Why the Tower of Terror Is One of Disney's Best Rides

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
••• © 2002 The Walt Disney Company

The Tower of Terror is a classic Disney theme park attraction. Combining a thrilling freefall ride, dazzling effects, and an inspired and fiendishly clever storyline based on the seminal "The Twilight Zone" television series, Disney Imagineers have created a ride that, like a select few E-Ticket attractions, is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Thrill Scale (0=Wimpy!, 10=Yikes!): 7
    Multiple freefall drops and launches, sensations of weightlessness, psychological thrills
  • Ride type: Freefall tower with dark ride elements
  • Height restriction: 40 inches
  • Location: Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Florida

For those old enough to remember the original "The Twilight Zone" show (or those young'uns savvy enough to seek it out more recently), merely the sound of Rod Serling's voice intoning, "You've just entered...the Twilight Zone," is enough to give you a bad case of the shivers. A master storyteller, Serling created black and white mini dramas that, through subtle plot twists and deft presentation, was more spine-tingling and engaging than the Technicolor splatfests that pass for horror films these days.

The Tower of Terror reproduces the Zone zeitgeist and invokes the same sense of off-kilter foreboding as the show. Instead of passively watching a television program however, guests become active participants in a "lost episode."

Serling Sets the Stage

The fun begins in the queue. The walkways are in disrepair and the gardens are overgrown. The massive Hollywood Tower Hotel is at once elegant, evocative of its Art Deco origins, and menacing. Its crumbling, charred facade sets the story in motion; something terrible obviously befell the stately building.

And the screams emanating every minute or so from the upper floors indicate something terrible is going on within the building.

Inside the lobby, dusty luggage sits ignored, a wine glass remains half finished, and other clues reveal that the hotel's guests and employees beat a hasty retreat many years ago. At the front of the line, riders can see the mangled doors of the elevators. Non-emoting bellhops send small groups past the elevators and into an ominous library.

The lights dim, a vintage TV flickers on, and Rod Serling sets the stage. Seamlessly weaving actual Twilight Zone footage with scenes created for the attraction (hey, how'd they do that? Serling had been dead for years before the ride was built), the host explains that in 1939, a massive bolt of lightning struck the hotel during a storm. Among the many small touches that make the ride a classic, a thunderbolt crackles outside the "window" of the library in sync with the lightning on the television screen. Serling explains that at the moment of impact, hotel guests and a bellhop aboard the elevators inexplicably vanished. So, of course we're sent off to the elevators—and into The Twilight Zone.

A door in the rear of the library opens, and riders shuffle off to the service elevators in the hotel's basement.

Another line forms as guests wind past old electrical panels, creaky elevator motors, and other weird, wonderful set pieces. Cast members help riders board the elevator and secure their seat belts before bidding them adieu.

Going Down (and Up and Down and...)

Some wild effects take place before the big drops. It's a shame that, for the sake of a few nerve-rattling moments, some thrill-averse guests (otherwise known as "wimps") might never get to experience attractions like the Tower of Terror or Splash Mountain. If you're on the line, I'd encourage you to work up the courage at least once so that you can enjoy everything that precedes the freefalls. It's truly astonishing.

Among the highlights, the ghosts of the vanished hotel guests and bellhop appear at the end of a hallway beckoning riders to join them.

They disappear following a flash of lightning. Then the hallway vanishes and changes into an inky black star field.

The elevator cars move horizontally through what Disney calls the "Fifth Dimension" into a second elevator shaft where they plummet and soar a number of gut-wrenching times. It's mind boggling to hang on as the elevator moves in a forward direction towards impending doom. (By the way, Disney built a second Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure. It was essentially the same as the Florida version, except that it did not include the horizontal "Fifth Dimension" element. The park has since re-themed the ride to the (wonderful) Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT)

The freefall experience itself is essentially the same as any number of tower rides found at many theme parks and amusement parks. The difference is that the Imagineers' judicious use of sounds, pitch darkness, visual effects like star fields, and other tricks adds a cogent storyline and psychological veneer to the attraction that significantly ratchets up the thrills, screams, and sheer enjoyment.

Riders plummet and shoot back up the tower a number of times. The motor-assisted drops actually force the elevators down faster than freefall. Amid the groaning cables and creaking cars, windows at the top of the tower spring open a few times to give riders a bird's eye 13th-story view before dropping. The screams emanating from the windows echo throughout the park.