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Lost Legends: Why Disney Designed, Dropped-In, then Disassembled California Adventure's Tower of Terror

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.

It seemed unthinkable... When insiders first reported that the Hollywood Tower Hotel at Disney California Adventure would soon see its last elevators ascend into the Twilight Zone, it felt like a total impossibility. In a park themed to the Golden Age of California, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was a star in its own right: a new classic, tailor-made for the 21st century park and an integral element of the park’s $1.5 billion rebirth.

With our Lost Legends series, we’ve created a library of in-depth stories behind closed classics from around the world. We set course for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, watched the fall of Walt’s Tomorrowland from the Peoplemover, met Dreamfinder and Figment on a Journey into Imagination, took to the skies to go Soarin' Over California, pulsed through the bloodstream aboard Body Wars, braved a vengeful goddess aboard TOMB RAIDER: The Ride, explored the ride that changed Disney Parks forever – Star Tours – and so many more. Today, we half-heartedly induct another stunning E-Ticket into our archive of in-depth stories behind heartbreaking closures. And this one is a doozy.

Image: Disney

Submitted for your approval: the curious case of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a headlining attraction borrowing from a Walt Disney World original. Equal parts subtle, thrilling, eerie, and brilliant, it served as an achor to a reborn park and a fan favorite. Only Disney's greatest minds could've concieved it, and barely a decade after its opening, their Tower has toppled. You think you know the story, but there's so much before "Hollywood, 1939..."

In this in-depth feature, we’ll explore how Imagineers decided on and developed a drop ride, what chilling mysteries awaited within the haunted Hollywood Tower Hotel, what made California’s Tower so essential to the park’s narrative and rebirth, and what took the place of this storytelling marvel. It’s a tale so unbelievable with such an unimaginable twist ending, it can only be a story told from the outer reaches of... The Twilight Zone.

History in Freefall

As is usually the case with our Lost Legends entries, the story begins long before the Tower of Terror carried its first passengers into another dimension. The idea of incorporating a freefall drop ride into a Disney park is as old as the technology that could’ve made it happen.

Demon Drop at Cedar Point, an Intamin First Generation Freefall.
Image: Corey Balazowich, Flickr (license)

In 1982, Six Flags Magic Mountain California opened Freefall, a first generation Intamin Freefall tower. The mechanics behind the ride were cutting edge. Four guests would strap into a cart that slowly advanced backward into the base of a steel tower. The cart would then be lifted up to the height of the tower and gently pushed forward, precariously perched high above the park.

Aligned perfectly with the outside of the tower, the cart would release and careen down the vertical drop, sliding out at the bottom of the curved track so riders would end up on their backs, reversing backwards to the loading area. Truly, the process has to be seen to be believed.

Image: Six Flags

The mechanics might seem rudimentary or even barbaric by today's standards, but the cutting edge technology caught the world by storm. Guests queued for hours to experience the 20-second ride at Magic Mountain, and the ride was quickly duplicated at thrill parks across the world. In the mid-1980s, Disney was poised to incorporate this brand new experience into their parks, as well.

Discovery Mountain

Both EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland opened within six months of each other (in October 1982 and April 1983, respectively), right about the same time that Six Flags’ Freefall debuted. With two massive projects under their belts, Imagineers got to work creating new concepts that would eventually appear at the company’s next two parks: the Disney-MGM Studios (1989) and Disneyland Paris (1992). And the wild success and spread of Intamin’s drop ride made it a candidate for both.

Image: Disney

To hear Disney historian Jim Hill tell it, Imagineers at once got to work developing ideas for how to incorporate this simple, off-the-shelf thrill ride into Disney Parks in their usual, story-centered way. Luckily, they had an opening. Disneyland Paris was going to be different from anything Disney had done before – each and every land and attraction would be redesigned from a European point of view, infused with new stories and details.

This new, romantic, literary park wouldn’t have a cold, sterile, silver and white Tomorrowland. It wouldn’t have a Tomorrowland at all. Instead, it would have Discoveryland. This gold and brass seaport of bubbling lagoons, submarines, zephyrs, and rocks bursting from the ground was based on a never-built land originally planned for Disneyland in California. (We chronicled the in-depth story of this unbuilt steampunk paradise in its own feature, Possibilityland: Discovery Bay.) Forget a scientific future; this new Discoveryland was the future as envisioned by the past... a fantasy future.

Image: Disney

In this organic world, a stark white, Space Age Space Mountain wouldn’t do, so instead Discoveryland would feature Discovery Mountain, a brass peak of cogs and rivets. Sure, Discovery Mountain would feature a roller coaster through the stars (though here it would be a launched coaster based on Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon), but that would only be one part of a massive indoor complex – a land within the land. Discovery Mountain would be Captain Nemo’s secret lair, with the Nautilus docked beneath a craggily volcanic peak in a glowing lagoon.

Image: Disney

And there, in the center of this massive indoor environment would stand an Intamin first generation Freefall ride. Themed to Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, the ride would hoist guests sky-high, up and out of Discovery Mountain (see if you can spot it in the Discoveryland concept art at the top of this section) and then send them plunging down toward an open lava vent, with bursts of steam and fire signaling the drop. Of course, at the last second, the elevator would swing out and splash through a waterfall.

The smart concept disguised the bare steel of Intamin’s ride within the steampunk industrial environment of the mountain.

Image: Disney

Of course, in retrospect, we can be glad Disney didn’t move forward with this drop tower – after all, most of the once-widespread installations of this first-generation ride have since been replaced with more modern variations, and the few that do remain feel downright rickety in comparison.  But the idea stuck, and Disney Imagineers doubled down on their insistence that a drop ride could belong at a Disney Park.

Meanwhile, development continued at the other new park Disney had planned... 

The Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park

We’ve talked in a few of our Lost Legends entries about Michael Eisner – a controversial figure whose legacy is a mix of transformative success and debilitating defeat. However, we’ve always insisted that early on in his time with Disney, Eisner was exactly was Disney needed – a fresh visionary with his finger on the pulse of entertainment (coming directly off a stint as CEO of Paramount Pictures) willing to take big chances to grow Disney’s films, animation, and parks.

Eisner and famed Imagineer Marty Sklar at first imagined leveraging their new cinematic vision into a filmmaking pavilion at EPCOT Center, but the idea soon evolved into its own park: Disney-MGM Studios, Walt Disney World’s third gate. Allegedly designed intentionally to take only a half-day to explore, Disney-MGM Studios opened as Disney’s smallest park by far. Look at the map above and you’ll see that even much of the park we know today wasn’t open to guests. While it had its share of entertainment offerings and a single ride (the Great Movie Ride), its real purpose was to host the Backlot Studio Tram Tour.

(To be clear, the idea of a multi-hour, tram-lead studio tour was “borrowed” from the historic tour at Universal Studios Hollywood. Universal planned to duplicate their famed Studio experience in Orlando, and Disney’s rushed construction of their own tour was literally meant as a preemptive strike to keep Universal out. Insiders still stay that Eisner was unfairly aware of Universal’s plans because of his time at Paramount, making Disney’s fast-tracked studio park a cheat. In any case, Disney’s tram tour forced Universal to re-think its Orlando plans, axing a studio tour in favor of standalone rides for Jaws, King Kong, Earthquake, and more… ultimately a win.)

Disney historian Jim Hill notes that, from its opening, exit polls showed that guests liked the Studio park, but said it needed more things to do – more rides.

Horror Stories

Disney Imagineers began to toy with expanding the Studios. A fast-tracked version of Disneyland’s Star Tours was already under construction and would open before the end of the park’s first calendar year. A logical way to analyze a movie-themed park is by genre. Disney-MGM Studios included action adventure, sci-fi, animation, silver screen classics… one genre was no where to be found: horror.

Image: Disney

The reason was simple: Disney doesn’t do horror.  Sure, we chronicled the partnership between Eisner and George Lucas that led to a Lost Legend: the original Star Tours, and how that growing relationship would later lead to Disney’s scariest attraction ever and another Lost Legend: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. But that would be years in the future. Long before Disney would think about using 20th Century Fox’s Alien, they were on the hunt for horror properties to bring to the Disney-MGM Studios. You name it, they looked into it: Friday the 13th, Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street. Even, reportedly, a ride to bring all of Stephen King’s horror tales together.

Ultimately, it must’ve been decided that these grisly horror features were too intense for a Disney Park – even a more mature movie-themed one – and Imagineers went back to the drawing board. If no real horror movies would work, maybe they could create their own? Maybe even a horror-comedy?

Image: 20th Century Fox

It was at this point that Disney contacted Mel Brooks (brilliant creator of the go-to horror-comedy, 1974's Young Frankenstein, as well as The Producers, Spaceballs, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights). Like George Lucas, Eisner had carved out a professional relationship with Brooks, and this seemed just the right time to use it.

With Mel, Imagineers created early plans for a dark ride through a haunted Hollywood hotel that was apparently being called Hotel Mel. In line with the Studios’ overarching story, we would’ve been led to believe that we were on a hot set for a movie being shot inside of an abandoned hotel.

Image: Disney

The dark ride, then, would’ve taken guests behind the scenes to see classic movie monsters at work. Problem is, Imagineers couldn’t get the tone of the ride quite right. Was this hotel really haunted? Where the monsters real, or actors? Were we seeing behind-the-scenes of moviemaking, or were we part of the movie?

Point is, Hotel Mel just couldn’t seem to come together in a satisfying way. Not to mention, it didn’t really satisfy Eisner’s decree that Disney Parks should become hip, thrilling places that teens would want to visit.

But as Imagineers regrettably left Hotel Mel behind, the idea began to coalesce with that lingering need for a drop ride. Could Disney designers create a triple threat: a thrill ride, horror ride, drop ride? This is where the story gets good. Read on...

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There are 13 comments.

I am unbelievably saddened to see this ride go. Really a bizarre move on Disney's part.

I thought that in Florida, "Ellen's Energy Adventure" is supposed to be replaced with Guardians of the Galaxy and that the Tower of Terror there is "safe." Hope so, EEA is sooooo dated. Maybe do a story about the Universe of Energy.

That's the rumor, but tbh if they're going to replace any ride in Disney World with the only Marvel movie that they can use (at this point), they should gut and retheme the Rockin' Roller Coaster in Hollywood Studios: in all blunt honesty, Aerosmith is pretty much irrelevant these days (they're pretty much a quintessential example of what us millennials call "dadrock") and on top of that, they can theme it to the Awesome Mix (both Vol. 1 and a couple tracks from Vol. 2).

IMHO, that would be a fair compromise insofar as Orlando getting a Marvel attraction and the Tower of Terror there is safe. I could even go so far as to say they could potentially truncate the Mission: Breakout material and adapt it for a roller coaster, but that might be more work and money than what Disney is willing to spend on such a thing.

As for Ellen's Energy Adventure, they could replace that with an Inside Out-themed ride. I know people will gripe about "muh originality", but given Disney is trying to implement their properties more into the parks these days, that's probably a better choice and fit for Epcot over GOTG.

First, just a minor correction - Guardians used primarily a 1970's soundtrack, not a 1980's one. Second, I agree that the conversion of this great ride instead of the building of a complete new ride based on Guardians shows Disney at its cheapest yet again. And apparently even the detailed redesign of the outside has been downsized, so it's less about pipes and more about colors (and cheaper to make).

I must say, this was an incredibly well-written article, and I could not agree more; the loss of Tower of Terror is a huge loss here. I remember California Adventure at the very beginning. My family and I used a park hopper for it, and we didn't even stay an hour; we were surprised that it had ever been built, and never planned to return to it again.
The Hollywood Tower Hotel is the only thing that brought me back to it. After a decade had passed, I was surprised with how much I loved the new and improved California Adventure. It created instant nostalgia, and the pinnacle of it all was, of course, the Tower of Terror itself. It was the gateway into the park, and I loved it.
Loosing that ride now, especially considering the disastrous results that came from when the park was initially opened, I would say put a nail in the coffin for this park. It may not die right away, but even still it will only limp, if even that. If I were them, I'd promise a return to the original Tower within the next year or so; as so eloquently written here, it would be the best thing to do at this point to salvage this mess.

In fairness, I recall James Gunn (the director of the movie) saying at one point that he wasn't terribly thrilled with the idea at first (and that he's also a fan of the Tower of Terror as well), but someone, somehow, made a convincing enough elevator pitch to him about this that not only changed his mind, but managed to get him to film stuff with the movie actors while they were filming Vol. 2. So who knows, maybe there might be something redeemable about this after all, if only for the authenticity in the ride's show itself. :T

Honestly, I get that GOTG is pretty much the only Marvel property they can have in WDW (Doctor Strange is... debatable),and I'm a huuuuuuuge fan of the movie (I saw it 12 times in the theater, albeit most were $5 Tuesday nights, lmao) but if they put both Mission: Breakout in Hollywood Studios _and_ that rumored replacement to Universe of Energy in Epcot, that's going to be overkill for just one property IMHO.

While I agree that removing the Hollywood Tower Hotel from DCA is a major ding to the narrative, that wing of the park is ripe for rejig anyway. The Hollywood Land area - despite the HTH lending some narrative backbone to the park at large - definitely got the short end of the stick in terms of place-making in the Enhancement Project. It's attractive enough - certainly more than it was originally - but it remains relatively shallow, lacks narrative cohesion and the unceremonious way sections of it were essentially lopped off to save operating costs during the dark old days has never fully been resolved, meaning there are spots where it just sort of...Stops.

Those kind of unnatural boundaries, though slightly better themed now than before the enhancements, ding the narrative and diminish the sense of place. And if we're talking buildings not fitting the theme of the area, have you SEEN the Hyperion Theatre building? It's a fantastic theatre inside, but the outside is utterly graceless - barring the left over backdrops at the entrance. The "painted on sky" motif that is also a holdover from the dark old days looks positively goofy, especially given how elaborately themed other areas of DCA are.

The whole area needs to be re-done, and if it's going to be Marvel-themed (Spider-Man & Captain America already live there so that does appear to be the long term plan) then the existing HTH wouldn't necessarily fit. While I agree it will be sorely missed, I'm willing to see how the whole plan looks before writing off the idea of the replacement out of hand.

And I get where you're coming from on the fact it wasn't unique not necessarily mattering because of how well integrated its story was, but I feel like the above issue of the new narrative not being completed or even revealed yet blunts that somewhat. And regardless, with the ride experience largely unchanged and an identical ride in Walt Disney Studios which is currently not planned to change in anyway, it really is hard to see this change as the massive betrayal it is being painted as. Frankly, Space Mountain: Mission 2 was - for my money - a more regrettable permanent re-theme, despite it being a much more limited one.

Thank you for your well written comments! I'm in the minority who's excited for the retheme and I agree, Space Mountain: Mission Space 2 was a terrible version. Hopefully if Disneyland Paris' 25th anniversary is a success, maybe after Hyperspace Mountain they can bring the original version back.

While I loved the Twilight Zone theme, I do understand Disney wanting to bring Marvel in to the park. What I can't understand, is why Disney didn't keep the hotel theme and change it to Captain America? It certainly would have worked better for the era that section of the park represents. That power plant/ prison thing is going to look as out of place as Jacqueline Kennedy at a monster truck rally!

Bob Chapek told everyone at the recent D23 event that the Tower in Florida wouldn't change and frankly I don't see it changing there, either. It's too much of a draw for that park - especially for the next 4-5 years. Plus it's become an icon both in the themed entertainment business and at Walt Disney World, whereas the one in California was always the cheap little brother of Florida's version.

Also while I understand your point about the benefits of the altered ride system in Florida, the new ride system was vastly inferior. Not only removing the uniqueness of the horizontal movement but also adding that dumb hallway between the elevator doors and the actual lift. It takes you entirely out of the moment and experience.

I really don't understand where Disney execs are helming the parks. It really started with Frozen in terms of changing the narrative and mission statement of an entire park. IMHO that overlay was done very well and at least it is a worthy attraction successor to the original. Then there is this Guardians of the Galaxy overlay which is incredibly stupid and vapid. But Bob Iger's recent comments about the direction that the reboot of Epcot seems encouraging that they will be true to the original vision of Epcot. I don't know it really is hard to tell which way Disney is going.

Also I doubt it if us East Coasters are happy with the demise of the West coast version of the TT but at least we do still have a version of it that exists over here. Like the example in the article I would be upset if they removed Pirates but it would be at least somewhat of a consolation if it existed in Disneyland.

I feel that the Tower of Terror will return in the future. With the backlash, and from I know about life, karma has a way of bitting back. In other words, the decision to change ToT will come back to haunt Disney and they'll bring back Tower of Terror.

Thank you for this article; it was extraordinarily well written -- so much I could see myself telling almost a similar story and narrative. My feelings towards DL and the Walt Disney Company are very mixed this year. As the cost of our passes continually rise, things are cheapened by overpromotion (Epcot's all year festivals now) and the rushed feeling of new rides and attractions, I worry about the Disney brand. The brand represented to me a feeling of doing things right and being original and forward thinking -- some of these newer projects don't feel that way at all. All the excitement not withstanding about the Star Wars project and Toy Story Land at DHS, we did lose a great many things as well. The Osborne lights will be greatly missed; and DHS will be the newest half day park for awhile. Thank you for this well written tribute to the HTH (to which I'm a gigantic fan, just look at my collection around me in this very room I'm typing to you in) and for mimicking my feelings about the great loss of an icon. I'm also disappointed in Joe, as I thought he was better than cheap overlays and hasty remodels - DAK is a gorgeous park with great attractions, but this felt entirely beneath both his abilities and his talent.

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