When you think of Hollywood Studios, it’s almost impossible not to think of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Standing guard over the Park, the attraction has become a guest favourite since its opening in 1994, and at 21 years old, still packs as many thrills as its opening day.
Plans for a drop tower ride originated in the late 1980’s, as a phase II project for Disneyland Paris known as Geyser Mountain. Part roller coaster and part drop ride, the addition would have been a new E-Ticket anchor for Frontierland. However, with financial issues at the Disneyland Paris Resort, the idea for the addition was scrapped.
However, Imagineering is fond of saying that no idea ever truly goes away, and their concept of a drop tower was no exception. When Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened in 1989, it was envisioned as a half day Park, and was much smaller than the traditional Disney Park. However, its popularity overwhelmed Disney, and they realised quickly that they would need to expand the Park to keep up with guest demand.
A number of additions were conceived for the Park, with early plans calling for a dark ride based on Disney’s Dick Tracy movie. The film flopped, and plans were scrapped (although the concept was later revived as part of the Indiana Jones ride over at Disneyland). At that point plans for an attraction themed around a Hotel on the Park’s Sunset Boulevard came to fruition.
Mel Brooks was original slated to narrate a dark ride set in a Hotel, and a Vincent Price Ghost Tour was considered, with later plans shifting towards a haunted Hotel experience. At this point, an idea was pitched that would include an actual Hotel within the Park, featured a mystery theatre style attraction, however this was deemed impractical and also scrapped.
However, the concepts of a haunted Hotel and a drop ride eventually melded, and was given the greenlight by Disney as a brand new E-Ticket attraction for Hollywood Studios. However, Imagineers needed a story to frame the attraction.
Settling on The Twilight Zone TV Series, Imagineers considered the property to be a perfect fit for its haunted Hotel concept. Guests would enter a delapidated Hotel, on which one fateful night, lightning had struck one of its lift shafts. The deceased, who still travel through the Hotel via the ghostly elevator, would invite you to recreate their experience for yourself.
In order to design the elevators, which would be the attraction’s central ride vehicle, Disney turned to the Otis Elevator Company, who had over a century of expertise in elevator operation. Disney stunned the company’s experts, as Otis had devoted its existence to ensure that their elevators did the opposite of what Disney wanted, but took the task of working out how they could create a freefalling elevator safely.
Another company, Eaton-Kenway, worked out how the ride vehicles could travel horizontally through the ride building, and the two companies worked out how their designs would work together.
The tower building itself resembles an elegant Neo-Meditteranean Hotel from Hollywood’s 30s heyday. As the tower can be seen from the Morocco Pavilion at Epcot, the back of the tower is designed to blend seemlessly into the rooftops of Morocco. At 199 feet, the tower is just short enough to skip the FAA’s mandate that buildings of 200 feet or more have a blinking aircraft warning light on their rooves.
Technically, the ride is a masterpiece, with a randomised drop sequence selected by computer for each ride cycle, no trip to the Tower is ever the same. Eaton-Kenway’s Automated Guided Vehicles are self-propelling, and can move throughout the show with ease, locking into either the ascent or descent shaft. Cables attached to the bottom of the elevator pull the ride down at faster than freefall, creating the weightless effect Disney’s Imagineers desired.
Construction on the attraction began in 1992, with a sinkhole (common in Florida and part of the reason Horizons at Epcot was decommissioned) meaning that the construction site was moved slightly from its original plan. Taking two years to build, the ride finally opened in June 1994, and has been entertaining guests ever since.
Let us know what you think of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in the comments below, and be sure to head over to the Tower of Terror concept art page at the Ride Design Warehouse!