Hollywood, 1939… the glitz and glitter of a bustling young movie town at the height of its golden age… The Hollywood Tower Hotel, a star in its own right… a rogue lightning strike… a descent into a deserted hotel on the dark side of Hollywood with a detour into The Twilight Zone… Sound familiar? Forget it all.
For years, Theme Park Tourist has been committed to doing something unique. Our Legend Library is filled with features that tell the incredible, complete stories behind fan-favorite rides from across the globe. Favorites of industry followers, these detailed dives explore astounding attractions and – just as importantly – the interwoven stories of the Imagineers and the industry that brought them to life to begin with!
Recently, our Modern Marvels series has been a headliner, capturing the must-read histories of spectacular living legends from the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man to Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. We’ve raced through the Grid aboard TRON Lightcycle Power Run, escaped the Revenge of the Mummy, sailed from “once upon a time” to Frozen Ever After, reached the peak of Expedition Everest, and so many more.
But today’s Modern Marvel may be the most amazing yet... Ranked by fans as one of the best rides Disney has ever created, this sincerely one-of-a-kind ride features all that fans crave: an original story, overwhelming detail, and a pulse-pounding thrill that’ll leave your heart in your chest. You may think you know the story, but Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror has a few surprises in store. Do you dare uncover the mysteries of the abandoned Hotel Hightower? To get the full story, we have to start a world away: Six Flags, 1982.
From Freefall to France
All the way back in 1982, Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles opened a brand new thrill ride unlike any to have come before. Designed by ride manufacturer Intamin, the first-generation drop tower (fittingly called Freefall) might look barbaric by today’s standards, and it was awfully rudimentary... A cabin of four people lifted up through the innards of a metal lattice tower, pushed out to the tower’s edge, and – with a clunk – released to zoom down the tower’s face, swinging out along a curved track at the bottom with riders ending up flat on their backs. Truly, the entire process must be seen to be believed.
Sure, the few, scattered, remaining installations of this Intamin technology across the globe are rumbling, clattering, retro-rides that are more thrilling for the apparent risk than for the freefall itself.
But back in the early ‘80s, the Freefall technology swept amusement parks across the globe, as thrillseekers queued for hours to experience the 20-second ride. And believe it or not, it was high up on Disney Imagineers’ wish list.
In fact, Imagineers began working on concepts to include the technology in the next two looming projects: new theme parks in France and Florida.
In France, for example, they considered a freefall drop tower as a headliner to fit inside the park’s new Discoveryland – a literary, European, retro-future replacement for Tomorrowland, trading the Space Age for the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Leonardo da Vinci, and other great European visionaries and artists. Discoveryland wouldn’t have a typical Space Mountain, of course.
In its place would stand a massive Discovery Mountain – a land-within-the-land complex containing multiple rides and attractions. Sure, there would be a coaster through the stars, but it would be themed to Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon; a walkthrough attraction of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; a fine dining Astronomer’s Club under the mountain’s perpetual stars.
But standing above the bubbling lagoon inside the peak would be the iron-tinted freefall structure, recast as an industrial, steampunk drilling rig that would lift guests out of the mountain entirely before sending them screaming earthward, racing through a volcanic vent and splashing out through a waterfall – ostensibly themed to Journey to the Center of the Earth.
As the end of the ‘80s neared and construction began in earnest on Disneyland Paris, the massive Discovery Mountain complex was shelved, becoming just one of our Possibilityland: Never-Built Disney "Mountains". Executives and Imagineers did fully intend for it to be built, though. Land was set aside, with the idea being that Discovery Mountain would be a “Phase II” project to revive interest in the resort a few years after its opening, when the park’s newness had waned. (Of course, it never got built… Instead, Disneyland Paris ended up “downgrading” to a typically-sized Space Mountain, though that phenomenal Lost Legend: Space Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune brilliantly retained the fantasy, literary Jules Verne story.)
Luckily, Disneyland Paris wasn’t the only potential home for a Disney drop ride…
New park, new possibilities
The 1989 opening of the Disney-MGM Studios Park was a pivot point at the newly minted Walt Disney Company and in the résumé of cinematic new CEO Michael Eisner. His dedication at the park’s opening called on Walt Disney World’s third park to be “dedicated to Hollywood—not a place on a map, but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine, a place where illusion and reality are fused by technological magic.”
Welcoming guests to “a Hollywood that never was – and always will be,” the park was unlike anything Walt Disney World had hosted before. First, consider its Magic-Kingdom-style opening act – Hollywood Blvd. – that invites guests into a romanticized, idealized Golden Age of Tinseltown with a park icon as palatial and regal as Cinderella Castle looming over it: the Chinese Theater housing the operatic, cinematic, grand, EPCOT Center style dark ride and Lost Legend: The Great Movie Ride.
Of course, like the real Hollywood, this dreamy, impossible land of glitz and glamour is merely a façade as evidenced by the rest of the park – a world of soundstages, shuffled time periods, plywood sets, industrial backlots, and the other more subtle “magic” that brings filmmaking to life… all visible from aboard the subject of a certified Disaster File: The Backstage Studio Tour.
With only those two rides at the park’s opening, the Disney-MGM Studios had succeeded in beating out the opening of rival Universal Studios’ own Florida-based movie/studio park. But arriving guests noted that, while they liked the Disney-MGM Studios, it was woefully short on things to actually do. Sure, a fast-tracked copy of Disneyland’s Lost Legend: STAR TOURS was already in production, but the miniscule park would still have about as much pedestrial-friendly square footage as Tomorrowland alone.
Disney-MGM Studios needed a boost badly… and ideally, any boost it received would also align with Eisner’s decree that Disney Parks should be cool, hip, thrilling places where every member of the family – even teenagers – found something worth doing.
From The Twilight Zone to Tokyo, our path toward this Modern Marvel continues on the next page…