“Tonight’s story on The Twilight Zone is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. This, as you may recognize, is a maintenance service elevator, still in operation, waiting for you. We invite you, if you dare, to step aboard because, in tonight’s episode, you are the star, and this elevator travels directly to…the Twilight Zone.“―Rod Serling
If this month’s encounter with A Brief History of Disney feels a little peculiar, that’s because it is. Today we are taking the elevator to the unfamiliar world of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. It was the late 1980s when an accelerated drop ride was being planned for Euro Disney, currently known as Disneyland Paris. The project was referred to as Geyser Mountain, hoping to give guests a free-fall experience in the park’s Frontierland. The attraction never made it into the french Disney park, but the project was eagerly picked up by Disney’s Hollywood Studios across the pond, on the verge of an enormous expansion.
At the time, the park, named Disney-MGM Studios, had considered many options for their E-Ticket attraction for the expansion. Even after they decided on the euro-born attraction concept, the theme for the ride took even longer to commit to. Imagineers floated everything from a Mel-Brooks-narration theory to a storyline based on a Stephen King novel. Eventually, inspiration was drawn from Rod Stirling’s The Twilight Zone, and Disney moved to license the rights to use intellectual property owned by CBS. From there, the attraction began evolving into what we know today, bringing guests into the fifth dimension.
Of the many approaches available to Disney, Imagineering chose a 1930s-era Hollywood hotel in which to nest their Twilight Zone theme. However, a new multifunction ride system would be required to accommodate more guests and function in the proposed vertical and horizontal movements. Disney brought on consultants from the Otis Elevator Company and Eaton-Kenway to create the elevator function used for the drop and facilitate the horizontal movements required to move through the structure. The result was a first-of-its-kind feat of engineering that brought together a 199ft tower with a wide variety of drop patterns, spanning between 1 and 13 floors, that prevented guests from experiencing the same predictable pattern each time they enjoyed the ride.
It was felt that Rod Stirling should be a part of the ride’s experience, which provoked some challenges for the creators, given that Stirling had passed away over two decades beforehand. Stirling’s widow, Carol, came to Disney’s rescue, coming on board as a consultant to assist with the casting process to provide the vocal track for the preshow film. After many auditions, Mark Silverman was cast to provide a voice for Stirling in the Joe Dante-directed short film, which also showcased archive footage of Stirling to bring his presence back to life. Officially announced in 1991, the attraction took several years to construct, finally opening slightly behind schedule on July 22, 1994, in the park’s Sunset Boulevard region.
The attraction was a hit, and Imagineers eventually reproduced the ride in Disneyland’s California Adventure Park in 2004, Tokyo Disneyland in 2006, and a delayed opening in Disneyland Paris in 2007, each with slightly different tweaks and additions. In particular, the Japanese culture held different feelings towards supernatural elements than the American market, and a new storyline was developed to appeal to the Asian market.
The Hollywood Land-based attraction in California was closed in 2017, making way for a retheming that had guests feeling skeptical that anything could compare to the Tower of Terror experience they had come to love. Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout debuted less than six months later and quickly left those fears in the dust, proving to be an outstanding addition to the park. The ride later became part of the new Avenger’s Campus that opened in 2021, marking a turning point for the theming of the park as a whole, moving away from its original California theme and into a more character/story-driven experience.
I’m always disappointed when those elevator doors reopen; both iterations of this attraction in the U.S.A are among my favorite Disney rides of all time. How did you react the first time you experienced any of these attractions? If you have been lucky enough to try them all, which is the best one and why?