More Tales of the Walt Disney World Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I've written about The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror before but there is still so much more to share. On June 30, 2012, I was a guest speaker at the Dayton Disneyana convention with Mark Silverman, who does the voice of Rod Serling in the Tower of Terror attraction.

We regaled guests with stories of the attraction and I recently re-discovered my notes for my presentation so I thought I might tell a few more tales of the iconic original version of the attraction at Walt Disney World.

Yes, Mark can still sound exactly like Rod Serling, which is an eerie experience if you close your eyes and just listen to him.

The free park guide map brochure from when the attraction opened in July 1994 stated: "Your next stop…a mysterious Hollywood hotel where the elevator takes a sudden detour into the fifth dimension and plummets straight down…from the thirteenth floor!"

When it came to immersive theming, the Imagineers outdid themselves with things to make you feel uneasy before you experience the elevator. Of course what makes an elevator frightening is the combined fears of claustrophobia and agoraphobia (a fear of being trapped with no escape that leads to panic attacks), not to mention being out of control.

When guests are walking down Sunset Boulevard toward the attraction, in the background they hear upbeat Swing music of the time period by artists like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, including Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree, Song of India, Juke Box Saturday Night, Three Foolish Things, Sing, Sing, Sing, and more.

The interior of the hotel was inspired by the Los Angeles Biltmore; an image of the hotel in its heyday can be found on a nearby billboard.

However, as guests enter the queue line, they hear more melancholy music that has an eerie, ghostly haunting sound, which was achieved with a Lexicon 480L box for an "echo return." That means that on channels one and two is the source audio and on channels three and four is the return from the reverb, so the reverb can be controlled throughout the piece. In addition a "Room" filter was used on the reverb so there is less of a stereotypical reverb sound.

Here the playlist loop of those songs in the queue:

  • Alabamy Home – Gotham Stompers
  • Another World - Johnny Hodges
  • Can't Get Started – Benny Berigan
  • Dear Old Southland - Noble Sissle
  • Deep Purple – Turner Layton
  • Delta Mood - Cootie Williams
  • Inside - Fats Waller
  • Jeep's Blues - Johnny Hodges
  • Jitterbug's Lullaby – Johnny Hodges
  • Jungle Drums - Sidney Bechet
  • Mood Indigo - Duke Ellington
  • Pyramid - Johnny Hodges
  • Remember - Red Norvo
  • Sleepy Time Gal - Glenn Miller
  • There's A House in Harlem - Henry Allen
  • There's No Two Ways About It – Frankie Newton
  • Uptown Blues - Jimmy Lunceford
  • We'll Meet Again - Vera Lynn
  • When the Sun Sets Down South - Nobles Singers
  • Wishing (Will Make it So) - Vera Lynn

Outside in the courtyard of the Legends of Hollywood store on Sunset, partially hidden by a tree, is a billboard depicting the Hollywood Hotel in its heyday. This is an example of story foreshadowing so that later, when guests see the decrepit hotel at the other end of the street, they get a sense of foreboding of how much it has fallen into decline after the incident.

Another example of foreshadowing is by the Route 66 sign further down on Sunset where actor Gilbert London's abandoned suitcase is still waiting to be picked up. London was one of the ill-fated guests in the elevator on that fateful Halloween night in 1939 when lightning struck the hotel.

The stone monument gates at the entrance (that also serves as a concealed bathroom facility) to the attraction were inspired by the Hollywoodland Gates in California. The original structure was built in 1923. It is located on Beachwood Drive at Westshire Drive. The Hollywoodland Gates were built to let everyone know that they were entering a very prestigious part of Hollywood.

It never seems to occur to guests that once they pass the entrance gates, they don't enter the hotel at its main entrance. That entrance with the covered porte-cochère for cars to drop off or pick up guests is now the exit. Guests are directed to take a side garden entrance to get to the lobby.

The grounds of the Hollywood Tower Hotel were inspired by the chaparral-covered hills of California's Griffith Park and Elysian Park. Since the hotel has supposedly been "deserted," there are the signs of neglect everywhere. The queue takes guests past broken stoneware, an old fountain with dead vines, and a cracked, empty pool. Once extravagant landscaping is now overgrown and crumbling overseen by silent statuary. The latticed walkways are very similar to ones at the Mission Inn hotel gardens in Riverside.

In addition to the haunting background music, guests can hear screaming. The Imagineers enhanced the sounds of screams because it was discovered that when some people were really scared that they were sometimes too scared to scream. The screams also serve as an early warning of what to expect, as well as to increase the excitement of the foolishly brave about what is to come.

The interior of the lobby was inspired by the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel (the ceiling is practically identical as are the adjacent archways) that was built in 1923 and is filled with wonderful details to make the fantasy real that are too often missed.

Luggage is still on the rolling carts, dead flowers in vases are on some of the tables, a coat and hat are strewn carelessly on the counter and unpicked up mail is in the room slots. It is as if people would return at any second to resume their activities.

The Mah Jongg game (a popular pastime in the 1930s) in the lobby was set up by professional players of the game to be in progress so that guests who knew how to play the game could see that it was authentic. What makes it spooky is that if the players left the table during the game, they would have pushed their chairs away from the table to get up. Their chairs are still in the position as if people were sitting there playing the game and then suddenly vanished.

On the wall in the lobby by the concierge's desk is a silver framed "13 Diamond" award from AAA. In actuality the award would only go up to the number five. Thirteen is an unlucky number. The clock in the lobby has stopped at the time 8:05. The official back story says that the lightning struck the hotel at this time. Eight plus five equals 13.

The directory in the lobby for amenities, located between the inoperable elevators has some missing letters that have fallen off and are at the bottom of the glass case that originally warned "evil Tower UR (you are) doomed" but after the fall of the New York Trade Center Twin Towers during 9/11, the letters that spell "evil tower" were removed.

Some of the bronze sculptures featured in the lobby are the actual work of 19th century French sculptor Auguste Moreau.

It is often pointed out that on the lobby's concierge desk is an issue of a Photoplay magazine that has "Four Pages of Hilarious Star Caricatures by Walt Disney". That fun fact has been cut and pasted in just about every listing for the attraction. However, there is more to that amusing bit of trivia. It is the January 1939 issue of Photoplay with a cover of actress Hedy Lamarr. It's actually an infamous issue because it contained an article (anonymously written by gossip columnist Sheilah Graham) that revealed several unwed Hollywood couples, like Carol Lombard and Clark Gable who were living together. It prompted some quick marriages soon afterward by studios to avoid bad publicity.

The four pages by Walt Disney were actually to promote the latest Silly Symphony short cartoon Mother Goose Goes Hollywood that had been released late in December 1938 and was still appearing in theaters. The celebrity caricatures portraying famous Mother Goose characters, like Simple Simon and Little Boy Blue, were not done by Walt Disney himself as he had long stopped doing drawing. They were based on the work of Disney storyman and caricaturist Thornton ("T.") Hee. Hee had been hired specifically to work on this cartoon because of his skill in doing caricatures.

To make things spookier, because of his skill in caricatures, T. Hee was loaned out and did the design for the Cliff Robertson version of the infamous Caesar ventriloquist dummy from the Twilight Zone episode Caesar and Me. In the magazine, two pages are in black, white and red and the last two pages in black, white and blue. The caricatures from the film include movie stars who would have been very familiar to audiences at the time like the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Charlie McCarthy, Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson. Laurel and Hardy, Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, Katherine Hepburn, and more.

It is natural that a hotel catering to Hollywood celebrities would have a copy of the magazine, even if it were 10 months old…another indication that something is not quite right here.

Everything in the lobby is covered by dust and cobwebs. There's a set of leather chairs that are genuine Renaissance antiques. Similar sets of these 17th century Portuguese Renaissance chairs are in New York's Metropolitan Museum and London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Other chairs were from the exclusive Jonathan Club, a well-known Los Angeles landmark built in the 1920s.

In order to find the appropriate style of furniture that was needed to fit the themed time period for this attraction, Imagineers went to garage sales, auctions, antique stores, and flea markets. In some cases, Imagineers were unable to find the type of furniture that they were looking for, so items had to be re-created. The sofas in front of the fireplace were built from scratch using a 1920s furniture catalog for a pattern.

In the libraries are some lamps with HTH (Hollywood Tower Hotel) on them. These were built for the attraction using flapper dresses from the 1920s for the material. The libraries have a plethora of references to characters from The Twilight Zone television series, as well as replicas of iconic props from the episodes.

Some of these are only found at the version in Disney's Hollywood Studios, while other versions have some examples missing from the Florida version. For instance, Disney California Adventure Park had the broken stopwatch from "A Kind of Stopwatch," the red toy telephone from "Long Distance Call," the box camera from "A Most Unusual Camera," and the electric razor and typewriter from "A Thing About Machines."

Among the items in the DHS libraries are the Mystic Seer devil-headed machine from "Nick of Time," the book To Serve Man from the episode of the same name ("It's a cookbook!"), Henry Bemis' glasses from "Time Enough at Last," and the miniature gold-suited spaceman figure from "The Invaders." The row of thin, tightly packed books on a shelf each contain a script for an episode of the television series.

The right library has an envelope with Rod Serling's name on it behind a cage and the left library has an envelope with Victoria West's name on it both referencing "A World of His Own." The trumpet from "A Passage for Trumpet" is sitting on top of some sheet music. In one of the libraries the sheet music is titled "What! No Mickey Mouse?" (1932) by Irving Caesar. In the other library the sheet music is "The Wedding Party of Mickey Mouse" (1931).

The boilers look like faces, often with fiery eyes or mouths. On the left side of the service elevator is an inspection certificate dated October 31, 1939 (the night of the incident) and signed by "Cadwallader". Cadwallader was a character on an episode of the Twilight Zone titled "Escape Clause," where it was revealed he was the Devil. The certificate number is 10259. The Twilight Zone series premiered October 2, 1959.

In the unload areas are the slot machine from "The Fever," the infamous Caesar ventriloquist dummy from "Caesar and Me," and the flying saucer spaceship from "The Invaders."

While it has been cited that the design of the architecture of the attraction was inspired by the Biltmore Hotel, Mission Inn and even elements from the Chateau Marmont, there is another inspiration that is often missed.

The Hollywood Tower is a large apartment building on 6200 Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles that was built in 1929. It became "sophisticated living for film luminaries" during the Golden Age of Hollywood and was placed on the Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of Interior in 1988. Its large neon "Hollywood Tower" sign from the side of the building can be seen clearly from the northbound lanes of the Hollywood 101 Freeway. It has been cited with its sign and the ascending design of the central building (only seven stories high) as one of the inspirations for the exterior of Florida's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror attraction. The building gets ample screen time in the Disney comedy Midnight Madness (1980) and was a well-known Hollywood landmark.

Speaking of screen time, Tower of Terror, shown on October 26, 1997 on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney weekly television program, was the first film based on a Disney theme park attraction. While it was primarily filmed in Hollywood, some of it was filmed at the attraction in Orlando, Florida.

Music was by Louis Febre. He met his mentor, John Debney, who had done extensive musical work for Disney, in 1996 and worked with him on Doctor Who The Movie (1996) before starting this film. Febre is perhaps best known for his work on the Smallville television series.

The roughly ninety-minute movie was written and directed by D.J. McHale who had previously worked as a writer for the Encyclopedia Brown television series as well as several After School Specials and was the co-creator (with Ned Kandel), writer and director on the Nickelodeon TV series Are You Afraid of the Dark?

So he was well-versed in shows for young people as well as horror when he was given the opportunity to direct this movie. Today, he is probably best known as the author of the young adult science-fiction/fantasy Pendragon book series of novels.

"I was never a horror fan but I loved scary stories like the compilations of short stories supposedly written by Alfred Hitchcock," said McHale in an article. "I felt Tower of Terror was really normal people you might know and that you feel like you could relate to, who are caught up in a bigger-than-life adventure. That's what comes out of my head. I don't know why, but that's what comes out."

The story has only the slightest connection to the storyline of the actual attraction and no reference to the Twilight Zone.

Disgraced reporter Buzzy Crocker (Steve Guttenberg who that same year appeared in the straight-to-video Casper: A Spirited Beginning) was fired from the Los Angeles Banner newspaper for submitting a story that turned out to be false. He now works for a sleazy supermarket tabloid called The National Inquisitor, assisted by his young niece Anna (Kirsten Dunst who that same year appeared in an episode of The Outer Limits).

An elderly woman named Abigail Gregory comes to Buzzy with a story about an incident she witnessed at a now abandoned luxury hotel back in 1939 where five hotel guests mysteriously disappeared. Gregory claims that Ms. Partridge, the nanny of child film star Sally Shine, was a witch who cast a curse that backfired.

Thinking the mystery might give him a great story and get him a job on a legitimate newspaper, Buzzy investigates the closed hotel. He does find a book of spells and Abigail insists that if items belonging to each of the passengers are found and the events of that night are repeated the curse will be broken. Buzzy and his niece enlist the assistance of the hotel caretaker who happens to be the grandson of the bellhop who was in the elevator.

Buzzy tries to set up some fake photos of the ghosts for his story for the tabloid, but some of the real ghosts appear to try and frighten him off. Anna accuses the nanny of cursing the guests, but the ghosts come to Partridge's defense.

Buzzy's girlfriend Jill (Nia Peeples), editor at the Banner, while also researching the story, discovers that Abigail is the sister of Sally Shine who was jealous of her younger sister's success. In fact, no one remembered Abigail's birthday on October 31st, so she is the one who cursed Sally.

Buzzy has located a lock of Sally's hair, the nanny's handkerchief, the bellboy's spare hat, the actor's Oxford spectacles and the female singer's locket. In addition the elevator has been repaired, but all of this is not to free the spirits but for Abigail to complete the curse.

Anna gets trapped in the elevator with the ghosts but the ghost of Sally makes it out and the elevator gets stuck on the 11th floor. Sally appears to Abigail and reveals that the party on the top floor was to have been a surprise birthday party for Abigail. Sally gives her the present she had for Abigail on that night. Abigail doesn't know how to stop the spell.

Buzzy, Jill, Abigail and Sally board a service elevator and catch up with the others on the 11th floor. Anna manages to get out from an emergency escape hatch just as lightning once again strikes the hotel and both elevators plummet toward the basement. Sally and her older sister reconcile and that breaks the curse as they dissolve into golden sparkles that safely stops both elevators before they crash.

The other ghosts ascend to the Tip Top Club in all its former glory and then go on to Heaven, along with the other party attendees who had also been trapped. With the curse broken, the Hollywood Tower Hotel is restored and re-opened.

The Disney Hollywood Studio version of the attraction remains the best version in terms of attention to detail and commitment to the story. The made-for-video television movie, supposedly based on it, is barely remembered by Disney fans today.



  1. By carolinakid

    Another fabulous article, Jim. Gives me a lot to look for!

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