An abandoned hotel. A ghostly back story. A creepy elevator that moves in unexpected ways. A trip to another dimension, followed by repeated plunges faster than the speed of gravity. And a height requirement low enough for the average 4 year old to ride. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, generally known simply as the Tower of Terror, is arguably one of Disney’s most unique and beloved attractions.
Although it is still a youngster by Disney standards, the Tower of Terror has been replicated at Disney parks worldwide and remains a consistent draw for fans of all ages. Opened in 1994, at the heart of what is considered a dark age in Disney history, the time when beloved fan favorites were consistently shuttered and replaced with a fast tracked version of “the next big thing,” how did the Tower of Terror get it so very right?
Here, we will take you behind the scenes to explore the mystery of this attraction’s powerful allure. From the history that made it possible to a detailed description of the ride experience, we will discover the hidden secrets, the technological breakthroughs, and the Disney magic that, when combined in just the right amounts, create a potent formula for success.
The Twilight Zone
The story begins in 1958, when Bert Granet, the new executive producer of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse TV show, was looking for new material. Developed by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, the hour-long anthology series was sponsored by manufacturing company Westinghouse. At the time, Rod Serling was an enormously popular screenwriter specializing in scripts for TV anthologies, having become a household name with his “Patterns” script for Kraft Television Theater in 1955. Granet was sure that a Serling script would add prestige and boost ratings for his show, so he went searching through the CBS vaults to see if one existed.
As it turns out, Serling had sold a script to CBS earlier that year. Entitled “The Time Element,” Serling had pitched it as the pilot episode for a then-unnamed anthology series he hoped to produce. It was his first foray into science fiction, and it introduced many of the elements that would become hallmarks of The Twilight Zone, including opening and closing narration and a twist ending. However, CBS had shelved the project, and the episode had never been seen.
“The Time Element” aired on the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse on November 24, 1958. It was an instant sensation with critics and audiences alike. With fan mail flooding in, CBS gave Serling’s new project the green light. The Twilight Zone premiered on October 2, 1959, with the official pilot episode entitled, “Where Is Everybody?”
The show’s themes included the supernatural, dystopian futurism, Kafkaesque settings, and other bizarre turns of events, all due to the characters’ entry into the Twilight Zone. As established in the opening voiceover, the Twilight Zone was conceptualized as another dimension, “not only of sight and sound but of mind.” The episode wrap-up often, though not always, explained how the characters entered the Twilight Zone.
The Twilight Zone lasted for five seasons and 156 episodes. Whether it was Serling’s idea or the network’s to pull the plug is up for debate, but it had developed a loyal and passionate following by the time the last episode aired on June 19, 1964. Regardless, Serling sold his share in the show to CBS and parted ways.
Over the next two decades, The Twilight Zone remained a cult classic, with many calling for its revival. Despite mixed reviews and a tragic filming accident that took the lives of three actors, Twilight Zone: The Movie was successful enough in its 1983 release to convince CBS to give it another try. The new series, also entitled The Twilight Zone, premiered on September 27, 1985.
Rod Serling had passed away in 1975, so his role as narrator was assumed by actor Charles Aidman, a veteran of two episodes of the original series. The new show blended brand new scripts with remakes of classic episodes.
The revival hung on for three seasons, ending on April 15, 1989. Many felt that this was the end for The Twilight Zone. Surprisingly, it was revived one more time, for a single season in 2002. But it was soon to come back in a very different form...
By the time Michael Eisner took on the role of Disney CEO in 1984, he already knew that Universal hoped to bring a movie-themed park to Orlando. He had been president and COO of Paramount in 1981, when Universal approached Paramount about a possible Orlando theme park partnership. Nothing ever came of the proposal, but Disney had its ear to the ground. When the company caught wind that Universal’s Orlando park was a go, Eisner immediately leveraged the power of the internal government system Walt had set up for the Florida parks.
Bypassing most of the normal permitting processes allowed Disney to get ahead of the competition. Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) opened in May 1989, a year ahead of Universal Studios Florida. However, this achievement came at a price.
The reality is that Disney-MGM Studios felt rushed. On opening day, it had just five attractions: The Great Movie Ride, The Backstage Studio Tour, The Magic of Disney Animation Tour, Superstar Television, and The Monster Sound Show, along with seven restaurants and five shops. Two more attractions were added by the end of the year: Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular and Star Tours. Still, the popular consensus was that it was, at best, a half-day park.
Disney did a lot of things right in the park’s early years. At the time, the Orlando area was on track to become “Hollywood East,” with the soundstages at both Disney-MGM and Universal Studios Florida housing major motion pictures and television series. While this never quite materialized, several shows did make a temporary or permanent home at the park, including the 1990s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club, Let’s Make a Deal, and Wheel of Fortune.
Disney played up the Hollywood image in a big way, hosting handprint ceremonies and filming a celebrity talk show series at the park known as “A Conversation With…” Nonetheless, it soon became clear that the park needed more, especially as the Hollywood East dream began to fizzle.
Sunset Boulevard expansion
One of Disney-MGM Studios’ key problems was its lack of thrill rides. While film buffs and would-be stars loved the behind the scenes moviemaking focus, there was little to captivate traditional theme park audiences. A drop tower/freefall ride had been conceptualized as part of an expansion plan for EuroDisney (now Disneyland Paris), but with that resort in financial trouble and embroiled in controversy, expansion was on the back burner.
Disney considered several ideas for possible E-ticket attractions that would fit with the Hollywood theme. Eventually, the company decided to take the drop tower idea and expand it into what would become the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. The new attraction anchored Sunset Boulevard, a massive 1994 park expansion that moved the long-running Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage show to a permanent new home. Over the next several years, Sunset Boulevard also became home to the Hollywood Hills Amphitheater, where Fantasmic! opened in 1998, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, which debuted in 1999.
A haunted hotel seemed like a natural fit to anchor Sunset Boulevard, the park’s replica of a real California road that has been immortalized in film, theater, and music for decades. However, many different attractions were considered for the interior, including a ghost tour, a murder mystery show, and even a real hotel. Eventually, Imagineers decided to go with the drop tower, but to use the murder mystery concept to expand the attraction.
An early concept used the works of Stephen King, but Imagineers soon decided that The Twilight Zone provided a more open framework within which they could work. It also had broad audience appeal and could draw guests quickly into the storyline.
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror has a rich and colorful back story, which is actually communicated to guests during the attraction.
According to the legend, the Hollywood Tower Hotel opened in 1917, and quickly became the place for Hollywood’s elite to see and be seen, particularly in the Tip Top Club on the hotel’s top floor. Halloween night 1939 was particularly stormy, but the five passengers who stepped into the elevator were unconcerned. They were: child star Sally Shine, a Shirley Temple type with more than 20 films to her credit; Sally’s nanny, Emmeline Partridge; glamorous actress Caroline Crosson and her gentleman friend, Gilbert London; and bellhop Dewey Todd, Jr., son of the man who built the hotel. The hotel was struck by lightning, causing the elevator to plunge uncontrollably. Neither the elevator nor its occupants were ever seen again, and the hotel closed its doors that night.
Today, the Hollywood Tower Hotel has been opened for tours, but everything remains in the dilapidated condition in which it was found. As a storm rages outside the windows, you are invited into the library, where Rod Serling explains the back story via a “lost episode” of The Twilight Zone. You are then invited to continue your tour, but only the maintenance elevator is in working order.
Construction and architectural considerations
Site clearing began in 1992, but a sinkhole forced the attraction’s slight move from its planned location. The hotel was carefully designed to stand 199 feet tall, because the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) requires all buildings 200 feet or taller to have flashing red aircraft warning lights on top. Disney felt that this would detract from the attraction.
The architecture was inspired by several different California hotels of the appropriate age, along with another very important consideration. A building that tall would be easily seen from Epcot. After measuring the sight lines, Imagineers determined that it would appear just behind the Morocco pavilion, so they incorporated some Moroccan styling and painted the hotel a pinkish terra cotta to blend in. Next time you are in the World Showcase, see if you can spot the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Odds are that you won’t notice it unless you are specifically searching for it.
A persistent legend claims that the Tower of Terror was struck by lightning during its construction. Although it is difficult to verify the truth of this particular rumor, it is certainly plausible. Lightning strikes have been documented at the attraction since it opened, and the rooftop is the highest point in the immediate area. While this may add some spookiness to the overall experience, modern lightning rods and deflection systems ensure that guests need not fear ending up like the unfortunate stars of the ride.
The elaborate ride system pushes the limits of technology in novel new ways. One of the most impressive is the Fifth Dimension sequence, in which the elevator in which you are riding actually moves forward from the lift shaft to the drop shaft. To create this, Disney had to refine its Autonomous Guided Vehicle (AGV) technology, first debuted in 1982 for the ride vehicles in the Universe of Energy (now Ellen’s Energy Adventure). Guided by wires embedded in the floor, the battery-powered vehicles seamlessly detach themselves from the lift elevator shell, technically known as a Vertical Vehicle Conveyance (VVC), roll through the scene, and attach themselves to another VVC in the drop shaft. Pretty cool, if slightly terrifying to consider!
As you might expect, the Tower of Terror is powered by massive motors that are much bigger and more powerful than those of a traditional elevator. In fact, each motor is roughly the same size as a one car garage, and weighs approximately 132,000 pounds. There are six total, one for each of the four lift elevators and the two drop shafts, all installed at the top of the hotel building.
Although they are enormous, the motors work on exactly the same principle as ele
vator motors everywhere. Steel cables attached by loops to the top and bottom of each elevator car, guided by an opposing counterweight, raise and lower the cars. In fact, the Otis Elevator Company, which developed the first safety elevators in 1853 and is today’s largest elevator manufacturer, worked with Disney to design the ride. However, these elevators don’t go down like normal, or even in freefall. The cables at the bottom of the elevator actually pull it down at 39 mph, faster than the speed of gravity!
To check this out for yourself, hold a penny flat on your palm just before the drop. The penny will float above your hand as you drop, because it falls only at the speed of gravity. This actually worked out well for a friend of mine, who once lost the cap from his soda right before the final drop. Soda floated out of the top of the bottle, and hung just above it as we descended. We landed, and the soda gently fell right back into the bottle. It made for a fantastic ride photo!
A technical necessity turned out to be a happy accident for guests. You know that fabulous view of the park you get when the elevator doors open at the top? The ride wasn’t actually designed that way. The drop shafts were to have been fully enclosed. As it turns out, however, dropping massive elevators on huge motors at that speed displaces a tremendous amount of air. In the testing phase, some basement walls actually blew out from the pressure. Opening the doors provides a place for the air to go, preserving the structural integrity of the building. The fact that it provides a great view is merely a side benefit.
The Walt Disney World version of the ride is billed as having random drop sequences. This is both true and misleading. Which drop profile to use is randomly selected by the control computer, but it only has a choice of four approved profiles. Each has a different number and sequence of drops and mini-drops, along with different projections.
Naturally, such a complex attraction has quite a few redundant safety mechanisms. When the Walt Disney World version opened, it featured shared lap bars, which gave more than a few guests a sense of security. One seat in the middle of the back was dubbed the “seatbelt” seat, as it was positioned between two lap bars, and only the daredevils were eager to claim that seat.
As it turns out, though, seatbelts are actually more secure because they are fitted to the individual passenger. In the early 2000s, all of the seats were converted to “seatbelt seats,” and later installations at other parks have always featured seatbelts rather than lap bars. Your seatbelt status, and everything else that occurs in your ride car, is monitored by cameras, and a PA system is used to warn guests to knock off potentially dangerous behavior.
Multiple steel cables, each capable of holding the elevator on its own, are attached to each car. Numerous braking mechanisms are also available, as well as shock absorbers that cushion the car if the system happens to overshoot its designated stopping point. Diligent safety inspections are carried out daily and, of course, Disney must remain in compliance with state and federal safety laws.
That is the essence of how the ride works from a physical perspective. Before going into the details behind the Tower of Terror’s stunning special effects, let’s take a moment to walk through the attraction as it unfolds from the guest’s point of view.
Your experience begins long before you actually approach the building. Rising imposingly from the foot of Sunset Boulevard, the hotel features a lighted window, giving the illusion that it is open for business. Of course, the screams of terror might cue you in that this is far from a normal hotel!
As you enter the queue, you will make your way through an impressive overgrown garden. Keep an eye out for the plaque that reads, “Established 1917,” and see how many of the 1930s jazz tunes you can name from the soundtrack. As you enter the hotel’s lobby, take note of the dusty decorations and personal effects. The idea is that the hotel was recently reopened to the public, but everything was left just as it was on the night it closed.
Interestingly, there is historical precedent for this stylistic choice. During the silver boom in Tombstone, Arizona, the town’s Bird Cage Theatre was known as the wildest and wickedest night spot between New Orleans and San Francisco. It was known for its bawdy stage shows, prostitution, and the longest running poker game of all time (8 years, 5 months, and 3 days). However, the silver mines flooded in 1889, and the residents of Tombstone fled with little warning. The Bird Cage Theatre was hastily boarded up. In 1934, the new owners removed the boards for the first time, to reveal a sort of time warp. Everything was exactly as it had been, decaying but still mostly intact. The Bird Cage has been open to tourists ever since, preserved as it was at the moment the boards were removed.
After strolling through the lobby, you are invited into the library to wait while your rooms are prepared. Lightning flashes outside the window, signifying a thunderstorm outside. The lights flicker and go out, and a small black and white television comes on. In the “lost episode” of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling explains the back story. He then invites you, if you dare, to board the maintenance elevator and discover the hotel’s secrets for yourself.
The library doors open, and you make your way through the hotel’s boiler room, a slightly ominous set filled with furnaces and engines. Finally, you reach a bellhop who directs you to stand in a particular spot to await the arrival of your service elevator.
As the elevator doors close, you again hear Rod Serling’s voice warning you that you are about to make your own trip into the Twilight Zone. The elevator rises briefly and then stops. The doors open to reveal a dilapidated hotel corridor with room service trays and newspapers outside the guest room doors. At the end of the corridor is a window that reveals flashing lightning. The ghostly figures of the five people from the elevator appear, beckoning you to join them. They disappear, and the corridor slowly fades from view. As what was once a corridor becomes an endless field of stars, the window morphs into the window from the opening sequence of Season 5 of The Twilight Zone. As in that sequence, the window cracks and disappears.
The doors close and your elevator rises again. You hear Rod Serling’s voiceover note that the door to the Twilight Zone is opening again, this time for you. Then the elevator doors open to reveal a maintenance room that again fades into a field of stars. Your ride vehicle moves forward through a surreal mix of sights and sounds that are reminiscent of the show’s opening sequences. As you approach the drop shaft, a field of stars in front of you splits and opens, mirroring the effect of elevator doors, and then the shaft goes pitch black. A final line from Serling explaining that you are about to experience the fifth dimension is your only warning. On the last word of his voiceover, the randomized drop sequence begins.
After the drop sequence, your elevator returns to the hotel’s basement. After viewing a short clip, you are welcomed back by Rod Serling. As in the TV show, he gives a brief wrap up of the experience before sending you on your way.
Naturally, the Tower of Terror exits through a gift shop. However, the entire exit experience, from the narrow corridor into which you emerge from the elevator through the gift shop itself, is perfectly themed to the rest of the attraction. Unlike many of the Disney gift shops these days, this one is notable for the fact that it sells primarily Tower of Terror and The Twilight Zone souvenirs, including such hotel-related items as slippers and bathrobes.
Arguably the most impressive of the Tower of Terror special effects is its use of Rod Serling, given that he passed away nearly 20 years before the attraction opened. For all Disney’s wizardry, however, they have not yet been able to bring anyone back from the dead. The footage of Rod Serling that appears on the library TV was actually culled from a Season 3 episode entitled “It’s a Good Life.” A couple of his actual lines from the segment are used, while the rest of the narration, including the on-board voiceovers, is provided by voice actor Mark Silverman. He was handpicked by a team that included Serling’s widow, Carol.
Many fans believe that Disney digitally erased Serling’s trademark from the episode footage. However, it just so happens that he didn’t have a cigarette in his hand for that particular segment. It was a win-win for both Disney, which doesn’t want to promote smoking, and the fans who believe in being true to the show.
Interestingly, the rest of the ride’s stunning effects are actually advanced versions of techniques that were already in place throughout the parks. For example, the corridor scene utilizes forced perspective to make the corridor seem much longer than it actually is. It’s 10 feet high at the end next to your elevator car, but only four feet high at the other end, which is just six feet away. This technique is also used on Main Street USA to make Cinderella’s Castle appear taller.
In that same scene, the Pepper’s Ghost technique is used to create the ghostly images. This ancient illusionist’s trick is famously used to create the dancing figures in the Haunted Mansion. In essence, the figures are projected onto a mirror and then reflected off a pane of glass. Pepper’s Ghost, along with fiber optics, are used for the window morph effect and field of stars. Similar effects, along with projection technology, are used to create the Fifth Dimension scene.
Easter eggs and hidden secrets
One of the most impressive elements of the Tower of Terror is its vast array of nods to the world of the Twilight Zone, as well as the era in which it is set, the hotel industry, and, of course, its actual location at Walt Disney World. Scattered throughout the attraction, these Easter eggs are hidden in plain sight—almost imperceptible to the casual observer but fun for the fan to discover.
In the lobby, pay attention to the luggage and furnishings. Many of the items are actual antiques, while others are recreations. The luggage is made of genuine alligator skin, as this was highly fashionable during the 1930s.
Also take in all the small details that complete the illusion of a packed hotel suddenly closed in the middle of a busy evening. A mahjong set is laid out in the middle of a game. A diamond ring and a lipstick-stained glass represent an engagement celebration that was cut short.
Above the concierge desk is a AAA diamond award. While the actual number of diamonds that a hotel can earn is five, this award has 13 diamonds. Near the desk, look for the poster advertising the hotel’s Tip Top Club, featuring band leader Anthony Freemont. That was the name of the main character in the episode, “It’s a Good Life,” from which the library film was pulled.
The library is packed with tributes to episodes of The Twilight Zone. Look for Henry Bemis’ broken glasses from “Time Enough at Last,” the spaceman from “The Invaders,” the “Nick of Time” Mystic Seer Machine, and the trumpet from “A Passage for Trumpet.” In addition, see if you can catch the Hidden Mickey in the film (hint: it’s being carried).
In the boiler room, try to spot the Hidden Mickey along a furnace wall. There are lots of impressive details here, but no other Easter eggs. Inside the ride vehicle, however, look for the elevator operation permit dated October 31, 1939 (the date of the spooky events). Its ID number is 10259, a nod to the first episode of The Twilight Zone, which aired on October 2, 1959. It was signed by Mr. Cadwallader, the devil who buys a hypochondriac’s soul in exchange for immortality in “Escape Clause.”
When exiting the ride, take a quick peek at the displays, where you will find the ventriloquist dummy from “Caesar and Me” and the slot machine from “The Fever.” Beyond the photo desk, you’ll see doors leading to the Sunset Room, the Beverly Room, and the Fountain Room. Apparently the Sunset Room was the hotel’s restaurant, because a menu dated October 31, 1939 is hanging on the wall beside the door. The elegant eight course menu, with three options per course, is definitely in keeping with the era. It’s worth a quick look before heading into the gift shop.
Of course, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is overflowing with details. From beginning to end, your senses are assaulted with the sights and sounds of an incredibly immersive world. I have been riding the Tower of Terror since it opened in 1994, and I still manage to find new things on every trip. The attraction does not give up all its secrets easily. But perhaps with our collective knowledge and experiences, we can make this guide even more complete. What have you noticed that I left out? Are you aware of additional Hidden Mickeys, episode references, or other secrets? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!
You can find more hidden secrets of the Tower of Terror in this detailed list!