hair raising ride at the Disneyland Resort. From the first announcements of this transplanted Tower attraction, I was disappointed by the decision to recycle Orlando's hit thriller instead of adapting the ride technology for an original show on the west coast. But now having braved the Anaheim version and enjoyed the relatively short, pre-summer weekday lines, my skepticism turned to pleasant if tempered surprise at the results.

I follow my photo tour of the attraction with an evaluation of DCA's Tower of Terror, how it fits into its Anaheim home, and just how high a bar it sets as the latest 'E Ticket' experience in Southern California.


THE TOWER RISES, EXPECTATIONS FALL

During the Tower's concept preview and construction at DCA — an obvious skyline landmark in the park's mostly flat topography — I had misgivings about its southwestern design: while representative of the Los Angelino architecture of the period, I thought the style lacked the gothic altitude and attitude of Orlando's Tower.

Granted, the DCA Tower (left) is sheathed in scaffolding for this April 2003 photo, but even underneath its construction shroud, I was discouraged by the set-back, boxy design and appearance of the Hotel. Though once it opened I could see the truncated mid-level frontage was necessary for DCA's revised ride system. Mechanic requirements aside, our TOT appears almost as wide as it is tall, unlike Orlando's spindled and soaring Tower (right) whose wide but thin base accentuates its lofty vertical ambition.

The Mission-influenced design adequately carries off the southwest/Spanish aesthetic of 1920s Los Angeles, but the profile and lines seemed overly streamlined for the sake of style, too shallow in relief to carry over the menace of Orlando's glowering Tower with its spiked spires and gothic turrets.

Our western TOT already lost some vertical perspective when Imagineers designed a wider hotel to gain higher capacity within its three drop shafts. Accentuating rather than disguising this tradeoff, the Princess Leia-like 'stucco buns' on either side of the Hotel summit further disarm the optical impression of its true height — a surprising violation of the forced perspective rules used effectively throughout Disneyland. The human eye and brain know that tall objects — even fake fairyland castles — get visually narrower and foreshortened as they stretch farther above the observer. Yet the TOT's sidebar structures form an awkward t-shape across the top floor, broadening the Hotel's peak rather than narrowing and stretching it skyward. It stuck out (literally) as an unusual, bulky addition to DCA's Tower under construction, and the final decoration and distressing of the exterior did little to de-emphasize its 'headphone' look.

Sure it's a small point in the overall impression of TOT, but then all the more puzzling why they exist in the first place; if there's some internal, system-supporting purpose for these sidesaddle 'suites', please email me with the details — I'd love to learn.

THE BACKLOT 'NEIGHBORHOOD'

Imagineers faced another huge challenge transplanting the TOT in DCA: where to put it in what relatively little space the landlocked park offers? The answer was obvious with the Twilight Zone's inherent tie-in to television entertainment, which made Hollywood Pictures Backlot the logical land for the Tower's landing. But the available footprint for the attraction, sandwiched between the Hyperion Theater and A Bug's Land, meant DCA's TOT would have little breathing room around it to establish its own themed environment. In contrast, Orlando's Tower has one end of Disney-MGM Studios to itself, with an abundance of land and landscaping to set up its haunted backstory and foreboding isolation from its eastern Sunset and Vine.

Though some fans feel the California Tower got shoehorned into the HPB district, I think Imagineers did a good job blending and blurring the lines between studio backlot and hotel resort themes — and why not? WDI has a long, successful history of creative puzzle fitting with differing styles at theme-crowded Disneyland, where the back half of the Tiki Room hut is a Victorian-era gingerbread building, yet you can barely detect a hint of Main Street from the Adventureland side and vice versa.

I've always taken pleasure in the economic cleverness of Disneyland's design, how by necessity divergent lands coexist so tightly and successfully. The same skills are displayed at work here with the Tower environs, only not at the same level of clever creativity and with one large disappointment remaining: the high visibility of Hyperion Theater's massive queue area still dominates the Tower's entrance area in all its body-clogged splendor. This is a huge distraction to guests' visual introduction to the Hotel, and the 'safety' implied in these multitudinous numbers deflates the Tower's imposing first impression as an abandoned, forbidden destination.

This area is symptomatic of DCA's larger fault in its themed lands: Hollywood Pictures Backlot is a nebulous concept to begin with: hardly the walled-in studio lot of hidden movie magic, HPB plays both angles between movie set fakery and idealized Hollywood public avenue. This diffusion of design logic and consistency works against the Backlot overall but in the Tower's short-range favor, since a hotel in within this borderless Studio is hardly the gross violation of theme, as some fans argue. The larger point is the Backlot's failure to be a consistently themed picture-making backlot land in itself, and that cannot be blamed on the Tower of Terror.

Still, I give some kudos to Imagineers who dressed up the otherwise bland retail space wall on the right of TOT's entrance this winter, adding faux windows and period shade awnings to add more studio flavor while pointing guests to the Hotel (see above photo). In fact, similar shaded windows adorned the actual Disney Studio buildings, so they make a nice, insider callback to the park's heritage. A nice if very small touch you'd have to know to truly appreciate, but the effort should be acknowledged... especially since such efforts haven't been made in other park areas that could use it. Still, this addition further blurs the logical distinction between HPB being a studio lot and a public avenue, when opting for one theme over the other would present stronger results.

The surrounding Hotel grounds are consistently if subtly themed, though I miss the rundown, decrepit and spookier look abundant around Orlando's version. It seems the California crew of the Hollywood Tower are better at maintenance and upkeep than the Florida staff, as the only true distressing on the Hotel facade resulted from the lightning strike itself. Again, this may result from the aesthetic struggle between the Tower's tiny buffer zone and the HPB street scene, and I feel TOT fails to reach its most eerie potential by losing this battle.

The gated garden queue area is nice if nondescript, but at least it doesn't detract from the grand lobby entrance — smartly done there — as is the choice to locate the FastPass terminals across the road in their own Mission-design depot to keep the Hotel entry uncluttered by crowds. As seen above, the Tower's glassy, classy entrance shows no age or hint of its haunted past from the outside; in fact it looks like nearly any existing historic L.A. landmark of the era, clean and well preserved. Again, I would prefer an earlier introduction to the Tower's theme of decayed abandonment, but I guess WDI decided to follow Walt's edict for Disneyland's Haunted Mansion: "We'll take care of the outside, the ghosts can take care of the inside."

True enough, the key to the Tower of Terror lies inside the Twilight Zone and inside the lobby doors, so let's check into the Hotel and discover the real nature of this thrill attraction...

© 2004 scott weitz