Tower of Terror Architecture Styles

The fundamentals of the ride are the same across all four Towers, but the architecture on the outside varies: 

  • Florida: pink-colored Neo-Mediterranean styling
  • Paris: boxy yellow-and-teal Pueblo Deco styling
  • Tokyo: ornate Moorish Revival (ie: New York brownstone)
  • California: Guardians of the Galaxy stuff  
Kinda makes you want to visit all four, doesn’t it?

So why the architectural differences?

Disney doesn’t really 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 street lamps) 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.


The California and Paris Tower of Terrors

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.

Photo credit: Matthew Walker
Photo credit: Cehannan
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:
Photo credit:

The DCA and the Paris Towers were practically twins, but if you looked real close near the top you’d see the easiest to spot difference:


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:

Photo credit: maybesomeday

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


The 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 Mudéjar, 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:

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 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. 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, depicting the building’s left side (which is the side guests enter and exit) was probably taken shortly after the previous photo – now the rooftops are more complete.

Tower of Terror construction Hollywood Studios florida

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

Tower of Terror MGM original construction

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


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 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).


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…

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in Disney California Adventure (California)

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in Disney California Adventure opened its gates to the public on May 5th, 2004.  This Tower opened 10 years after the original, located in Florida, and includes many design changes. Mostly, they slimmed it down. Disney’s Imagineers reworked the Tower’s design to compact it and reduce the frequency of mechanical breakdowns.

The ride offers three drop shafts and guests move more briskly through the attraction.  The DCA Tower has two mechanically identical siblings in Tokyo and Paris.


This Tower was re-themed to “Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout” in 2017. This page documents its original design.  

The DCA Tower’s Early Development

Tower of Terror Disney California Adventure promotional poster

The first Tower of Terror (in Hollywood Studios, Florida) proved so popular that when Disney started looking for ways to punch up their newly-opened and poorly-reviewed Disney California Adventure, building another one must have seemed obvious.

Disney rarely builds the same attraction twice.  Usually they make improvements (which are sometimes controversial) and oftentimes they aim to reduce the cost of building the attraction.

Sometimes they have to adapt the design to the park’s unique geography or layout. For example, Disney’s basically out of space in California. The recent Cars Land expansion to DCA chewed up what was formerly a parking lot.  So it makes sense that the new Tower needed a smaller footprint, hence the minimalist garden and single drop shaft.

Disney’s done this before – the Haunted Mansion is a classic example. In Disneyland, California, the Haunted Mansion’s architecture fits the antebellum New Orleans area and the “stretch room” is actually a large elevator lowering passengers down to the attraction’s track, which runs underneath the Disneyland Railroad train tracks. Over at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, the Mansion’s Dutch Gothic Revival architecture fits the Colonial era inspired Liberty Square and the ceiling rises instead of the floor lowering.

DCA Tower Construction

The new Tower’s Pueblo Deco architectural style was likely chosen to fit the new Tower into its new California home.  The DCA Tower even got its own fake construction date: 1929.

Tower of Terror Disney California Adventurec onstruction scaffolding

Changes From the Florida version

Redesigns to beloved Disney attractions are almost always controversial among fans. The Tower is no exception. Almost as soon as the scaffolding went up, fans started squawking about the DCA’s Tower’s reduced budget, smaller footprint, stouter appearance, and Pueblo Deco architecture. But the designers were trying to be smart – they knew the ride would be popular, and the sacrifices they made served to enhance efficiency and reduce downtime.

Tower of Terror Disney California Adventure
The Twilight Zone theming is intact, and the pre-show is virtually identical. The video was changed to show the California version in the shot where the lightning strikes.

The ride experience still climaxes in a series of thrilling drops and a startling view of the park, but everything before and after the drops was compacted. In the DCA Tower, all the action takes place in just one elevator shaft.  The 5th Dimension scene from the Florida version was removed completely. In its place is a fantastic visual effect of a mirror reflecting the riders. The riders fade from the car in a ghostly, ethereal effect that can be actively smeared around the canvas by waving your arms around.

A third drop shaft was added (a 50% increase in capacity right there!) and the boiler room (loading area) was given two vertically stacked loading decks. These design changes greatly reduced the frequency of breakdowns and substantially increased the Tower’s rider throughput, but some fans were unhappy with the compromises on theme and appearance.

Tower of Terror in Disney California Adventure DCA
The DCA Tower of Terror at sunset. Photo credit: Wikipedia

The DCA Tower Today

I got busy raising a family and haven’t visited the California parks since the new theme was applied. I’ll reserve my judgment until I actually have a chance to see the update in person – I’m sure it’s still a fun ride.

It looks like this now:

Photo credit: Disney Parks

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.


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.


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


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.


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

Tower of Terror Concept Art

Before it was a ride, it was an idea – and many of these artworks were created to help envision the idea. As far as I know these artworks date to the early-mid 1990s, when the original TOT was in development for the MGM-Studios park in Florida.