On October 31, 1939, five people met their fates when lightning struck the elevator shaft of the Hollywood Tower Hotel.
At least, that's what Disney would have you believe. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a drop ride at four Disney theme parks, takes guests on a terrifying trip through time to discover what happened to those unsuspecting passengers in 1939. It has since become a cult hit, even making famous guests like Mariah Carey scream for more. Here are 13 facts about Disney's Tower of Terror.
1. IT COULD HAVE BEEN BASED ON THE WORKS OF STEPHEN KING.
After Disney’s movie-themed MGM Studios opened in 1989, Imagineers made plans to add an attraction that would appeal to fans of horror movies. They kicked around a variety of ideas, including a ride based around Stephen King’s many terrifying tales. Also considered was a faux ghost tour featuring Vincent Price, an amusingly horrifying ride hosted by Mel Brooks, or an actual hotel inside of the park that would have had a haunted theme.
2. CREATING THE RIDE INVOLVED A LOT OF TWILIGHT ZONE RESEARCH.
Known for their immersive research, Disney Imagineers watched 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone in order to perfect the ride's aesthetic and tone. Fans of the Rod Serling classic have picked up on the many references to classic episodes, including an appearance from the infamous Talky Tina doll.
3. THERE ARE ALSO SUBTLE DISNEY REFERENCES.
In addition to the many nods to The Twilight Zone, there are plenty of sly references to Disney as well. For starters, there’s sheet music in the library titled “What! No Mickey Mouse?” and a Photoplay magazine featuring a four-page spread of Walt Disney-designed caricatures in the lobby.
4. THERE WAS ONCE A SECRET MESSAGE IN ONE OF THE NOTICE BOARDS.
The spirits at the Hollywood Studios Tower of Terror sometimes try to help guests avoid their fates. Inquisitive guests who peer inside an old notice board in the lobby may find that the fallen letters accumulated at the bottom spell out a warning: “EVIL TOWER UR DOOMED.” The warning has come and gone over the years.
5. GREMLINS DIRECTOR JOE DANTE DIRECTED THE PRE-RIDE VIDEO.
Before guests board the ride, they’re taken into a dusty old library, where Rod Serling tells the tale of the tragedy that changed the hotel on October 31, 1939. That’s really Rod Serling, by the way; Imagineers were able to take clips from The Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life” that matched up with the story they wanted to tell. That pre-ride video was directed by Joe Dante, who also directed Gremlins.
6. ROD SERLING'S WIFE CHOSE THE VOICEOVER ARTIST.
Though it’s Rod Serling’s image in the video, it’s not all his voice. Voice impersonator Mark Silverman’s ability to match Serling’s famous cadence was so impressive that he was chosen for the job by Rod’s widow, Carol Serling.
7. GUESTS DON’T ACTUALLY DROP.
Tower of Terror guests may feel like they're free-falling, but they're not—they’re being pulled. Ride technology pulls the elevator car down faster than gravity, which is what results in that amazing butts-off-the-seat levitation effect. (Don’t forego the seat belts on this one, kids.)
8. THE DROPS ARE RANDOMIZED.
Guests can't prepare themselves for the exact level of terror they'll experience on the ride. In 2002, Disney upgraded the Tower of Terror with computer-randomized drop sequences for each individual experience, so riders don't know how many times they'll drop or from what heights.
9. THE EXTERIOR WAS DESIGNED TO BLEND IN WITH MOROCCO.
The Florida ride is the second-tallest attraction at the resort, second only to the Expedition Everest roller coaster and the Animal Kingdom. In fact, it's so tall that the upper half of it is visible from Epcot—it can be seen just behind the Morocco pavilion. Because Disney is so invested in making guest experiences completely immersive, they designed the exterior of the fake hotel to blend right into the Morocco skyline. Check it out:
10. OTIS ELEVATORS WAS INVOLVED IN THE RIDE'S CREATION.
Disney called in the elevator experts to help create the attraction. Otis Elevators has been outfitting buildings across the world since 1853—and with a price tag of $8 million, the Tower of Terror is the company's most expensive sale ever.
11. PART OF THE RIDE IS A SELF-DRIVING CAR.
If you’ve been on the Florida version of the ride, you probably recall a moment where the elevator car seems to leave the shaft to take you through a very Twilight Zone-esque "Fifth Dimension." That’s because it does! The car is actually an AGV, or an autonomous-guided vehicle, that moves without tracks or rails.
If you don’t mind ruining some of the mystery, you can see exactly how it works on this clip from Modern Marvels:
12. THE VERSION AT DISNEY’S CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE IS GETTING RE-THEMED.
The California Adventure version of the Tower of Terror opened on May 5, 2004, 10 years after the Orlando version made its debut. Unless fan petitions manage to get through to the powers that be, the elevator doors at the California Adventure Tower of Terror will close for the last time on January 2, 2017, to make way for a Guardians of the Galaxy makeover.
13. THERE MAY BE A MOVIE ON THE WAY.
The Tower of Terror first received a movie treatment in 1997, with a made-for-TV film starring Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst.
But there may be a big-budget revamp in the works as well. Big Fish screenwriter John August turned in a treatment in 2015. Stay tuned!