ANAHEIM — The Walt Disney Co. unveiled its Tower of Terror last week, and no, that isn’t a snide reference to corporate headquarters in Burbank.Granted, Disney and its beleaguered ABC network have certainly handed critics plenty of punch lines. The latter airs two editions of “Extreme Makeover” (“And that’s just in the executive dining room!” — rim shot!), while “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror” represents the latest attraction at California Adventure, an attendance-challenged theme park heretofore most notable for freely serving booze within stumbling distance of Disneyland. Strolling around the park on Tower of Terror “media day,” however, offered a reminder as to why Disney remains such a puzzle to the world at large. On the one hand, the theme parks cultivate the image of well-oiled money-confiscating machines, from the pricey hamburgers to the inescapable gift shops hawking $28 T-shirts. It’s hard to even compare those pristine environs with Universal Studios, where I spent an interminable summer day wanting to strangle somebody — beginning with whoever decided to facilitate getting fat children soaking wet so they can bellow at the top of their little lungs. Yet Disney’s futuristic efficiency has also become its corporate cross to bear, a public face that makes the studio’s inner turmoil, management missteps and public relations bumbling all the more perplexing. As “cast members” herd park patrons off one attraction and then onto the next, the studio fosters a can-do image. It’s a place where people willingly line up at California Adventure to sit through the equivalent of promotional videos about Disney animation or “One Man’s Dream” — featuring embattled CEO Michael Eisner, looking a bit stiff, paying tribute to the late Walt Disney, who somehow still seems warm and cuddly. Admittedly, “media day” didn’t come off entirely without a hitch. For starters, the fresh-faced staffers manning the rides seemed not to have the foggiest clue regarding who the obnoxious folk wearing “media” badges were, or why they were there. Moreover, the entire “California Adventure” concept has always seemed ill conceived, a too-limited brand that seeks to distill the state’s splendor into a faux package. Attendance has been disappointing, in part because an industrious park-goer can hit all the highlights in the same amount of time it would take to watch Disney’s “The Alamo.” The hope is that the Tower of Terror — a stomach-churning series of up-and-down surges in pitch darkness (insert your own ABC joke here) — and an “Aladdin” stage show represent steps toward rectifying those problems. Whatever its troubles, the Disney name still generates ample good will, bringing out media in droves. Radio stations broadcast live from the venue, and TV crews dutifully lined up to tape intros (including a buxom woman holding a TV Azteca microphone, a not uncommon trait among women on TV Azteca). So how can a company that achieves all that so often appear to be conducting an unplanned fire drill? In the last few weeks alone, Disney jettisoned ABC’s top programming execs close to the upfront advertiser presentations, created the impression that Barbara Walters is auctioning off babies, and — by trying to block Miramax from distributing filmmaker Michael Moore’s latest screed — demonstrated the kind of corporate myopia that made him one of the richer anti-rich guys in America. Part of the answer came watching “One Man’s Dream,” listening to ol’ Walt grandly discuss the template that would eventually become Disney World a half-dozen years after his death. “We know what are goals are,” he says, as the camera pans over drawings and elaborate miniatures. “We know what we hope to accomplish.” There, perhaps, lies the missing ingredient. Disney lacks the clear sense of mission and vision that came far more easily when Walt was running the equivalent of a mom-and-pop store, without having vociferously grousing pension funds publicly second-guess him. At the same time, Eisner’s attempts to bring similar oversight to the sprawling, far-flung enterprise that Disney became has been a negative, spawning a seat-of-the-pants management style that has thwarted the company’s grandiose plans. At ABC, the level of frustration has led to recklessness in the network’s desperation to gain attention. How else can you explain the ill-advised promos for Walters’ adoption spec “Be My Baby,” or even (on the other end of the spectrum) Ted Koppel’s roll call of “The Fallen” in Iraq on “Nightline”? As stately and unadorned as that latter program was, when the announcement landed on my desk I instantly emailed a colleague saying, “This is gonna make the Bush administration crazy” — a reaction that couldn’t have come as a total surprise to those responsible for it. The Disney roller coaster thus continues along on a peculiar two-tiered track. On one side are dissident shareholders, uncertainty surrounding Eisner’s tenure, the seldom-discussed whopping overpayment for cable net ABC Family, and the new cast members who join the growing roster of people who can someday say they once ran ABC. The other track, meanwhile, willfully avoids such unpleasantness, filled as it is with chirping birds and happy faces. There’s Mickey Mouse’s 75th birthday and the Disneyland 50th anniversary festivities, which will include docking cruise ships in Los Angeles to test the waters, as it were, on West Coast vacation packages. And whatever troubles the company endures, there will still be children who squeal excitedly at the first sight of the Matterhorn ride, as well as plenty of cribs filled with Disney paraphernalia. By the way, I drove past another tower recently, the relatively new one in Burbank — plainly visible from the Ventura Freeway — that houses ABC. And while there were no outward signs of what terrors might lurk within, I couldn’t help but notice a large bird that was slowly circling overhead. Trying to adopt a little of the zip-a-dee-doo-dah spirit from that second track, I decided to give the folks at Disney the benefit of the doubt and assume it must have been animatronic — like those talking vultures on Splash Mountain.
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