Disney is well known for its attention to detail and storyline. No matter what you might encounter – be it an attraction, show, character etc. you will find a fascinating story behind it and the detail, both historically and functionality are true to life. For me, there is no attraction on property more beautifully and accurately detailed than the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror hotel, here at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In addition, the storyline of this eerie Hotel is based on what most experts concur is one of the greatest Sci-Fi anthology TV series in history, Rod Sterling’s “Twilight Zone.”
Inside the Hotel, you will find numerous props and memorabilia that reference many episodes of the show. In addition there are frequent visual clues to the storyline and the Hotel itself scattered about. The architectural elements of the Hotel are amazing and are impeccable for the time period, October 31st, 1939, which is the date this story begins. This attractions queue line is the most detailed in my opinion of any ride. From the moment you enter the Main Lobby, to the library and my favorite part, the boiler room, the Imagineers left no stone unturned. In fact, there is so much detail and storyline to talk about; this was one of the most intensive researched articles I have ever done! Let’s get started…
The Tower of Terror opened on July 22nd, 1994 at the end of Sunset Boulevard. But before examining the history of the attraction and Sunset Boulevard, let’s take a walk through and point out all the amazing details of the Tower of Terror. The Hotel is at the foot of Sunset Boulevard, visible from the parking lot. This large looming structure beckons you to it, which is the “Hook” that Disney wanted for this area. The Hotel is built in the style popular in 1920-1930 California, aping Hotels like the Biltmore Hotel and Mission Inn at the time.
As you approach the Hotel, you will note two block buildings. The one on the right houses restrooms and the left has the fast pass kiosks. Beyond the kiosks, note the garden shed once used by the Hotel. Also spot the sign “Sunset Hills Estates Est. 1923”. As you near the walkway to the garden, check out the queue line waiting time sign. Many times you’ll see the number 13 displayed. This superstitious number is not the real wait time, but occasionally displayed for the effect. And like the tombstone of Leota in the Haunted Mansion, the sign for the Hotel also changes, gives me the creeps!
From here your adventure begins. You enter the grounds past an arched entryway, greeted by several hotel bellhops. The right walkway is the fast pass lane, the left standby. Note on the immediate right of the fast pass is an old, weathered sundial. This used to convey the time to the attraction, but now it shows 45 minutes. The walkways are through the abandoned gardens and paths, left untouched since the tragedy of that Halloween night. Everything is overgrown and walls are cracked. Take your time; the details are not to be missed! Please listen closely; you will be able to hear faint music in the background from the era, further setting the mood. You will pass beautiful statues and an old bird bath. You now enter under the arbor; again take your time to observe all the decay and astonishing detail. You now wind past the plaque noting the date of construction…”1917”
Inside the lobby, (Again, just take the time to grasp the wonderful detail!) there is much to see. To the right is the concierge desk and behind it a sign for the Hotel’s Tip-Top Club. On your left there is a table with an unfinished game of mahjong and next to it a tea cart. A quick note… There are many references to episodes of the Twilight Zone show. The band leaders’ name, Anthony Fremont is a nod to the episode “It’s a Good Life.” Here a little boy (Played by Billy Mumy of “Lost in Space” fame) put people in a cornfield just by thought. As you wind around the queue line, look to the left of the lobby by the window. Here is a table that a couple was celebrating a wedding anniversary when the lightning struck. Also observe all the fine statuary and other fine sculptures around the lobby, prevalent to all fine hotels of the era.
Now we will enter the library and understand the eerie story behind the Hotel. You will pass two elevator shafts, both with broken doors and a sign stating…”Out of order.” The doors to the library open (Right or left library queue rooms are the same) and you again are immersed in the story. Inside the library you are plunged into a room teeming with artifacts on shelves and tables, all old and neglected. This is one bizarre room, with a window revealing a lighting storm outside, like the one on October 31st, 1939. But this room, for one with a well-honed eye, has many items that recall famous episodes of the Twilight Zone. One of my favorites, located on the table of the back bookcases, is the book entitled “To Serve Man” from the episode of that title. Another piece is a devil-headed “Mystic Seer” fortune telling machine from the episode “Nick of Time” starring Bill Shatner from Star Trek. Another classic piece is a small robot from the episode “The Invaders” with famous star Agnes Moorhead (Endora from Bewitched). If you look to the back wall, you’ll notice a trumpet from the episode “A Passage for Trumpet” starring Jack Klugman (Oscar from the Odd Couple) and underneath it is a piece of sheet music entitled “What, No Mickey Mouse?, what Kind of a party is this?” This, by the way is considered a “Hidden Mickey”.
The room goes dark, with crashing thunder and lightning, and Rod Sterling appears on the TV (This is from the episode “It’s a Good Life”) where he explains what happened that fateful Halloween night. The Hotel, at its zenith in Hollywood’s golden era, was a magnet for the Hollywood elite. We see two (Presumably a famous Hollywood couple), a bellman, a little girl (Look at the little girl’s hand, she’s carrying a Mickey Plush doll, another “Hidden Mickey” in the attraction) and her nanny board the elevator, when lightning strikes the elevator shafts, pulverizing them and sending the five unlucky souls to the Twilight Zone’s “Fifth Dimension” It was after this occurrence that the Hotel was abandoned and falls into disrepair.
Another interesting note… I always believed that Rod Sterling was speaking in the pre-show clip, but it is not his voice, but that of voice actor Mark Silverman. Once the preshow is complete, you enter the Boiler, or Mechanical Room. Again, here is why Disney is ahead of any other venue. All the fantastic furnace room props, the boilers, pumps, gauges, pipes, condensing tanks etc. if were real, would function as a real, working boiler room! When in this room, please take your time to look at the incredible detail the Imagineers put into the area. Along with the sounds and lights fading in and out, you ARE in a furnace room.
As you are led to your “Service Elevator” for the trip to your room, notice the caged motors and cables by the door. As the elevators come down, the motors whines, sparks fly and the bell crank turns the cables, just as in a real elevator. Here you will notice another amazing reference to the Twilight Zone. On the side of the elevator car, there is a posted certificate for “Permit to Operate”. This is signed by Inspector Caldwallader on Oct 31st, 1939. This is from the episode “Escape Clause” In addition, the State ID number is 10259 is the date that Twilight Zone premiered; on October 25th, 1959.
Here the elevator takes you to your first stop. You hear Rod Sterling’s voice…”You are the passengers on a most uncommon elevator about to ascend into your very own episode of The Twilight Zone.” The elevator rises to its first stop. You see this spooky hallway; there is a violent thunderstorm and lightning outside. Here you see the five unfortunate souls struck by lighting and disappear. The scene then goes black with a small white star field, and at the end of the hall, the window morphs and starts moving, then shatters like the credits in the TV show. Your next stop is the room known as the “Fifth Dimension” This room, again is a nod to the episode “Little Girl Lost” (A personal favorite of mine!) where a little girl falls under her bed, and goes through a portal into another Dimension. You again hear Rod saying…”One stormy night long ago, five people stepped through the door of an elevator and into a nightmare. That door is opening once again, and this time, it’s opening for you.” As you travel through this room, the Twilight Zone theme music is playing (Very Eerie!) and you pass a strange clock with its hands turning, a large eyeball that follows you, and you hear a little girls voice singing…”It’s raining, it’s pouring” in reference to the thunderstorm outside. You approach another door, where bright flashing lights coalesce into one spot, then two vertical shafts of light appear for the door edges, they open and you enter the elevator shaft. Then the elevator will rise and fall in no set pattern, making stops along the shaft, becoming herky-jerky then moving again, the best part is the stop at the top, the doors open to the outside and you have a spectacular view of the park. After the wild ride (Which is random, chosen by the computer), you end up in the basement. Here again, look around at all the props and items, many which reference episodes of the Twilight Zone. Look at the doors as they open, the letter “B” for basement separates and it becomes the number “13”.
As you exit the car, you will see another area of the Hotel, the maintenance room. (Check for the Hidden Mickey Here!) This is where you can see your pictures on the attraction and purchase them, if desired. As you exit, (Again, there is just so much more detail to be seen), notice that there are three doors with overhead signs stating…Fountain, Beverly and Sunset rooms. These are the Hotels Banquet rooms. These rooms would have been filled with partygoers for the Halloween festivities for that night.
Here is some tech info on the attraction… The ride system of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror employs specialized technology developed specifically to move the vehicle in and out of the vertical motion shaft. The elevator cabs are self-propelled programmed ride vehicles, called an “AGV” or autonomous guided vehicle, which lock into separate vertical motion cabs. The cars can move into and out of elevators horizontally, move through the “Fifth Dimension” scene, and on to the drop shaft. This system is a closed loop affair. The elevators rise and fall faster than normal gravity would permit. This is because the motors are 12 feet tall, 35 feet long, and weigh 132,000 pounds. They are able to accelerate 10 tons at 15 times the speed of normal elevators. They generate torque equal to that of 275 Corvette engines and reach top speeds in 1.5 seconds! In addition, Disney has added four arbitrary drop patterns, including new projection images of the breaking window, wind effects, lightning flashes, and slightly different figures of the five ghostly original riders. This is to make sure all guests have a diverse experience every time! The motto is…”Never the Same Fear Twice!”
A little bit now on the history of the attraction. Sunset Boulevard was the first expansion in then named Disney’s MGM Studios. This Boulevard opened in July of 1994 with much needed additional attractions for the park. The Beauty and the Beast Show, originally in the Backlot Theater premiered here in July of 1994. This followed by the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, same month and year and Fantasmic debuted on October 15th, 1998. Rock “N” Roller-coaster starring Aerosmith began on July 29th, 1999. Disney wanted a major “Attraction” at the end of Sunset Boulevard to draw guests down its new street. An attraction was planned around the Disney Movie “Dick Tracy” The movie did not do well at the box office and among other factors, the idea was abandoned.
Many other ideas were tossed around. A murder mystery where guests given clues would solve a crime and Disney even had talks with Mel Brooks and his “Young Frankenstein” story. Eventually, Mel Brooks opted out and the idea transformed into the basic story of people being trapped in an out of control elevator, and just disappearing. Disney also understood that if the attraction was associated with a well-known and popular story or show, it would help the storyline immeasurably. The Imagineers chose the Twilight Zone. In fact they had watched every episode of the series twice, to make sure they understood the essence of the show. As I stated in the beginning, it is perhaps the most popular Sci-Fi anthology series know worldwide. But the Tower of Terror storyline does not follow any known episode of the Twilight Zone; it captures the flavor and spirit of the shows’ creator, Rod Sterling.
I know that many guests, including some friends and family of my own are reluctant to ride this attraction. Please try to do so. It is an amazing experience and really a lot of fun! But if you opt out, at least go through the pre-show and queue line to the boarding area. Here you can be escorted out and wait for your party. Just experiencing this is a show in itself.
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.