In his latest column Shaun Finnie looks at Disney’s Tower of Terror rides. In this first part he uncovers the initial ideas behind the attractions and compares the two current rides.
We all know what The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror does, yes? No matter how much they change the sequencing it’s basically a service elevator in a crumbling old hotel that takes riders to the top of the lift-shaft and then drops them, right? And it’s nothing like the runaway mine train Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, is it? OK, I’ll give you a few minutes, then we’ll check back to see if you’d like to re-think your answers…
Imagine if you will a ride very much like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. A ride where a vehicle – in this case an old drilling machine – travels through a series of abandoned mine tunnels with you aboard. It’s set inside a mountain that’s geologically unstable.
The time is the late 1980′s and that ride is coming true. But there would be one extra twist. At the end of the ride the vehicle would get stuck over a geyser hole at the bottom of a chasm, and that geyser would blow, sending the vehicle hundreds of feet in the air atop a column of steaming water before depositing the car safely on the chasm’s rim.
I know, it still doesn’t seem a whole lot like the Tower of Terror that we know these days, but the technology that was going to be used for the finale of this early Disneyland Paris concept is exactly the same as that which now makes the Hollywood Tower’s lift move up and down at speed. The Geyser Mountain plan was dropped, but the rise and plummet design was put aside for possible use in another Disneyland Paris idea.
Prior to its construction the French Space Mountain was going to be within a much larger part of the park called Discovery Mountain. These plans from a year or two after geyser Mountain’s cancellation showed that Discovery Mountain would have been huge, more than twice the size of any of Disney’s Space Mountains. It would have housed many rides built on different levels, all within the confines of an extinct hollow volcano. Some of these would have been built at the very peak of the mountain, and to reach this point guests could ride in rickety iron elevators built into the rock wall of the dormant volcano. But one of these elevators would have been much less stable that the others, resulting in a sickening drop through the steaming fissures of the volcano wall. Another ride planned for Discovery Mountain was a Journey to the Center of the Earth attraction which would have been very similar to Geyser Mountain, but with a free fall section dropping the ride vehicle instead of shooting it up on a water spout.
Neither of these early drafts made it to construction due to the financial constraints that shrunk Discovery Mountain down to just the Space Mountain ride. However the abandoned designs are good examples of the several broken elevator rides that were bouncing around Disney’s Imagineering department at the time.
Walt Disney World’s first plans for a Hollywood Hotel owed more to the Phantom of the Opera tale than the Twilight Zone. Initial designs were going to include a walk-through section showing how a silent movie director had failed totally in his transition to talkies. The public didn’t take to his sound films in the same way that they had his silent ones so, unable to handle the rejection, he went crazy. Eventually he spent his days wandering the corridors of the Hollywood Tower Hotel – the very same corridors that would form the pre-show area for the ride – swearing a terrible and dramatic revenge on the public that had deserted him.
Guests would eventually board their elevator to visit a viewing platform at the top of the hotel’s tower, but a horrible sight would greet them as the arrived at the building’s highest point. There they would see the insane director frantically sawing through the lift cables, his vengeance almost complete. I think you can guess what was planned to happen next…
Another early variation of the theme was to make the Hollywood Tower an actual exclusive hotel within the Disney MGM Studios boundary. Guests would be able to stay in the luxurious surroundings of a top-quality Disney resort but with the added attraction of a single eerie elevator that would periodically malfunction, depositing its cargo of screaming riders right into the hotel lobby. This terrifying idea wasn’t deemed workable, but the malfunctioning lift remained a firm Imagineering favourite, and another idea was already being formulated.
When Disney obtained the rights to use the Twilight Zone concept and Rod Sterling’s image, the theming of the new ride was decided. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened at Walt Disney World’s Disney MGM Studios in July 1994. The now-familiar pre-ride short film (starring Sterling himself in a perfect homage to those early black & white TV episodes) tells how the beautiful hotel was once the playground of Hollywood’s elite. That was until a beautiful young couple, an unlucky bellhop, a child star and her governess were in an elevator which was struck by lightening at precisely the wrong moment in 1939 and the entire lift mechanism vanished into the Twilight Zone. MGM’s guests were desperate to experience this journey themselves, and the new E-ticket ride was an immediate success.
It had been financial troubles that had cancelled plans for a similar ride at the then-EuroDisney park, but the same problems with lack of cash had the opposite effect in California. When Disney’s California Adventure opened to almost universal derision, it was immediately apparent that something big was needed to bring the public in. A slightly different version of the ride – one that allowed more guests per hour but featured a somewhat lesser journey – was quickly brought in. And it worked. Attendance figures leapt as guests on the West Coast flocked to see their own version of the attraction that the East Coasters had been raving about.
So that’s where we are now. If you want to see what happened to that ill-fated elevator car on October 31st 1939, you have to visit a Disney park in California or Florida.
But not for much longer. Within the next eighteen months or so two new rides will be added to Disney’s collection of hotels where guests would rather take the stairs.
And I’ll be looking forward to these in my next article.
Shaun Finnie is the author of “The Disneylands That Never Were”, a new book that details over fifty years of rides, attractions, hotels etc that Disney have designed but never built. Further details can be found at www.lulu.com/shaun_finnie
Disney, theme parks, Walt Disney, Disneyland, Walt Disney World
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