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

Image: Disney

While Mel Brooks’ Hollywood Horror Hotel idea just didn’t stick, it did give Imagineers the boost they needed to see the idea to completion. The idea developed around an expansion for the Studio park called Sunset Blvd. From the start, concept art showed a once grand Hollywood hotel looming overhead.

When the idea of the haunted Hollywood Hotel merged with the back-burnered drop ride concept, a Tower of Terror was envisioned. Imagineers first developed the idea around that Intamin first generation Freefall technology –with the vertical drop that curves out into a level runout track – simply building a derelict hotel around the structure (see above and below).

Image: Disney

Ultimately, Disney didn't move forward with the first generation freefall tower concept (but someone did in one of the most astounding, must-see Disney "knock-offs" out there today...).

As before, we’re lucky that Imagineers sat on the idea a little longer before deciding on the two key elements that would bring the attraction to life: its content and its technology.

They found their first answer thanks to CBS. Disney licensed the use of The Twilight Zone, the creepy, groundbreaking, timeless anthology series by Rod Serling, which had run on CBS from 1959 – 1965. The Twilight Zone was a cultural phenomenon forever tied to American pop culture. The five-season, 156 episode series featured a new story, new characters, and new setting in each episode.

Sometimes sci-fi, sometimes fantasy, sometimes horror; set in the past, present, or future; always ending with a twist or a moral; the show imagined unthinkable circumstances and surprising endings for everyday people who had unknowingly “crossed over into a land whose boundaries were that of imagination” – The Twilight Zone.

Image: Disney / CBS

The storied pop program was perfect for a park meant to celebrate cinema. Brilliantly, using the otherworldly, eerie aura of The Twilight Zone allowed Disney to craft a haunted hotel that would give riders good, old-fashioned goose bumps without the blood and gore while also celebrating a revered, respected, and timeless entry in the cultural canon of "horror" in the United States.

They found the answer to their second hurdle – the ride’s technology – in AGVs, or Autonomous Guided Vehicles. The elevators placed within Florida's Hollywood Tower Hotel weren’t elevators at all. They’re enormous 22-person ride vehicle carts that begin parked in a lift elevator. But during the course of the ride, they advance out of the elevator on wheels, moving horizontally – one of the most surprising, technologically clever, and brilliant storytelling elements of any dark ride on Earth. The AGVs would be “trackless,” following a wire embedded in the ground. Then, they would re-enter and lock onto a second elevator lift (this one at the front of the building, inside the drop shaft) for their faster-than-gravity freefall at 39 miles per hour.

Building the Original

Image: Disney

In 1992, ground was broken on the massive ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The towering Hotel is obviously a landmark, standing 199 feet tall (any taller and it would require a flashing red aviation beacon that Imagineers expected would distract from its atmosphere – one of the most well-known bits of Disney Parks trivia ever) at the end of Sunset Blvd.

But what might be surprising is the depth of the building. Its guts – where the show scenes take place – are housed in the enormous (but exceptionally designed and decorated) showbuilding behind the tower.

Image: Disney

The Neo-Mediterranean / Spanish Gothic building is a veritable fortress of red tiled roofs, arched doorways, keystones, stucco walls, twisted columns, minarets, and pointed stone turrets. It's imposing, dark, and foreboding, and that's without the scortched lightning strike and the flickering, sparking neon sign. As you might imagine, the building was aged and weathered, crafting what may be Disney’s most detailed queue.

It starts well before you enter the hotel, in the misty, overgrown gardens filled with plants that look… well… sinister. You pass dilapidated signs pointing to the hotel’s long-lost amenities, crumbling statues, vine-covered arbors, and dry fountains. Inside the hotel’s storied lobby and library, you might notice that the hotel seems to have been abandoned in a hurry and learn of the mysterious happenings here on Halloween night in 1939.

Image: Disney

Then it’s on to the boiler room to board a maintenance service elevator for a journey into the hotel’s eerie past, and up to the 13th floor where the Twilight Zone awaits.

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Imagineering – the height of what Disney’s creative minds are capable of. Even 25 years after its debut, the ride is unequivocally considered a classic, standing equally between the old era (Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion) and the new (Mystic Manor and Journey to the Center of the Earth). We can’t even begin to expound on the ride’s details and effects, because if you haven’t ridden it, you need to do yourself the service.

Image: Disney

In any case, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at once became a crowning gem of Disney’s Imagineers. A testament to the incredible fusion of storytelling, technology, and detail for which they’d always been renowned, Tower of Terror proved that a new generation of Imagineers still “had it,” ready to craft 21st century classics. The ride singularly propelled Disney-MGM Studios to superstardom and became an icon of Walt Disney World.

That reinvigorated Imagineers to consider that a similar ride could work at Disneyland.

Geyser Mountain 

With the technology behind the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror absolutely wowing guests in Florida, Disney began to toy with ways to expand on it. They started by reexamining a concept from years before called Geyser Mountain. Concealed within an artificial mountain peak, this thrilling ride was designed to fit in Frontierland at the Disneyland Parks in California and France.

Image: Disney

Aboard mine elevators, guests would descend into the peak to view some of the glorious natural wonders that recent drilling had revealed: endless unexplored caves, crystal-lit caverns, bubbling geysers, and more. Of course, when a wayward, “Ole Unfaithful” geyser erupts at precisely the wrong time, it would send the deep-earth elevator blasting skyward.

You can read more about Geyser Mountain in our walk-through of the Disneyland that never was: Possibilityland. But as the new millennium neared, Imagineers were ready to give Disneyland its own Geyser Mountain. They imagined that the 40-year-old park would need a stunning, groundbreaking new E-Ticket to divert crowds from the brand new and much hipper Disney’s California Adventure opening across the way. Certainly this second gate would be so popular that people would forget about ole’ tried-and-true Disneyland, and Geyser Mountain would be just the thing to draw them back!

Then, Disney California Adventure opened…

California Mis-Adventure

When Disney’s California Adventure opened in 2001, it was met with… well… chilly reception. Word of mouth was so negative that in the park’s debut year – when interest should’ve been at its height – only 5 million guests visited. That sounds impressive until you hear that the original Disneyland just across the plaza saw 12.3 million in the same year, meaning that of all the people who visited Disneyland, not even 40% bothered to check out the brand new park next door. Of those who did visit in 2001, only 20% reported being “satisfied” or better in exit polling.

We detailed it all in a walkthrough of the creatively-starved park for our in-depth Disaster Files: Disney’s California Adventure feature that tells the full story, but in short, California Adventure’s mistake was that it was too modern, too “hip,” too “edgy.” The very things out-of-touch executives imagined would make the park so desirable instead made it appear thoughtless and crass, and instantly dated it as a product of '90s design.

Image: Disney

Take, for example, the park’s Hollywood-themed land. It made a costly mistake: it was called the Hollywood Pictures Backlot, ostensibly themed to a façade-lined, Hollywood studio-style recreation of Hollywood (despite the real Hollywood being just an hour north). In other words, rather than transporting guests to a romantic, idealized, dreamy version of the Golden Age of Hollywood like Disney-MGM Studios’ grand Hollywood Blvd. or Sunset Blvd., California Adventure’s cheap Backlot land was intentionally modern – cardboard cutout 2-D buildings with exposed scaffolds, cheetah-print awnings, and awful, dated puns.

Like the rest of the park, it was a certifiable disaster and made few fans. Despite executives promising that California Adventure would be packed and closed to capacity every weekend, the park was practically deserted most days. Plans to put Geyser Mountain into Disneyland’s Frontierland were immediately put on hold. Suddenly, it was clear that Disneyland Park did not need the boost that an E-Ticket drop ride would bring... California Adventure did. And Disney Imagineers knew exactly which ride could make it happen.

Hollywood Tower Hotel

Image: Disney

Even if the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was a shoe-in for Disney’s California Adventure, executives ensured that this version of the ride would look a little bit different. After all, still lodged firmly in the midst of a budget-conscious regime under a now-infamously-restrictive Eisner, Disney Parks were on a tight leash, and Florida’s Tower had been among the most expensive rides Disney had ever built, allegedly running millions of dollars over budget – reportedly $150 million total.

The entire California Adventure park had cost only $650 million, so a clone of Florida’s Tower was out of the question.

Image: Disneyana by Max

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror did open at Disney’s California Adventure on May 5, 2004 – almost exactly a decade after Florida’s original.

Ready to see what California’s Tower had in store? Read on as we step into the Hollywood Tower Hotel.

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There are 18 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.

While I dislike this idea of the Guardians of the Galaxy taking over the Tower of Terror, I disagree with the argument about Disney World visitors not being able to visit California. If people from Disney World have to go out to Disneyland to experience the Indiana Jones Adventure and Cars Land, then why can't people from Disneyland come to visit Tower of Terror in Florida?

I don't at all mind each resort having its own attractions! I didn't mean to argue that at all. I was trying to pre-empt the many arguments I expected from people saying, "Who cares if California loses its ride? Florida's is better anyway." I'm sure you'd agree, that's a callous and small-minded way of putting down the generation of Disneyland guests who grew up with and adored the Tower of Terror.

The harsh and sad reality is that most Disneyland visitors (and I mean MOST) will never get to visit Disney World, which means they've taken their last ride on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

Conversely, the harsh and sad reality is that most Walt Disney World visitors (and I mean MOST) don't know a ride called Indiana Jones Adventure exists and will never see it in their lifetime. You and I know that that's a shame. But what would be worse is if Disney World HAD an Indiana Jones Adventure and had it replaced by a permanent, hasty overlay based on a flavor-of-the-week action film that foundationally uprooted the narrative of the land – and indeed, the entire park – that it was in. Imagine an Indiana Jones Adventure in Magic Kingdom's Adventureland becoming a Captain America ride. That may sound silly, but that's literally analogous to what's happened here.

SHHHHHHHHHHHH.......They'll HEAR you......

I am from Europe and visited the California-parcs in 2016. I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the Disneyland-parc. California Adventure had also some atmosphere, but it wasn't fully convincing to me (e.g. shops were still decorated too modern/standard, although lukily with a touch from the past). Particularly, I liked the Vineyard, Grizzly River Run landscaping (unfortunately not open), the bakery, Carthay Circle, Cars land landscaping... and of course the Tower of Terror. These design elements were highly important for my satisfaction and memories.
The Studios-parc in Paris is clearly too industrial (although slowly improving via investments in new 'lands'). Disney knows that reparing such design mistakesis is difficult and costly. Therefore, I don't understand how the new industrial design of Guardians of the Galaxy will bring any value to California Adventure parc. The new attraction might be good inside, but for me the parc will loose much of its atmosphere with this building design.
Disney appeared to have learned from mistakes in the past and now Disney seems to make the same mistake again... I don't understand this, particularly, as Disney management can see the overwhelming atmospheric investments of its competitor nearby...

100% agree with you on the "Guardians of the Galaxy" makeover. CA now has it's own "Journey Into YOUR Imagination," albeit one whose visual pollution can be seen throughout the park. Let's hope it's more temporary than Disney lets on.

As for Ellen's Energy Adventure: as long as they've hobbled the original theming of Future world, the space available (between EEA and the criminally underused Wonders of Life pavilion) would be sufficient to duplicate Shanghai's TRON coaster in full, rather than a truncated version rumored for Tomorrowland. Then put the "Inside Out" attraction in Imagination.

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