Tower of Terror Construction Hollywood Studios Florida

Contrary to what the attraction’s story might want you to believe, the Tower of Terror was not built in 1917. 🙂  Disney’s construction crew cleared the site and broke ground in 1992. Discovery of a sinkhole necessitated a slight relocation of the build site. Construction continued until the ride and Sunset Boulevard opened together on July 22nd, 1994. (Source: Wikipedia article)

Tower of Terror Construction Hollywood Studios Florida billboard advertising

Early 90s Tower of Terror billboard advertising the upcoming attraction. Photo credit: Jack Spence

Exterior Construction

This aerial shot of the Tower of Terror’s construction is the earliest one I’ve fond.  It gives a good sense of the scale of the building – look at those tiny trucks!  The gardens are just a pile of dirt, and the building itself is little more than a steel skeleton.  This photo is particularly noteworthy because it offers a rare glimpse into the area between the back lift shafts and the front drop shafts.

aerial photo of Tower of Terror construction in Hollywood Studios Florida

Photo credit: Vintage Disney parks

This next photo is somewhat of a rarity among Florida Tower of Terror construction photos because it’s crystal clear!

This photo, depicting the building’s left side (which is the side guests enter and exit) was taken shortly after the previous photo – you can tell by the completed rooftops in the back and the addition of the “front building” at the building’s front.

Tower of Terror construction Hollywood Studios florida

Scaffolding surrounds the Tower during its construction in 1993/1994. Photo credit: Disney Parks Blog

This photo of the Tower’s construction depicts some roofing details on the structure’s front, details that appear to be missing from the previous shot.  Few other differences are noticeable, suggesting this photo was taken around the same time as the previous one.

Tower of Terror MGM original construction

The lightning-scarred facade becomes recognizable in this construction photo.

florida_tower_construction_crane

Interior Construction

Taken just months before the attraction opened to the public in July, this May ’94 photo shows the hotel’s lobby midway through its own construction.  The walls have been painted and textured, and the light fixtures added, but the floor tiles have yet to be grouted and none of the iconic dusty decor has shown up yet.

Tower of Terror construction hollywood studios Florida

The Tower’s hotel lobby under construction – May 1994. Photo credit: Disney Parks Blog

Cranking up the Thrills

Disney legend has it that a ride designer rode an early version of the Tower and said, “If my tie doesn’t fly up in my face, it’s not good enough”. A descent at normal “freefall” speed wasn’t thrilling enough, so the ride’s design eventually came to feature a “faster than gravity” pull. That’s right – you aren’t freefalling in the Tower, you’re being pulled down (at about 30 mph).

tot-opening-promo

Opening Day

The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror officially opened on July 22nd, 1994 featuring one gigantic drop. Reception was overwhelmingly positive, and the ride became an instant favorite for thrill-seekers and Disney fans. Over the following 20 years, the ride was reprogrammed a few times to add more drops, rumbles, and an element of randomization to differentiate repeat rides.

Disney soon started work on a second Tower of Terror…

Tower of Terror On Ride Photo Souvenir Frames

If you’ve ever bought one of those pricey on-ride photo souvenirs you might recall the paper frame your photo came in.  Somewhat clumsy to put together and all too easy to pop the photo out of, these keepsakes often featured some wonderful artwork unique to the frame design.  Scans and photos of these souvenir photo frames are rather difficult to come by now that everything’s going digital. This gallery of the Tower of Terror on ride photo souvenir frames seeks to preserve the frames and their artwork.

1990’s

Guests who purchased the on ride photo in the Tower’s early years got this souvenir photo frame.  These are wonderfully detailed artworks from before the Photoshop era; they look like they might’ve been painted in soft pastel and maybe some colored pencil.  (I wish I knew who the artist was.)

These two 1990s photo frames are from my personal collection, both from the Florida tower.

Tower of Terror On Ride Photo Souvenir Frames 1994 photo frame

I first rode the Tower in 1994 and this is the artwork used on the front of the souvenir photo frame. Click to enlarge.

When I returned to the parks in 1999 the artwork on the cover of the photo frame had shifted hues, perhaps in relation to the addition of ride reprogramming that added a second drop.  The photo inside is headlined “Twice the Fright” to accompany the change. It’s the exact same artwork, just palette shifted.  The palette shift was probably done digitally.

Tower of Terror on ride photo souvenir frame 1999

Disney gave the frame’s cover art a hue shift for the 1999 version of the on ride photo souvenir frame.  This change likely accompanied the addition of a second drop to the ride’s show profile.

Inside the Frame:

My 1994 frame and my 1999 frame are identical except for one peculiar detail: the second frame (from ’99) lacks the phrase “Tower of Terror” in the little yellow box over the photograph. Everything else is the same. I can only guess at why “Tower of Terror” had to be removed – perhaps it’s a colloquial abbreviation that wasn’t actually approved by the legal department, much like the pins that were discontinued because they used “TOT” on the back instead of “HTH”.

Tower of Terror On Ride Photo Souvenir Frames inside paper photo frame booklet

Back in the day, the process of purchasing an on-ride photo also netted you one of these “Do Not Disturb” cards with your picture’s number written on the back.

Tower of Terror on ride photo picture number card

Tower of Terror picture number quantity card

2000’s & 2010’s

I got nuthin’.

This gallery is incomplete! Do you have a Tower of Terror on ride photo frame from yesteryear? If you’d like to share it here, tell me in the comments!

Tower Showdown: Tower of Terror Florida vs California

Tower-savvy fans already know there are four Towers worldwide, two of which are located in the US. Ten years separates their construction (Florida came first in 1994) and, unsurprisingly, the differences between the two have been controversial among fans. I have visited both – welcome to a little comparison I like to call Tower of Terror Florida vs. California!

tower_of_terror_florida_vs_california

Tower of Terror comparison: Florida vs. California

If you can only get to one or the other, don’t despair – the Tower is amazing no matter which one you ride.

The major differences between the two are the exterior appearance, the overall dimensions of the attraction (California’s is wider but smaller overall), cost to build (CA’s came in at many millions of dollars less), rider capacity (Florida’s is more prone to breakdown, California’s has three separate drop shafts), and unique show features such as the 5th Dimension (FL only) and the “Wave Goodbye” screen (CA and all other versions in the world).

Let’s dig into the differences between the Florida (HS) tower and the California (DCA) tower.

Exterior

The Towers’ architectural differences are the first difference everyone notices.  The tall, spindly towers of the HS version were traded for a more squat-looking, flat-roofed design in DCA. Alas, like many fans, I disliked the new look at first, but I grew to appreciate its blocky style (especially once a layer of sentimentality was applied – this is the first Tower version that my husband and I rode together).

If I have any real complaint about the DCA Tower’s exterior, it’s that it just doesn’t look as old.  The perkier colors and the architectural style feel fresher than the downright haunted looking Florida version.

Both towers have the same tilted, half-burned out sign letters, but the arrangements differ. In DCA, the words “Hollywood” appear over “Tower” – in Florida, the two words fit all on one line.  This is a fairly unimportant difference, but putting the words all on one line might have highlighted the wider width of the DCA tower. Notice the CA tower has three drop shafts on its front, where the FL tower just has two.  The sign difference also serves to further distinguish the two tower designs from one another.

Edge: Hollywood Studios for its gloomy glare

dca_hs_towers_glower

Hollywood Studios Tower of Terror photo credit: spectropluto

Entrance

hollywood_studios_tower_of_terror_entrance

The Hollywood Studios Tower of Terror entrance is on the building’s left side. Photo credit: AreteStock

The Hollywood Studios Tower of Terror has a palpable detachment from the park around it.  Guests enter the queue from an off-to-the-side entrance, and wind through an overgrown garden queue before entering the Hotel’s dilapidated library having (hopefully!) thoroughly forgotten the park they left behind.

disney california adventure entrance

The entrance to the DCA Tower of Terror is aligned with the front of the building.

The Disney California Adventure Tower of Terror welcomes guests right off the street.  The queue is much less tucked away from the rest of the park. Inside the building, the view from the DCA lobby entrance isn’t an outdoor garden like it is in Hollywood Studios, it’s just the rest of the park.  The experience of becoming “lost” along the way got… lost.

Edge: Hollywood Studios for its tucked away entrance

Lobby Design

dca_hs_tower_lobby_comparison

Both the Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure towers have stunningly detailed lobbies accented by different architectural touches.

The HS lobby is painted in a more muted color palette, while the DCA lobby features brightly colored accents playing up its art deco style. The HS lobby feels older and dimmer, and its walls are more crumbly looking.

The CA Tower has a flat ceiling which is just a bit less awe-inspiring than the soaring arch ceiling of the FL tower.  As for details, there are plenty of small differences for guests to notice, but I think my favorite detail is the Burberry coat that only exists in DCA, draped like a scarf over the front lobby desk.  (Is the California tower cold? Aww.)

burberry_coat_tower_of_terror

Burberry coat draped over the front desk in the California Tower of Terror’s lobby. Photo credit: DaViDpThOrNtOn

Edge: They’re so similar, but the Florida tower’s arched ceiling is just breathtaking in person

Pre-Show Library

The libraries are identical as far as these eyes can tell. Here is a particularly well-lit photo:

Boiler Room / Loading

Both boiler rooms are going for the dark, old, and dusty look.  Guests wait here to be loaded into returning elevator cars.

The Hollywood Studios boiler room takes dark, old, and dusty to the max. This boiler room is so creepy, sometimes I think it went a little too far for a Disney park attraction (which is, of course, exactly what I love about it).

The DCA boiler room is decorated the same, but I seems to have brighter and more colorful lights.  Reds, blues, greens, and yellows shine in spots on the ceiling.

boiler_room_face

Also: the DCA boiler room has a face. Photo source: themeparkreview.com

The DCA boiler room also has an usual new addition: a second floor! The left Library unloads guests to the top floor (guests take a flight of stairs up within the boiler room). Thanks to its larger size, the DCA boiler room also has more props and small scenes to look at (including a gigantic glowing creepy “face”).  The double decker loading might detract from the “basement boiler room” feel, but it greatly increases the attraction’s throughput.

Edge: The HS boiler room gets the theming spot-on, but DCA wins this one with shorter wait times.

Loading

florida_service_elevator_entrance

Photo credit: AreteStock

The elevator always arrives empty no matter which version you’re visiting.  This is excellent design choice that I’m glad survived to DCA’s budget-oriented version of the ride. Watching as the previous guests stumble off the ride is one of my least favorite parts of the Disney theme park experience, and in TOT’s case, watching the previous riders exit would spoil the story.

But there is an interesting difference here:

  • In HS, riders step directly from their loading lines into the elevator.
  • In DCA, riders step through a hallway on their way into the elevator. Walking the width of the hallway does detract somewhat from the feeling of boarding an elevator.
Photo Credit: Top Thrill Dragster at themeparkreview.com

Photo Credit: Top Thrill Dragster at themeparkreview.com

The hallway seems weird at first, until you consider that it’s also the same hallway riders enter when exiting the ride (out of view of the next group). This is a huge efficiency gain over the HS design where the riders unload elsewhere and the car then rotates and drives itself into its loading position.

Edge: Hard choice. Hollywood Studios “feels” better, but I think I’d give DCA the advantage here: the hallway step-through is brief and the increased efficiency presumably allows more guests to enjoy the attraction more times.

Ride Experience

Spoiler alert!  If you want to be surprised when riding a Tower for the first time, skip this section!

Hollywood Studio Tower ride experience

(Skip ahead to 6:30 for the ride experience)

Riders are hoisted up the elevator shaft directly from their loading position.  The illusion of an elevator stays intact from the start, and the ride increases the tension slowly.  Doors open to treat guests to the hallway ghost scene, and then the elevator rises again.

Doors open and the elevator moves forward through through a mirror-filled dark starlit hallway known as the “5th Dimension”.  (It looks better in person than it does in the video.) At the end of the 5th Dimension, the elevator enters the final drop shaft and begins its thrilling drop sequence.

There are four different drop profiles, and the one your car gets is randomly chosen.

DCA Tower ride experience


(Skip ahead to 12:00 for the ride experience)

Shortly after boarding, the elevator is yanked backwards amid a visually stunning explosion of lightning and effects. The elevator illusion is lost, but the spectacular sight starts the ride off with a bang. The elevator enters the lift shaft and immediately rises to show one of two scenes first: the ghost hallway scene, or the wave goodbye scene, depending on which elevator shaft you’re in (the sequence is reversed in the other shaft).

Photo credit: thebugger2000

Photo credit: thebugger2000

The “wave goodbye” scene is present in all towers except the one in Florida, and it’s a nice addition.  Guests watch their reflection fade from a huge mirror, and the glow effect is fun to play with (wave your arms to smear it around!). The elevator then begins its drop sequence, a thrilling series of four long drops and pulls.  There are four different drop profiles, and the one your car gets is randomly chosen.

Edge: The drop sequence – the meat and potatoes, if you will – is spectacular in both versions.  The rest is just variations in seasoning.

If I had to pick a favorite, it’d be the Hollywood Studios version.  It’s not without flaws –  Florida’s 5th Dimension transition scene can feel a bit slower than the rest of the attraction and the transition into the drop shaft is bumpy, with little to distract from the sensation of the car aligning itself for the finale.  And I love how the California version of the Tower of Terror keeps the thrills coming, from that explosive start to the seamless transition into the final drop sequence. DCA’s “wave goodbye” screen is fun to play with and a wonder to watch.  But the Tower in Hollywood Studios offers a greater variety of drop sequences, has cool props in the elevator shaft itself and at the bottom while you turn around to unload, and looks more menacing from the outside.

Unloading

In Hollywood Studios, the passenger car “lands” in a room full of Twilight Zone references and old memorabilia to feast your eyes on. The elevator rotates and drives itself to deliver the passengers to the unloading dock, where they disembark and stumble into the gift shop.

Photo credit: source unknown

Photo credit: source unknown

The DCA version unloads in the same place it loaded.  At the end of the drop sequence, the passenger car is pulled forward and out of the elevator car to dock at the exit door. There is no room full of Twilight Zone “memorabilia” in the DCA tower.  Riders enter the same hallway they passed through while boarding, turning right to exit towards the gift shop.

The walk to the gift shop feels much longer at DCA, and the hallway itself has a rather “backstage” feel to it – it’s just a blandly painted, mostly empty corridor.

Edge: Hollywood Studios for the spooky room full of Twilight Zone props and short and more decorated walk to the gift shop!

Summary

The Hollywood Studios Tower of Terror is just a bit more off-kilter than the DCA version.  It is content to let you linger and roam a bit, separate yourself from the busy park you left behind when you wandered off the beaten path. This tower is spookier and the suspense is almost overwhelming by the time the big drop arrives!

The DCA version gets right down to business from the minute you step off the street and through its gates. The compacted entrance queue, double-decker boiler room, step-through hallway and single-shaft design add efficiency and snappiness. This tower keeps the thrills coming fast – hold on tight!

Really, whichever one you think is best is up to you.  My favorite is the Hollywood Studios version, which wins at theming and suspenseful atmosphere (and heaps of nostalgia since this was the Tower I grew up with(; but I also love the DCA Tower of Terror for its fast-paced thrills and efficiency. 

Tower of Terror favorite ride Florida vs California love both

Tower of Terror Architecture Styles

Even casual observers will immediately notice that the Tower of Terror comes in three distinct architectural styles:

  • The original pink-colored Neo-Mediterranean version in Florida
  • A boxy yellow-and-teal Pueblo Deco version in California and Paris
  • An ornate Moorish Revival version in Tokyo

Read on to learn more about each!

Tower of Terror architecture differences styles HS DCA TDS

So why the architectural differences?

Well, for starters, Disney is big on theming.  They never just drop an attraction into a park without thought to how it will complement the surrounding area.  Each park section has its own look and feel, and everything in that section (even down to the trash cans and streetlamps) is designed to fit in.

So while a Neo-Mediterranean tower fit in the “old Hollywood” of MGM-Studios, Florida, Disney’s Imagineers felt that a Pueblo Deco building was more appropriate for the heavily California themed Disney California Adventure park, even though both are creating an idealized vision of Hollywood.

Like most art, architecture doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  A single structure may incorporate traits from multiple time periods and regions.  As we explore the architecture styles of the Tower of Terror attractions, keep in mind that many design ideas are so widely used that they can be represented in multiple architectural styles.

The Original Original Tower

Before we dig into the individual Towers, let’s first meet the original Hollywood Tower.

No, it doesn’t look much like the rides – all it really has in common is the glowing Hollywood Tower sign and the pointy towers atop the roof.  But it’s been cited by Imagineers as inspiration for the attraction, so there you go.

The Hollywood Tower (how difficult it is to type that without adding “of Terror”!) is an apartment complex designed by Cramer & Wise and built in 1929 in the heart of Hollywood.  It still stands today. It’s considered a Hollywood landmark and national treasure (it was even added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988).

Nineteenth and twentieth century revival styles were all the rage in early Hollywood, so the Hollywood Tower is far from the only “faux historic” building in the area, and we’ll get to the importance of those other buildings in the Florida Tower of Terror’s section.

Now that you’ve met the granddaddy, let’s meet the offspring.

The First Tower of Terror

Hollywood Tower Hotel Florida original

The original Tower of Terror’s most noticeable architectural characteristics are Neo-Mediterranean, a revival style that peaked in popularity in the 1920’s and 1930’s in both California and Florida.  The style was especially popular for hotels and apartment buildings. Characteristics of Neo-Mediterranean include red tiled roof, arched doorways and windows, keystones, stuccoed walls, rectangular floor plans, and even lush gardens.

But the Tower of Terror also draws inspiration from at least two real life Hollywood hotels.  The Tower’s twisted columns, minarets, archway ornamentations, and gardens are reminiscent of those of the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa in Riverside, California.

Mission Inn Riverside California vintage photograph Tower of Terror

Tower of Terror HS walkway Riverside Inn

Photo credit: Jack Spence

The Château Marmont Hotel of Hollywood, California looks at first glance like the tower repainted.  Its blocky facade and roof gables are echoed in the Tower’s design.

chateau marmont roof like tower of terror

Some elements of Spanish Gothic architecture tie it all together: the tiled roof, pinkish-orange facade, and soaring height are all reminiscent of the style.

Oh, and it had to blend in with EPCOT’s Morocco exhibit.

tower_from_epcot

The California and Paris Tower of Terrors

dca_tower_of_terror_sunset

Photo credit: Wikipedia

After Disney California Adventure opened in 2001 to relatively poor reviews, Disney’s Imagineers set to work on improving the park.  Opening in 2004, the new DCA Tower of Terror was one of the first imports brought in to help perk up the park.

But since Disney California Adventure is a celebration of California, the Tower would need an architectural makeover to really fit in at its new home on the park’s Lake Buena Vista street, which recreates Los Angeles as it appeared when Walt Disney lived there in the 1920s.  So whereas the original Tower was inspired by old Hollywood, the DCA Tower would be inspired by… 1920’s LA.  It’s a subtle difference, I agree. 🙂

The California (and later, Paris) Tower was built in the distinctly American Pueblo Deco architectural style. Pueblo Deco is a hybrid of Art Deco, which characterized by geometric shapes and bright colors, and Pueblo Revival, characterized by southwestern Native American motifs like sunbursts and arrowheads, adobe (real or simulated) exteriors, and flat roofs.

dca_tot

Photo credit: Matthew Walker

art_deco_exterior

Photo credit: Cehannan

dca_tower_of_terror_ceiling

Photo credit: Scott Weitz

Combinations of the two can be found throughout the American Southwest. The DCA/Paris Tower of Terror’s fake construction plaque gives it a construction date of 1929, placing it right in the midst of the Art Deco fever that swept the United States between the World Wars.

But wait, why is the Paris tower built to look like California if it’s in Paris?  When the Tower came once again to the rescue of lagging ticket sales, this time in Paris, there was no “Hollywood Street” already established in the park. So Disney made one.

The decision to keep the Tower grounded in Hollywood was probably both a cost-saving move (yay, recycling!) as well as a desire to celebrate Disney’s California and Hollywood roots.

Photo credit: distherapy.com

Photo credit: distherapy.com

The DCA and the Paris Towers are practically twins, but if you look real close near the top you’ll see the easiest to spot difference:

DCA_paris_compare

The Lobbies

If there’s one thing the Hollywood Studios Tower and the DCA Tower share, it’s their lobbies.  Identical in layout but varying architectural details (most notably the ceiling structure), both lobbies were inspired by the real-life Biltmore Hotel.

Biltmore Hotel ceiling:

Tower of Terror (Hollywood Studios) ceiling:

TOT_HS_ceiling

Photo credit: maybesomeday

Biltmore elevator doors look a lot like the Tower of Terror’s pre-library wait area:

biltmore_hotel_doors

The Tokyo Tower of Terror

Tokyo_Tower_of_Terror

Photo credit: The Disney Wiki

Tokyo Disneysea’s Tower of Terror is mechanically identical to DCA/Paris, but the rest is a complete reimagining of the story concept and architectural design.  The new Tower was plopped down in the established “American Waterfront” land, set in turn-of-the-century New York Harbor and Cape Cod.  A story about the New York City Preservation Society’s efforts to save the historical hotel and solve the mystery of its owner’s disappearance was built up around the new Tower. Since the attraction was “relocated” to New York, styling it after old Hollywood or the American Southwest would be out of place.

Imagineers undoubtedly looked first at turn-of-the-century New York for inspiration, where the Moorish Revival  architectural style was enjoying a period of popularity.  Below, an example of Moorish Revival architecture (also known as MudÊjar, and not to be confused with Moorish).

The DisneySea Tower’s multifoil arches, small domes, simple window tracery, and detailed brickwork are all characteristic of the Moorish Revival style.  The style also emphasizes articulation – the emphasizing of distinct parts of the building.

Compare with the DisneySea Tower:

TDS_details

Photo credit: DF82

A few other influences are mixed in, such as elements of New York’s famous Brownstones.  The brickwork designs, roof gables, lighter stone window trims are all traits of Jacobethan architecture, and the columns and layered arches hint at some Neo-Byzantine and Richardsonian-Romanesque influences.

In contrast with the other two Tower designs is the noticeable lack of lightning damage on the DisneySea Tower’s facade.  According to the story, the destruction came from within on this version. The stained glass windows are broken, but the building itself looks pristine.

As long as we’re on the topic of New York…

Some say the Palazzo Chupi looks quite a bit like the Tower of Terror.  We’ve apparently gone full circle. 🙂

Tower of Terror at Night Photos

The flickering sign letters, the ominous blue glow, and the occasional shrieks… the Tower of Terror at night is extra spooky! One of my favorite park traditions is to watch the Tower during sunset – it’s a beautiful sight and a great way to give my aching feet a little break. 😀

Hollywood Studios, Florida (HS)

I took this photo of the Florida Tower myself on a cloudy day in December. The clouds suit the Tower well!

tower_of_terror_hollywood_studios_orlando_twilight

Photo credit: M. Grant (TowerSecrets)

I love the toasty brown sky in this photo. This photo is from DisneyRunning, and I have to wonder what conditions allowed for the amber sky and the orange lightshow on the front of the Tower! This is a difficult angle to get in the park, so kudos to them for this great photo of the Tower at twilight!

Photo credit: disneyrunning.com

Photo credit: disneyrunning.com

This photo is spectacularly spooky – what a great angle and a great effect with the orange and the grain! If I didn’t know there was a theme park around this structure, I’d be seriously creeped out!

Photo credit: Spectropluto

Photo credit: Spectropluto

The Tower of Terror falls asleep! Have you ever seen the Tower with its sign unlit? Credit goes to Jake for capturing this unusual sight of the Tower!

sleeping_tower_by_jake

The Tower falls asleep by Jake.

 

Disney California Adventure, California (DCA)

IMG_6546

Tower of Terror in October, 2014. Photo credit: M. Grant (TowerSecrets)

Photo credit: disney.wikia.com

Photo credit: disney.wikia.com

Nighttime Tower of Terror photo DCA

Photo credit: Rae Lane

Tokyo Disneysea, Tokyo (TDS)

The Tokyo DisneySea Tower of Terror doesn’t have a flickering old electric sign; in its place, a mysterious green flare of lightning in the top window. It is, however, still bathed in purple, just like its siblings elsewhere.

Photo credit: The Disney Wiki

Photo credit: The Disney Wiki

For more Tower photos shot by me, visit my Tower of Terror album on Flickr.

→ Return to the Main Photo Gallery.

Designing the first Tower of Terror

The story of Disney’s The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror attraction starts around 1985. A small team of Imagineers had been tasked with creating two new pavilions for EPCOT. Those plans included something called The Great Movie Ride. Newly appointed Disney CEO Michael Eisner liked the plans so much he decided that this new ride shouldn’t be in EPCOT, it should be part of a completely new park!

This new park would be a “studio back lot” themed park dedicated to Hollywood and entertainment.  And it wouldn’t just celebrate show business – it would help create it with real movie and TV production facilities on site.

Disney entered into a licensing agreement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and branded the park Disney-MGM Studios. (This would later become a point of contention, and modern-day readers will note that the park is now named Hollywood Studios.)

Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989.

mgmstudios1989map

But the park was pretty small, and some say it was rushed to open in order to compete with the brand new Universal Studios, Orlando, which opened almost a year later in 1990. To really stand on its own, MGM-Studios would need an E-ticket attraction – something amazing to draw the crowds. In 1989, movie director Mel Brooks, Disney CEO Michael Eisner, park designer Marty Skylar, Imagineer C. McNair Wilson and a group of Imagineers met to discuss plans for the park’s first expansion and first thrill ride.

Early Ideas and Designs

Numerous ideas were kicked around for the new park section. One early and prominent idea was a “Castle Young Frankenstein” attraction, complete with Bavarian village and drawbridge leading to the castle. This idea morphed into “Mel Brooks’ Hollywood Horror Hotel”. Early in the park’s development, Imagineer Bob Weiss had pursued the idea of an art-deco high end 1930’s-style hotel near the park’s entrance.

Mel Brooks left the project, but the idea of a spooky hotel had stuck. Disney’s team looked at available movie and TV licenses and found a perfect match: The Twilight Zone.

tower_of_terror_construction

Early drawing of Sunset Blvd. and the Tower of Terror waiting at the end. Image credit: towerofterror.org

tower_of_terror_concept

A whimsical conceptual drawing actually comes pretty close to the spirit of the attraction’s final design.

Technological Innovations

With Sunset Boulevard and the The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror attraction idea in hand, Disney’s Imagineering team was ready for the next challenge: finding the technologies that would bring the attraction to life.

AGV Technology

Transitioning the elevator cars horizontally, from the back of the attraction to the front, via a corridor scene known as “The Fifth Dimension” was one engineering challenge. The elevator car would need to separate from its lift elevator and safely transition from one elevator “harness” to another. This tricky design challenge necessitated the refinement of a technology Disney had used before: the Autonomous Guided Vehicle.

The AGV is a self-guided passenger car capable of moving from one elevator (at the attraction’s back), through the 5th Dimension, and into the grand finale drop sequence elevator (at the attraction’s front), all on its own without any rails or tracks. The vehicle follows a pre-programmed path and communicates with the ride control system.

It’s an impressive technology, though not immune to breakdown as the occasional hat or park map dropped in the 5th Dimension has shown.

Tower-of-Terror-Wire-Sensor

A glimpse at the underside of the Autonomous Guided Vehicles in the Tower of Terror.

Elevator Technology

The world’s oldest and most famous elevator manufacturer, Otis Elevators, contributed to the design of the “free-falling” elevator.  Otis had spent over a century refining and downplaying the sensation of riding in an elevator, but Disney was asking it to play it up – and play into people’s worst fears about elevators. Fortunately, Otis signed on anyway and lent its expertise to the project.

Continue reading: Building the world’s first Tower of Terror