There are a BUNCH of attractions in Disney World, and some of them have a special place in our hearts.
One such attraction is The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This innovative drop ride has got it all — an amazing story, thrills and chills, crazy cool technology, and flawless design. So, we’re taking a DEEP DIVE into this ICONIC attraction. Let’s jump…err…DROP in!
Let’s start by digging into the history of Tower of Terror. How exactly did this imposing attraction come about? Well, MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) needed an e-ticket attraction and Imagineers decided on a haunted hotel to fill the need!
The development team then looked at available movie and TV licenses, and decided that The Twilight Zone was a perfect option! Once the project was in development, Disney licensed the rights to the TV show from CBS.
During the creation of the ride, Imagineers decided that Rod Serling, the creator and narrator of The Twilight Zone, should be a part of the attraction (even though he had passed away nearly 20 years prior to the ride’s creation!). Ultimately, the team enlisted the help of Rod Serling’s wife to help cast a voice actor. They ended up casting voice actor Mark Silverman for his voice and footage from an episode of the show to create the final pre-show sequence you see today. (Fun fact, Mark Silverman actually voices Serling in the NEW revamped The Twilight Zone show as well!)
Once everything was decided on, construction began in 1992. The construction site actually had to be moved slightly due to a sinkhole discovered once construction began! After over two years, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened to the public on July 22nd, 1994 as part of the Sunset Boulevard park expansion.
Since then the ride has gone through a few updates, and has had several iterations open around the world. There was a version in Disney California Adventure in Disneyland (now TOTALLY uniquely themed as Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: BREAKOUT!), there’s a slightly different version in Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris (which was recently updated to include “A New Dimension of Chills”), and over in Tokyo there’s currently a very different version in Tokyo DisneySea.
But the OG that started it all is the one still dropping terrified guests each day in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Let’s learn a bit more about this wild ride.
Now that we know the real-life story of the ride, let’s look at the themed story of Tower of Terror. As we know, the story for the ride was inspired by The Twilight Zone. The structure of the attraction and the setting for the plot is the Hollywood Tower Hotel.
When you arrive at the Hollywood Tower Hotel, you’re informed that your “rooms aren’t ready yet” and ushered into the hotel library. Once there, Rod Serling flashes onto the TV with The Twilight Zone intro and tells the scary story of the hotel in true The Twilight Zone style.
The story is that five people (a celebrity couple, a child star and her nanny, and a bellhop) were in the hotel’s elevator during a very stormy night — on HALLOWEEN (if you peek in the windows on the outside of the attraction you can actually spot jack-o-lanterns and spooky decor collecting dust)! Without warning, lightning struck the tower and transported the elevator and the entire wing of the building into the Twilight Zone or “the fifth dimension.” After you learn the story, you’re invited to board the still-functioning service elevator through the boiler room for a one way trip straight to the Twilight Zone.
If you want even MORE Tower of Terror story to work with, a direct-to-Disney Channel movie starring Steve Guttenburg (of Police Academy fame) and Kirsten Dunst was released in 1997 that further explained the backstory of the doomed elevator guests (up to you if you want to consider this “Tower of Terror canon” or not! 😉).
The Ride System
So, how does this attraction actually work? Believe it or not, you’re not actually just free-falling! The Tower of Terror is actually a combination of two different ride systems – an accelerated drop tower and a dark ride. In fact, an entirely new ride system had to be built! This required two cooperating parts – the vertical drop system and the horizontal ride vehicle. Interestingly enough, the vertical ride system was built by an actual elevator company!
Essentially, the horizontally-moving ride vehicle drives you through the dark ride portion before driving and locking into the vertical elevators (very similar to the tech you see on Rise of the Resistance when you go up and down!). The reason the drop feels so dramatic is that it actually has cables to pull the ride vehicle slightly faster than a normal free-fall would be — up to a max speed of 39 mph! So if it feels like your stomach is coming up out your head, you’re not imagining it — you’re being YANKED up and down on the ride faster than gravity!
For the first 10 years of the ride’s life, the drop sequence remained the same for every rider. In 2004, Disney added the slogan “Never the same fear twice!” and began randomizing the drop patterns to make the experience more thrilling. Every time you ride you’ll experience at LEAST one half drop, one full drop, and the doors opening to reveal a view of Hollywood Studios; but the drop and rise pattern is otherwise random!
The ride first takes you through two dark ride scenes that show parts of the hotel transforming into the fifth dimension. In the first scene, you’ll be able to spot the ghostly figures of the disappeared guests — these folks are created with the very old mirror trick called Pepper’s Ghost that is used to create the ballroom scene in Haunted Mansion! After the dark ride scenes, you head into the drop shaft for your randomized drop pattern before traveling over to the unload, and then exit through the (super neat) gift shop.
Wait Times and Logistics
Tower of Terror is a very popular attraction, so wait times can average between 40 and 90 minutes (note that this is an estimate and can still vary depending on how crowded the park is!). Note that, at this time, FastPasses are currently suspended, but when they were in use before the closures, Tower of Terror was listed as a Tier 2 attraction, making it slightly easier to nab a FastPass for it during the day. Just last year, Tower of Terror was listed at Tier 1, meaning guests had the tough choice of deciding if they wanted ot spend their “good FastPass” on Tower of Terror or another sought after ride, like Slinky Dog Dash. Fastpasses CAN still run out for Tower of Terror though, so if you want one, be ready to grab one!
Still, even without a FastPass you can find pretty short lines at certain times of the day. Check in on the wait times later in the day or on less busy days and you may be surprised to find that the wait is listed at “13 minutes”. This is just a joke about how spooky the attraction is — you’ll see the same “lucky” 13 time listed over at Magic Kingdom’s Hanuted Mansion! If it says “13 minutes,” that usually means it’s a walk-on!
The height requirement for this attraction is 40 inches and Rider Switch is available. The queue for Tower of Terror is pretty neat and will take you through the front gate, overgrown gardens, a vine-covered pavilion, and the abandoned lobby of the hotel before taking a trip to the spooky boiler room.
Tips for Riding
Now for some quick tips for riding! Our favorite tips for this ride are as follows:
- Folks with fear of the dark, claustrophobia, or fear of heights may have some trouble on this ride. There’s a “chicken exit” if you change your mind about riding just before you get in the elevator. Let a Cast Member know if you’d like to leave.
- The newest change to the ride recently was the addition of plexiglass dividers on the ride. The ride reopened with Disney World following the lengthy closure due to the global pandemic, but months after opening with heavily spacing out guests, the dividers were added.
- The on-ride photo is taken with a camera hidden on the backside of the giant Hollywood Tower Hotel sign you see on the front of the building. So when the doors open during the drop, get ready to smile (or scream)!
- Like most popular attractions, you can ride the easiest first thing in the morning or during the last 30 minutes of the day.
- Make sure you secure loose objects! They will fly up and hover during the drop. We’ve lost many-a park guides this way! Check your area for any items lost during your ride before exiting.
Remember to always follow the advice on the signage and from Cast Members to determine whether you, a family member, or kiddo should ride.
And we’ll wrap up our SERIOUS breakdown of Tower of Terror with a few fun facts!
Did you know…
- Tower of Terror is the second tallest attraction in Disney World at 199 feet. Expedition Everest is taller by just 0.5 feet! Why just shy of 200 feet? That’s the height that structures are required by the FAA to add a blinky red light for planes to spot, which can ruin the illusion of a dusty old hotel or a Himalayan mountain!
- There are a TON of The Twilight Zone references in the attraction, like The Mystic Seer machine from the “Nick of Time” episode, or Caesar the Dummy from the “Caesar and Me” episode to name just a few. By the way, that Caesar puppet? Cast Members have a daily tradition of saying hello to Caesar each day — they wouldn’t want him wreaking havoc on the ride!
- Peek at the doomed little girl in the elevator in the pre-show video — she’s carrying a pretty famous mouse in her arms!
- The queue is cram-packed with easter eggs and secrets. Our favorite? Check out the mail slots near the check-in area of the queue. The letters in the slots are actual notes from Cast Members! New Cast Members get a chance to read notes left by the previous Cast Members of the attraction and then have a chance to leave their own notes to be read by the next group!
- Imagineers watched every episode of The Twilight Zone at least twice when developing the attraction.
- The color scheme and Moroccan feel of the building were designed to seamlessly blend in with EPCOT’s Morocco Pavilion, from which the structure is visible. Next time you’re in the Norway Pavilion in EPCOT, look across to Morocco and you’ll spot Tower of Terror in the distance!
And there you have it! That’s EVERYTHING you need to know about The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Now, you’ll be a little more informed the next time you ride. We’ve never felt more ready to enter…(lightning and thunder crash) THE TWILIGHT ZONE!
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Do you love Tower of Terror? Or not so much? Share your thoughts in the comments!