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Old 05-14-2004, 01:17 PM   #1
Jennifer and Dave
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Tower of Terror, California-Style

“California Screamin’” takes on a whole new meaning, now that the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror has joined the lineup of attractions at Disney’s California Adventure. Dave made sure to ride Tower of Terror in Orlando on May 2, knowing that he’d be riding the California version at the media preview, just two days later. Now that he’s ridden both in rapid succession…. Let’s keep you in suspense for a little while longer.

In typical Hollywood style, Disney couldn’t help but make a big thing of the opening. As Deb Wills described so well in her recent AllEars newsletter, Disney rolled the red carpet down the middle of Disney California Adventure’s Hollywood Boulevard to welcome invited media, travel agents, Disney Legends and celebrity guests to the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror’s “Hollywood Preview” on the evening of May 4. For those of us of a certain age, we were most delighted to see Nia Vardalos, writer and star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Connie and Carla,” and her husband, actor Ian Gomez (the “real” Ian Miller). OK, so we newlyweds are suckers for romantic comedy, and Nia managed to come from nowhere to create the most financially successful romantic comedy of all time. Pretty cool, if you ask us. Another luminary that was of particular interest to us was Disneyland Resort (and former Disney Cruise Line) President Matt Ouimet. We’d never met Matt while he held the reins at DCL, so it was nice to finally exchange pleasantries. Disney Archivist and author Dave Smith was also on hand for the historical event (“Hi, Dave – we’ll be sending you our latest editions when we get back home,”) as was Disney Imagineering Vice-Chairman, Marty Sklar, legendary Imagineer Tony Baxter and a host of other high-ranking Disney-types. Dave chatted a bit with Marty as we stood in the Boiler Room waiting to ride (we’re sure Marty was thinking, “OK, I’ve seen this guy somewhere before, and he’s got press credentials…). One way or the other, the man who started his career at Walt’s elbow is still enthusiastic about riding the next big thing! While we didn’t get to ride in the same elevator as he did, we did catch a glimpse of Marty’s photo afterwards – his expression was priceless! Too bad we didn’t buy a copy.

The opening attracted plenty of attention, especially since some pundits consider the new attraction “make or break” for the theme park’s future. We’re not so sure that Tower is of such critical importance (although it sure will help), as DCA has already been breaking attendance records this year. Still, with the kind of attention Michael Eisner has been getting from the Hollywood press these days, everyone’s looking for another Disney stumble.

Well, they didn’t get it. Besides putting on a great party, Disney has rolled-out a great attraction. Yes, it has all the elements that have made Orlando’s Tower such a hit, and Disney’s Imagineers have managed to top their previous performance.

We spoke with Imagineer Jim Kearns, Facility Design Manager for California’s Tower of Terror and former Project Engineer on Florida’s Tower. He led a team of over 40 architects, engineers and designers through the design and construction of the attraction, so he knows the ride inside and out. Disney’s cast is well-schooled in what to say (and not say) in an interview. They can’t say “elevators,” for instance – they’re “special ride vehicles (or some such)” Presumably, there are some legal fine points that make the word “elevator” off-limits. So are we riding in an elevator by another name, or is it a special mechanism that just seems to be an elevator? Your guess is still as good as ours.

Was the attraction intentionally designed to be less fearsome than Orlando’s version? (Dave thinks so!) Absolutely not – it was designed to give guests an improved ride experience! Was the addition of a third lift shaft intended to increase guest “throughput?” (While the attraction has the same, two pre-show areas, it has three lift shafts and six, rather than four, vehicle loading areas.) No, the extra lift shaft was intended to give guests an improved ride experience. (OK, less time in the queue does equal a better ride experience, we’ll grant them that).

Other questions got somewhat meatier answers. Naturally, the drop sequence is reprogrammable, but so far there are no new drop sequences waiting in the wings – they’ll re-tune things as they get guest feedback. While the attraction’s above-ground height is different than Orlando’s ride, the actual lift shaft height is the same.

They’re also very proud of the hidden improvements and special effects they’ve been able to incorporate in the new version. Among the special effects, the most notable may be the “disappearing guests.” After a brief blackout and short lift/drop sequence, you see a reflection of you and your fellow passengers in a mirror. Gradually, your images fade, to be replaced by ghostly apparitions. They say that magic is done with smoke and mirrors, and this is certainly a prime example, but after experiencing it several times, Dave continues to be very impressed. One change that we didn’t discuss but is fairly apparent is that they’ve streamlined the entire ride experience. In Orlando your elevator “car” is initially lifted several floors in a separate elevator, and then it rolls forward through the star effect room before being loaded onto the “big” lift. In Anaheim your car is in the same lift from beginning to end. This undoubtedly simplifies the mechanical systems, and the fewer the moving parts, the more reliable the attraction.

Now, onto the ride! Fearless Dave rode several times, so most comments will be his, although oh-so-pregnant Jennifer did go through the queue, pre-show and boiler room before taking the “chicken exit.” The outdoor queue is shorter than Orlando’s, and is not shaded, but with three lifts, maybe that won’t be a big issue. The hotel lobby is much the same, but students of both will undoubtedly see differences. The AAA 13-Diamonds Award that hangs in the lobby in Orlando had yet to be installed in Anaheim when we visited, but representatives of the AAA were on hand on the afternoon of May 4 to present the award, so keep your eyes peeled. The “library” pre-show areas are again quite similar, but they’ve added some cool artifacts from classic Twilight Zone episodes – you’ll want to be sure to visit both libraries several times to see these treasures. The boiler room is much more elaborately-themed than it is in Orlando. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and enjoy! The boiler room is also a two-level facility. The queue splits, with one queue going up a long flight of stairs to the upper loading zone. Guests with mobility issues can easily stay downstairs, though. Actual ride loading follows the familiar pattern, but there are some differences in the elevator cars. As in Orlando, each guest has a lap belt (rather than the original lap bar), but there are also grab handles between each rider, for the white-knuckle crowd. Riders with aisle seats will find a grab-recess on the side of the seat, instead of a handle. Honestly, though, the seat belts provide all the security you’ll need (the old lap bars allowed more air time, adding to the terror).

As noted earlier, your car only moves a short distance before it’s loaded onto the lift, then it rises and falls briefly several times to expose you to various scenes from the story. The blackouts and lift action between scenes do a nice job of boosting anticipation and terror. Then, it’s off to the races! Dave has never managed to memorize the lift sequences on Tower, so he can’t make a point-by-point comparison. Let’s just say that it’s a very enjoyable version of the ride. There’s some great air time (Dave loved watching his media credentials float in front of his face), and fantastic views of Disneyland Park when the doors open. On a clear day, if you know where to look, you can even glimpse Knott’s Berry Farm (horrors!) We hope Walt’s ghost won’t come back to haunt the Imagineers for permitting that sight! Another addition is flashes of light inside the lift shaft. To Dave, this makes Anaheim’s Tower a little less terrifying than Orlando’s. Since you can sometimes see the wall of the lift shaft, you know how far and how fast you’re traveling. This is definitely reassuring at a subconscious level. We suspect Disney wanted a kinder, gentler Tower that fewer folks would shun as an “extreme” ride, and even though riders are still just as thoroughly shaken and stirred, we expect this version to be even more popular.
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