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Behind the Ride: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

The Experience: A terrifying, unique freefall every time

The Trick: Two elevator shafts, a special vehicle, and a brutal drop rate

Image: DisneyThe true magic of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is the ride experience. Sure, any theme park could build a basic drop tower. Honestly, most do. Imagineers know this, and it drove them to create the greatest drop tower attraction ever built. They succeeded so well that it’s widely considered the best of its kind. For that matter, you the voters at Theme Park Tourist  have ranked it as THE best dark ride of any kind.

What’s so special about Tower of Terror’s ride mechanic? The answer is in the design. Park planners knew precisely what they wanted from this ride. All they had to do was do several things that had never been done before to make it happen.

The first step was crafting a pair of elevator shafts. One would carry guests up to the ride area. The other…is more complex. It’s the place where you bounce up and down several times. On most drop tower attractions, you fall at such a high rate that gravity ceases to exist for a time.

Image: DisneyYou can even do a Penny Test to prove this. Drop a penny right as the ride starts. It will “float” in the air since you’re moving at the same rate of speed as it is.

Actually, that’s not quite true. To achieve the desired effect, Disney hired the most famous elevator company on the planet, Otis Elevator Company, to do something that they’d never done before. Elevator design involves a bit of cushioning, a sort of soothing process wherein the shaft rises at a slower rate to prevent people from freaking out.

Disney wanted the opposite. They needed the fastest possible drop down the elevator shaft. They also wanted a lightning-quick ascension, too. Otis Elevator Company built one of the most expensive elevators ever at Hollywood Studios, and nobody knows it because the elevator sits in the dark most of the time. That blind spot when you’re in the drop zone is one of the most violent elevator rides ever built!

Image: DisneyYou’re not even in a free fall during these tense moments. The elevator literally drags you up and down. It’s the polar opposite of all other drop zone attractions.

The innovation doesn’t stop there, either. You know that moment when it feels like you’ve escaped the elevator? It’s when you ride down a path, seeing Twilight Zone spooky sights on the sides. While you’re admiring the theming and bracing for the drop, Disney’s using unprecedented technology.

To transfer you from one elevator shaft to the other, Imagineers had to create an automated guided vehicle (AGV). It’s a mobile elevator cab that can lock and unlock from an elevator. It’s also capable of propulsion, which is to say that it can move forward.

Image: DisneyYour “elevator” is in truth a technical marvel. First, it carries you up an elevator shaft. Then, it breaks contact with its host and follows a series of hidden sensors down a path. It’s a guidance system that safely transports people to the elevator shaft. And its deep functionality enables Disney to play one other trick on riders.

When Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened, every ride was the same. Later, Disney added a new trick. Using computerized technology and the utility of the AGV, Imagineers realized that they could provide a different ride every time. The number of times that you bounce up and down is a simple, randomized computer calculation. No matter how many times you ride the Tower of Terror, you’ll have a different ride experience. It’s that final touch of terror that you’ll experience in the accursed tower!

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