On June 22, 1994, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened at what was then known as Disney-MGM Studios (today it is Disney’s Hollywood Studios). It was the first of its kind, not just at a Disney park but at any theme park: a ride that combined dark ride sensibility with cutting edge, reprogrammable drop ride mechanics, taking guests through a haunted 1930s hotel before dropping them down an equally haunted elevator shaft … again and again and again. And while the project started out as a formidable endeavor (again: nobody had ever done anything like this before), The Twilight Zone Tower of Tower quickly became a beloved classic and hallmark of Disney Parks worldwide.
As with any Disney theme park attraction, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror went through a number of iterations. After Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened in 1989, it was a smash hit, more rides were needed, including an all-new thrill attraction. In keeping with the movie theme of the park, Imagineers wanted to center this new attraction around a horror film and researched popular horror movie icons of the time. They also looked into an attraction based on the works of novelist Stephen King, a “ghost tour” ride with Vincent Price (who wound up narrating one of the park’s very first nighttime spectaculars), a horrifically comedic (or comedically horrific) attraction hosted by Mel Brooks, and perhaps most tantalizingly even considered putting an actual haunted hotel inside the park.
Eventually, the team looked back to a drop ride project originally envisioned for the Euro Disney project (later: Disneyland Paris); if you look at early artwork for the Discoveryland section of that park you can see an exposed, elevator-style ride next to that park’s version of Space Mountain (then called From the Earth to the Moon), coming out of an open, glowing volcano. (Remember folks: at Imagineering a good idea never goes away for good.) The haunted hotel idea was brought over from the Hotel Mel and actual-hotel concepts, as was the drop ride system planned for the European park, only this time it was grafted to a truly ingenious property: the beloved anthology series The Twilight Zone (which ran from 1959 – 1964 on CBS).
The ride would take the form of a “lost” episode of the classic TV show, centered around the glitzy Hollywood Tower Hotel that gets struck by lightning one lonely evening, sending several of its guests (who have climbed aboard the doomed elevator) into another dimension, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind, a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. Today the hotel is a spooky relic, one that will sees guests entering the elevator in our world, but those same guests will quickly find themselves in … the Twilight Zone. An introductory video, delightfully directed by Gremlins filmmaker Joe Dante, sets up the story wonderfully, beautifully capturing old Hollywood (the ride’s story is set in 1939) in velvety black-and-white and featuring footage from original Twilight Zone episodes (with new voice work by an uncanny Rod Serling impersonator named Mark Silverman). Since the show building was visible from EPCOT, it was designed to blend into the skyline; since you can view it from Morocco, it has a vaguely similar façade.
The inventive ride technology, which the Otis Elevator Company and Eaton-Kenway consulted on, would move the elevator car both horizontally and up and down (mostly down). This wasn’t a typical drop ride, which would simply lift you up and drop you. Instead, after the ride vehicle moved through the hotel, it would get into the elevator shaft, where a computer would randomly program how many drops the ride vehicle would endure. (The amount of drops and the computer-controlled nature of the drop would be emphasized at various points throughout the ride’s existence. One memorable ad campaign stated ominously that, “The Tower is in control.”) The ride vehicles are actually tugged towards the earth by a set of cables, accelerating and intensifying what the normal drop would be. (This generates the feeling of enhanced weightlessness; Imagineers would return to the concept of weightless experiences for the upcoming Mission: SPACE attraction at EPCOT.) At 199 feet tall, it is the second tallest attraction at Walt Disney World (Expedition Everest beats it by half-a-foot).
When The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror opened in 1994 nobody knew what to expect; there had never been a ride like this attempted at Walt Disney World (or anywhere else for that matter) and the attraction would be opening alongside an entire land, known as Hollywood Boulevard. But what could have been an experimental one-off attraction quickly became a sensation. In 1997 the ride was the basis for a Wonderful World of Disney television movie entitled Tower of Terror (it starred Steve Guttenberg and a young Kirsten Dunst); it is notable for both its playful tone and the fact that it was the first Disney movie to ever be based on a theme park attraction. In 2002, plans were drawn up to take The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror to Disney California Adventure (it would open in 2004). This slightly redesigned version of the ride, which doesn’t have the horizontal “Fifth Dimension” show scenes, had an updated ride system that would make it so that three ride vehicles can cycle through the attraction simultaneously. In 2006 a similar attraction would open at Tokyo DisneySea (just called Tower of Terror, since Japanese audiences were unfamiliar with the original series) and in 2007 it would open at the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris. Guests were screaming around the world.
And while all of these Towers have their unique charm and personality, that original attraction in Florida remains Disney Insider’s sentimental favorite. Not only does it have that cool horizontal section of the attraction (which has never been replicated in the other versions of the ride), but at the time it felt so insanely important. The first time you rode the attraction, back in 1994, you could tell that you were climbing aboard a future classic. It’s a shared sensation: after the Mickey hat came down in front of The Great Movie Ride earlier this year, Disney’s Hollywood Studios has adopted a new icon for most merchandise (and the My Disney Experience app): the lightning-damaged Hollywood Tower Hotel, home to the scariest elevator of your life.