(A version of this article was shared with Pirates and Princesses and published on October 18, 2023.)
Anyone who has survived a trip into “the fifth dimension” on Disney’s Hollywood Tower of Terror knows these words all too well. Universally hailed as one of the greatest theme park attractions of all time, the Tower has been terrifying guests at Disney’s Hollywood Studios since 1994. Since then, the attraction’s influence has spread to other Disney Parks throughout the world.
If you dare, let’s take a walk to the “house at the end of the street” and explore some spooky facts about the Hollywood Tower of Terror – one of the most iconic attractions in theme park history.
Hollywood Tower Hotel – A Star Is Born
The Hollywood Tower Hotel may sound about as American as can be, but the earliest plans for the attraction were being developed in the late 1980s for an audience across the ocean, at the soon-to-open Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris). Instead of a hotel-based tower, the attraction was envisioned for the future park’s Frontierland, with the name Geyser Mountain. This never-built concept could have been part roller coaster and part free-fall ride that shot guests up a vertical shaft. The plan never came to fruition in France, but the basic concept for a highly themed drop ride was scooped up by Imagineers planning an expansion to Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) in Orlando.
Original ideas for the attraction were all over the map. The most ambitious idea was to create a hybrid attraction and working hotel, even including themed transportation from the Orlando airport to complete the experience. At one point, Mel Brooks was attached to the attraction to offer some comedy to balance the scary nature of the attraction (and also to nurture a potential film relationship between Disney and the Hollywood legend). The horror novels of Steven King were also once considered as inspiration, and Hollywood legend Vincent Price was even considered to narrate a ghost tour.
In the end, Disney decided to create a haunted hotel themed to the 1950s/1960s television show The Twilight Zone. Lead Imagineer C. McNair Wilson and his team watched 156 episodes of the series while seeking inspiration for the attraction.
No discussion of The Twilight Zone is complete without its iconic narrator Rod Serling. His ominous voice graced the television show throughout its network run. Disney felt Serling should be part of the attraction, though he had died almost two decades earlier. In order to include Serling in the attraction, Disney used archival footage of him from the original series, and cast a voice role to approximate his voice. While holding auditions for the role, Disney invited Carol Serling – Rod’s widow – to consult on the voice selection.
A Haunted Tower Story
“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.”
As Rod Serling so eloquently stated, the storyline of the attraction sets the year as 1939. But not just any day in 1939 – Halloween night, October 31st.
As the story goes, on this date, a Halloween party was thrown in the Tip Top Club – a gentleman’s club at the top of the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Many of Hollywood’s elite were invited to the party, which would include a performance by the fictional Silver Lake Sisters.
Serling narrates an episode chronicling the fate of five hotel guests on that stormy Halloween night, when a lightning bolt struck the tower and caused five people in the hotel’s elevator to vanish. Those five unfortunate souls included an actor, a singer, a child star and her nanny, and a hotel bellhop. The child star – Sally Shine – can be seen holding a Mickey Mouse plush in the pre-show video.
The Look of Terror
The tower’s exterior and interior design took inspiration from existing Southern California landmarks, including the Biltmore Hotel and Mission Inn. The tower can be seen all the way from Mexico (as in, EPCOT’s Mexico pavilion). To account for this, Imagineers designed the exterior features to include Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. This allows one of Walt Disney World’s tallest structures to blend in with the skyline of EPCOT’s Morocco pavilion, as seen from the Mexico pavilion. If you’ve never noticed this before, that’s because Imagineers did their job well!
The lobby of the “13-Diamond Hotel” was outfitted with antiques and furniture purchased at Los Angeles-area auction houses, lending to the Hollywood theme. Some of the sculptures featured in the lobby are the work of 19th century French sculptor Auguste Moreau.
Across the far side of the lobby, visitors can see a mahjong game that looks as if it was simply abandoned mid-game. Imagineers hired professional mahjong players to play, then simply walk away before the game ended. The resulting game will forever be “in progress.”
Sharp eyes might spy a charming Walt Disney reference. A copy of “Four Pages of Hilarious Star Caricatures by Walt Disney” is featured in Photoplay Magazine on the lobby’s concierge desk.
Looking for a Hidden Mickey? You’ll find a reference to Walt’s favorite mouse in the hotel’s library. Look for sheet music for the song “What! No Mickey Mouse?” This is sheet music for an actual song composed by Irving Caesar in the late 1920s.
Aside from these timely references, there are countless pieces throughout the interior of the hotel which pay homage to classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. Check some of them out here.
The Haunted Elevator
Earlier in the day on that fateful Halloween, the hotel’s elevators were inspected (or should I say cursed?) by a man named Ted Cadwallader – a supernatural figure personifying the devil in The Twilight Zone television series. Look for his approval signature on the elevator’s Permit to Operate in the boiler room (loading area) of the attraction. The elevator’s certificate is also numbered 10259, which is a reference to October 2, 1959 – the day the very first episode of The Twilight Zone aired on television.
The Otis Elevator Company created the vertical elevator ride system, and Eaton-Kenway created the ride vehicle which could drive itself horizontally.
When the elevator gets “struck”, guests immediately feel the sensation of falling. Believe it or not, the elevator doesn’t simply fall – it gets pulled down. With a top drop speed approaching forty miles per hour, guests actually fall faster than gravity. When a Cast Member asks you to make sure all loose items are stowed in the pouch beneath your seat, I highly recommend heeding their advice. I once left a sweatshirt sitting on my lap, and found it floating in front of my face while our elevator was in free fall!
Speaking of that drop – there’s a good chance that you can ride the Tower of Terror during multiple visits and never experience the same ride twice. That’s because the Tower of Terror now uses a randomized sequence that makes each experience unique. You never know how many times you’ll drop…or how far.
Towers Around the World
The Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando is the original – and the only one in which the elevator travels horizontally into the fifth dimension. But there are several other Tower of Terror-style attractions at Disney Parks.
Disney California Adventure park, at Disneyland Resort, once operated a Tower of Terror. But the Guardians of the Galaxy took over the territory in 2017 to give us Mission Breakout. The attraction operates almost exactly as the Tower of Terror, but the storyline follows the Guardians as they break out from a galactic prison.
Walt Disney Studios Park, in Disneyland Paris Resort, opened their Tower of Terror in 2007 – some twenty years after a drop tower experience was first envisioned for the park. The attraction was reimagined in 2019 as The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror – A New Dimension of Chills, to include three additional storylines focusing on Sally Shine – the child star who went missing in the original attraction.
Tokyo DisneySea, in Tokyo Disneyland, opened a Tower of Terror in 2006. Since The Twilight Zone is not well known in Japan, the attraction follows a completely original storyline, centered on the fictional Hotel Hightower, owned by Society of Explorers and Adventurers (SEA) member Harrison Hightower.
Thank you for visiting the Hollywood Tower Hotel. The next time you are at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and you see the Tower of Terror sporting a 13-minute wait, drop your plans and go! It means the attraction is a walk-on (the only other attraction in Walt Disney World to sport a 13-minute walk-on time is Haunted Mansion in Magic Kingdom.
Did you learn something new about one of Disney’s most famous towers? Let me know, either with a comment here, or with a direct message on social:
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