I’d never been to a wake for a building before, much less one held inside that building, but that’s what it felt like when I rode The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure for the last time earlier this fall. A trio of jazz singers inside the ride’s intricately detailed Pueblo Deco hotel lobby serenaded a crowd excited to plummet through that tower one more time before its permanent closure on January 2, 2017. There were no drinks or finger foods, but the mood was simultaneously happy and grim, like we were saying farewell to something while reflecting on the joy that it brought us.
Opened in 2004, as part of a number of additions and upgrades to salvage the then-flailing California Adventure theme park, the West Coast version of Disney’s iconic drop tower is closing for good in less than two weeks. It’s being replaced with a similar ride themed around the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Comics space heroes whose second big budget film opens next May. That attraction, Guardians of the Galaxy—Mission: Breakout!, beyond having far more punctuation in its name than any theme park ride could ever need, will reuse the same ride system and structure as the Tower of Terror, although the exterior and interior will be heavily altered to make it look like the private museum of the comic and movie character known as the Collector. As Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde said in the video announcing the conversion, the new building will be “a kind of warehouse fortress power plant,” a thematic vagueness that doesn’t encourage much excitement among those who believe theme parks should have a strong theme.
Theme is the greatest strength of the Tower of Terror, especially the version found at California Adventure. Built relatively cheaply and quickly compared to the original ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, this Tower is a fairly straight-forward drop tower ride once you’re strapped into your seat. You go up, you come down, and then you do it two or three more times before it all wraps up. The elevator cart in the Orlando version actually has horizontal movement before and after the drops, with a fantastic real-life recreation of the iconic Twilight Zone opening credits before the frightening plunge; California Adventure’s ride does neither. Still, California’s tower itself is a gorgeous testament to the power of theming. Its line winds throughout a decrepit lobby, a real-life snapshot of the 1930s frozen in rot and decay. Messy tabletops hint at customers who fled in a hurry, and cobwebs and cracks evoke the passage of time undisturbed by man. Subtle references to classic Twilight Zone episodes abound. Whether you’re familiar with the show or not, the design of the Tower itself, inside and out, powerfully grounds you in the era of its supposed creation, and also prepares you for the scares that lie within. And with decor straight out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, it anchors an area of the park known as Hollywood Land.
It remains to be seen how the Guardians ride will fit into Hollywood Land—how its striking combination of cosmic fancy and post-industrial function will make sense looming over what remains of Hollywood Land and the neighboring area of A Bug’s Land. Distressingly, they started the exterior conversion well before the Tower of Terror closed, as fans of the Tower as it exists were still coming to say their goodbyes, and the intermediate stages between one ride and the next basically disregard almost everything you’ve come to expect from Disney’s fabled attention to detail. Still, if the new version of the ride resembles the intricate concept art once it’s completed, and if, as rumored, it becomes the bellwether of a new park area based around the Marvel Universe, the final result could be impressively immersive and an important landmark for whatever theme might one day surround it.
From a business perspective, this probably makes sense. The Tower of Terror is already one of the most popular rides at California Adventure, and the entire Disneyland resort, but converting it into a tie-in for a blockbuster film franchise will probably attract some customers who wouldn’t necessarily drop $100 a day to hop onto something they’ve ridden before, or that is named after a less current pop culture entity. Whether or not you think the first Guardians movie was good, what matters to Disney is that it made a tremendous amount of money, inspiring cartoons and a steady flow of merchandise, and it has a second installment opening in only a few months. With Mission: Breakout, they can have a theoretically new attraction tied into that sequel ready to go within the movie’s theatrical window, quickly capitalizing on the crossover between movies and theme park attractions. Whether it fits Hollywood Land and California Adventure on a thematic level or not is clearly not a priority for them.
Fans aren’t businesspeople, though. They develop connections to the worlds that Disney creates at their theme parks, and many are understandably concerned when those worlds are altered. Why mess around with a ride as popular and as beautifully designed as the Tower of Terror? Why not build something new that ties into the Guardians of the Galaxy in a more natural way, and leave the Tower as is? Those are the questions that many fans of Disney and the Tower of Terror have been asking since the new ride was announced to boos and online derision at Comic-Con back in July. If you follow the corporate decision making for Disney’s parks, the news wouldn’t have surprised you—prioritizing reskins and remodels over new construction has been a trend of late for the company. It’s true that they’re building expensive new additions to parks in Orlando and Anaheim, from the new Avatar area opening in Animal Kingdom in 2017, to the Star Wars expansions in Disneyland and Hollywood Studios. Outside of such large-scale projects, though, Disney of late has tended to replace older rides when they build new ones. Instead of building new attractions that can create new memories for everybody, they plaster over old ones, ensuring that their echoes will always reverberate for those who remember them.
Guardians of the Galaxy—Mission: Breakout is still a way off, though, both today, and several weeks ago, when I rode the Tower of Terror in Anaheim for the last time. Its current opening date is nebulously ascribed to some point in the summer of 2017. As the Silver Lake Sisters sang their Billie Holliday, and the winding line of visitors openly discussed the ride’s impending erasure, it was hard not to feel a sense of loss for this ride and this beautiful building. Disney has a steep legacy to contend with if it wants to make sure the new ride’s reputation doesn’t tumble as hard and fast as the elevators within.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games, comedy and wrestling sections, and writes about Disney and theme parks whenever he can squeeze it into his schedule. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.