twilight zone tower of terror movie

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises.)

The phrase “Disney ride”, like the phrase “Disney movie”, has a specific connotation. When you hear those words, you might think of something like Peter Pan’s Flight or Snow White’s Scary Adventures: a ride in which you sit in a vehicle that drives you around a condensed version of a handful of scenes from the film in question, typically with a mild surprise at one point during the experience. Or you might think of a boat ride like Pirates of the Caribbean or the Jungle Cruise, where Audio-Animatronic characters are mixed with corny jokes for a distinctive, delightfully old-fashioned experience.

Whatever kind of attraction you think of, for a long time, the phrase “Disney ride” was stridently antithetical to the notion of entering a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. A land like…the Twilight Zone.

The Key of Imagination

Today marks the 25th anniversary of one of the great modern Disney rides: the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. At heart, the Tower of Terror is an extreme version of a carnival-style drop ride that lifts you up 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 or more feet in the air before letting you fall nearly to the ground. You can find variations of this at your local midway; for a time, there was a more straightforward version of a drop ride, called the Maliboomer, at Disney California Adventure in the Disneyland Resort). But what makes Tower of Terror so special, and so enduring at the remaining theme parks where you can experience it, is the balance of the old-fashioned drop ride with such an odd and unique piece of intellectual property.

The Twilight Zone, the anthology science-fiction TV series that originally aired in the 1960s, is not a Disney property. It wasn’t back in the early 1990s and, even now that Disney’s become monolithic, it’s not now. That said, the CBS show, which now belongs to Paramount, ended up being the perfect thematic choice for a new attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In the early 1990s, the park was still known as Disney-MGM Studios, and it was desperately in need of major new attractions. Many of the current headliners were either not at the park at all, such as the Rock and Roller Coaster featuring Aerosmith, or they were in a different form, such as the original version of Star Tours. 

Per this piece from Disney Insider, The Twilight Zone wasn’t the sole solution for Imagineers. They knew they wanted a new ride with horror cred, and had a wide variety of options: everything from a “ghost tour” ride hosted by horror legend Vincent Price, a mix of comedy and horror overseen by Mel Brooks, and even a ride based on the literary works of Stephen King. (Talk about the exact opposite of family-friendly.) The mix of drop ride and Twilight Zone came about when Imagineers looked at an elevator ride positioned in the middle of a volcano that had been proposed for Disneyland Paris (then called Euro Disney), and saw its potential in Orlando.

A Star In Its Own Right

The resulting attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the perfect blend of timeless and weirdly modern. The Hollywood Tower Hotel is an unmistakable visual icon of the park — one that you can see from as far away as the Morocco pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase. (The HTH building facade is designed in such a way to blend into the Moroccan architecture of that pavilion for precisely this fact.) Once you enter its wrought-iron gates, you enter the 1930s, or a charming facsimile meant to evoke the era of glitz and glamour of Old Hollywood. 

The setup of Tower of Terror is simple enough: you, the audience member, are watching a very different episode of The Twilight Zone, still hosted by the late Rod Serling. He invites you to see how a few people entered an elevator in the Hollywood Tower Hotel on a stormy Halloween night in 1939; when lightning strikes, things get supernatural. And once you board one of the service elevators in the Hollywood Tower Hotel, they get even more terrifying and spooky. (As in: that’s when you get lifted up and then dropped suddenly.)

The charm of the Tower of Terror is not in the basics of its drop-ride structure. Like a good drop-ride, it goes up very, very high (130 feet or, fittingly, 13 stories). But it’s the setting and premise that makes the attraction so enjoyable. In the drop-ride portion, what’s charming isn’t that you get to drop a hundred-plus feet. It’s that you’re doing so in the guise of going up and down an old, creaky hotel, and at its peak, you get to look outside the hotel to see the surrounding architecture and landscape of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. 

And before you get to the elevator itself, you get to walk through the lobby and library of the fusty old hotel, approaching all sorts of bric-a-brac that reference the 1930s, old-school Hollywood, The Twilight Zone itself, and Disney lore. Add to that the charmingly creaky pre-show movie directed by Joe Dante (who helmed one of the segments in the Twilight Zone movie in 1983), featuring visuals of Rod Serling himself and a soundalike performer in Mark Silverman, and this is a hard ride to top in terms of atmosphere, theming, and design, let alone thrills.

The Glitz and the Glitter

For just about a decade, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror stood alone. Both because the Disneyland Resort was still just Disneyland Park and because the international parks were only beginning to grow, it took until 2004 for another of the Disney theme parks to get a new tenant in the form of the Hollywood Tower Hotel. It arrived in Disney California Adventure in Anaheim just a few years after that park had opened across the esplanade from Disneyland itself. (And it arrived as a way to boost attendance, which was dramatically low due to struggling theming and attractions.) Since then, the Tower of Terror has set up shop in Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland.

None of those versions of the ride had the same singular sense of something extraordinary that you can find in Orlando. One of the truly distinctive elements to the original version is that you don’t just go up the elevator; you go into the hotel itself. At one key point in the original ride, your elevator stops on a certain floor and then the vehicle drives you straight through that floor. Because The Twilight Zone thrived on the impossible, and on keeping audiences on edge, this horizontal traveling scene is fraught with tension. Will the elevator drop now? Or just keep shuddering with each roll of the wheels? 

The fact that the DHS version still exists, in-hotel drive and all, as it did in 1994, is one of the things that kept some fans a little less downbeat than others when the unfortunate and moderately unthinkable occurred in 2016. Disney Parks announced that the Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure was closing down, to be replaced by a new attraction themed to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The resulting ride, Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout!, will seem awfully familiar in some ways to anyone riding it for the first time after years of experiencing the Tower of Terror. That’s because, at heart, it is…the same ride. 

No doubt, the setup has changed drastically. Now, you’re entering the archive of Tivan the Collector (Benicio Del Toro), where the eponymous Guardians have been trapped. But with the help of the escapee Rocket Raccoon (voiced again by Bradley Cooper) and some 80s tunes, you’re able to “help” break the Guardians out. (Which means that you get to watch them break out via screens covering the Hollywood Tower Hotel’s old backdrops.) You still are lifted up and drop unexpectedly in a very tall structure. It’s just that the design and atmosphere have changed. (The various contractual obligations that Universal Studios Florida made with Marvel years before the comic-book company was bought by Disney have made it so superhero characters like the Avengers, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four can’t make appearances in Walt Disney World.)

Beyond the Fifth Dimension

In some ways, it’s kind of remarkable that The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror still exists at all. It’s become a beloved attraction, but it’s clearly not so beloved that it’ll stick around permanently at Disney California Adventure. (Having experienced both rides in that location at DCA, I happily acknowledge that the Audio-Animatronic of Rocket Raccoon in the preshow of Mission: Breakout! is remarkably convincing. But it’s kind of a letdown to just ride through a Marvel-ified version of a ride that worked very well by itself before.) The ride mechanism is fairly old-fashioned, and while The Twilight Zone has never fully vanished from the cultural consciousness, it’s not as big a title as anything from Marvel or Star Wars or what Disney currently owns in full. 

As it turns 25, too, it’s interesting to consider the space that Tower of Terror occupies within Disney’s Hollywood Studios, itself a theme park constantly in search of new intellectual property to provide it a personality. Now, that park is being redefined by Pixar and Star Wars, leaving the original premise of a Hollywood studio far behind. For now, as it resides at the end of Sunset Boulevard, the Hollywood Tower Hotel remains open for business. But as the attraction begins its approach to another 25 years, it’s not hard to wonder if Disney’s Imagineers will be tasked with bringing a more immediately recognizable form of IP to that spot in the years to come. Fingers crossed, though, that the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is going to be a permanent tenant in the park, even if what exists around the haunted hotel rises and drops away in shocking swiftness.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: