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

The Hollywood Tower Hotel in Florida is a landmark, set on a hill towering 199 feet above Sunset Blvd. with its sunset tiled roofs, twisted columns, and ornate Gothic accents. While the old Hollywood Tower Hotel in California shares its name, the Anaheim hotel's style is entirely unique. That's on purpose. 

For one thing, the dark, foreboding Gothic style is no more, replaced with a warm architectural style called Pueblo Deco, skillfully blending southwest motifs and Art Deco accents with Egyptian shapes and metalwork. While less overtly “horrifying,” the beautiful Southern Californian hotel looks sincerely grand, its towers topped with gorgeous teal domes faded by decades of weathering.

Image: Disney

For those lucky enough to have seen both Florida and California’s Towers up close, they’re likely to have thought that California’s is much less intimidating; even measurably shorter. There are two primary reasons. The first is that California’s Tower is shorter – only 180 feet compared to Florida’s 199 (and Disney World's Tower is precariously perched on a distant hilltop to boot, adding to its looming presence.) 

The second is a matter of perspective. The configuration of Florida’s Tower structurally has most of the ride occur in the massive showbuilding behind the main “guest” tower, with the AGVs moving through the showbuilding horizontally and into the main drop shaft in the “guest” tower out front only for the big finale. That makes Florida’s Tower sincerely loom over Sunset Blvd. In contrast, the new ride system developed for California omits the horizontal scene, meaning that the show building has to be parked right up front ahead of the “guest” tower, making the highest wing of the hotel recede into the distance and appear shorter thanks to the massive showbuilding parked up front.

Image: Disney

And without the ample space and lofty position Florida’s enjoys, it’s true that California’s Tower of Terror also lacks the atmospheric entry and sprawling, misty gardens. Instead, the building is marked by a cracked, art deco fountain with a stone plaque engraved: "THE HOLLYWOOD TOWER HOTEL."

But stand at the fountain long enough and you'll see a light glimmer within. As the lights sparkle within the rock, the Hotel's sign will be overcome with glowing script: "The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror." A wrought iron gate before an Art Deco portico serves as the entrance to the hotel’s lobby right from the street, with a small side garden of crumbling statues as its extended queue.

The Lobby & Library

Image: Disney

But passing beneath the grand glass windows into the hotel itself, a familiar scene comes into view. The grand, towering lobby of the Hollywood Tower Hotel may be one of the most well crafted queue rooms in any Disney attraction. The lobby is covered in cobwebs as the memories of former guests are scattered about, abandoned.

This is storytelling at its finest – whatever happened to empty out the Hollywood Tower Hotel, it must’ve happened quickly as guests left games of backgammon half-played, children left dolls unattended, room keys on lounge chairs…

A felt changeable sign notes the floors in the building that house the pool, lounge, and the Tip Top Club. However, the elevators on either side are out of order. Their ornate wooden doors are buckled outward, splintered – a symptom of an elevator trapping a cushion of air underneath as it freefalls, exploding out the door below…

As the misty remnants of old jazz standards play through crackling sound systems, echoing from distant reaches, a hotel usher leads you from this once-grand lobby into the hotel’s library.

Image: Disney

The dusty bookshelves are filled to the brim with yellowed tomes, knick-knacks, and oddities, with a dusty old television packed away into the shelves. As guests file in and stand on the parquet floors, a storm rumbles as lightning crackles in the distance.

As the doors to the library close, the room rumbles as a sudden bolt of blinding light strikes nearby, the television springing to life. It’s the disconcerting introduction to The Twilight Zone. But this episode is unlike any other. As the intro closes, the black and white television set focuses on a hotel – this very hotel – on a dark and stormy night. Rod Serling’s voice recounts:

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…

You know the story. Halloween night, 1939, a rogue bolt of lightning strikes a guest wing of the elegant Hollywood Tower Hotel. More than a usual act of god, this lightning strike makes three guest towers of the hotel flicker out of existence, disappearing along with an elevator carrying five guests who are never seen again.

Image: Disney

As the story replays on the old black and white television set in the hotel’s dim, cobweb-infested library, the lightning on screen begins to sync to the lightning flashing in the window…

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 and 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.

The Elevator

Image: Disney

A bookcase slides out of the way to reveal the entrance into the hotel’s boiler room. The massive two-story maintenance zone appears oddly alive for a long-shuttered hotel as boilers and ducts rattle and rumble with energy, pulsating with flames. Tensions rise as guests begin to realize there's no turning back now...

Naturally, you’re guided to a cargo elevator loading dock to anxiously watch as the elevator dial above the rusted metal doors signals the ascent of the group before you. The dainty arrow advances on the dial… 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12… And then, it pushes past twelve… And sits. As the boiler room’s lights flicker and ghostly sounds echo over the radio, you watch. Finally, the arrow budges, reversing and returning to B. It’s your turn.

Image: Disney

Strapped onboard, you can look through the metal cage that surrounds this industrial elevator and take in the otherworldly rattles and flickers of air that seem to disguise distant screams – perfectly timed.

Then, the bellhop steps back from the elevator doors. “Enjoy your stay.”

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Will the elevator rise or fall first?

Neither.

As soon as the doors ding to signal their closure, a most unusual maneuver overcomes you: the elevator pushes off backwards, the boiler room doors growing farther away. “You are the passengers on a most uncommon elevator…” a flash of lightning cracks as the concrete walls of the basement disappear, leaving only the boiler room doors floating in the distance with a hypnotic swirl twisting on them. “….about to take the strangest journey of your lives.” In the pitch-black darkness, you can feel and hear a massive set of doors close off your elevator from the basement. “Your destination? Unknown. But this much is clear: a reservation has been made in your name…” the agile elevator sinks a few inches, then begins to rocket skyward as the eerie picks of a violin plays “…for an extended stay.

Image: Disney

When the massive, ornate doors slide out of the way, they reveal a gorgeous landing in one of the hotel’s hallways with a carved stone frame around a massive mirror, dead plants on either side. “Wave goodbye to the real world.” With a flash of lightning through a corner window, a bolt of lightning strikes the mirror and extinguishes the warmth from the floor’s lamps. An otherworldly wind billows the dusty curtains as the view in the mirror changes. Every single passenger is now a blue force, overtaken by the bolts of lightning. The carriage rattles as the lightning dissipates and the floor falls silent. Somehow, the reflection shows an empty elevator…

The doors close one again as the elevator swiftly rises.

It dings happily as the doors open to a long corridor, lined with lamps and hotel rooms.

What happened here to dim the lights of Hollywood’s brightest showplace is about to unfold once again…” Silently, something begins to appear halfway down the hallway. Abstract shadows and lights materialize, expanding and contorting, taking on an electrical interference like an untuned television. Finally, the shapes come into focus: the five people who disappeared on the elevator decades ago.

“It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man in snoring…” the girl’s disembodied voice chants. The energy that created the cast collects and spreads to the walls, overloading the lamps and dimming the hallway to pitch black darkness. “One stormy night, long ago, five people stepped through the door of elevator and into a nightmare…” In the infinite blackness, stars sparkle to life around the elevator cage as it floats. The only other thing in existence is another set of elevator doors left where the hallway ended. It opens to reveal the doomed passengers inside. Then, the elevator floats away in the darkness. “… that door is opening once again. But this time, it’s opening for you…” The phantom elevator opposite freefalls out of view.

And so do you.

At once, the elevator releases, yanked down toward the basement. The Tower's first trick: this is more than a freefall. The elevator doesn't just drop, it's pushed down by the twelve foot tall motors hidden in the hotel's penthouse, with riders experiencing extreme weightlessness as a result. An auxiliary power surges as the cage’s overhead light flickers on, powering the elevator up through the darkness, plastering riders to their seats.

A resounding ding signal's the elevators arrival at a floor. Only, as the doors part, they reveal something unexpected. Where once, many decades ago, this elevator would've opened into a luxurious guest wing, it now opens into a chasm – a gaping, scortched hole in the side of the building where the guest towers simply disappeared all those years ago. You won't find another view of the Disneyland Resort like this one – from 13 stories up.

It pauses only for a second until the sound of a snapping cable makes it fall again. Up and down, back and forth, the elevator races through the phantom elevator shaft, the overhead light flickering and hotel rooms opening and closing in the darkness. Finally, the elevator is drawn to the height of the tower, looking out over the entire resort.

After a moment of peace, a final plunge pulls the elevator down all thirteen stories and back to the boiler room, the sound of falling cymbal all that’s left. As the doors from the shaft slide open, you can see the boiler room doors once more, floating in darkness. The elevator car glides forward, reconnecting with the doors as the cement walls reappear. “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,” Rod warns, “or you just may find yourself a permanent resident… of the Twilight Zone.

Ride System

In Florida, there are four separate show shafts (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta) that share two drop shafts (Echo and Foxtrot). Elevators in show shafts A and B share a “5th dimension scene” to connect with drop shaft E, while elevators in show shafts C and D use drop shaft F. 

How Florida's Tower of Terror works. Trace an elevator from the Boiler Room to the exit. Image: Martin Smith. Used with permission.

One problem with this system is, as you might imagine, its expense. This elaborate ride system relies on the trackess AGV ride vehicles to navigate that horizontal scene.

It's also tempermental... if one of the drop shafts or a famed “5th dimension scene” that connects it to the show shafts experiences a technical difficulty, the ride’s capacity is automatically halved.

The system in California was different, and decidely less complex.

There, the ride has three shafts, period. The “show” and the “drop” happen in the shame shaft, A, B, or C. But each shaft has two loading zones – one on the bottom level, and one a level above. So once an elevator is loaded, (let’s say, shaft C, upper level), it’s pushed backward from the loading zone and into the shaft. When the ride completes, the elevator returns to the upper level loading zone and the vehicle is pushed back out of the shaft and up to the doors for guests to exit. Then, the elevator that’s been loading for shaft C directly below is pushed back into the shaft and begins its ride, on and on, as the two loading levels switch back and forth sharing the shaft. The system is of a higher capacity than Florida’s while also ensuring that if a shaft experiences a technical difficulty; the ride’s throughput is cut only by a third.

Economically, this system is a win-win. It’s also got a higher capacity and is a smarter solution in terms of keeping the ride running. In exchange, though, the ride loses the AGV vehicles capable of driving themselves horizontally and rotating, which in turn eliminates the famous “5th dimension” scene pioneered in Florida and forces the ride’s showbuilding to be parked in front of the tower, reducing its intimidation factor.

So, what makes this headlining E-Ticket thrill ride a Lost Legend? You won’t believe the role it played in renewing a lost park and what’s set to replace it.

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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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