The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is my favorite attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In my opinion, it is one of Disney’s crowning gems and an absolute “must see” on every visit. I’d be surprised if any other attraction has more details packed into it as Tower of Terror. I’ve been on this ride dozens of times and I’m still discovering new facts. What is to follow is a brief history of how this great “hotel” came into being and then a description of the experience.
When the Disney/MGM Studios was being planned and built, the intent was that it would function as a working studio and produce movies and television shows. At the same time, Disney would offer guests a half-day experience where they could learn about the film industry while being entertained. However, things did not work out as planned. For a number of reasons, this venue was never able to take off as a real production center. And since guests were paying the same ticket price to enter the Studios as they were for the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, they wanted more than a half-day experience. The park needed to be retooled and expanded.
Sunset Boulevard was the first major addition to come to the Studios. And with it came four attractions. In July, 1994, the “Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage” show was relocated from the Backlot Theater to a new 1,500-seat Theater of the Stars. At the same time, the “Twilight Zone Tower of Terror” opened at the end of Sunset Blvd. On October 15, 1998 “Fantasmic” opened at the Hollywood Hills Amphitheater. And finally, “Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster” debuted on July 29, 1999.
An interesting note: The Sunset Ranch Market, which features Catalina Eddie’s and Rosie’s All American CafÃ©, was built to be a place-holder for a future attraction. If you’ll notice, the structures are all small and simple and could easily be removed.
The Imagineers knew they needed a major ride at the end of the boulevard. To employ a word that Walt often used, they needed a “weenie” to draw the guests past the shops and down the street. This would require an attraction that was not only a show stopper, but visually appealing.
During the planning stages for Sunset Blvd, a number of attractions were considered. One, to be called “Crime Stoppers,” was to be based on the Disney movie “Dick Tracy.” But the film did not meet the financial and critical expectations Disney had hoped for. In addition, Michael Eisner didn’t like the violent nature of the attraction so the idea was scrapped.
The Imagineers often say that no good idea ever goes unused. Keeping this in mind, one can’t help but wonder if part of the American Waterfront at Tokyo DisneySea was based on Crime Stoppers. Take a look at the concept drawing for this discarded attraction, then look at the very similar street at DisneySea. Hmmm.
Another early idea called for a scary, yet humorous attraction based on Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” that would be housed in an elaborate castle. Mr. Brooks even sat in on some of the early brainstorming sessions. As possibilities continued to be explored, the “Young Frankenstein” idea morphed into a haunted hotel concept. Soon after, the attraction took on a more serious tone and Mr. Brooks left the project.
A different idea centered around the popularity of murder mysteries in the 1930’s, the same era as Sunset Blvd. In this scenario, the guests would be given a series of clues in order to solve a murder mystery. But management frowned on the idea of a ride based on homicide and nixed the idea. Another concept involved a mishap at a Hollywood wrap party. But once again, murder wasn’t the story they wanted to tell at a Disney park. Eventually the Imagineers came up with the idea of movie stars being trapped in an out-of-control elevator. And in this case, the people just “disappeared” in a supernatural way, not at the hand of man.
The Imagineers believed that linking the attraction with a recognizable movie or television show would help guests grasp the storyline more quickly and a number of properties were explored. Eventually, The Twilight Zone was selected and the Imagineers viewed all 156 episodes at least twice to make sure they captured the essence of the show in both the design of the structure and the story they would tell. However, the story they created was unique and never was part of the series.
The design of the hotel needed to be appropriate to the era and blend in with the rest of Sunset Boulevard. The Imagineers decided on architecture that was inspired by the revival styles that were popular in California during the early 20th century. The hotel is modeled after such landmarks as the Mission Inn in Riverside, the ChÃ¢teau Marmont in Hollywood, and the Biltmore Hotel located in Downtown Los Angeles. Its fictional construction date is 1917 which can be seen on a plaque while standing in line.
But the building not only needed to blend with its immediate surroundings, it also needed to blend in with World Showcase in Epcot. You see, when crossing the bridge that leads from the Disney Traders Shop to Mexico, the hotel is clearly visible behind the Morocco pavilion. So the Tower was given a slightly Moorish feel and painted a color that was not completely accurate for its era just so it would blend into the background when viewed from Epcot.
The Imagineers made one mistake when designing the exterior of the building. The “Hollywood Tower Hotel” sign was placed too low on the structure. In fact, the sign would have been underneath the two wings that were destroyed when hit by lightning. If you pay attention during the Library preshow, you can clearly see the sign is located above the destroyed wings, which would have been the correct placement. This mistake was corrected in the California and Paris versions of the ride. At Tokyo DisneySea the storyline is completely different and there are no wings. In fact, the hotel’s name does not appear on the building as it does on its three cousins..
Here are some basic construction facts about the Tower. The structure required 1,500 tons of steel, 145,800 cubic feet of concrete, and 27,000 roof tiles. The building is 199 feet tall as FAA requirements require that all structures 200 feet or more have a flashing red light on top. The Imagineers felt that this beacon would be distracting and opted to come in under this limit. A model of the Tower, used in the planning stages of the ride, can be seen in the “One Man’s Dream” attraction on nearby Mickey Avenue.
During construction, a billboard was strategically placed near the park’s entrance, advertising the upcoming attraction. The three construction photos were taken by our own Deb Wills.
The Tower of Terror (TOT) opened on July 22, 1994. It beckons guests from the parking lot and tram operators point it out as you make your way to the main gate. Later, when you turn onto Sunset Boulevard, you see it sitting majestically at the end of the street. And if that’s not enough, a era-appropriate billboard can be found on the Boulevard advertising this great hotel.
The stone sentries at the entrance to the attraction are close replicas of the gates found at the entrance of Hollywood’s Beachwood Drive. In our case, they mark the beginning of the Sunset Hills Estates.
The stone structure on the right houses restrooms and behind the one on the left, the FastPass dispensers can be found. If you look beyond the dispensers, you’ll find a shed and gardening equipment once used by the hotel’s landscapers.
Perched on a hill is a sign displaying the wait time for standby riders. Although numbers less than 13 are often used, this superstitious numeral is frequently present. When it is, you know that the line is very short if not nonexistent. The TOT and the Haunted Mansion at the Magic Kingdom are the only two attractions to ever use this number. The nearby landscaping is reminiscent of Griffith and Elysian Parks found in the city of Los Angeles.
Pay attention to the hotel’s stone marquee. It eerily changes, helping set the mood for your journey into the Twilight Zone.
Next, you pass beneath an elaborate entryway where you’re greeted by one of the hotel’s staff. Make sure to notice the “Keep Out” sign posted on the left gate.
Once past the gate look immediately to your right. A most unusual sundial can be found here. At one time, it was used as a wait-time indicator, but no more. Although difficult to make out in my picture, the words say, “YOUR NEXT STOP THE TWILIGHT ZONE 5 MINUTES FROM THIS POINT.”
From the gate, you wander through some of the long-neglected hotel grounds. More details abound such as a cracked wall from overgrown tree roots and signs marking the way to various recreational facilities. In the background, screams can be heard as you approach the building.
As you continue your walk, you come to an arbor and a long-dry fountain. Notice the vines that have encased some of the pillars over the years. And the bottom of the fountain has accumulated numerous cracks as time has passed. At one time, the fountain had a water-ring visible on the tiles, but for some reason, this has been removed. To the left of the arbor are statues of two lovely ladies.
As you approach the arbor, music can be heard in the background. If you listen closely, you’ll notice it has a far-away, echoey quality. This was done intentionally to invoke a ghost-like feel of a bygone era. The songs played are as follows:
“Alabamy Home” By Gotham Stompers
“Another World” By Johnny Hodges
“Can’t Get Started” By Benny Berigan
“Dear Old Southland” By Noble Sissle
“Deep Purple” By Turner Layton
“Delta Mood” By Cootie Williams
“Inside” By Fats Waller
“Jeep’s Blues” By Johnny Hodges
“Jitterbug” By Johnny Hodges
“Jungle Drums” By Sidney Bechet
“Mood Indigo” By Duke Ellington
“Pyramid” By Johnny Hodges
“Remember” By Red Norvo
“Sleepy Time Gal” By Glenn Miller
“There’s a House” By Henry Allen
“There’s No Two” By Frankie Newton
“Uptown Blues” By Jimmy Lunceford
“We’ll Meet Again” By Vera Lynn
“When the Sun Sets” By Nobles Singers
“Wishing” By Vera Lynn
At last you come to the main entrance of the hotel and step inside. It’s here that the details become too numerous to count.
To the left side of the lobby is a small table. On it we see a game a mahjong was in progress on that fateful Halloween night when disaster struck. The tiles are accurately placed so that guests who know the game will see that it is a faithful recreation. Alongside the table is a tea cart, which would be appropriate in any fine hotel of the era.
Further along the same wall is another table. Here, a young couple was celebrating their engagement with a glass of champagne when lightning struck the hotel. Lipstick can be seen on one of the glasses and a diamond ring can be found on a white glove sitting on the table.
To the left side of the entrance is the concierge desk. Like everything else in the hotel, it has been left untouched since October 31, 1939. On the wall next to the desk is a plaque honoring the hotel with AAA’s prestigious 13-diamond award. In reality, 5 diamonds is the maximum.
Beside the concierge desk is a poster advertising the Tip Top Club located on the top floor of the hotel. The orchestra leader is Anthony Fremont. If you remember your Twilight Zone episodes, you might recollect a show titled “It’s a Good Life.” In this story, a young boy, named Anthony Fremont, could make people disappear into the cornfield.
The main lobby of the Hollywood Tower Hotel is stunning. Some of the chairs were secured from the exclusive Jonathan Club, a well-known Los Angeles landmark built in the 1920’s. Other leather chairs are authentic Renaissance antiques. And a set of luggage near the front desk is made from genuine alligator skin, a popular fashion of the time. This same set of luggage can be seen later in the library TV presentation as the bellman carries them onto the doomed elevator.
Be sure to check out the ceiling and light fixtures. They are truly amazing works of art.
A number of French and American bronze pieces are scattered around the hotel lobby. Some are recreations and others are real, crafted by the famous 19th century artist Moreau, whose work graced many of the best hotels of the era.
Located between the two guest elevators is the hotel’s directory. Listed here are various facilities and their location. For example, the Tip Top Club, mentioned earlier, can be found on the TOP OF THE TOWER. Also mentioned are the Sunset, Beverly, and Fountain Rooms, which can be found on the LOWER LEVEL. I’ll discuss these three rooms in more detail later.
At one time, the missing letters that had fallen from the directory spelled “EVIL TOWER U R DOOMED” at the bottom of the case. However, the letters were removed some time ago. Although I have never been given a reason for the disappearance, I suspect it was out of deference for the Twin Towers after the 9/11 tragedy.
Take a look at the two elevators to either side of the Directory. There are “Out of Order” signs in front of them and their doors have fallen off their tracks.
That’s it for Part One. Check back tomorrow for Part Two and more interesting facts about The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.