Tales of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

It was Halloween night, October 31, 1939, when a freakish thunder and lightning storm descended on the Hollywood Hills while the elite of the film community found sanctuary in the prestigious and popular Hollywood Tower Hotel's elegant lobby.

Among those checking in that night were young singer Carolyn Crosson and her actor boyfriend Gilbert London, as well as child actress Sally Shine in blond curls and frilly dress (reminiscent of actress Shirley Temple) with her stern governess Emeline Partridge. Sally clutched a Charlotte Clark Mickey Mouse doll. Over-worked bellman Dewey Todd assisted them all into the elevator to take them to the top floor where a special party that had started roughly 40 minutes earlier was still going on at the Tip Top Club.

They stepped in, the doors closed, and, seconds later, as the elevator made its way to the top of the hotel, its passengers, and an entire guest wing of the hotel simply vanished when lightning struck the building, leaving a burnt scar, damaged sign and a gaping hole on the outside. Supposedly, the elevator then plummeted out of control to the basement but it mysteriously disappeared before it reached the bottom.

The hotel is frozen in a Twilight Zone of time and space, and while the exterior has fallen into disrepair over the years with overgrown vegetation, the interior remains frighteningly untouched from the way it was that fateful 1939 Halloween night with hotel personnel eerily acting as if it is still 1939 and everything is fine.

Rumors abound that the missing five people from the elevator still roam the upper floors beckoning new visitors to join them in the Fifth Dimension.

That roughly minute-and-a-half pre-show video that guests see depicting that horrific evening was directed by award winning director Joe Dante, known for his horror films like The Howling and Gremlins, as well as directing a segment of the 1983 The Twilight Zone – The Movie.

The set that he used to film those scenes for the attraction was built on a soundstage in a studio in Culver City for the shooting by Theme Park Productions. It was then dismantled and reassembled in the lobby of the actual attraction in Florida so it would look exactly as it was in the video.

Show producer Leanne Nakayama remembered: "The most exciting part was being able to get a sneak preview of what the lobby looked like. We were able to see the set full size and to see it in reality with all the paint and the color and people walking through it. Then to be able to see this set with all the lighting and the characters walking through it in black and white brought it to life and gave it its own history."

"It was like it really was there in 1939 and it was great. I believed it," she said. "I was there for it being filmed, but when I saw the video I believed these guys were there and checking in and they got in the elevator."

Serling died in June 1975 but, thanks to clever mixing of video compositing, as well as the voice work of Mark Silverman, who was personally selected by Serling's widow Carol after hearing hundreds of audition tapes, Serling is able to host this "lost" episode of The Twilight Zone.

Walt Disney Imagineers screened each of the original 156 episodes of the series twice to capture the mood of the series. Some of the episodes were screened three or four times to get ideas for storylines, props and set designs.

They observed Rod Serling's opening and closing comments separately at least ten times each to determine the most representative quotes and characteristic phrases used by Serling.

The uncanny vocal imitation of Serling by Silverman states:

"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. The time is now, on an evening very much like the one we have just witnessed. Tonight's story on The Twilight Zone is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction.

"This, as you may recognize, is a maintenance service elevator, still in operation, waiting for you. We invite you, if you dare, to step aboard because in tonight's episode, you are the star. And this elevator travels directly to…The Twilight Zone!"

The image and narration "Tonight's story on The Twilight Zone is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction," comes from Serling's introduction at the beginning of a 1961 TZ episode titled It's A Good Life, where he is standing in front of a map where a town has disappeared, not in front of an elevator.

That episode told the story of little Anthony Fremont, who wishes people into the cornfield and, among other things hates people singing. So it is interesting that the poster in the lobby indicates that Anthony Fremont's Orchestra is playing Big Band music in the Tip Top Club starting at 7:30 p.m. on the top floor. Oddly enough, Joe Dante directed the segment "It's a Good Life" in Twilight Zone - The Movie.

Child actress Lindsay Ridgeway at the age of seven portrayed Sally Shine in the video. She later appeared on the ABC-TV show Boy Meets World as the little sister Morgan (seasons 3-7). At the age of 11, she recreated the Sally role for the 1997 Disney ABC television movie Tower of Terror.

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror could only be 199 feet high so as not to have needed a flashing red beacon on top.

The original elaborate back story for the Disney MGM Tower of Terror is, in actuality, a Halloween story appropriate for an episode of the popular cult television program hosted by Rod Serling that began in 1959 and lasted until 1964.

While today, variations of the iconic and popular attraction have been at four different Disney theme parks worldwide, it was not the first choice when Disney decided in 1989 to expand Disney MGM Studios to meet the unexpected increased demand by guests.

The first idea that was suggested was an elaborate Roger Rabbit Toontown with several attractions, shops and food and beverage locations.

Then, with hopes that the Dick Tracy Touchstone film would spark a successful and financially lucrative franchise like Tim Burton's Batman had a year earlier, the idea was discussed to build a 1930s era Chicago street where Sunset Boulevard is today.

Among other things, it would have included a warehouse that held the Dick Tracy Crimestoppers attraction, where guests would ride in vehicles in a high-speed chase, using the same technology later used in Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Guests would be shooting with Tommy guns at gangsters using the same technology later incorporated into Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin.

In late 1989, CEO Michael Eisner pitched the idea to filmmaker Mel Brooks to collaborate on a new Disney theme park attraction in hopes it would also lead to Brooks producing films for Disney. After several trips to Imagineering, Brooks wanted to combine scary and funny into a Castle Young Frankenstein that would have had a Bavarian village leading to a drawbridge and the castle.

The idea evolved into Mel Brooks' Hollywood Horror Hotel. The Imagineers jokingly referred to the project as Hotel Mel. Guests would have seen this huge abandoned hotel that may be haunted and through television monitors be informed that Mel Brooks was directing a new comedy horror movie inside.

Guests would be given a chance to visit the "Hot Set" and maybe even get to be an extra in the film. They would have boarded golf carts (guided by a magnetic wire embedded in the floor) and would experience a coven of witches cooking in their cauldron in the hotel kitchen, encounter Quasimodo the hotel "bellboy," and even visit the men's room where Dracula is trying to shave himself in a mirror where he can't see his reflection and the wolfman is combing himself all over while Frankenstein is in a stall trying to grab the Mummy's wrappings from the adjacent stall to use as toilet paper.

It was Brooks' intention that it be a comedic version of the Haunted Mansion. However, despite many outrageous gags, nobody could come up with a coherent story to tie it all together and the price for creating these elaborate Audio-Animatronics figures was cost prohibitive. Brooks left to direct another movie instead.

Other ideas were pitched, including an attraction featuring the various characters that appeared in author Stephen King's novels, as well as a partial walking tour narrated by Vincent Price (who had recorded the original Disneyland Paris Phantom Manor narration) about a group of movie stars who had been staying at the hotel but mysteriously disappeared. Throughout the tour, guests would discover clues and when they finally entered the elevator what had happened to those missing people became very clear, but it was too late to get out.

Eisner suggested making the hotel an actual in-park Disney resort themed to a "film noir" murder mystery revolving around the hotel manager who had gone crazy that would have included costumed staff interacting with guests and a haunted elevator experience. It was even suggested having resort guests brought directly from the airport in a 1939 vehicle with the shades drawn to immerse them in the time period.

While building Disneyland Paris, there were plans for Frontierland to have an attraction called Geyser Mountain located near Phantom Manor that would have combined a roller coaster with a free fall experience, basically the geyser shooting a vehicle vertically high up in the air. It was never built although the freefall element was considered for another never-built attraction centered on the story of Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Imagineers realized they might be able to incorporate this freefall idea into the haunted elevator. Since Disney MGM Studios was themed to the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s, it seemed logical to have a classic Hollywood hotel from that era.

The Hollywood Tower Hotel was a "star among the stars" that hosted the celebrity elite of 1930s Hollywood. In front of the hotel is a plaque indicating that the hotel was built in 1917 and in two decades it became as popular a place for Hollywood's rich and famous as the real Hollywood hotels that inspired its architecture and lore: the Hollywood Roosevelt, the Biltmore, the Mission Inn and the Chateau Marmont.

However, Imagineers also wanted to connect the attraction with some film reference, like other attractions at the park. After calling around to see what appropriate movies might be available to license and the cost, they eventually settled on using The Twilight Zone as the storyline "hook" since the series was still well-known and beloved and dealt with the "paranormal" and ordinary people being taken to a new dimension.

In so doing, the tone of the attraction shifted into being spookier and much more of the thrill ride that Eisner wanted to attract an older audience.

At the time work began on the attraction, United Technologies was the sponsor of the Living Seas pavilion at Epcot. UT owned a subsidiary, Otis Elevator, that had pioneered the development of the safety elevator in 1852 that would lock it in place if the ropes failed.

Originally, because of their reputation, they balked at the idea of being involved with an "unsafe" elevator but were persuaded it would be good publicity.

The self-guided vehicle was assigned to Eaton-Kenway, a manufacturer of computerized palette drivers for automated warehouse inventory transport. There were challenges getting both systems to work in tandem.

The horizontal movement into the Fifth Dimension is an element that is unique to the original Disney MGM Studios version. Every week the TZ television show began with Serling telling viewers that, with the key of imagination, one unlocks the door to another dimension.

The idea of another dimension was shown in the Little Girl Lost episode (March 1962) where a little girl named Tina falls into another dimension through the wall behind her bed. The premise for the Tower of Terror attraction is that the ill-fated elevator passengers have fallen into another dimension and have been trapped there never aging for decades. They are not ghosts but frozen in time and space.

In the Disney MGM Studios attraction, the guests' elevator leaves the lift shaft and passes through the Fifth Dimension where guests get a glimpse of the 1939 passengers motioning them to go deeper and join them. The elevator then goes into another lift shaft for the drop.

The Tower of Terror actually employs more than one type of vehicle in order to enable riders to leave the elevator shaft and pass through the Fifth Dimension. Guests sit in Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs), which rise up to the corridor scene in a Vertical Vehicle Conveyance (VVC).

When they reach the Fifth Dimension corridor, the AGVs exit not on a track like a traditional dark ride vehicle but are guided by a magnetic wire under the floor. This technology was originally developed for the ride vehicles in Epcot's Universe of Energy attraction and The Great Movie Ride.

When they reach the far end of the corridor, they lock into another vertical motion cab, which handles the actual drop sequence.

The AGVs are powered by onboard batteries, which are charged while riders are unloading. At any one time, up to eight of these vehicles could be circulating around the Tower of Terror's ride system. Ten were originally built so two would be available for backup.

While there really are two drop shafts on the original Tower of Terror, there are actually four elevators that lift the AGVs up to the Fifth Dimension scene—two of these merge into a single corridor scene. This enables the ride to have an increased capacity.

Unlike other amusement park drop rides, like Magic Mountain's Freefall, guests are not in fact being pulled down by gravity. In fact, they are moving faster than the speed of gravity to a top speed of 39 miles per hour.

Once the AGV vehicles are locked into the Vertical Vehicle Conveyance (the elevator housing), they are pulled by cables connected to two enormous motors at the top of the building, which are 12-feet tall, 35-feet long and weigh a massive 132,000 pounds. So the VVC is both pulled up and pulled down.

When the attraction was going through the test and adjust phase, it was found that the VVC was being pulled down so rapidly that it was compressing the air at the bottom of the shaft and blowing out the walls, so adjustments had to be made.

The attraction is only 199 feet tall, because Federal regulations would have required a flashing red beacon at the top to warn aircraft if it was 200 or more feet tall, and that would have conflicted with the theming of the story the Imagineers were trying to tell. For years, the tower was the tallest WDW attraction. Today, it is Expedition Everest at 199.5 feet.

Due to its height, the rear façade of the building can be seen from the Morocco Pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase. So the architectural elements and color palette for that part of the building were chosen to blend in from the distance as part of the skyline of the Morocco Pavilion.

The color would not have been common on a 1930s Hollywood hotel, although most guests would never realize that oddity but if they do, it is just one more disturbing element to make them feel uneasy.

Because of its height, lightning did indeed strike the structure while it was being built and also afterward, so there are lightning rods installed at the top. The building is composed of 1,500 tons of steel, 145,800 cubic feet of concrete, and 27,000 individual roof tiles.

Construction began in 1992 on the area that had formerly been a cast member parking lot. As concrete was getting ready to be poured, a sinkhole opened up under the site. The sinkhole was filled and pounded down and the placement of the building was shifted before concrete and steelwork was begun.

Disney marketing jumped the gun and came out with promotional tie-ins, commercials and opening date teasers, but because the ride system was utilizing new technology, the test and adjust phase to assure safety took longer than expected.

The computer code had to be written and revised. The Imagineers tested 33 different drop sequences before settling on the final one. Although marketing announced the attraction would be open July 4, 1994, it did not open until July 22, where it was so popular that wait times could be as much as three and a half hours. The cost for building it has been estimated as a $150 million.

Through the years, the Tower of Terror has received updates to the drop sequences and additional visuals in show scenes.

In 1996, it was modified for two "twice the fright" drops. In 1999, a triple drop was included with faster acceleration and more rumbling. In celebration of the attraction's tenth anniversary in 2004, randomized patterns of drops and lifts were added, where the ride vehicle would drop or rise various distances at different intervals for up to five to eight drops per ride. The Florida slogan was now: "Never the Same Fear Twice!"

However, despite the changes, the overall ride experience is very much the same as when it debuted. With the removal of the Sorcerer Mickey hat from the park, the tower is now marketed as the new icon for Disney Hollywood Studios.

Disney California Adventure Park opened a version in 2004 that was based on one for Disneyland Paris that did not open until 2007. However, because of different construction requirements in France, there are differences.

Without the horizontal movement into the Fifth Dimension (to save Disney money and maintenance), both these attractions feature three elevator shafts with each shaft having its own separate ride and its own separate operating system.

Rod Serling's voice declares: "You are the passengers on a most uncommon elevator… about to take the strangest journey of your lives. Your destination? Unknown; but this much is clear: a reservation has been made in your name for an extended stay."

The California version closed on January 2, 2017 to be converted into Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout! that opened May 2017.

A similar attraction that opened at Tokyo DisneySea in Japan in 2006 dropped the Twilight Zone reference since it was determined that Japanese guests had no familiarity or emotional connection to a 1960s American television show. The new storyline revolved around the fictional Hotel Hightower and its owner Harrison Hightower III and his collection of stolen, mysterious artifacts with the elevator incident happening New Year's Eve 1899 where Harrison disappeared.

Just as in the television show, host Serling has a final commentary at the end of the attraction: "A warm welcome back to those of you who made it, and a friendly word of warning, something you won't find in any guide book. The next time you check into a deserted hotel on the dark side of Hollywood, make sure you know just what kind of vacancy you're filling. Or you may find yourself a permanent resident… of the Twilight Zone."



  1. By ralfrick

    You may want to get a more contemporary comparison reference; Magic Mountain dismantled Freefall 11 years ago.

  2. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by ralfrick View Post
    You may want to get a more contemporary comparison reference; Magic Mountain dismantled Freefall 11 years ago.

    Thanks for the heads-up. I haven't been back to California in a decade and had no idea Freefall is gone.

    To help pay my way through college, I worked at Six Flags Magic Mountain and in keeping with the Halloween theme, I was there for the inaugural year when they did the Haunted Mountain overlay for the holiday. I wrote and directed a spooky stage show, did artwork for the children's area in particular the maze and performed as Dr. Electric with his electric chair where I encouraged guests to take a seat and if they jumped up before I turned off the current, their rear ends got a nasty shock. My brother also performed juggling chainsaws while blindfolded. I bet none of that stuff would pass muster these days.

  3. By CJ Brown

    Thanks for the article, Jim ! 👍

    It was nice to re-read the history behind the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ..... only to be reminded that Bob "just call me stupid" Chapek's idea they everything must have Disney intellectual property attached to it meant DCA's got replaced by something both DUMB and INFERIOR (think of this as the equivalent to when Disneyland's Tomorrowland lost it's Peoplemover to Rocket Rods - yeah that DUMB and STUPID!) 🙄

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