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Serena via Flicker // CC BY 2.0
Serena via Flicker // CC BY 2.0

13 Freaky Facts About Disney's Tower of Terror Ride

Serena via Flicker // CC BY 2.0
Serena via Flicker // CC BY 2.0

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.

Michael Gray via Flicker // CC BY 2.0

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.

Getty

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 last year, with direction from producer Jim Whitaker. Stay tuned!

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Pop Culture
The Computer Virus That Brought Down Whac-A-Mole
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Walk inside any pop-up carnival, amusement park, or retro arcade space and you’re likely to find a rodent infestation so stubborn that visitors are expected to bludgeon the pests to death with a mallet. Despite receiving thousands of concussive blows, these creatures are virtually guaranteed to continue being a nuisance—and for the game’s operators, their seeming indestructibility is a lucrative source of revenue.

Whac-A-Mole, first introduced in 1976 by the Bob’s Space Racers (BSR) amusement company out of Florida, is a cabinet game that features plastic-molded moles raised and lowered on mechanical sticks to be walloped by players wielding a foam club. Despite all of the moving parts, it’s generally understood that the games will require only minimal maintenance: a new washer every now and then, and maybe a cleaning.

That’s why the sudden failure of several Whac-A-Mole machines beginning in 2008 was so strange. BSR began fielding calls from unhappy customers who complained that their units were malfunctioning. After working fine for days or weeks, the units would power down without warning.

Some of them opted to deal directly with Marvin Wimberly, a computer programmer and contractor working for BSR who was able to diagnose and fix what appeared to be a defective module that was infected with a virus.

Before long, both BSR and local authorities would come to believe the repair came easily to Wimberly for a simple reason: They suspected he was the one who infected the modules in the first place.

A Whac-A-Mole game in Cedar Point, Ohio
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

According to a 2011 report in the Orlando Sentinel, Wimberly, then 61, had been with BSR since 1980 as an independent contractor. For 22 years, Wimberly wrote the computer programs that told Whac-A-Mole and other games how to interact with players. Wimberly believed his software was his property; BSR believed they owned it—a point of contention that would soon come into dispute.

The work wasn’t always steady, and Wimberly was apparently unhappy with his wages. Following a breakdown in negotiations for BSR to buy his software outright for $500,000, in 2009 he asked that his fee per chip be raised from $60 to $150.

A few months prior, in September 2008, modules began surfacing that were infected with a virus—or what some programmers call a “logic bomb”—that would render the machines useless after a set number of games: sometimes five, sometimes 50, sometimes 511. BSR bought equipment to examine the chips, found the virus, and became convinced that Wimberly had gone rogue. They told police he had sold them 443 infected modules for $51,000, then sat back as the company began to field complaints from operators. When BSR approached Wimberly with offers to fix the chips, he would—and then, according to police, promptly install a new virus that would begin the countdown all over again.

The authorities also believed Wimberly fielded inquiries from disgruntled customers who didn’t want to bother going through BSR for repairs, and even registered a website, bobsupgrades.com, that sought to solicit repair work from amusement operators.

The cabinet art for the Whac-A-Mole arcade game
Nick Gray, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Feeling they had sufficient information from BSR, Orlando authorities arrested Wimberly in February 2011 on charges relating to offenses against intellectual property. He was released after posting $15,000 bail. BSR CFO Michael Lane told the press that Wimberly’s actions had led to roughly $100,000 in losses for the company.

The news media found a lot of humor in poisoning the well of Whac-A-Mole, but Wimberly, who was accused of a second-degree felony, wasn't laughing: He faced 15 years in prison.

Except Wimberly wouldn’t be swatted away so easily. According to court records kept in Volusia County, Florida, Wimberly asserted the virus was a software bug that was a result of new diagnostic procedures, not sabotage. In April 2012, Wimberly argued before a judge that, as the owner of the software under question, he couldn’t be accused of tampering with it—as he owned it outright.

“He is essentially accused of modifying his own software,” read the motion to dismiss, which noted that Wimberly hadn’t been paid for the repairs and was therefore failing to profit from the alleged wrongdoing. The court agreed, and the criminal case was dismissed in April 2013.

But Wimberly wasn’t satisfied. In September 2013, he sued Bob’s Space Racers for misappropriation of trade secrets, accusing them of continuing to sell Whac-A-Mole and other games containing Wimberly’s codes after parting ways with him and without paying any licensing fees. He also alleged that BSR had failed to come to him with news of the virus’s discovery, preferring to build a case against him with local police instead; BSR countered that Wimberly had “intentionally programmed the [chip] software to include a virus” and that he was paid to repair the malfunctioning chips.

The case dragged on for more than two years, inching toward a jury trial. In November 2015, the parties finally reached a settlement with undisclosed terms. A spokesperson for BSR declined to comment to Mental Floss on the matter; Wimberly could not be reached.

If there was an attempt to sabotage Whac-A-Mole, it couldn't be proven to a criminal court's satisfaction. If Wimberly did indeed own the software, his argument that he was free to do with it as he liked would have been weighed against the harm done to BSR's reputation for having to service defective modules. But Wimberly insisted he did not write or install a virus: The accusation that he had, he claimed, was unfounded.

The next time you play, it may be a good idea to remind yourself that the people behind the game often have worse headaches than the moles.

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entertainment
The One Phrase Disney Theme Park Characters Aren't Allowed to Say
Matt Stroshane, Disney/Getty Images
Matt Stroshane, Disney/Getty Images

The 14 Disney theme parks located around the world attract so many attendees each year that the company recently decided to increase admission for peak times by 20 percent to help decrease crowd congestion. Anaheim’s Disneyland is such a popular tourist attraction that some days the park is actually at capacity.

What keeps visitors packed in like sardines? The promise of a suspended reality—one that treats the various Disney characters as though they had just stepped out of a movie. There’s a laundry list of employee policies to help sustain that illusion, and Travel + Leisure recently uncovered one of the most interesting ones: Actors dressed as Disney characters are never allowed to say “I don’t know” to guests.

The motivation is understandable: Disney never wants people to feel as though they need to wander around looking for information. If they pose a question to, say, a Disney Princess, the actor is expected to communicate with other employees or areas of the park in order to find the answer. If Elsa doesn't know where the nearest restroom is, she's tasked with finding out before your kid's bladder gives up.

If a guest is looking for general directions, there’s also protocol for how to point. Performers are not allowed to use their index finger by itself. Instead, they use it in conjunction with their middle finger. In addition to index finger-pointing being considered rude in some cultures, legend has it that the gesture was partly inspired by Walt Disney himself, who once roamed the park grounds pointing at structures with two fingers that pinched a cigarette.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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