Brow Beat

Disneyland’s Tower of Terror Is Closing. This Is a National Tragedy.

Disneyland’s Tower of Terror
Goodnight, sweet prince.

Bray6265 via Wikimedia Commons

This past Sunday, as I watched one of our country’s presidential nominees threaten to put his opponent in prison—and that opponent had no choice but to smile and continue debating him—I was reminded of my favorite quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, from Beyond Good and Evil: “He who fights monsters must watch out that he doesn’t turn into a monster himself—and when you stare into the abyss too long, the abyss stares back at you.” In other words, when contending with such a monster, or staring so deep into such an abyss, there is no way to avoid being tainted by it. Sure enough, after the second debate ended, I, like much of America, felt shocked, sickened, icky.

What I really needed, in fact, was five consecutive trips to my certified happy place. It’s a place where you get to experience a harmless and heavily managed simulacrum of the Nietzschean abyss physically for about 12 seconds—and then exit, fully intact, through the gift shop.

I speak of the Tower of Terror ride at Disney’s California Adventure, part of the Disneyland complex in Anaheim, California. It is a Twilight Zone–themed ride housed in an edifice made to look like a half-destroyed hotel from the golden age of Hollywood—so, you know, a 1930s attraction somehow itself based on a 1960s TV show. Riders far too young to understand either of these eras snake through an ominous-looking fake boiler room and then strap themselves into an “elevator” that ascends 200 feet into the air before—WHONK—the bottom drops out from under them, and they’re plunged, for several delicious seconds, into dark hurtling nothingness.

The Tower of Terror is clearly Disneyland’s best ride—and not just because it doesn’t feature anything overtly racist. And yet, shortly before (please sweet merciful Christ on a pony) someone who is not Donald Trump takes the oath of office this coming January of 2017, the California Tower of Terror will take its final drop. In its place will be “imagineered” a new attraction based on Guardians of the Galaxy. Yeah, I appreciate Chris Pratt’s abs as much as the next heterosexual female humanoid, but this is a goddamned national tragedy.

Sure, the California Tower isn’t even the “original” one (that’s the Florida version, built in 1994), built instead as an anchoring attraction of the California Adventure park in 2004. But still, it has a rabid fan base that freaked out when rumors of its demise began to circulate this summer and were then confirmed last month.

Sure, Disney World’s tower gets to stay in all of its half-destroyed glory (FOR NOW). But the California Tower has something special—and not just because it’s not surrounded by Florida. Anaheim’s fake Hollywood Tower Hotel has a connection to its surroundings that’s irreplaceable. While Walt Disney World has metastasized into a six-park, 27-hotel complex so sprawling that, once you enter, it can feel like its own planet, its vintage cousin sits directly in the thick of Orange County’s tangle of freeways, McMansion developments, malls, and the occasional research university or beach. The intentionally-rotting carcass of an old Hollywood gem looks, in effect, directly out onto contemporary L.A.’s endless sprawl.

Indeed, you can see the Tower of Terror from the I-5 freeway—you can pore over it in great, laborious detail, in fact, when that freeway is subject to its not-infrequent backup. If that’s not the most California thing ever, I don’t know what is. And this is only fitting, since unlike its huge cousin, Disneyland is largely for locals. Sure, it’s got three hotels and a smattering of grungy motels in the immediate vicinity, but droves of Disneyland’s visitors hail from local zip codes, which qualifies them for a deeply discounted annual pass.

I know all of this because for several years as a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, I was a resident of one of those zip codes and a holder of one of those passes. (Back then, it was only $124!) Disney’s gleefully anti-intellectual ode to heavily managed thrill-enjoyment, and un–self-conscious consumerism—basically a 85-acre Adorno nightmare, as my dissertation adviser would put it—was the perfect antidote to a life otherwise spent in a hermetic bubble with only Ludwig Wittgenstein and a stack of Trader Joe’s frozen quiches for company. But it was the Tower of Terror specifically that managed to jolt some joie de vivre back into me, by way of convincingly atmospheric (but temporary) threat to that vivre.

This is how, in the course of obtaining my allegedly very serious research doctorate, I also came to be in the possession of no less than three Tower of Terror souvenir coffee mugs and even—for a brief period before it disintegrated—a cheap hotel bathrobe embroidered with the logo of the Hollywood Tower.

I am not exaggerating when I admit that upon the birth of my first child in 2015, I began a very earnest countdown not to kindergarten or college but to the age when she would probably be tall enough to ride the Tower with me. During those bleary-eyed hours of new motherhood, I kept my spirits afloat by imagining my daughter, 6 years old (perhaps a tall 5), gripping my hand hard as she gazed around that ominous boiler room, striking up her own version of the conversation I once heard in Anaheim in 2006:

KID: “Are we going to die?”
DAD: “No, son. Well—technically, yes, someday, we will all die. But we’re not going to die on this. This is an amusement park ride.”

By taking us up into that fake elevator shaft and offering a brief, sanitized brush with doom, the Tower of Terror both teases death’s inevitable embrace and definitively wriggles us out of it—at least for another few seconds.

The preservation of the Florida Tower does offer some cold comfort for now, but—to say nothing of the many thousands more dollars a sojourn to Disney World requires—it lacks the same unintentionally ironic connection to its surroundings. On the California ride, as your elevator reaches the top, and before it drops and the doors slide open briefly to orient you (so that, of course, you know just how far you’re about to fall), you can see for miles. You can see the freeway, the burnt desert hills. If you live in a McMansion development nearby, you can probably see your house. For about five seconds before the bottom drops out, you get to stare the abyss of American suburbia right in the face—and then it swallows you up.

I guess I can understand why Disney would want to rob future generations of this accidentally profound experience. It’s not really Walt’s bailiwick to conjure up Nietzschean existential crises on purpose. But still. This country needs the Tower of Terror—California’s Tower of Terror. And we need it now more than ever, as we continue to be unable to turn away from a political spectacle that even The Twilight Zone could not have imagined.