Back in the early 1990s, Disney-MGM Studios was facing criticism from the press and some visitors. The park had debuted in 1989 to huge crowds, but only offered a handful of attractions. This was by design – Disney CEO Michael Eisner had deliberately opted to make it a “half-day park”, keeping the cost low but still encouraging Walt Disney World guests to stay for an extra day. By 1991, rival Universal Studios Florida was firing on all cylinders after its disastrous debut a year earlier. Attendance at the park would eventually surpass that at Disney-MGM Studios, and Disney put into place rapid expansion plans. This included the addition of a Muppets-themed area and several smaller attractions.
The vast majority of Disney’s budget, however, would be spent on a thrill ride to match those over at Universal’s park. The result was the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, an attraction that is still considered by many today to be Disney’s best ever. The Imagineers took a simple concept – a drop tower – and turned it into a complex dark ride with some of the most detailed and convincing theming ever seen. 20 years later, first-time guests still sometimes mistake its facade for that of a real hotel.
Riders step straight into an episode of The Twilight Zone. After passing through the lobby of the enormous Hollywood Tower Hotel, they are informed via a pre-show video that the hotel was struck by lightning decades ago, sending some of its occupants spiralling into the Twilight Zone. Guests are about to take that same journey, via a very unusual service elevator. There are dozens of little details scattered throughout the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Next time you ride, keep your eyes peeled for these 30 hidden secrets!
30. A large-scale building
Take a look at the hotel from the outside, to appreciate its scale. Some 1,500 tons of steel were used to construct it, along with 145,800 cubic feet of concrete. The roof is lined by 27,000 tiles.
One of the main inspirations for the exterior appearance of the Hollywood Tower Hotel was The Mission Inn in Riverside, California.
28. A luxurious interior
On the inside, sections of the lobby were inspired by the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.
27. A real hotel?
From the front of the hotel, you can see a window with a light in it. This is just a dummy room to add to the impression that this is (or was) a real, working hotel. In his autobiography, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner reveals that he suggested that the Hollywood Tower Hotel be an actualhotel, as well as hosting the Tower of Terror. This proved to be impractical.==============
26. A Moroccan tower
The Tower of Terror is a very tall structure, and the back of it is visible when looking at the Morocco Pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase. Decorations have been added to ensure that it blends in when viewed from Hollywood Studios’ sister park.
25. Just tall enough
The Hollywood Tower Hotel stands at 199 feet tall. If it were just one foot taller, the Federal Aviation Authority would require it to have a flashing red light on the top.
24. Period hits
Listen out for a host of 1930s-era songs such as We’ll Meet Againby Very Lynn drifting out over the garden walls outside the Hollywood Tower Hotel.==============
23. The opening date
The sign at the attraction’s entrance indicates that the Hollywood Tower Hotel opened in 1917. The ride itself opened in 1994.
22. Too many diamonds
On the wall next to the concierge’s desk in the lobby, you can see a plaque that awards the Hollywood Tower Hotel 13 diamonds from AAA. In reality, the AAA system tops out at 5 diamonds.
21. The lamp
There are several “Hidden Mickeys” to spot as you navigate the Hollywood Tower of Hotel. The lamp in the concierge desk is an antique, but has a familiar 3-circle pattern on it.
20. Broken glasses
As you walk through the lobby, look out for a pair of glasses with the lenses broken. This is a reference to Time Enough at Last, an episode of The Twilight Zone. The glasses belong to Henry Bemis, played by Burgess Meredith, who loves books, yet is surrounded by those who would prevent him from reading them. When a nuclear war devastates the earth, he suddenly has all the time in the world to read them…but his glasses fall off and shatter, leaving him virtually blind.==============
19. Travelling light
In the lobby, notice the luggage (made from genuine alligator skin) and the sofas (replicas of 1930s furniture, created by the original manufacturers).
18. Genuine antiques
Many of the items in the lobby of the hotel are genuine antiques, including several bronze statues carved by French artist Moreau.
17. The Mahjong set
In the lobby, look out for a Mahjong set. The pieces are placed in an accurate manner as if the game was abandoned.
16. Just enough dust
Disney’s cleaning staff have to be careful not to keep the Tower of Terror spotless. Imagineers have specified exactly how dusty and cobweb-covered the different areas and items in the Hollywood Tower Hotel should be – but, of course, modern litter does need to be removed.==============
15. Repurposed footage
The footage in the pre-show video for the Tower of Terror, featuring Twilight Zone host Rod Serling, was taken from the episode It’s a Good Life. The opening lines from the TV show are spoken by Serling himself. However, an impersonator named Mark Silverman narrates the remainder of the video. He was handpicked by Disney’s Imagineers and Serling’s widow, Carol. The Imagineers spent many hours lining up the lip sync with the footage of Serling, and degrading the digitally recorded dialogue to match the 1960s analogue sound quality of the original show.
14. A treasured possession
Look closely at the little girl who appears in several scenes on the Tower of Terror. She’s holding a 1930s-era Mickey Mouse doll.
13. A tribute to Mickey
In the Echo Library (one of the pre-show areas for the Tower of Terror), sheet music can be seen that is a copy of an actual 1930s tune dubbed No Mickey Mouse? What kind of party is this?.
12. A library book
In the library, look out for a book labelled To Serve Man. This is taken from the Twilight Zoneepisode of the same name.==============
11. A different theme
At one stage, Disney considered basing the ride’s theme on the works of horror author Stephen King (Universal Orlando also once developed a plan for a ride based on King’s works). The Twilight Zone was seen as offering a broader range of elements that could be incorporated into a ride.
10. A familiar shape
Image: Molly, Flickr (license)
One of the clearest “Hidden Mickeys” is in the boiler room, where the first boiler’s grating consists of three circles forming a Mickey head shape.
9. The devil incarnate
As you board the elevator, look to the left hand-side. There’s an inspection certificate, dated October 31, 1939 and signed by “Cadwallader”. This was a character in another Twilight Zone episode, Escape Clause, who was eventually revealed to be the devil. The inspection certificate’s number is 10259, celebrating the date that the first Twilight Zoneepisode aired.
8. The real service elevator
There is a real elevator tucked away in the Hollywood Tower Hotel – but this one is for use by guests with disabilities.==============
7. Eerie music
Listen out for the musical soundtrack, which was arranged by Richard Bellis. It features music from various different episodes of The Twilight Zone.
6. Autonomous vehicles
The Tower of Terror actually employs more than one type of vehicle in order to enable riders to leave the elevator shaft and pass through the Fifth Dimension. Guests sit in Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs), which rise up to the corridor scene in a Vertical Vehicle Conveyance (VVC). When they reach the Fifth Dimension corridor, the AGVs come into their own. Rather than riding on a track, the AGVs are guided by wires under the floor. When they reach the far end of the corridor, they lock into another vertical motion cab, which handles the actual drop sequence. The AGVs are powered by onboard batteries, which are charged while riders are unloading. At any one time, up to eight of these vehicles could be circulating around the Tower of Terror’s ride system.==============
5. Pepper’s Ghost
The corridor scene employs the Pepper’s Ghost trick, which is famously used in the Haunted Mansion’s ballroom scene. The images are projected via a mirror onto a pane of glass, to give the impression that the ghostly characters within are right in front of you. The corridor is made to look longer than it really is using a forced perspective technique, with the elements at the far end of the corridor being smaller than those that are closer to riders.
4. Two into one
There are two drop shafts on the Tower of Terror, as you may have noticed if you watch the ride from the outside. However, there are actually four elevators that lift the AGVs up to the Fifth Dimension scene – two of these merge into a single corridor scene. This enables the ride to have an increased capacity.==============
3. Faster than freefall
When you plummet downwards on the Tower of Terror, you are not, in fact, freefalling. The AGV vehicles lock onto platforms in the drop shafts. These are connected by cables to two enormous motors, which are 12 feet tall, 35 feet long and weigh a massive 132,000 pounds. These are used to move the platform up and down at rapid speeds – faster, in fact, than the speed that would be achieved through gravity alone. You’ll hit a top speed of 39 miles per hour. Want to test this out? Place a penny in the palm of your hand. When you drop downwards, it will float a few inches above your hand, because it is falling merely at the speed of gravity.
2. Hidden Memorabilia
As the elevator rotates towards the exit, look out for some items of Twilight Zone memorabilia. Among these is Caesar, the creepy ventriloquist’s dummy from the episode Caesar and Me. You can also see the slot machine from another episode, The Fever.
1. The Sunset Room
As you exit the ride, look out for the Sunset Room on your right. You’ll see a menu dated October 31, 1939 – the date that the hotel is said to have closed due to the unfortunate lightning strike.