A Brief History Of…The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror

It’s A Small World? Pirates of the Caribbean? Splash Mountain? The Tea Cups?!

We all have a favourite ride at Disney. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie or are, shall we say, more inclined to enjoy the ‘calmer’ rides, we can all point to one ride that we just love for whatever reason.

For me though that ride that I could never get bored of and completely love is The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror.

There’s so much to love about this attraction and it begins way before you take your seat in the service elevator of the Hollywood Tower Hotel and enter the Fifth Dimension!

Disney is famed for the level of detail in its theming and this is never truer than with Tower of Terror. The back story, the props and scenery you see as you queue and enter the hotel lobby and of course the Cast Member interaction, dressed as bell hops, all combine to make this an incredibly immersive experience.

It really does feel like you’re in a haunted 1930s hotel.

But how was this idea of a haunted hotel conceived by Disney Imagineers?

What’s the Story

Disney never create a ride or attraction without thinking through each and every detail. The stories of a lot of attractions are obvious; linked to big movies or characters. But this isn’t the case with the Tower of Terror.

In 1989 Disney opened their 3rd gate at Walt Disney World in Florida. Called Disney-MGM Studios it was a park that lacked a major recognisable attraction. Although visitor numbers were good many grumbled that it was merely ‘a half day park.’

Then Disney CEO Michael Eisner had staked his reputation on this third park. He’d spent years ensuring the park was built. It was really Eisner’s baby and what he hoped would be his legacy too. With the imminent arrival of Universal Studios a year later in 1990, Eisner knew that Disney needed to ensure that Disney-MGM didn’t look boring in comparison. He didn’t want to damage Disney’s reputation by having an inferior park to Universal and perhaps more importantly for Eisner he didn’t want his legacy damaging either.

Eisner gathered his best Imagineers to come up with a signature attraction for the park. A team including Disney legend Marty Sklar fell on the idea of producing a scarier ride. After all, it was nearing the end of the 20th century and they felt a scary themed ride in a Disney park wouldn’t be as controversial as it might have been in the past.

Eisners team of Imagineers got to work and saw a lot of pros in a popular TV series called The Twilight Zone. Disney didn’t actually own the rights at the time and so they paid a substantial licensing fee in order to add the entire back catalogue to their ranks.

The Imagineers binge watched all 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone and made notes about potential ideas. Before purchasing the rights to the show Disney had already been working on ideas that included a haunted hotel, so it wasn’t too much of stretch to decide that the Hollywood Tower Hotel would become the shell of the ride based on the creepy, eerie, supernatural themes of the TV show. Imagineers created the story to fit the setting that we all know and love today.

The story of the ride didn’t actually come from any one episode of The Twilight Zone either, but rather elements of several shows were included.

Imagineers developed a stunning setting that is both believable as a classy 1930s hotel where celebrities of the era would visit and a run down, dusty and creepy version of the hotel today, left abandoned for decades following a supernatural lighting strike. As ever with Disney the key to it all is incredible attention to detail in the theming.

It’s Just a Drop Ride, Right?

What I think is most impressive about the Tower of Terror is the fact that at heart the actual ride itself is just a drop ride. And yet it feels so much better than any other.

Go to any theme park these days and you’re likely to see a drop ride. You know the ones, they shoot people up and down a very high square shaped metal pole with some seats on all four sides. Not that exciting are they?

And there’s a reason why these drop rides don’t compare to the Tower of a Terror.

When designing the ride Disney created a brand new ride system. In order for the ride to fit the story there needed to be an element of surprise, of the supernatural.

So when you ride the Tower of Terror the rises and falls are completely random. You can ride it 100 times and have a different experience every single time. Different combinations of rises and falls. It keeps you on your toes every time.

And unlike the standard drop rides you find elsewhere, when you fall in the Tower of Terror you are actually accelerating downward, faster than gravity would allow. It’s this element that I believe makes the Tower of Terror so great.

Add into this the movement through the hotel as you enter ‘The Twilight Zone’, the creepy narration, the eerie twinkling music, the darkness of the lift shaft and the occasional glimpse of the safe, secure outside world it’s a ride that messes with your senses and emotions throughout.

Detail, detail, detail

Currently there are three Tower of Terror’s around the world, the 4th was replaced by a Guardians of the Galaxy ride in California.

The original Tower of Terror opened in Disney’s MGM Studios in July 1994.

Disney’s California Adventure was next to get their version in May 2004. It closed on January 3rd 2017 and was rethemed.

In September 2006, Tokyo DisneySea got their version of the ride but it follows a completely different narrative to all the other versions.

Finally in December 2007 Disneyland Paris opened their Hollywood Tower Hotel.

Each ride has their own features and details that sets it apart from the others.

For example in Florida:

– The hotels’ colour is designed to match the Morocco Pavillion as it it visible from EPCOT as you face Morocco.

– The hotel stands at 199 feet tall. Any taller would require a flashing red light on top for aviation safety reasons thus ruining the illusion that this was a real hotel.

– Speaking of it being a real hotel, look at the front, there is one window with a light on. This gives the illusion that the hotel is in fact real.

– 1930s music can be heard around the grounds of the hotel.

– In the lobby of the hotel a lot of the objects are real antiques that were sourced by Disney.

– As you step into the elevator, on the wall is an inspection certificate with the number 10259 which is the date that the first episode of The Twilight Zone aired.

And of course look carefully and you’ll see some hidden Mickey’s around the hotel too, in the lobby and in the boiler room. If you look carefully at some of the film footage you may just see a little girl holding a 1930s style Mickey teddy too!

So there you have it a brief history of The Tower of Terror. An incredible ride and one that is frequently talked about as people’s favourite making it not only one of Disney’s best rides but one of the best theme park rides ever Imagineered!

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