I always enjoy thumbing through old Disney papers. Any sort of publication can keep me amused, everything from park maps, Disney Club magazines, even old newsletters. The idea for this blog comes from the July 21, 1994 issue of Eyes & Ears, the Walt Disney World cast newsletter. That particular issue was distributed to cast members the day before The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror officially opened to the public.
On the front page was an article meant to help cast members become ‘Tower of Terror experts’ so that they could easily answer questions. And I think it had enough detailed information that it probably accomplished the publisher’s goal!
Let’s have a look at what it said:
“You’ve taken the plunge on the greatest Walt Disney World thriller of all, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, during the cast preview, or have you? Whether or not you’ve dared to experience this spine-tingling journey, you can become a Tower Of Terror expert. Our guests, and your family and friends, will be impressed when you pass along the following fun facts about our newest attraction, which opens July 22”
As I read through the article, which took the form of a series of questions and answers, my mind drifted back to my first ride in the tower. It was in November 1999, the first time Carol and I travelled to Walt Disney World together. By that time the tower had been terrorizing Disney guests for more than five years. Carol had enjoyed several rides during previous trips to her happy place, so she described it to me as we walked up the slope to the run-down and seedy looking Hollywood Tower Hotel. “It’s like a high-speed elevator,” she told me, “It lifts you up then drops you, and repeats the drop a few more times.”
I worked on the 25th floor in a large downtown office tower and I was quite familiar with high-speed elevators. I thought, “That shouldn’t be a problem!”
What Carol didn’t tell me was the wonderfully spooky back story! Let’s read how it was described in that 1994 article.
“Strange apparitions have been reported on the upper floors of the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Who or what are they?”
“As the story goes, on the night of October 31, 1939, a freakish lightning-and-thunder storm suddenly descended on the Hollywood hills while the elite of the Hollywood film community found sanctuary in the hotel’s elegant lobby. Among those checking in that night, a handsome young couple accompanied by an older, over-worked bellman; a child actress in blond curls and a frilly dress and her stern and stately governess were last seen headed toward the elevator. They stepped in. The doors closed. Seconds later . . . the elevator, its passengers and several sections of the upper stories of the Hollywood Tower Hotel . . . vanished. Guests who enter The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror will re-live the fateful journey of those five elevator passengers. Perhaps, they’ll even meet them in The Twilight Zone.”
So, how did I like my first ride? It was amazing! As we’ve all come to expect from Disney, the attention to detail made it a truly immersive experience. The dusty old-time lobby was so realistic . . . the pre-show gave an eerie preview of The Twilight Zone . . . but the real WOW factor came from the ride itself! It was so much more than a high-speed elevator. I had never experienced total weightlessness in an elevator . . . I certainly hadn’t anticipated dropping that quickly!
“How much time did Walt Disney Imagineers spend watching old Twilight Zone episodes in order to create the new attraction?”
“There are 156 original Twilight Zone episodes. Every episode was screened at least twice (174 hours). Many episodes were screened three or four times and studied in regard to props, guest stars, settings and music. Rod Serling’s opening and closing comments were viewed separately at least 10 times each, individual segments as often as 20 times — for inspiration as well as to find the most representative quotes and characteristic phrases by Serling in his role as host of the show.”
Those 156 Twilight Zone episodes were filmed and televised between 1959 and 1964. I was 11-years old when the show first aired on CBS and I was a huge fan. I think I had read every science fiction book in my hometown library by the time I was 12, so a sci-fi TV show was a dream come true for me! I remember sitting in front of an old black-and-white television set watching a snowy picture on Channel 4 from nearby Buffalo New York. I’m pretty sure that I saw all 156 episodes . . . and I’m even a fan of the pre-show clip that Disney prepared for their new attraction. How did they bring Rod Serling back to life long enough to film that sequence? I suppose it’s just another example of Disney magic!
“Is The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror our tallest attraction?”
“At 199 feet tall, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is our tallest Theme Park attraction. By comparison, Cinderella Castle is 189 feet, and Epcot’s Spaceship Earth is 180 feet tall. Building materials for The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror included 1,500 tons of steel (3 million pounds), 145,800 cubic feet of concrete and 27,000 roof tiles.”
It’s quite likely that The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror will always be the tallest attraction at Walt Disney World. I’m sure we’ve all heard a guide, on some backstage tour or another say, “Florida law says that if it’s 200 feet tall it has to have a flashing red light on top!”
“What about the fastest?”
“The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is also our fastest thrill attraction – although the speed achieved as Guests plummet from the “13th floor,” passing from one dimension into another, is impossible to calibrate. The ride vehicles are themed to 1917-period caged service elevators.”
A scientist will tell you that all free-falling objects accelerate downwards at a rate of 9.8 metres per second, per second. Sounds pretty impressive, but I don’t have a clue what it means. The scientists can also put that free-fall concept into a handy little mathematical equation: vf = (9.8 m/s2) * (6 s) = 58.8 m/s There! Didn’t that clear things up?
Since all that physics mumbo-jumbo doesn’t help me . . . let’s use an old standby measurement — the scream test! Listen to the screams as the elevator car drops . . . Yup — that’s definitely the fastest ride at Walt Disney World!
“Where did the Hollywood Tower Hotel furniture come from?”
“The rooms and corridors of the Hollywood Tower Hotel are full of items from Hollywood auction houses. These are actual furnishings from the lavish estates of some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. One glance around the hotel at a chair, a table, a lamp, a set of brushes, gives one the feeling that the lost era of Hollywood lives on in this stately old hotel. Some items are particularly valuable: One set of leather chairs is an authentic Renaissance antique. Similar sets of these 400-year-old chairs are in New York’s Metropolitan Museum and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Other chairs were originally from the exclusive Jonathan Club, a well-known Los Angeles landmark built in the 1920s. Numerous French bronzes are found throughout the hotel, some by the famous 19th century artist Moreau, whose work graced many of the best hotels of the period.”
Just as you expect, Disney Imagineers searched for real furnishings and fixtures to use as props in the Hollywood Tower Hotel. From the time you begin your walk up the slope, before you enter the building, as you pass through the lobby, stand in the library to watch the pre-show and then walk through the boiler room, everything looks so authentic. That’s because most of it is authentic! It’s as if time really did stop during that freakish storm on Halloween night back in 1939 . . . and nothing has changed since then.
“How do Guests journey to the 13th floor when none exists?”
“There is no 13th floor in many old hotels, due to the superstition regarding the number 13. There is no floor 13 on the Hollywood Tower Hotel elevator indicator, and the original blueprints indicate a twelve-story hotel; so a trip to the 13th floor would indeed be very difficult to explain.”
But there has to be a 13th floor! I’m pretty sure I’ve been there! So the question is . . . was it Disney magic . . . or was I in The Twilight Zone?
“How can a building that is nearly 20 stories (199 feet high) have only 13 stories?”
“Because the Hollywood Tower Hotel is full of tall stories!”
Groan! I guess no cast newsletter is complete without a really bad pun!
One thing I really hadn’t expected on my first ride, all those years ago, was the horizontal travel. I was quite surprised when the car we were all seated in moved forward and passed through the ‘Fifth Dimension sequence’.
Wikipedia gives this description of the mechanics at The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror:
“The ride system of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios employs specialized technology developed by Walt Disney Imagineering, particularly the ability to move the vehicle in and out of the vertical motion shaft. The elevator cabs are self-propelled automated ride vehicles, also known as automated guided vehicles, which lock into separate vertical motion cabs. The cabs can move into and out of elevators horizontally, move through the “Fifth Dimension” scene, and on to the drop shaft. In order to achieve the weightless effect the Imagineers desired, cables attached to the bottom of the elevator car pull it down at a speed slightly faster than what a free fall would provide. Two enormous motors are located at the top of the tower, measuring 12 feet (3.7 m) tall, 35 feet (11 m) long, and weighing 132,000 pounds (60,000 kg). They are able to accelerate 10 short tons (9.1 t) at 15 times the speed of normal elevators. They generate 275 times the torque of a Corvette engine, reaching top speed in 1.5 second. The ride’s slogan, “Never the Same Fear Twice!” refers to the drop pattern being randomly selected by a computer before the ride begins. The drop reaches a top speed of 39 miles per hour (63 km/h). After the elevator cab has completed the ride, it propels itself to the unload dock and then back to the show shaft”.
I knew it! I knew it! The Imagineers weren’t happy with a simple free-fall . . . no, they added two giant motors to yank the elevator cars (and the unsuspecting occupants) around at 15 times the speed of a normal elevator! From 0 to 39 Miles Per Hour in 1.5 seconds! That’s when your bottom lifts off the seat and your hair stands straight up!
Here’s a picture that shows how the ride works.
The loading area is in the bottom left, the four back lift shafts. Once everyone is buckled in the car rises and stops in front of the short hallway where you see those five ghostly characters, then the mirror shatters. After you rise to the top of that shaft your elevator car detaches from the hoist and travels through the Fifth Dimension to the two front drop shafts. Those longer, higher and much scarier front shafts! Your car locks on to the hoist and off you go . . . to The Twilight Zone! This is where you scream!
So, the next time you’re sitting in that front shaft and your elevator car is shaking beneath you . . . that time when you know the big drop is imminent . . . that time when your life flashes before your eyes . . . here’s an easy way to stop worrying!
Think of the free-fall acceleration rate:
9.8 metres per second, per second
And that wonderful equation:
vf = (9.8 m/s2) * (6 s) = 58.8 m/s
There . . . isn’t that soothing?