Travelling Directly to the Twilight Zone

What separates Disney from other theme park experiences? Most people would tell you the attention to detail. There isn’t a better example of that than the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Opening in 1994, the Tower of Terror was built on the notion that Walt Disney World, or Disney parks in general, needed more thrill rides, and with many announcing the Hollywood Studios park (then known as Disney-MGM Studios) as only a half day park, Imagineers worked at the idea of designing a thrill ride based on a popular movie or television franchise.

The Tower of Terror wasn’t always related to the Twilight Zone franchise however. In the Fall of 1989, Mel Brooks (yes, the Blazing Saddles director) was brought on board as Disney felt they could put something together. Brooks and his family have always been long time Disney fans so Michael Eisner and the gang felt it would be an easy sell for Brooks as they would help produce his films at the then-working studios while Brooks would provide some material for a future theme park attraction. It wasn’t an easy sell for Brooks, but he had decided to eventually work with Disney and the original idea for the park was “Castle Young Frankenstein” complete with a Bavarian village for shopping. The attraction would incorporate scenes from Young Frankenstein and would be a mix of humor and horror. After seeing that the design wouldn’t fit in with the Sunset Blvd. expansion and would truly need it’s own land, the idea was changed to “Mel Brooks’ Hollywood Horror Hotel”. The dubbed “Mel Hotel” was even going to have an extension to have a real working hotel inside of it. (I will be sure to cover the never built Hollywood Hotel in a later World That Never Was article.) Imagineers started elaborating on the hotel theme, coming up with a moving shaft and creating a spookier experience, rather than using comedy gags. As Brooks was leaving to film “Life Stinks”, he didn’t care to be associated with the ever-changing project as it was not living up to his original ideas for the attraction.

With Brooks gone, imagineers started to move everything towards a creepier horror theme for their hotel ride. The choice to get the rights for the Twilight Zone was made partially because Disney had made plans for the Twilight Zone to be a part of Superstar TV or the Great Movie Ride. With an elevator moving out of it’s shaft, the Twilight Zone theme also seemed like an easy addition to the attraction. Some additional ideas with the Twilight Zone theme was to have live actors “working” in the hotel. Today, we still see the bellhops, but there was also to be a manager, desk clerk, and even a repairman in the boiling room to keep guests waiting in long lines happy. However, the actors were not seen as necessary if the hotel was built with details and the queue wandered it’s way through the hotel lobby, library, and boiler room.

Now that imagineers had their design and theme for the E-ticket attraction, they had to figure out how to build it. The idea to move guests from one moving elevator shaft into a “drop” shaft was brought up due to the amount of guests that could be on the attraction at once. Instead of loading two shafts with guests and riders waiting until both are done before being loaded into the elevator, it was faster to have several elevators with 4 shafts for guests to ride in and take in the story before moving into the drop sequence in another shaft used only for that. Originally, Disney had contacted Otis elevators to build these elaborate ride vehicles, but as many elevator companies prided themselves in not feeling movement while in an elevator shaft, it became clear that imagineers were going to have to create the ride vehicles and system themselves.

Disney invented the Autonomous Guided Vehicle or AGV which could move without being on a track. This allowed the elevator to move from shaft to shaft. It also has a wireless reader so each vehicle can be tracked while in motion. This allows for some vehicles to not come near each other and also for the ride to shut down if a park map or a guest drops their mouse ear hat onto the floor where the vehicle needs to run. The AGV actually travels into a larger vehicle while entering a shaft so which has cables like a real elevator to lift the vehicle up and down. Also, despite what some people may think, the vehicle doesn’t actually drop with gravity. Cables not only pull the elevator up at a rapid speed, but it also pulls it down, ensuring that the elevator is always attached to the cable and the weight of the vehicle won’t actually break away from the cable. This allows for a smoother ride for guests aboard the attraction as well.

Now with designs in place, Disney went underway with construction. from 1992 to 1994, people could see a new “weenie” rising up over the Disney-MGM Studios park. The attraction opened on July 22nd, 1994 with guests being wowed by the details. Imagineers watched every single episode of the Twilight Zone twice to ensure how they were to theme the interior and exterior of the attraction. With the tower hovering over the rest of the park at 199 feet, everyone can clearly see the burnt-out “Hollywood Tower Hotel” sign and the black mark down the middle of the exterior, showing that this building had been struck by lightning long ago. While in the queue, you can see how the fountains of the hotel had been dried up but the gardens and grass were still “magically” tended to. 1930’s Jazz is also strangely playing outside and inside of the hotel. As you enter the lobby, you can see cobwebs (made by imagineers) everywhere and what seems to be a completely abandoned building. As you make your way into the library, you meet some of the cast members in bellhop costumes, some of the most expensive cast member costumes on property at Walt Disney World. In the library, a thunder storm takes over and the television turns on with Rod Serling greeting guests and giving them the back story to the Tower. (Mark Serling actually provides the impression of the now deceased Serling.) The library itself is filled with books and furniture, also ¬†providing the idea that the hotel was abandoned. Guests then enter the boiler room before boarding their ride vehicles. The boiler room is functioning at full effect, now giving the impression that the hotel isn’t abandoned, but being run by a staff and ghosts occupying the rooms.

The Tower of Terror was a smash hit with park guests, and it still a big draw for the Hollywood Studios park. As technology has improved, so has the attraction. In 1994, the attraction only lifted and dropped guests once, but with computers put in charge of the drop sequence in 2002, the lifts and drops have been randomized, giving guests a slightly different experience every time they ride. What will technology bring to this E-ticket attraction in the future? Who knows. One thing is for sure, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is one of Disney’s modern classics and will continue to wow guests for years to come.

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Posted on May 24, 2012, in Articles and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I didn’t know about the Mel Brooks history. Interesting. I would have liked that. I’m a big fan of Young Frankenstein, but I love Twilight Zone too.

  2. AGVs were not invented by Disney. The first AGV was invented by Barrett Electronics in 1953.

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