Still Terrifying After All These Years

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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.

Tower Of Terror 2018

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!”

Group Ride 2005

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!

Group Ride 2016

“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!

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.”

Tower Hotel Lobby

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.

Tower Hotel Lobby

“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!

About to Fall

Here’s a picture that shows how the ride works.

Tower Schematic

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?

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Gary hails from Canada and he’s a lifelong Disney fan. In the 1950s he watched the original Mickey Mouse Club and The Wonderful World of Disney on a snowy old black-and-white television. Gary was mesmerized by the Disneyland that Walt introduced to the world during those Sunday night shows! In 1977 he took his young family to Walt Disney World for the first time and suddenly that Disney magic he experienced as a child was rekindled. Since then Gary and his wife Carol have enjoyed about 70 trips to Walt Disney World, 11 trips to Disneyland and 11 Disney Cruises.

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6 Replies to “Still Terrifying After All These Years”

  1. Hi Gary –

    Great article!! I managed to ride the Tower of Terror during it’s 1st month, in August 1994. If memory serves me correctly, the seats were not the padded individual ones with seatbelts, but the whole row was one big bench, which was made of open grid metal like some of the benches in the parks. There was one big lap bar that was for everyone on that side of the car and row, when locked, it was 6″ – 8″ above the top of my thighs. When the car dropped, air was rushing up all around you and you floated out of the seat till the lap bar stopped you!!! Talk about hairy!!!

    – Jeff

  2. My absolute favourite ride in The World and indeed, the world. 🙂

    One way to look at the force with which you fall was – back in the day a CM told us a story that if you hold a penny in your hand, as you drop, the penny will appear to float.
    Your elevator is simply falling faster than the penny in ‘normal’ gravitational freefall.
    Of course, this is a health and safety nightmare so is not recommended to try it at all.
    I guess, if your hat is a bit loose you will have seen the same effect! 🙂
    And who wants to stare at a penny while they’re on the best ride ever!

    I remember one day a long time ago, it may have been when Rock n Roller Coaster had just opened, the Tower had 13 minutes posted at 9am(my favourite sign ever), and we rode, and rode, and rode, and rode, and rode… about 8 times in a row.
    Then we went back for more in the afternoon!

    Best wishes

  3. I love the Tower of Terror. I remember the first time I went on it. I was terrified at first cause I didn’t know what to expect, and it did look scary. Then by the end of the ride, I LOVE it and remembered the movie that was on ABC with Steven Guttenberg. I had to buy the DVD and Bellhop Goofy to commemorate the first ride. Still my favorite today.

  4. I liked it a lot better when it dropped you the whole way. The last couple times I rode it they bounced us up and down a lot but we never fell very far and all it did was make me nauseous. The big drops were fun!

  5. Except that Tower of Terror is no longer the tallest affection. When Expedition Everest was built it measured in at 199.5

  6. The Equation Gary used baffled me for a few seconds until I realized I grew up stateside and learned it as 32 feet per second, per second. Either way I agree with Gary it translates as FAST!!

    [Gary writes: Yes Sandy, I learned it as 32 fps/ps just like you did. Since my school days Canada has converted to metric, but I haven’t. I think the scientific community has always preferred metric. No matter how you express the equation though, it’s all Greek to me!]