Home » Forget the Twilight Zone. Tokyo DisneySea’s TOWER OF TERROR is Unlike Any Other. Here’s Its Story.

Forget the Twilight Zone. Tokyo DisneySea’s TOWER OF TERROR is Unlike Any Other. Here’s Its Story.

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.

Image: Disney

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

Image: Great Adventure History

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.

Image: Six Flags Entertainment

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.

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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.”

Image: Disney

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…

Technological Terror

Imagineers knew that they wanted to expand the Disney-MGM Studios with more ride capacity, more thrills, a certifiable headliner, and at least one new genre: horror. Of course, Disney isn’t quite synonymous with horror, which is why it became difficult to decide just how horrific a horror ride should be. On one end of the scale, designers allegedly looked into acquiring the hit slasher films of the era (like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street) to create a gory, grotesque, terrifying attraction.

Image: Disney

On the other, Disney reached out to famed filmmaker Mel Brooks, who was of particular interest because of his 1974 film Young Frankenstein, which practically invented the “horror-comedy” genre. Brooks worked with designers on early plans for a dark ride called “Hotel Mel,” which would’ve sent guests through an abandoned Hollywood hotel being used as a hot set for a haphazard horror film.

More funny than frightening, Hotel Mel never made it off the drawing board because of its unclear tone, and because it didn’t fulfill Eisner’s need for more thrills.

Image: Disney

But the idea of a long-abandoned, once-glamorous hotel looming over “the dark side of Hollywood? Disney’s designers doubled down on the concept, merging it with the still-popular first-generation freefall tower, originally envisioning that they’d simply build a derelict hotel around the ride’s distinctive L-shape.

Image: Disney

While this version of the ride would’ve been simple by necessity and contain only the most basic of special effects, it would’ve become the thrill ride that the Disney-MGM Studios needed.

Given just a little more innovation, however, the park’s cinematic drop tower took on its truest form. We can feel lucky that, when The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened at Disney-MGM Studios in 1994, it didn’t look or feel anything like the Intamin first-generation freefall ride. Instead, Disney’s patented AGV (Autonomous Guided Vehicle) system and engineering work from Otis (whose day job is to make sure elevators don’t fall) created something entirely new… and like all great Disney E-Tickets, it’s rooted in legend.

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Image: lostmalfoy, Flickr

“Hollywood, 1939.” It’s the famed setting of the tale of the luxurious Hollywood Tower Hotel – “beacon for the show business elite,” and a veritable fortress for the royalty of Tinseltown. The massive 200-foot-tall hotel is indeed astounding – a Neo-Mediterranean tower with Spanish Revival influences; twisted columns, pointed minarets, sunset-tiled roofs, and a lofted, script neon sign: THE HOLLYWOOD TOWER HOTEL.

There’s just one looming problem… growing closer and closer, you’ll find that this palatial fortress is scarred. A massive, blackened burn is charred across its face, with decaying plaster making it appear that the front of the hotel has fallen away… and yet, there’s no debris; no rubble; just a wing of the hotel, gone as if lifted away. Its once-glamorous gardens are misty and overgrown; its fountains dry and cracked; its golden signs tarnished… even still, distant, echoing jazz standards from the 1930s reverberate across the barren, derelict property…

Image: Disney

Brilliantly, Disney acquired CBS’s The Twilight Zone, the creepy anthology series that had run on CBS from 1959 – 1964 featuring the acclaimed hosting and writing of Rod Serling. Sometimes sci-fi, sometimes fantasy, sometimes horror; set in the past, present, or future; the eerie, unsettling, series followed the unlikely events that unfolded to ordinary people who had unknowingly “crossed over into a land whose boundaries were that of imagination” – The Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone is the perfect canvas for a “horror” attraction that balances perfectly on Disney’s strengths. And inside the once-glamorous hotel, that story unfolds: Halloween night, 1939; a rogue lightning strike that caused the hotel’s foremost guest wing to simply flicker out of existence; a “night very much like the one we have just witnessed”; a maintenance service elevator, waiting for you…

Image: Disney

Escorted through the hotel’s grand lobby, its mysterious library, and into the imposing boiler rooms – inexplicably alive despite the hotel’s abandonment – guests board freight elevators to rise up through the haunted hotel and the electrical echoes of that fateful Halloween night.

Along the way to the fifth dimension, guests find themselves transported back to the Hotel’s heyday, encountering the spirits of those lost inside; watch as the elevator is absorbed into the Twilight Zone, hovering in endless space; and  – most memorably – have all expectations crushed when the elevator advances out of its shaft, driving horizontally down a corridor as the walls melt away to reveal the Fifth Dimension itself.

Image: Disney

Equal parts dark ride and thrill ride, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror redefined Walt Disney World and stands as an unequaled pinnacle of Disney Imagineering… And boy, did other Disney resorts around the globe want that technology…


From the moment The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened, Imagineers began working on concepts that would bring the technology to Disneyland… In particular, ideas focused around a ride they called Geyser Mountain, that would place the explosive ride technology in Frontierland, allowing guests to tour subterranean crystal grottos and hot springs before being blasted skyward by the “Old Unfaithful” geyser.

Image: Fan concept via Andreas Seltenheim, via Disney & More

You can learn more about Geyser Mountain in our Possibilityland: Never-Built Disney “Mountains” feature, as well, because in the late ‘90s designers were hard at work on a brand-new, unprecedented second theme park set to join Disneyland! This new “California Adventure Park” was going to shatter expectations by doing away with the dated, idealized, overly-optimistic landscapes of Disneyland in favor of a hip, edgy, food-and-wine themed park packed with “MTV attitude.” Since Disney’s California Adventure would obviously make the original Disneyland feel like a dusty relic of the 1950s, Geyser Mountain would be just the thing to pry guests away from California Adventure to give Disneyland another chance, helping balance the crowds that would descend on the new park.

Of course, when the renamed Disneyland Resort’s second gate opened in 2001, it was bad enough to earn its own in-depth Disaster File: Disney’s California Adventure. It turned out it wasn’t Disneyland that needed the boost, but California Adventure.

Image: Disney

So a version of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was fast-tracked for the park’s Hollywood Pictures Backlot, though – in true end-of-Eisner-era fashion – the ride would need seriously reengineered to save money. In this case, that meant the elimination of the trackless, self-driving AGVs, which in turn eliminated the horizontal “Fifth Dimension” scene. That, then, required the ride to be “flipped” with the showbuilding positioned out front of the drop shafts with a new, more efficient and less expensive ride system that also made the physical structure shorter, wider, and less imposing.

Image: Disney

Dropped into the miniscule park, the ride lost its looming position at the end of a custom-built street while also eliminating the expansive campus of overgrown hotel grounds. To fit its new structure, California Adventure’s version of the ride was re-skinned in a unique, geometric “pueblo-deco” architectural style, fusing warm adobe hues with oxidized teal domes, patterned metal work, arrowheads, flat roofs, sunbursts, and art deco elements. We traced the unbelievable story of this Hollywood Tower Hotel and its unthinkable closure in its own in-depth feature, Lost Legends: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror – a must-read for Disney Parks fans.

Image: David Jafra, Flickr (license)

There was still hope for a Geyser Mountain to be added to Disneyland Paris’ Frontierland, but when Paris’s second park was even worse off than California Adventure, it, too, got the cheaper and more efficient version of the ride, which to this day is a headliner at another Disaster File: Walt Disney Studios Park.


Disney’s California Adventure had opened in February 2001.

Image: Disney

Just seven months later, Tokyo Disneyland expanded into a multi-day, multi-park resort, too, with the opening of a second gate: Tokyo DisneySea. At a cost reportedly topping $4 billion, DisneySea cost at least six times as much as California Adventure. And to look at both parks, it would be impossible to imagine that they were designed or financed by the same company.

But that’s because they weren’t.

Tokyo Disney Resort is neither owned nor operated by the Walt Disney Company or a subsidiary and never has been. Rather, the Tokyo-based Oriental Land Company (OLC) owns and operates the property somewhat like a franchisee, paying Disney enormous royalties to use characters, trademarks, and licenses, sharing attendance, food and beverage, and merchandise revenue, and in return earning access to Disney’s library and its Imagineers.

Since OLC operates independently, it sets its own budgets for projects, which is why – when rides are cloned from American parks to the Japanese parks – Tokyo Disney almost always ends up with the grander, more built-out, Blue Sky version, no expense spared. It’s what makes Tokyo Disney Resort a Mecca for Disney Parks fans – a must-visit, bucket list destination packed with one-of-a-kind or at least best-of-its-kind rides and attractions, intermingling perfectly with welcoming, respectful, proud Japanese culture and crowds.

Image: Disney

So you can bet that OLC was determined to bring a Tower of Terror to Tokyo. There’s just one problem… The Twilight Zone is relatively unknown in Japanese culture, and certainly not a brand that would draw visitors. Sure, Disney could spend big bucks marketing CBS’s The Twilight Zone to build brand recognition… But in true Tokyo Disney style, creativity is key.

That’s why we now leave Halloween 1939, the Hollywood Tower Hotel, and The Twilight Zone behind. Are you brave enough to face the horrors that await inside the Hotel Hightower? On the next page, we’ll step into the largest cross-continental story Disney has ever told and see how this one-of-a-kind Tower of Terror is one of the best themed rides on the planet. Read on…

Tokyo DisneySea

There is perhaps no theme park on Earth as grand as Tokyo DisneySea. Dedicated to the romance, adventure, and mystery of our water planet, the park is divided into six ports, each offering a connection to the water and the legends, myths, stories, and songs it inspires.

Some of these ports have become pinnacles of Disney Imagineering’s portfolio, like the park’s iconic central port, Mysterious Island themed to the secret Vulcania lair of Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo. Mysterious Island is comprised of the geothermal vents and the bubbling, primordial lagoons of Mount Prometheus, a 200-foot tall rumbling, steaming, flame-belching volcano.

Image: Disney

Mysterious Island is comprised of the suspended oxidized catwalks that ring around the volcano’s collapsed caldera, with sudden bursts of steam and molten geysers acting as larger-than-life wonders of the land. Its two unforgettable headliners: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the undisputed king of Modern Marvels: Journey to the Center of the Earth, each based on Jules Verne’s 19th century adventure novels.

Image: Disney

There’s also Lost River Delta – a vast South American adventure-land, with a bubbling river separating the modern encampments of explorers from the vast, misty jungles with criss-crossing dirt paths connecting the ancient temples that house the park’s Indiana Jones Adventure and its off-roading quest toward the legendary Fountain of Youth.

Image: Disney

Or the port that’s perhaps one of the most sensational Disney’s ever designed: Arabian Coast. It’s a photo-realistic world passed through a fantasy lens, housing the gorgeous double-decker Arabian Carousel, the mysterious Magic Lamp Theater, a street bazaar of shops, restaurants, and games as authentic and easy to get lost in as the Wizarding World, and the phenomenal can’t-miss original dark ride, Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage.

On and on, each port of DisneySea could itself support a day of exploration – lived-in, built-out worlds of adventure. DisneySea is that unique kind of park that you could spend a whole day in, ride nothing, and still leave feeling satisfied. With the grandeur of World Showcase, the beauty and “magic” of Disneyland Paris, the scale and scope of Animal Kingdom, and a legendary atmosphere sincerely its own, DisneySea is commonly agreed upon as the best theme park on Earth.

That being said, if you’re determined to ride something memorable, there’s another port you won’t want to miss.

American Waterfront

Image: Disney

American Waterfront is perhaps one of the most spectacularly-sized ports in all of DisneySea. A loving recreation of early 20th-century America’s northeastern seaboard, the port is divided into two regions: Cape Cod (a charming, relaxing, quaint seaside village) and the bustling new metropolis of New York Harbor, both literally appearing to be built on Tokyo Bay’s endless watery horizon.

Image: Disney

Our exploration today takes us to New York Harbor – a sprawling young city at the end of the Industrial Age. It’s a world of brick and iron, with the oxidized elevated rails of the DisneySea Electric Railway, delis, elaborate department stores, street vendors, and more, all recalling the wonders of this growing port city. Indeed, by stepping through these bustling electric streets, we’re transported back to the 1920s and the heyday of the Big Apple.

It’s nearby in the New York Harbor area that you’ll find Toyville Trolley Park, presenting Toy Story Midway Mania in by far its most elaborate incarnation: an East Coast seaside boardwalk reminiscent of Brooklyn’s Coney Island, alight in the unfathomable wonder of the Electric Age. Fittingly, the area looks like the glistening end of the Toyville Trolley Company’s criss-crossing pathways through te city.

Heading further through the streets of New York, you’ll pass through Waterfront Park en route to the harbor proper, home to the stunning S.S. Columbia, a full-scale steam-powered ocean liner open for exploration. Guests can walk the entire ship’s deck and even down into its innards, containing the S.S. Columbia Dining Room restaurant and the internationally sought-after Teddy Roosevelt Lounge.

Image: Disney

Returning to that “better in Tokyo” idea, the S.S. Columbia also houses Turtle Talk with Crush in its lowest underwater deck, dressed as an underwater viewing chamber on the elaborate ship.

American Waterfront and its New York Harbor could be the subject of its own multi-day exploration, but the entire port is really built around one spectacular structure… Though even here in the 1920s, the glamor of the Hotel Hightower is long since faded…

The Hotel Hightower

Image: PeterPanFan, Flickr (license)

Rising from the cityscape of Park Avenue is a true beacon of the wealth and power of the Empire State: the Hotel Hightower is quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. Built decades before the Hollywood Tower Hotel would grace California’s Tinseltown, the Hotel Hightower is another beast entirely…

It lends itself to the Moorish Revival architectural style that spread across the Western world as colonial British settlements in the Middle East made minarets, domes, multifoil arches, and other Asian influences. Still, there are tastes of New York’s brownstones thrown in, plus elegant iron-lined windows and stained glass, robust patterns to highlight different sections of the building, and red brick chimneys, and glorious copper roofs with a matte seafoam patina overtaking them.

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Peter Lee, Flickr (license)

Put another way, there’s nothing understated about the Hotel Hightower. And that’s just how its builder wanted it. It’s an icon of power looming over the unwashed masses below, complete with an ornate stone balcony high atop the tower – the presiding penthouse of its owner.

Speaking of whom, the whispers abound about Harrison Hightower III. They say that Hightower was a card-carrying member of a secret internaitonal organization called the Society of Explorers and Adventurers. Though, more appropriately for Mr. Hightower, a Society of Exploiters and Abusers. After all, it’s said Hightower ventured across the globe collecting innumerable artifacts – and enough curses and bad karma for each. Something happened here on New Years Eve 1899 – more than twenty years ago – and the once-grand hotel has been shuttered ever since…

In fact, as the Roaring Twenties begin and the refuse of the past is swept away, the Hotel Hightower is slated for demolition.

Image: Jack Spence, AllEars.net

The good news for us is that a local organization – the New York Preservation Society – has deemed the Hotel Hightower a local landmark and are fighting to save it from the wrecking ball. But to rescue and restore the gargantuan hotel, they need to fundraise.

That’s where you and I come in, because the New York Preservation Society has decided to pull back the doors of the once-headlining hotel to run tours of the supposedly “cursed” relics Harrison stored away inside. Of course, all press is good press, so to lure visitors into their tours of the hotel, they’ve come up with a catchy name to capitalize on the urban legend style mystery around Hightower and his artifacts, calling offering tours of “The Tower of Terror.”

Image: Dejiki

Collect your FastPass ticket for the tour (from one of Disney’s most highly-decorated FastPass distribution kiosks at any of its parks) and prepare.

The marketing must’ve worked, because we now stand before the Hotel Hightower eager to step inside and explore its mysteries. What did happen to Harrison Hightower all those years ago? Where are his treasures and relics? Perhaps our guide through the “Tower of Terror” can shed some light on this striking story.

Image: Dejiki

On the next page, our tour of the Hotel Hightower begins… Read on…

“Tower of Terror”

Image: Dejiki

Naturally, our tour begins in the urban gardens outside of the hotel’s lobby. Behind the antique gates closed and locked many years ago, the relics of Hightower’s private collection are already astounding… Ancient statues, relics, and carvings dot the overgrown gardens. We even pass by a workstation of a painting, left unfinished on the canvas, of a young woman posing with the treasures.

Image: Dejiki

As the velvet ropes double back through the hotel’s once-grand entrance and past priceless artifacts gathered by Hightower in his global exploits, you might  – for just a moment – believe his thievery was worthwhile… 

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney

But there’s just something unlikeable about a man who decorates the lobby of his hotel with frescoes of him stealing ancient wonders from cultures around the world. Have we mentioned yet that Harrison wasn’t exactly subtle? Indeed, portraits, paintings, and murals splashed over grand arches reveal the depth of Hightower’s deceit… and that the treasures on view aren’t truly ours to see.

In mural after mural, Hightower makes off with wonders of the South Pacific, the Old West, the Orient, and Africa, always with the locals in hot pursuit as he sails away triumphantly with the artifacts that define their culture. What’s worse – it must’ve been Hightower himself who commissioned these portraits recalling the proud moments of his life.

But he’s never looked so smug as he does in the final mural adoring the lobby’s grand back wall…

Image: Disney

In it, Harrison Hightower III surveys New York Harbor in the shadow of his proudest possession yet – this very hotel – and the stolen artifacts being unloaded from his freighter for installation here.

Of course, it’s a telling dichotomy – a beginning and an ending, if you will – that this proud portrait of Hightower and his priceless wonders is positioned directly above his real legacy…

Image: Dejiki

As if exploded outward from pressure, the once-ornate brass doors of an elevator open into a cinderblock wall, with flickering sparks illuminating the grimy, dusty darkness of an open shaft… It’s an especially odd site in this otherwise royal palace of precious treasures… and perhaps a fitting start for our proper tour through the history of the Hotel Hightower.

Gathered into a parlor room next to the lobby, we’re introduced to our personal guide through the hotel: a member of the New York Preservation Society who happily catches us up on some of the “urban legends” that have spread through town: yes, the Hotel Hightower – merely a vacant, decaying memory for the last twenty years – was once the must-visit headquarters of international explorer and somehow-millionaire Harrison Hightower III, and a favorite palce to store the treasures he “acquired” in his overseas travels.

One particularly spectacular find is his last – Shiriki Utundu, a mysterious wooden idol he “discovered” while strolling about in the darkest uncharted jungles of Africa. This unusual idol plays a key role in the puzzle of Hightower’s disappearance, and as luck would have it, the real Shiriki Utundu is our next stop. Even two decades after Hightower’s disappearance, he’s still proudly positioned on a pedestal alongside the millionaire’s desk.

As such, the tour moves into Hightower’s private study – a curious, dark room centered around an ornate oak desk beneath a stained glass window depicting Hightower standing before his Hotel. Shiriki is here, perched high on a column and standing atop a bone-supported pedestal.

Though he’s dusty and only a few feet tall, there’s something unusual about the statue with its razor-sharp teeth anchored to a carved frown; the skull embem hatched into his chest; his dark, closed eyes.

Image: Dejiki

A large brass phonograph sits ahead. It contains an important piece of the puzzle – the final moments before Hightower’s disappearance, as captured in an press conference he gave on that fateful night – New Year’s Eve 1899. As the Tour Guide winds the phonograph, the creaky, crackling voice of Harrison Hightower comes from within. His interviewers ask about Shiriki Utundu and – specifically – whether or not he fears the “curse” said to follow the artifact.

“A cursed idol?” he bellows with laughter. “You idiot!” With that, he puts his cigar out on Shiriki Utundu’s head.

At once, the lightbulbs in the study fizzle out and an eerie green low focuses into an electrical energy, zapping the stained glass window overhead, its color disappearing. Hightower’s voice resumes, but this time, it’s echoing from all around us, weak and lost. “I was wrong.” The shards of the stained glass window come alive, rearranging to show Hightower – with the idol in hand – boarding the hotel elevator just before midnight. It speeds up through the hotel but upon reaching the penthouse, a great green flash glows from the hotel’s highest floor. “His eyes!” the millionaire screams… and at once, the elevator plummets down the stained glass window, shattering it.

With that, an otherworldly green glow collects around the idol standing on the platform before us. It concentrates onto the skull on his armor, turning into a fizzling electricity. Shiriki Utundu is suddenly saturated with color as it breathes in, the electricity focusing into two piercing green eyes staring straight ahead. In one of the most truly chill-inducing moments ever devised by Disney, the idols eyes turn downward, focusing on the crowd, then scan across it, viewing each of us. 

Then, its razor teeth curl into a sinister smile as it chuckles quietly over distorted music. Then, it begins cackling darkly. Shimmering, sparkling points of light appear across its body and the wall beyond, as the idol turns transparent except for those glowing eyes and twisted smile… As it laughs, unhinged, its last vestiges disappear. When the lights return a fraction of a second later… it’s gone. 

We listed this spectacular, must-see encounter among our list of “How’d They Do That?” Special Effects, but suffice it to say Shiriki Utundu is not gone… he’s simply moved further into the Hotel Hightower, where he’ll wait for us…

In any case, a new passageway opens into the innards of the hotel, and the secret Vaults where Hightower’s most precious treasures are stored… 

Image: Cory Doctorow, Flickr (license)

It’s a massive tomb of relics; gigantic monuments suspended from the ceiling, with us touring along the collections set into alcoves and secret corners of this vast treasure trove. Eventually, we can climb the stairs up to the second level. Our Tour Group is split and positioned in smaller rooms with themed collections. For example, we might find ourselves surrounded in suits of armor, shields, chalices, and Medieval paintings for a personalized, small-group experience. But rest assured, there’s more to this collection than meets the eye.

A massive painting slides aside to reveal a secret hallway with an elevator within… Surely, we’ve stumbled upon something spectacular. And our Tour Guide is here, behind the painting, pleased to have surprised us and ready to lead us to the big finale: our view of Hightower’s penthouse.

Strapped in, all seems ready to go. But the moment the doors close, something unusual happens…

The elevator doesn’t go up. It doesn’t go down, either. Instead, it pulls backwards, horizontally moving away from the elevator doors. The lights onboard and in our basement chamber flicker out, leaving us with nothing but darkness and the eyes of Shiriki Utundu receding farther away. “Why didn’t you heed my warning?” Hightower’s voice growls. “I was foolish. I destroyed myself in pursuit of my treasures. Now, I’ll repeat this night forever. It is my destiny…”

Shiriki’s high-pitched laughter echoes in the dark, as a sudden push from beneath begins to propel the elevator upward through the darkened levels of the hotel. It’s unusually quick and breathtaking as the elevator suddenly floats to a halt. With a ding, the doors open, revealing Hightower’s penthouse.

It’s beautiful. We see Shiriki Utundu down the hall, his back to us as a ghostly visage of Hightower and his fateful words flicker. “A cursed idol? Idoitic!” But with a second glance, an ethereal energy begins to collect around it. As Hightower is overcome with green light, he pulls away as if remembering… “The eyes!” It’s too late. The energy gathered around Shiriki blasts him. He’s thrown backward through the penthouse, landing in an elevator opposite our own, which quickly plunges.

Now, it’s just the idol and us.

Its powers begin to warp the space around us as the Penthouse disappears entirely, replaced by endless, expansive, infinity. Only distant points of light around us give us any sense of place as the elevator floats helplessly in the darkness. Then, Shikiri turns coldly toward us, his green eyes shimmering as he laughs. This chilling, goosebump-inducing moment is just the beginning. The elevator doors slide closed, cutting us off from his tricks. Then, we’re moving again.

Image: Disney

The doors open this time onto a grand, enormous mirror. “Say your goodbyes…” Hightower’s voice offers weakly. It’s subtle, but an unusual chill overcomes the elevator. Green light seeps in through windows and cracks in the walls, even contaminating the elevator’s lamps. Our own reflection begins to pulse and undulate with green energy until it disappates, revealing an empty elevator. But the energy then coalesces into the idol, hovering just before the mirror. As his mouth clatters with laughter, he races toward the elevator as a green flash. The doors try to close in time to seal him away, but it’s too late. The elevator plummets.

Then, it flies upward again, crashing through the hotel before arching and being pushed back down the elevator shaft. It bounds up and down as the lights inside the cage fizzle and spark, until the elevator is lifted to the height of the hotel, the doors opening to views of Mount Prometheus and New York Harbor. 

Image: Cory Doctorow, Flickr (license)

At times, the elevator pauses in the middle of the shaft, a green glow illuminating a concrete wall ahead. But then, Shikiri’s shadow is cast there as if he’s on top of the elevator itself. Then, with a snap, he cuts the wire as the vehicle falls again. Doors open and close, revealing a level of the hotel that’s become nothing but stars. Up and down, riders scream as we face the same fate as Hightower.

Then, all at once, it stops. The elevator pauses, looking out in pitch black darkness. Shiriki’s eyes once more appear ahead, but this time the elevator moves horizontally again, forward through the blackness. “You are safe…” Hightower promises. “But beware: don’t become attracted to the excitement when life hangs in the balance. And never return here.”

Our run-in with Shiriki Utundu saw us relive the last moments of Hightower’s life… and survive. As always, we want to end our in-depth ride features with the best point-of-view videos we can find. In this case, we can tour the entirety of the Hotel Hightower thanks to our friends at Attractions Magazine and their unbeatable video here:

Naturally, our tour of the so-called “Tower of Terror” ends in a gift shop (in this case, a clever repurpose of the hotel’s Majarajah Pool” with wooden boards laid across the pool itself, but incorporating the diving board pedestal and other features into the shop.

Upon exiting, though, you’d do well to turn around and take a look at the experience you just survived… You just may notice that every few moments, a vibrant green flash from the penthouse trails downward like lightning, striking one of those elevator shafts and causing it to turn green and plunge downward into the hotel… It seems that the curse of Shiriki Utundu lives on.

Which begs the question: will this spectacular story ever make its way closer to home? On the next page, we’ll talk about other S.E.A.-themed adventures and how Disney might’ve repurposed the story of Harrison  Hightower to create one of their newest thrill rides right here in the United States. Do you know which one? Read on.

In the Details

Image: Shenghung Lin, Flickr (license)

There’s perhaps no Modern Marvel on Earth as mysterious as Tokyo DisneySea’s one-of-a-kind Tower of Terror. Beautiful in every way, the ride is truly a masterpiece of themed entertainment and storytelling. Faced with the challenge of bringing a headlining drop ride thrill to the most beautiful theme park on Earth, Disney Imagineers did their due diligence and crafted a story to enrapture fans the world over.

Which brings us back to the question: will the legend of Harrison Hightower ever make it closer to home? 

Image: Disney 

Maybe the real question is… is it here already?

S.E.A. Stories 

Naturally, the nautical exploits of the Hightower Hotel weren’t the last we heard of the members of S.E.A.: Society of Explorers and Adventurers. In fact, the nautical and spectacular stories of S.E.A. members – both esteemed and evil – and their international explorations connect Disney Parks attractions in ways you might not expect.

The story of S.E.A. is like an international mystery just for fans of Disney Parks to explore and speculate on.

Image: Disney

For example, a mural proudly displayed in the Hotel Hightower’s lobby shows Harrison making off with a massive South American serpant head…

Image: Disney

…stolen from the altar of Raging Spirits from the park’s own Lost River Delta! You see the way that these sometimes-subtle hints connect attractions in thoughtful and “gee-whiz” ways, leaving Disney Parks fans hungry for more as they search for hidden details.

But it’s larger than DisneySea. In fact, the story of S.E.A. unites rides, shows, attractions, restaurants, and even whole parks across the Walt Disney Company into a massive, overarching frame story.

Image: Disney

Perhaps the most overt E-Ticket connection is via Hightower’s own colleague, Lord Henry Mystic. Like Hightower, Mystic scoured the globe for adventure and came across some priceless artifacts long the way… but unlike the New York hotelier, Lord Mystic gathered his collection the old fashioned way: by making friends.

Mystic’s collection of gathered wonders is housed in his own private residence – an eclectic estate deep in the jungles of Papua New Guinea that he shares his with primate traveling companion, Albert.

Image: Disney

The wonders on display inside that Modern Marvel: Mystic Manor are likewise enchanted, sending us on a wild dark ride through the home’s international cultural collections in what some call Disney’s best dark ride ever. For fans of Disney Parks and Imagineering, that Mystic Manor entry is a must-read.

The connections continue in that S.E.A.: Society of Explorers and Adventurers definitive guide, but connections between Tower of Terror and the rest of Disney Parks expand well beyond… for example, a handwritten letter on display among the crowded halls of Downtown Disney’s Lost Legend: The Adventurers Club saw Club President Pamelia Perkins gossiping about Hightower and how his idol “really took him for a ride.”

To drop the jokes for a moment, the question on many Disney Parks fans minds is, will the uniquely-S.E.A. based Tower of Terror forever remain exclusive to Tokyo DisneySea? The answer is that it may already have been duplicated stateside…

From Hotelier to Collector

As American Disney Parks fans eagerly await their own S.E.A.-based attraction, the truth is, they may already have it.

Image: Disney

As we discussed in one of our favorite features covering Disneyland’s Lost Legend: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Disney California Adventure’s version of the freefall ride might’ve been an anchoring cornerstone of the park’s $1.2 billion redesign… but it didn’t last. Five years after the park’s Grand Re-Opening and its infusion of California-themed stories and settings with the Hollywood Tower Hotel as a pillar, the ride fell to a new experiment.

In 2017, under the leadership of Imagineer Joe Rohde (body double inspiration for Harrison Hightower), the pueblo-deco hotel was reskinned as a “warehouse prison power plant” based on “the beauty of an oil rig” to fit into the park’s 2020 Marvel-themed Avengers Campus.

Image: Disney / Marvel

For most Disney Parks fans, most every idea presented in that paragraph is objectionable, but the end result (Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!) is a thrilling, fun, laugh-out-loud romp through a comic book adventure (though even its most ardent defenders admit that it’s not exactly a brilliant, timeless, long-game decision; more based on stuffing flavor-of-the-week intellectual properties into the parks than any long-term consideration for storytelling or longevity.)

Image: Disney / Marvel

However, the storyline Rohde and his team concocted for the sci-fi superhero action ride is of The Collector, a mysterious intergalactic treasure hunter who has stolen artifacts from cultures across the cosmos, hoarding them in his palatial space fortress. We, as visitors, come to tour his vaults before boarding a Gantry Lift to view the tour’s highlight, leading to an unexpected free-fall plunge through the tower. Re-read that sentence, but omit any sci-fi vocabulary and… voila… you’ve got Tokyo’s Tower of Terror. Could Rohde and his team have simply repurposed Tokyo’s storyline to create their own “new Tower of Terror”? It sure seems that way.

In any case, it’s created a unique situation wherein three physically identical rides in the U.S., France, and Japan are each stylistically unique – which is why we placed them among our list of 6 Ride Clone Pairs You May Not Recognize.

Modern Marvel

Image: Disney

Tokyo’s Tower of Terror is a wonder. It brilliantly shattered the then-cemented standards of what a Tower of Terror could be, recasting the ride as a New York penthouse plot connected to a larger-than-life continuity across Disney Parks.

One phenomenal testament to the ride? Even though it’s structurally identical to the “cheaper” “cop-out” ride system designed for the Towers of Terror in California and France, it’s the rare Disney Parks fan who even bothers to point it out. The ride is so smartly wrapped and so well crafted, the “downgraded” ride system re-used bolt-for-bolt doesn’t feel like a drawback.

Rather, Tokyo’s Tower of Terror manages to stand among the best – including feeling like a peer to the otherwise unreachable Walt Disney World original! Maybe it goes to show that story really can outweigh all else at Imagineering, proving what a phenomenal difference a creative investment can make.

What’s more, Tower of Terror is simply one more icon of Imagineering to call the Tokyo Disney Resort home – and, hopefully, one more reason to book your trip to see the original, one-of-a-kind wonders this exceptional and sought-after park has to offer.

But there are so many more adventures out there. Be sure to make the jump to our Legend Library to set course for another Modern Marvel, a beloved Lost Legend, or an inside look at a never-built Possibilityland that could’ve changed your favorite theme parks forever.

Image: TDR Explorer