Upfront, get out your mourning of “The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror.” It still exists in Orlando, and a version without The Twilight Zone exists in Tokyo. What’s done is done, and Disney’s new “Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout” doesn’t just have the DNA of the previous beloved ride; its skeleton still shows through in many places. Considering how quickly Disney’s team transformed this ride — much more than a cosmetic overlay — it’s damned impressive.
I understand. You loved “Tower of Terror.” I did, too. However, it’s important to remember that though Disneyland had many attractions that were unique ideas unto themselves, it was way more tied into IP (before everything was driven by IP) than you may have thought. Sleeping Beauty Castle is the castle because that was the movie that Walt Disney was about to release when the park first opened. The Matterhorn is actually connected to a now largely forgotten live-action movie called Third Man on the Mountain. On TV it was called Banner in the Sky when it was shown on The Wonderful World of Disney, a show itself created in order to sell America on heading down to Anaheim to visit Disneyland. Since the 1950s, Disney has been showing the rest of the world how to do transmedia.
Now let’s talk about this first serious Marvel attraction in Anaheim, its place in the “Summer of Heroes,” and what it means for California Adventure.
If you read Marvel’s recent Guardians of the Galaxy Mission: Breakout one-shot comic (available in the gift shop), you get the gist of the attraction’s story. Taneleer Tivan, better known to comics fans as “The Collector,” has captured the Guardians of the Galaxy and put them on display. In the comic and the attraction, Rocket escapes his cage, sabotages the facility, and the Guardians escape.
For the attraction at California Adventure, Rocket needs our help. Tivan has chosen to share this display with Terrans, and dropped this particular warehouse at the end of Buena Vista Street. There’s a planned border of charred earth where the matter displacement happened, but as of June 4, that detail has not been added.
Visitors enter the gates to the warehouse’s garden, and the path winds around a golden statue of Tivan (Benicio Del Toro) before entering the main lobby.
Where the Hollywood Tower Hotel foyer felt spacious, “The Tivan Collection” feels cluttered, as befits the nature of a being surprisingly desperate to show off his collection. In addition to many Marvel and Disney easter eggs — Cosmo and an Ultron drone are on display, as is poor Figment — a video screen looms above visitors’ heads, all the better for the Collector to talk about his acquisitions.
There’s great storytelling and characterization here, for a character whose role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe still has more to come. Del Toro exudes quiet arrogance, and the Imagineering team has also included a couple of oil paintings outside Tivan’s private office that speak to the pride of this Elder of the Universe, and give park guests a quick peek at Jeff Goldblum’s role in Thor: Ragnarok as The Grandmaster.
It’s an overlay on the exquisitely themed Tower of Terror entrance, and some of it was cannibalized from Disneyland’s now gone “Treasures of Asgard” exhibit, but it works the way it should. Not only are the characters consistent from the films, the stage is set, and we got a lot to look at while we wait.
As with “Tower of Terror,” guests enter one of two offices to watch a video introduction. A surprising amount of the old attraction’s decor remains, but with additions that “Marvelize” the whole thing. And the rooms are not quite identical; one includes the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak. But the real magic is that Rocket doesn’t just interrupt the Collector’s previously recorded spiel; he does it in person, an audio-animatronic speaking with Bradley Cooper’s voice and making this attraction immediate.
The reason we’re needed to help? It’s silly, simple, and I can say that in several times on it, everybody in the queue participated. That’s magic. And it’s also summed up on a t-shirt available in the gift shop.
Instead of a service elevator, guests will be transported on a gantry that despite some warnings in an interplanetary language looks an awful lot like a service elevator. The trail to that has had a few cosmetic changes, along with some raiding of Vault D23 to mixed effect.
Guests load in to the gantry, and the Collection cast member repeats the safety spiel, also instructed to acknowledge that they’re in on our secret mission. Because who would want the Guardians of the freakin’ Galaxy to be imprisoned when they need to be out there saving us time and time again?
The doors close, and Rocket’s shadow appears, unplugging the Collector’s droning voice and hooking up Star-Lord’s Walkman. And that’s where things get wild, and let’s admit it, top what the Tower of Terror did as a physical experience.
Still being essentially a “drop” ride, it feels faster and creates more moments of weightlessness. (If you rode the Tower of Terror in its last couple of months, you knew it was coming, as engineers had begun experimenting.) But more importantly, to drive return visits, there are six different storylines that can play out, each set to a different song that might be on Star-Lord’s mixtape. Each ends with the same scene: Mantis having brought the Milano inside the warehouse for the Guardians to fly away.
An informal survey of several others in line told me that the Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride” was considered the best song/sequence for sheer thrills and g-forces, but to me the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” gave us the most glimpses of a coherent story, showing the team break out of their cages. It took a while, but I experienced four out of the six (don’t ask); return visits might change my opinion.
No matter which song plays, the visuals are terrific and full of little details that require a rewatch. Even the Ultron drone comes into play. Most satisfyingly, every cast member from the movies participated in this, right down to Vin Diesel voicing Baby Groot. Thanks to Disney Imagineering, whatever hi-def television you have at home? It’s outdated, even if you just bought it.
Speaking of buying, of course you exit through the gift shop, where Disney has somewhat made up for the lack of Gamora merchandise after the first movie. One side of the shop is attraction-specific; the other has become the main Marvel merchandise shop, with plenty of Black Widow, who appears several times daily in an Avengers street show alongside Hawkeye, driving a black Avengers ATV.
Make no mistake. This is only the beginning of Marvel at California Adventure, even if because of an odd contractual problem with Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Disney can’t actually say Marvel in their advertising. It’s an awkward fit for now, but they’re going to make it work. Disneyland has been ceded to Star Wars and the IPs most directly associated with Walt Disney, though Mickey and the gang will always loom large in every park. California Adventure will be Pixar (already with Cars Land and a Monstropolis ride) and more and more Marvel. The Hollywood Backlot currently has the overlay, but there are rumors that Marvel will expand out a bit.
It’s also a beginning that we’ve got to stop trying to make fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s now a Marvel Disney Resort Universe, with attractions, cruises, restaurants, and shows only becoming more frequent and loosely intertwined. “Mission: Breakout” co-exists with the “Iron Man Experience” in Hong Kong, and has elements in common with the MCU.
Yet don’t try to logically tie in the “Guardians of the Galaxy Dance Off,” which ends with a really effective Groot character meet and greet, to the attraction you are either about to enter or leave, in which Groot is still Baby Groot. And who knows what the hatch means? Unless Disney has figured a way to use it to teleport guests to Hong Kong Disneyland, it’s just… fun. And maybe it will vaguely relate to Avengers: Infinity War. Vaguely.
Ultimately, it’s about having fun and filling guests with wonder. And that was the final thing that ended my sense of loss over the Tower of Terror. Once you’ve gone on this thing and watched children squeal with delight that they saw Rocket, and even better, helped Rocket, you have to think Disney did the right thing, no matter what their motivations. And when you see Zoe Saldana’s Gamora say farewell, but it’s really Zoe Saldana’s joy at being part of a Disney attraction showing through, it gets to you. The Tower of Terror was deliciously creepy, but Mission: Breakout is an adventure that everyone can share.
Extra thoughts here: there’s even a story line to the sign outside the attraction. Within the queue, if you’re in the right place, you can see where Rocket got into a can of red paint, which of course he used to change the name of Tivan’s exhibit. The letters of “Mission” are pried off from the words “first time on display” and glued below the Guardians of the Galaxy logo.
Though he doesn’t appear on the ride, a plush Howard the Duck is available in the gift shop. Three plush toys come packaged in display cases from the Tivan Collection — Howard, Cosmo, and Baby Groot. If I’d had a plush Howard the Duck when I was 10, I’d have gone nuts. As it is, I have a new partner-in-flustered-cynicism.