The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror has been a fan favorite at Walt Disney World since it opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) in 1994. Most Disney fans and historians would agree it’s one of the best theme park attractions created by Walt Disney Imagineering. Much of its success is thanks to the brilliant Imagineers who brought the ride to life, combining a rich storyline with an innovative ride system, surprising thrill elements, and intricate details.
There are many stories surrounding this classic Disney attraction, but I wanted to share a few of my favorite fun facts that I’ve learned through interviewing Walt Disney Imagineers and researching Disney publications. These fun facts are in no particular order.
Mel Brooks was an early collaborator: Before landing on a Twilight Zone theme, Tower of Terror went through many iterations and was once going to be a Mel Brooks horror-comedy (think Young Frankenstein). The Imagineers met with Mel on several occasions to develop his “horror hotel”, but Disney ultimately ended up going a different direction. While the Twilight Zone seems like an obvious choice in hindsight, it would have been fun to see what a Mel Brooks Disney attraction might have been like.
The ride design was intended for Disneyland Paris: Shortly after Disneyland Paris opened (it was called Euro Disney at the time), the Imagineers began working on a new thrill ride for Frontierland. The attraction would have taken guests through a kind of free-fall mine shaft. Unfortunately, budget cuts led to this idea being shelved, but the Imagineers resurfaced the idea when Michael Eisner asked to develop a couple of new thrilling ideas for an expansion at Disney-MGM Studios.
C. McNair Wilson used a salt shaker to pitch the ride concept to John Hench: Concept designer C. McNair Wilson was a lead Imagineer for Tower of Terror, and he was having lunch one day with legendary Imagineer John Hench. During the conversation he pitched the idea of an elevator traveling through a hallway and then dropping at the other end. He used a salt shaker on the table to demonstrate what he wanted the elevator to do and asked John if it would be possible. Without skipping a beat, John explained exactly how they would make that ride system possible and tasked his team to start working on the project. Florida’s version of Tower of Terror is still the only version to use this ride technology (California, Paris, and Tokyo’s versions use a different kind of mechanism to move horizontally between load/unload and the main drop tower.
You drop at a greater force than gravity: Tower of Terror is technically not a free-fall attraction. With free fall attractions, the vehicle is literally let go (dropped) for a certain distance before the brakes are engaged. With Tower of Terror, the elevator motors literally pull the vehicles at a greater force than gravity. That’s why if you let go of an object on the ride (not recommended for safety reasons), the object will appear to float to the top of the elevator car. It also means you achieve a faster speed in a shorter distance when compared to free fall. In fact, if you were to place a free fall tower next to Tower of Terror and have the two rides drop at the same time from the same height, Tower of Terror would reach the ground first.
It’s the second tallest attraction at Walt Disney World: In 1994, Tower of Terror became the tallest attraction at Walt Disney World, reaching 199 feet (at 200 feet, Disney would be required to place a red beacon light at the top per aviation regulations, which would ruin the illusion of an abandoned hotel from the 1930’s). In the 2006, Expedition Everest became the tallest attraction at 199.5 feet (6 inches taller than Tower of Terror). Nobody knows if Joe Rohde added the extra half a foot on purpose, but I’ll have to try to ask him someday.
Tower of Terror was designed with Epcot in mind: Tower of Terror is so tall that the Imagineers knew it would be visible from Epcot if you were to stand just a little west of the Mexico Pavilion. In particular, the tower’s back would be visible behind the Morocco Pavilion. To make Tower of Terror appear to be a part of the Morocco Pavilion from that angle, the Imagineers chose a similar earthy color to the buildings in that pavilion, and they even used some Moroccan-inspired architecture in Tower of Terror’s design, which happened to be similar to Hollywood-inspired architecture from the 1930’s. Tower of Terror blends in so well with the Morocco Pavilion that you have to be looking for it to know that it’s there.
To hear these and more stories about Tower of Terror, be sure to check out my Imagineer Podcast episode about this attraction and my discussion with Imagineer C. McNair Wilson:
What is your favorite Tower of Terror fun fact?