This was part 1 in a series called D.I.S.N.E.Y., which stands for Discovering Information, Scenes and Nostalgia by Exploring Yesterday. This week’s Storybook Radio episode focuses on this attraction!
First, the basics. Tower of Terror can be found at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, at the end of Sunset Boulevard. It is adjacent to Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith, the Beauty and the Beast Live stage show, and the Fantasmic theatre.
Tower of Terror is one of Disney World’s most popular attractions, due in large part to two main features – its detail and scale (it can be seen not just in DHS, but from various resort hotels and even from Epcot), and its status as a thrill ride.
What Is It?
Let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this attraction. You will begin the actual ride sequence in the “boiler room” at the back of the ride building. Your ride vehicle, a large freight elevator in which you are strapped in by a seat belt along with 20 other people, will meander into the the middle of the building along a track after a quick ascent. After another ascent, the elevator moves towards the front of the building; you will encounter some imagery along the way of various artifacts from The Twilight Zone, including the ghosts of the 5 people that went missing from the Hollywood Tower Hotel in 1939. Then, the elevator doors open, and you will be given your view of outside and just how high up you are – 13 stories high, in fact. You get this view for a second before your randomly selected ride sequence kicks in, meaning that you get a different experience each time you ride. Most ride sequences contain 3-4 drops and rises from various heights – actually, “drop” isn’t the right term because you are actually pulled down, faster than the speed of gravity no less, meaning you will come off your seat a little bit for an added thrill. The interesting aspect of this ride mechanism is that because you are being pulled, it allows greater control over the drops, meaning it’s actually safer than if you were actually dropped and stopped.
Is It Scary?
This is probably the biggest question about this attraction, and the anticipation about the impending drops (in addition to being able to hear people screaming from more than 100 feet above you whenever the elevator doors open) often give people pause before climbing aboard. I was skittish myself, but like I said above, it has become one of my three favourite attractions in all of Walt Disney World. I would argue that the anticipation is the only “scary” part, in part because there’s a lot of it – forget the length of the queue in terms of minutes (you can generally find pretty short wait times at off-peak times of year). You make your way through a winding queue that uses a lot of forced perspective – and the meandering course the exterior queue takes is designed to actually disorient you a little before entering the hotel. Once inside, you wait to enter the library, where all the lights turn off and effects make you believe there is a heavy rainstorm outside (and it’s close to midnight) with lots of thunder and lightning. The TV mysteriously turns on by itself, and you are told that you will be recreating the doomed night of the 5 that went missing in 1939 when the hotel was struck by lightning. From there, you enter another queue, this time in the boiler room, where you will be taking the service elevator. All told, that’s a LOT of anticipation, with generally creepy effects, meaning that kids and adults prone to fear may find these devices too much. Once inside the elevator, you may wish for it to just be over with quickly, but no such luck – the ride is about 5 minutes long, with more creepy/spooky effects (ghosts, floating eyeballs, etc). However, this is where the fear stops. Once those doors to the outside open, this attraction is all about exhilaration,and you’ll likely be laughing and smiling all the way down. At the bottom, you may well wonder what you were so worried about in the first place.
The History of the Tower of Terror
The Tower of Terror might very well have been an extremely different attraction if Imagineer C. McNair Wilson’s original concept had come to life. With Hollywood Studios (then MGM Studios) still in its infancy, and still operating under the guise of a “working studio” with shows and rides, as opposed to a theme park, then Disney CEO Michael Eisner (the creator of MGM Studios) believed that bringing writer and director Mel Brooks into a relationship with Disney was a perfect marriage – Brooks’ films would be Disney films, and an attraction would be built to celebrate that union. The idea was to build an attraction similar in story to The Haunted Mansion at Magic Kingdom – namely, scary and funny. The concept of “Castle Young Frankenstein” was born, in which a Bavarian village would have led to the aforementioned castle. This later changed to “Mel Brooks’ Hollywood Horror Hotel”.
Another concept was kicked around at this point – for years, Disney had toyed with the idea of having an actual resort hotel inside one of the theme parks – at one point, Mickey’s Town Square Theatre at Magic Kingdom was supposed to be the site of a hotel for guests to stay. The idea at MGM Studios is that the guest hotel and “hotel” building that would have housed the ride would have been connected (known by Imagineers as Hotel Mel). Eventually though, the plan was scrapped, and a hotel that would have geographically extended from the current Tower of Terror site to the park entrance was not to be.
After Mel Brooks decided to leave the project, Disney Imagineers had to come up with alternate ideas – eventually, they thought of the “moving elevator” track idea. With Brooks gone, they were no longer tied to a concept where parts of the attraction had to be funny, and they settled into simply making it a spooky thrill ride. Knowing that the ride would have more allure if it were based on a movie or TV show, Disney began to look for properties that were available, and came across the Twilight Zone. It became a perfect overlay for the attraction, and on July 22 1994, the attraction opened to the public.
A big part of Imagineering is discovering the link between fantasy and reality, and Tower of Terror is certainly that. Having an attraction that would simply rise and fall wouldn’t do; one of the hallmarks of the Twilight Zone is the “fifth” dimension, meaning that ride vehicle would have to “float”, as if in an alternate dimension. The technology used to achieve this effect is the “Autonomous Guided Vehicle”, or AGV. It doesn’t use wires or rails; the AGV is propelled on a pre-programmed path set out by the ride control system. Basically, it’s a self-driving car that that moves in the area between the rear elevator and the front elevator, where you make your initial ascents (and then descents). For safety reasons, it is designed to stop if any thing (falling items for example) come in contact with the floor of the Fifth Dimension area.
Otis, the oldest elevator company in the world, was asked by Disney to help with the design of the ride vehicles and technology, which they found ironic, as they were being asked to simulate what they always try to stop from ever happening. Like all elevators, motors and cables are used to move the ride vehicle in Tower of Terror, and these motors are huge. Rather than dish out a bunch of stats, I will link to this excellent website for you to check out the specifics. What you should know is that you are pulled down at a rate of 39 miles per hour (63 kilometers per hour), which is faster than the rate of gravity. This means that you will get a feeling of weightlessness while you are being pulled down. Oh, and that wind you feel? It’s fake – generated by fans below the ride vehicle.
Additionally, numerous safety features have been built in to ensure that in the rare event of an actual free fall, all passengers will be safe. There are manual brakes and a padded bottom into which the car can fall if that were to happen. Additionally, night-vision cameras are in each car to ensure CMs can keep an eye out to keep everything safe.
Sequence and Story
You begin your journey into The Twilight Zone outside, in the gardens of the famed Hollywood Tower Hotel. The hotel is in disrepair, having been abandoned after five guests entered the passenger elevator in order to ride up to the Tip Top Club on the 12th floor. The hotel was struck by lightning, and the elevator – along with its unlucky inhabitants – disappeared, being transported into the fifth dimension.
Upon entering the hotel, you will see the level of disrepair into which it was been consumed; cobwebs cover luggage, furniture and light fixtures, dust has taken up permanent residence. A somber bellhop guides you into the library, where Rod Serling appears on a television that mysteriously turns on after the lights have gone out. He tells you have entered The Twilight Zone.
“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into…The Twilight Zone.
Hollywood, 1939. Amid the glitz and the glitter of a bustling, young movie town at the height of its golden age, The Hollywood Tower Hotel was a star in its own right; a beacon for the show business elite. Now, something is about to happen that will change all that. The time is now, on an evening very much like the one we have just witnessed.
Tonight’s story on The Twilight Zone is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. This, as you may recognize, is a maintenance service elevator still in operation, waiting for you. We invite you, if you dare, to step aboard because in tonight’s episode, you are the star. And this elevator travels directly to…The Twilight Zone.”
You step into the boiler room and walk through the machinery to your service elevator, where you will be seated by another hotel employee that hasn’t received the memo of its closure decades ago. The elevator ascends, and you are greeted by the ghosts of the five people that disappeared on Halloween Night of 1939. Serling continues his narration, inviting you deeper.
“You are the passengers on a most uncommon elevator about to ascend into your very own episode of… The Twilight Zone. One stormy night long ago, five people stepped through the door of an elevator and into a nightmare.
That door is opening once again, and this time it’s opening for you.”
You will continue to move into the Fifth Dimension, through space and time. You will ascend once more, before the doors of that dimension open. Serling has one more warning for you:
“You are about to discover what lies beyond the fifth dimension, beyond the deepest, darkest corner of the imagination… in the Tower of Terror.”
The drop sequence now begins. Generally, you are shot straight up before being pulled down, but we had a great sequence once where we had a small drop first. Despite the bright Florida sun entering the ride vehicle, make sure you keep your eyes open – the views are spectacular, and you can even see some things you normally don’t get to – service roads and Cast Member buildings, for example.
Your ride ends with another bit of narration from Serling:
“A warm welcome back to those of you who made it and a friendly word of warning; something you won’t find in any guidebook. The next time you check into a deserted hotel on the dark side of Hollywood, make sure you know just what kind of vacancy you’re filling. Or you may find yourself a permanent resident of… The Twilight Zone”
And, it being Disney, a little tongue-in-cheek message as you wait for your seat-belt to unlock:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please gather your belongings and watch your head and step as you exit through the elevator doors. We trust your stay at The Hollywood Tower Hotel has been a pleasant one, and please do come back and see us again. Thank you.”
Upon leaving, you’ll get to walk through the excellent Tower Hotel Gifts shop – one of the best on property. While I feel that 95% of items sold at Disney World are static throughout the gift shops, this one is fairly unique – they sell many items you can’t find anywhere else, including the white Hollywood Tower Hotel mug, as well as a really nice HTH keychain. The front-desk bells are also available here, as well as a variety of t-shirts and picture frames and other collectibles. If you’re a fan of Clue, make sure you pick up the Tower of Terror version of the game – it contains pewter pieces and a beautiful board. Well worth the price!
Tower of Terror Trivia
Here are a few things you may not know about the ride, so impress your fellow travelers with these!
- The voice you hear narrating the ride – including in the video – is not actually Rod Serling (the narrator from The Twilight Zone). He was dead for a very long time before the ride opened. While the man in the video is indeed Serling, edited to make him look like he is speaking the words, voice actor Mark Silverman takes on the narrating duties – he was even approved by Serling’s widow for the role.
- Cast Members are instructed to be sullen and spooky. They also wear bellhop uniforms that go for over $1000 apiece, making them the most expensive costumes at WDW.
- The Tower of Terror is 199 feet tall. If a building in Florida is 200 feet tall, FAA regulations mean it has to have a fixed red light beacon at the top for airplanes.
- The front of the hotel has a large black scorch mark, depicting where it was hit by lightning in 1939. At night, this scorch appears in purple, while the letters spelling out “Hollywood Tower Hotel” are an eerie green. (Note: ride this at night, as well!)
- While in the fifth dimension, you’ll see a sequence similar to that in a Twilight Zone episode. A field of stars appear, and when they fade, they form a Hidden Mickey.
- There are numerous odes to the Twilight Zone throughout the queue and building. Here’s a good list.
- Your picture is taken twice on the ride. The first time is right after the doors open and is projected the pupil of the eyeball in the Fifth Dimension scene. The second time is when you are dropping faster than gravity.
- The hotel is based on a real hotel/condo in Los Angeles.
- During the pre-show, the little girl is holding a Mickey Mouse plush.
- Lightning has actually struck the Tower of Terror.
- The colour palette and architectural style of the ride building were chosen specifically because you can see Tower of Terror from World Showcase in Epcot; the building blends in perfectly with the buildings that make up the Morocco exhibit.
- The first Disney movie based on a WDW attraction is actually the fun and cheesy Tower of Terror movie, starring Steve Gutenberg and Kirsten Dunst. I love the movie. Plus, it was filmed on location at Walt Disney World, at the Tower of Terror!
- The ride building is huge, so make sure you take a poke around. You won’t be able to walk terribly far, but you can get unique views of it from the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster queue, as well as the Fantasmic theatre.
My Tower of Terror Story
When I was 12, in 1994, my family went to Florida. MGM Studios was the only Disney World stop we made, but we got to ride Tower of Terror a month after it opened. At that time, the ride itself was different – instead of individual seat-belts, each row had a lap bar, meaning little kids might have all kinds of space between lap and lap bar. At that time as well, the pre-drop sequence was the same but the drop sequence was not – instead of a randomized sequence, it was just one big 13-story drop.
How much do you love Tower of Terror? Sound off in the comments section!