The Tower of Terror: Part 4 of our Freefall Series

Discovery Mountain was to have been a massive enclosed steel mountain with multiple attractions inspired by Jules Verne ideas and novels.  Discovery Mountain would have been the centerpiece of Disneyland Paris Discoveryland but plans eventually transformed into a smaller structure housing a roller coaster inspired by De la Terre a la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), Jules Verne novel that proposed ideas about space travel that turned out to be quite close to reality.

Inside Discovery Mountain, “Journey to the Center of the Earth” would have used an Intamin/Giovanola Freefall ride system and a volcano structure wrapped around it.  The Freefall ride system is quite thrilling, but ride capacity would have been too low for a Disney park, and the ride is quite noisy, making immersion and show difficult tasks to achieve.  At the time, this was the only ride system capable of simulating a freefall outside of the Togo Ultra Twister which was a roller coaster and also had similar flaws in Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) view.  Another Freefall attraction was also on the drawing board for the park, Geyser Mountain and like Journey to the Center of the Earth was never built.  Geyser Mountain already had part of its scenery constructed next to Phantom Manor, but never went past concept stage.

Our article about the Intamin Freefall

Nagashima Spaland First Gen Freefall.JPG

Intamin Freefall ride at Nagashima Spaland (Kuwana, Japan).  Journey to the Center of the Earth at Disneyland Paris would have been this ride enclosed in a volcano or a steampunk structure.

They went back to the drawing board and looked at an essential building feature:  elevators.  At the time, the idea was to have the fastest and smoothest elevators as skyscrapers, and even regular buildings were growing taller all around the world.  With land prices soaring in Asia, elevator manufacturers like Otis, Siemens, and Hitachi all were in their own arms race to build high-speed elevators.  Disney had Otis show them one such installation, and they were happy with the reliability, ease of maintenance and load capacities.  They did ask them one interesting question: can you make it rough and thrilling?  According to the legend, Otis was shocked at the idea as their clients usually wanted the smoothest experience possible with the goal of not feeling any movements.

By that time, Discovery Mountain at Disneyland Paris was well into the design phase, so that was out of the question.  They instead turned their head toward Walt Disney World and specifically, the Disney-MGM Studios park.  The park was marketed as a working studio and was a great success.  Capacity was urgently needed and a new street to compliment Hollywood Boulevard was planned.  The Theater to the Stars was moved as it was located where the new street would branch off from the plaza in front of the Chinese Theater.

Original Theater of the Stars 1989

The original Theater of the Stars, shot in 1989.

Backstage Tour water tank Disney MGM studios 1989

The original water tank special effect demonstration from 1989 at the Disney-MGM Studios.

After various proposed attractions were unfeasible due to rights issues or the IP behind it not having the expected success, WDI had an idea: what do you find in Los Angeles?  Landmark hotels.  Chateau Marmont, the Beverly Hills Hotel and others are known around the world, and this would be an ideal landmark for Sunset Boulevard.

Spanish revival was chosen for the style as it is a typical architecture for the 1920’s-1930’s era selected for Sunset Boulevard and it would also fit in well with Hollywood Boulevard.  Also, the dull yellow/tan paint is quite easy to maintain and holds up quite well in the sun.  Plus, it blends in quite well in the distance.  Thus, the Hollywood Tower Hotel was born.  Sunset Boulevard has a very subtle transition as things are quite happy and cheery the closer you are to Hollywood Boulevard;  things slowly decay the closer you get to the hill where the Hollywood Tower Hotel is located.  The structures housing the bathroom and fast pass distribution machines at the end were built of rough bricks and feel like you are in a graveyard.

What do you put in the Hotel?  The Twilight Zone had been a favorite TV show and the iconic opening where Rod Sterling explained the premise of tonight’s episode is iconic.  Rights were negotiated from CBS, and existing footage of Rod Sterling was blended in with a lookalike actor to create a brand new show opening, this time showed inside the Hotel.  The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror was born and became a legendary attraction, opening on July 22nd, 1994.

The Hollywood Tower Hotel was abandoned in 1939 when an incident occurred.  People fled the tower, and things are seemingly still as they were back then.  Abandoned luggage, registration cards, and even a Mah-jong game were left behind.  Eerie jazz music from then plays in the gardens as a perpetual fog covers the overgrown plants.  You make your way to the balcony and then enter the lobby.  Covered in dust and cobwebs, formerly grand banners show the hotel logo and eerie grooms direct you toward one of the two libraries.  Behind the groom, you can find the remnants of the hotel elevator, damaged beyond fixing and with an out of service sign.

The hotel sign with a fascinating effect where the Tower of Terror name appears in the stone.

A look at the Lobby

The hotel directory used to provide a warning; letters had fallen off and spelled out the following: EVIL TOWER UR DOOMED.  Entering the library, another groom asked us to stand on the carpet, and then, an old TV set came to life. We saw the opening of the Twilight Zone, and then Rod Sterling explain the premise of tonight’s episode.  In Hollywood, circa 1939, five people stepped into an elevator and then disappear when lightning struck the elevator, sending it crashing to the ground.  Strangely, the five people were never seen again; Rod Sterling ends his presentation with the mention that tonight we are the stars and we will soon step inside a service elevator to discover the fate of those persons.  The video is quite impressive as in addition to the eerie look of the library; lightning strikes are timed with the video, making it feel like a storm is raging outside the library window.

Tower of Terror Hotel Directory

The Hotel Directory.

Tower of Terror broken elevator

Destroyed elevator.

Tower of Terror library lamp

Lamp inside the library, showing the hotel logo.

Once out of the library, we proceed toward the hotel boiler room, and things are quite ominous, with machine noise and mist rolling at our feet and under the walkways.  The central boiler itself has the look of a steel monster, raising tension even more.  Four service elevators are present on the back wall, and eventually, the path splits into two.  A groom then assign the guests to numbers on the floor, representing the seats inside the elevator.  2 rows of seven and the back row of 8 was the original configuration with a lap bar for each group of three and four and the 22nd passenger? He faced the aisle and went at it with only a seatbelt.  This seat was quite famous for thrill seekers.

Tower of Terror Boiler Room

The Boiler Room.

Once everyone is secure, the doors close and Rod Sterling starts his narration.  We rise in the darkness and stop at one of the hotel room floors.  The doors open and the ghosts of the missing guests appear, beckoning us to join them…. The lights turn off, and the hallway disappears, turning into a star field.  The back window morphs into a floating eyeball that then shatters.  The doors close and our elevator silently rises again.

Hallway Scene 2.jpg

Hallway with the ghosts calling us to them.

The doors open and then, the impossible happen: our elevator crawls out of the drop shafts and inside a dark ride scene, we see various callbacks to the Twilight Zone and even see our image inside an eyeball.  One detail that everyone miss is the purpose of this scene: we are climbing up the tower.  We pass a sideways elevator door before reaching another star field that disappears just as we are about to touch it.  Sliding mirror doors quickly open and then, we hear a loud bang: more thunder?  Rod Sterling comes back to us and announces that we are about to find out what lies beyond the fifth dimension….

The elevator initially lifted up to the 127 feet level of the Hotel, and then, the shutter doors opened.  A quick picture was taken before our elevator plunged down to the basement, reaching 39 mph and lifting riders off their seats due to the negative G forces.  At the bottom, a video played showing nonsensical sights as our elevator backed out of the shaft and then rotated to face the exit.  Our lap bars and seatbelt were later released, and we exited out of the elevator.

Behind the scenes, the Tower of Terror is the most significant technical feat Disney had done for a ride since Space Mountain had brought computers and heartline design to roller coasters.  Otis Corporation provided the massive lift motors and elevators shafts.  Eaton-Kenway and WDI then worked together to take the Eaton-Kenway autonomous warehouse vehicles and adapted them for theme park use.  The new Autonomous Guided Vehicle (AGV) follows a buried wire that communicates with the AGV using a metal plate.  The wire transmits information from the ride control computers to the AGV such as speed and direction.  The AGV’s wheel configuration allows rotation, turns, forward and back motions.

To solve the capacity issues that plagued freefall rides until then, WDI effectively duplicated the ride systems. Four show shafts along with two drop shafts were constructed inside the massive 199 feet tall show building.  One side is composed of two load elevator door located inside their show shaft, and both shafts connect to its drop shaft in the Fifth Dimension dark ride segment.  After unloading its guests, AGV’s can either go to the maintenance area or backs up inside one of the two show shafts and go up to load.

4 AGV’s can run on each side, and a further two are kept as back-ups or goes outside to Central Shops for annual maintenance.  This also has an additional benefit: if one side is experiencing difficulties or need extended support, the attraction is still open with half the capacity.  Buying extra ride vehicles is a common thing for Disney as it gives them the best operational flexibility and avoids extended downtime and moments where reduced capacity is available.  For Example, Expedition Everest runs five trains at a time, yet a sixth one was purchased and allows Disney to rotate trains in and out of annual maintenance.

The Hotel itself is quite massive, and the large “room section” located behind the main tower is filled up.  For vertical and horizontal space requirements, each show shaft has its Hallway scene at a different level.  The two Fifth Dimension scenes are again on different levels, and each drop shaft has its movement profile to adjust for that.

After the ride opened on July 22nd, 1994, Disney updated the attraction in 1996.  This time, a half drop was added to the drop segment after the AGV entered the drop shaft.  Instead of rising directly to the top, the AGV instead dropped 50-60 some feet to the basement before rising to the 127 feet tall level for the photo.

1999 saw a further update where the drop sequence was greatly extended, but still featuring the unexpected drop out of the Fifth Dimension and the full 127 feet drop.  By that time, the original effect of taking a picture of the guests and projecting it inside the Fifth Dimension had been replacing by a generic AGV photo.  Music that had been removed from the drop shafts was restored.

2002 saw two massive changes to the attraction.  First, starting in the fall of 2002, Disney began to modify the AGV’s as they came in for their annual maintenance.  The lap bars were removed, and individual seatbelts for each rider installed. Due to the extra space required for the seatbelt mechanism, the back row lost its 8th seat, and each AGV now sits 21 passengers.  This was a challenge for the Grooms as they had to keep track of each AGV and adjust the seating accordingly until every AGV was converted.

Second, the extended drop profile was modified even further and joined by three other drop sequences.  Even crazier now is that the fact that the ride computers randomly select one of those four ride profiles.  Guests don’t know what they will experience except for the standard feature: 127 feet full drop.  The rest?  Only the Tower knows!

In 2010, as part of the Summer Nightastic event, the ride had a temporary overlay where the four drop sequences replaced by a single new one.  The Fifth Dimension scenes were modified and effects added to the drop shafts.  It lasted until August 14th, 2010 when the four profiles went back into service, and the Fifth Dimension returned to its original appearance.

Last, there was a dramatic effect on the main sign of the Hotel.  The burned out O randomly shot out sparks, as it had just burned out.  Unfortunately, this effect was too difficult to maintain, and some guests found it too realistic, leading to it being turned off.  The mist inside the Boiler Room and Fifth Dimension rooms were also turned off after opening.

Tower of Terror at Night

The Hotel at night.

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