Just who is in charge of Disney's creative team these days -- Stephen Kingfi

Did you get an eyeful of the Disney float in the Tournament of Roses paradefi Nofi

No matter -- you didn't have to see it to be scared by it. It's enough to know that it's called the "Twilight Zone Tower of Terror."

If you did watch, you couldn't have missed it. It was the tallest float in the history of the Rose Parade. Also one of the all-time dumbest. Did anyone ask, WWWD: What Would Walt Dofi Don't set the bar that high -- WWDD: What Would Dopey Dofi

Tell me, what do you think of when the words "tower of terror" flash across your brainpanfi Sept. 11, 2001 ... New York City ... World Trade Center ... sharp objects, piercing steel ... flames and smoke ... buildings falling, people fallingfi

Yeah, me too.

So what wheeled horror was that, pray, rolling down Colorado Boulevard last Thursday morning, adorned with irises and orchids and carnations like the one Michael Eisner was photographed placingfi

It was a mock-up of a tall building pierced by a jagged lightning bolt. Floral flames leaping from a huge hole gouged in the building by lightning. People trapped in an elevator that plunged, taking them to their stunt-deaths. Watching it all, Mickey and Minnie, alternately pressing their four-fingered mitts to their cheeks and pointed to the spectacle in horror.

As a yardstick of comparison, Disney's 1994 film "Cabin Boy" was tasteful and sensitive.

Disney recently fired some of its animators. Maybe it's out-sourcing imagineers too -- judging by this float, to Jupiter.

Mitch Dorger, the tournament's chief executive, told me he hadn't gotten any complaints about the float, and if anyone would, he would have. (I did.)

The Associated Press called up a couple of people whose relatives had died in the World Trade Center catastrophe; Bill Doyle didn't mind the float but he would have liked a different name. Sally Regenhard thought it could be "trivializing injury and possibly death." (Hey, Disney is so opposed to trivializing injury and possibly death that, in a 1998 Disneyland accident that killed a man and injured his wife, employees cleaned up the bloody scene and removed evidence, and kept police at arm's length for hours, including a 90-minute heel-cooling in the Disneyland security office, lest anyone trivialize injury and death. Policies have changed since then.)

After Sept. 11, it took months for action thrillers and films of things blowing up to creep back into the cineplex. At airports, the Transportation Security Administration that wands and screens and pats us down is so uneasy that, according to a story in the new Reason magazine, it seizes belt buckles and jam jars and frying pans and toy robots.

So what was Disney thinkingfi It wasn't thinking. It was counting. Dough. Spelled, Homer Simpson-fashion, D-O-H.

This float was a 10-story, rolling 3-D billboard for a new thrill ride opening this spring down the freeway in Anaheim. (There's already a similar ride in the Florida theme park.)

And how did they squeeze this monstrosity into a parade with the theme "Music, Music, Music"fi The Rose Parade people held out 84 years before allowing anyone to sponsor a Rose Bowl game. Its parade entries had a quirky, civic feel to them; two 1966 floats were the Negro Rose Parade committee's "World of Culture," and the National Rifle Association's "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave." That parade I'd have stood on the sidewalk to see.

But a theme is the theme and everyone has to play. What musical title did Disney slap on a float promoting a ride to scare the bejesus out of peoplefi "A Sudden Drop in Pitch." Drop, elevator, music, pitch -- get itfi Oh, I wish I'd been at the brainstorming meeting that crammed 10 pounds of PR into a two-pound sack to put that one over.

After every year's parade, the floats gather at Victory Park like circled Conestogas, to afford everyone a close-up look. I went out to see just how "more than 50 varieties of seeds and spices," as the Web site says, can leave such a bad taste.

The Terror Tower wasn't there. Hundreds of floats for dozens of years have put themselves on display -- but not Disney's. It had been spirited away to Anaheim, to show visitors at California Adventure what they should come back for come spring, at $47 for adults, $37 for children.

One professionally built float costs a good six figures, but divide that by the tens of millions of people who see it, and it's pretty good bang for the advertising buck.

I thought no one would surpass the commercialism of Heinz's 2000 float of a factory plopping out rose-shaped ketchup. But Disney has. It's really been Disney-creep for decades. Walt and Roy Disney have been grand marshals, Mickey and marchers opened the 2000 parade selling the remake of "Fantasia," and Disney's TV network, ABC, broadcasts the Rose Bowl game. The California primaries, the Ba'ath party, Microsoft -- as closed systems go, they've got nothing on Disney.

Peter Adalanian grew up next door to Pasadena in San Marino, his best friend's dad ran the T of R, as the locals call it, and he himself spent about 14 years volunteering for it.

Then the parade changed. "It's supposed to be a total volunteer organization, but they've turned it into a business -- not to be cynical, but what hasn't become thatfi

"It's changed the whole thing, changed the way people are perceiving it."

He didn't see the Disney float, but he didn't like what he heard about it. For the first time since he can remember, he didn't watch the parade. "Even that says something -- I've lost interest after being so involved in it for so much of my life. I really feel like they let us down."

I don't know why I was surprised at the Tower of Terror. I've always thought Disney was scarier than Alfred Hitchcock. Bambi, Dumbo -- their mothers are shot, thrown in jail. Old Yeller gets rabies and is killed. The dogs in "Lady and the Tramp" are in the pound, doomed. Snow White's stepmother wants to cut her heart out. Dalmatian puppies are threatened with being skinned for fur coats.

And now, come spring, you too can ride in the elevator of a tall building and pretend to plunge, screaming, to your death.

I take it back. Stephen King is a sensitive man. He would never have done anything as witless as this.

Patt Morrison is a Los Angeles Times columnist and frequent commentator on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." You can reach her at patt.morrison@latimes.com

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page E8.

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