Until now, the scariest thing at Walt Disney Co.'s California Adventure theme park -- at least for company executives -- has been the sluggish attendance figures.
With the unveiling this week of its newest thrill ride, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Disney hopes to change that.
Dogged by complaints that it was built "on the cheap" with too few big attractions, California Adventure continues to fall short of meeting its original projections of attracting 7 million visitors a year.
A bold new ride, industry observers say, may be just what the Anaheim park needs to finally hit its stride.
"All theme parks take a few years to work the bugs out, and I think that's what's been happening at California Adventure," said theme park analyst John Robinett of Economics Research Associates. "It just takes time."
The $60-million thrill ride is based on Rod Serling's classic television series "The Twilight Zone." It is built around the concept of an abandoned building -- the Hollywood Tower Hotel -- that has been struck by lightning during its 1930s heyday and frozen in time.
Guests plunge down a service elevator shaft, then race back up, in a series of stomach-fluttering drops.
In many ways, the ride includes the kinds of touches that critics say have been noticeably absent from California Adventure: an innovative theme and attention to detail, right down to the "dead" palm fronds outside and the vintage memorabilia inside.
"It's an improvement over anything that's there right now," said Al Lutz, editor of Miceage.com and a Disney watchdog who got to ride the Tower during a recent preview.
Not all of California Adventure's problems have been of Disney's making. The park opened adjacent to Disneyland in February 2001, only to see the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks devastate the tourism industry. The sluggish economy also didn't help.
Coupled with Disney's own failure to make the park a compelling destination, these broader trends turned California Adventure into a huge misadventure for the company and its chief executive, Michael Eisner. Eisner's critics have cited California Adventure's poor performance among their litany of complaints in a continuing campaign to oust him. The park saw 5 million visitors come through its turnstiles in 2001. The next year, attendance dropped to 4.7 million.
Slowly, though, Disney has been turning things around.
In December 2002, the park created "Aladdin," a well-received Broadway-style musical patterned after the animated movie. What's more, it beefed up its offerings for young children, adding A Bug's Land, based on the movie "A Bug's Life." It also used California Adventure to revive the classic Electrical Parade, and it expanded the park's Redwood Creek Challenge Trail -- a climbing park for kids -- with a tie-in to the animated film "Brother Bear."
These new offerings -- combined with aggressive advertising, a popular two-parks-for-the-price-of-one discount for Southern California residents and an improving economy -- have helped boost business.
Attendance in 2003 climbed 13% to 5.3 million visitors, bucking a trend that showed crowds at most parks around the country remaining flat or decreasing, according to Amusement Business, a trade publication. Figures are unavailable for 2004, but industry experts and Disney executives say attendance has been strong in large part because of park promotions.
"They seem to be bringing their big guns to bear," said Amusement Business editor James Zoltak.
California Adventure accounts for a relatively small share of Disney's overall theme park business, which brought in $6.4 billion last year. The Disneyland Resort, which includes California Adventure as well as Disneyland, contributes about 20% of the company's total theme park revenue. About 70% comes from the much larger resort, Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Fla., analysts estimate.
Disney is counting on the recovery of its theme park operations to lift its bottom line -- despite some recent stumbles at the box office and continuing troubles at the company's ABC television network. Indeed, renewed strength at Walt Disney World and the company's other theme parks is a primary reason Disney executives believe they will see at least a 40% gain in earnings from continued operations this year.
The Tower of Terror, which officially opens to the public on Wednesday, is already a proven draw.
A version of the ride opened 10 years ago at Walt Disney World, giving that park a much-needed lift. It is now the third-most-popular ride among Walt Disney World's four theme parks.
Both Tower rides are based on a "lost episode" of "The Twilight Zone." As Disney legend tells it, the Tower Hotel catered to Hollywood's wealthy elite, until one stormy night -- Oct. 31, 1939 -- when lightning nailed the edifice. The elevator plunged, and its passengers vanished. Guests fled the hotel, and no one ever came back.