Disney Around the World: Tower of Terror

Today, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror celebrates its 20th anniversary at Walt Disney World. As I believe this is a seminal Disney attraction that showcases Walt Disney Imagineering at its peak, and since there are a few very different incarnations of the Tower of Terror, I thought it’d be fun to look at how they vary around the world.

While I normally am not a huge fan of cloning attractions, Tower of Terror is an exception, right there with Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. There are two reasons for this. First, all of these attractions are so good that they are deserving of homes in every park in the world (you dropped the ball, Hong Kong!). Second, there are enough differences among the various versions that, as a fan of these attractions, it’s actually a joy to see a ‘new’ take on a familiar concept when in the other parks.

My fandom of the Tower of Terror stems from two things: the queue to post-show detail and brilliance of the Tower of Terror, and the way it weaves in the Twilight Zone (one of my all-time favorite television shows) universe into most versions of the attraction.

With that, we invite you if you dare, to join us in a most uncommon elevator, about to take a strange journey. Your destination…the worldwide Disney theme parks…

Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World

Let’s start with the original, and arguably the best. Opened in 1994, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is still as fresh and original as it was when it opened 20 years ago. If you get past the intentionally-dilapidated looks of the hotel, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that this were a 20-year old attraction. It has aged incredibly well, and is proof-positive that Disney’s best attractions are timeless.

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror’s story is framed within the television series with guests entering the story as they visit the Hollywood Tower Hotel, once a star in its own right, and a beacon for the show business elite. It was closed after lightning struck the building, transforming the hotel into something in the Twilight Zone, and causing several guests in an elevator to mysteriously vanish.

The hotel, now a permanent fixture of the Twilight Zone, has ‘recently’ reopened for tours(?), and bellhops invite guests to explore what happened that fateful night by going aboard a still-operational maintenance service elevator. This is the story at the Florida, California, and Paris versions of the attraction, with Tokyo having a substantially modified story that follows the same structure.

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror looms at the end of Sunset Boulevard in Disney's Hollywood Studios. Here's another eerie Tower of Terror photo: http://www.disneytouristblog.com/hollywood-tower-hotel-night-photo/

In terms of the attraction itself, the experience starts as you step foot onto Sunset Boulevard, which was actually constructed with the Tower of Terror anchoring it. It’s the foreboding icon at the end of Sunset Blvd.

It looks like there's no vacancy at the Tower of Terror, as the sign on the gate tells guests to

Next comes the outdoor queue, which takes guests through once gorgeous–but now overgrown–gardens and grounds. Oddly ominous music from the 1930s helps complete the spooky mood.

The indoor queue starts with the main lobby, which is covered in dust and cobwebs. From there, it’s on to the library where a newly-discovered episode of the Twilight Zone plays, explaining what happened to the hotel in 1939. From there it’s into the boiler room and into the ride portion of the attraction.

Full ride-throughs explaining every moment of the attraction are plentiful, but that’s not really the purpose of this post. It is worth noting that this version of the Tower of Terror is the only one that moves both vertically and horizontally. The elevator actually moves through what’s called the “Fifth Dimension” scene, which is where the elevator really seems to enter the Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is one of my favorite attractions at Walt Disney World, and I love that it combines one of my all-time favorite television series with great Disney design. For me, it’s the closest thing Disney has to “stepping onto a set” besides Cars Land. I love the queue, pre-show, and post-show, all of which are littered with reference to episodes of the TV show.

Really, I love everything about the attraction. It has infinite repeatability for me. While the ride part of the attraction is fine, I do wish that it were given dark ride treatment, just because it’s so short. Thankfully, the full experience is a 20-minute or so “journey” that is incredibly satisfying.

Disney California Adventure, Disneyland Resort

Disney California Adventure has a scaled-back version of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. It’s almost as if someone at Disney felt the Hollywood Tower Hotel would be perfect for a park based upon California, but knew the park didn’t have the budget or the space for as immersive of an attraction as the version found at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the fundamentals are all still there, and it’s still a very good attraction, but it’s not the same encapsulating experience as the Walt Disney World version. Here, the queue does not extensively cover the ‘grounds’ of the hotel, although the lobby is very similar.

The biggest difference is in the ride portion of the attraction itself, as there is no “Fifth Dimension” scene. Instead, the vehicle only moves vertically, with various effects shown as the elevator doors open at the elevator pauses while in the shaft.

It’s been reported that this ride system is also much more efficient than the Walt Disney World version. I’m of two minds about it: I think the Walt Disney World version is superior to Disney California Adventure’s version, but that’s largely because of the other details that are missing, not because of the difference in the ride profile. While I like the Fifth Dimension scene and it adds to the ride duration, I can’t say that I think the effect they’re going for is particularly well-conveyed.

Walt Disney Studios Park, Disneyland Paris

There’s not really a whole lot to say about the version at Walt Disney Studios Park, as it’s a clone of the Disney California Adventure version. There are a few minor differences in the post show and the layout of the area around the attraction, but that’s about it.

One thing that I found interesting about the Tower of Terror at Walt Disney Studios Park is its location in the park. It’s off-center to the left just beyond Disney Studio 1, that park’s version of an entrance corridor. This sort of makes it the de facto wienie and most visually prominent thing in the park, even though that’s probably not the intent.

Tokyo DisneySea, Tokyo Disney Resort

I waiver back and forth on whether the Tokyo DisneySea version or the Disney’s Hollywood Studios version is my favorite. Each has a lot going for it. I’ve already covered the Walt Disney World version’s strengths above. As for Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror strengths, detail, stunning effects, and a story that has since been expanded upon and incorporated into other Disney theme parks are the main things.

Detail is the big one here. Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror is rumored to be the most expensive theme park attraction ever built. Just looking at the facade and the mind-blowing amount of details in the queue, I can completely buy this. 

In terms of weaknesses, there are two “sort of” weaknesses that aren’t really problems. Tower of Terror in Tokyo DisneySea doesn’t have The Twilight Zone tie-in, which initially made me skeptical that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as the Walt Disney World version.

Despite that lack of a tie-in, I really enjoyed the original and compelling story of Harrison Hightower. The backstory is conveyed in English and Japanese incredibly well. On the one hand, I miss the Twilight Zone tie-in, but on the other hand, deviations in ‘clones’ that make each unique attractions is a definite plus. So, not really a weakness.

The other thing is that this version utilizes the ride system of the Disney California Adventure version, but that’s not really much of a weakness. As a friend once eloquently put it, Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror is like a brilliant walk-through attraction with a drop at the end.

Truly, for guests who “get it,” Tower of Terror is not a thrill ride, it’s a brilliant story-telling attraction. The ride part here works really well without the Fifth Dimension sequence. Again, not really much of a weakness (especially if the more efficient ride system keeps those notorious DisneySea wait times down!).

The impressive parts of this Tower of Terror are the queue and pre-show. The queue branches after the pre-shows with two stories and several individual load rooms on each story (6-8 total), each of which has meticulous detail as it showcases a different type of artifact. Suffice to say, we ended up doing the attraction several additional times in the hopes that we’d be placed in different load rooms.

All things considered, Tower of Terror ended up being my favorite attraction in Tokyo DisneySea, and is one of my Top 10 Disney Attractions in the World. If I didn’t limit that list to only one version of each attraction, Walt Disney World’s Tower of Terror would be on there, too. Really, aside from using the same ride system and both being called Tower of Terror, the stories are different-enough that they each are unique attractions. Sort of like Haunted Mansion and Phantom Manor.

Well, that covers our strange journey around the Disney world of terror. Tower of Terror, that is. Hopefully this was an interesting look at our take on some of the Tower of Terror attractions from around the world.

Looking for Disney trip planning tips to any of these parks? Make sure to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide and Disneyland Trip Planning Guide for the United States parks. As for the international parks, we have extensive planning materials, so read our Disneyland Resort Paris Trip Planning Guide and our Tokyo Disney Resort Trip Planning Guide if you’re thinking of visiting either location. They’re both worth it!

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Your Thoughts

Which version of Tower of Terror is your favorite? Which is your least favorite? Any particular details you like most about the Tower of Terror? Please share you thoughts in the comments!

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19 Responses to “Disney Around the World: Tower of Terror”

  1. Kayla says:

    Tower of Terror is one attraction I enjoy from start to finish. I don’t mind waiting in line, as it sets the perfect mood of anticipation. Now that I have the recording of the queue music, I play it in the background at work! On our next trip, I plan to “ride” a few times, skipping the elevator portion, because I enjoy the rest of the experience so much.

    I’m not so much a fan of the exteriors of Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. It looks like a tornado assembled the building.

  2. Kevin says:

    I’d agree with Kayla – the DCA/Paris version is not nearly as attractive of a building as the Florida one. I’d rate Florida’s above Tokyo in that regard as well – I don’t really like the overhung top (although the forebuilding in Tokyo is beautiful.)

    20 years makes me feel old – I still think of this as one of WDW’s newer attractions.

    • Marcia says:

      I agree it’s hard to believe TOT is 20 years old. What seems even weirder is that Splash Mountain is only two years older at MK.

  3. Jodi says:

    I love the T of T in Hollywood Studios! The queue in and outside is amazing! Thanks for the great comparison of the different versions! This just makes me want to go to Tokyo even more! Hopefully someday!

  4. Mandi says:

    These photos are STUNNING! That cherry blossom shot of the Tokyo Tower in particular – as if my jaw couldn’t drop any further!

    Beautiful photos and wonderful writeup. I just love the Tower and all its mysteries! :)

  5. Donald says:

    Count me in with Kayla and Kevin – the exteriors at DCA/WDS didn’t work for me. The tower in DHS almost looks ‘evil’ and sets the right tone with its soaring architecture, whereas the alternate building design looks flat and boxy (except in Tokyo). I also appreciate how DHS’s tower was designed with Moorish elements and a color palette that would match the Morocco pavilion at Epcot, since ToT is visible from many vantage points around World Showcase Lagoon.

    In terms of ride experience, I also preferred DHS’s tower over DCA and Paris. Tokyo’s version clearly utilizes the alternate tower design, so the fact that you preferred it over DHS is a serious complement to Tokyo! I have to make it there one day. :)

  6. David C. says:

    Hey Tom, I found your website looking for D810 reviews and got hooked. I’m the “you’re not gonna make a lot of friends” guy…lol. I’ve since subscribed to your newsletter. I’m starting to become a fan of your Disney photography and I plan on shooting “the little details” that the imagineers sprinkle throughout the park as well in addition to landscapes on our yearly Disney vacations. I know it would be more work on your part, but it would be so helpful to us amateurs/hobbyists to know what focal lengths you used in the pictures in your blog entries. Hey if you want to list f-stop & shutter speed that would be extremely helpful too, but that would probably be asking for much or would it? Maybe a small watermark on the bottom of the pic listing settings in a non obtrusive way? Just a suggestion. I know updating a blog with content is a chore and I would totally understand if that’s not in the cards, but you don’t get if you don’t ask, right?

    • Kevin says:

      David – if you use chrome, get an extension called EXIF viewer. When you mouse-over a picture, it displays the EXIF information. It’s quite useful (particularly on this site.)

      • David C. says:

        Thanks a lot Kevin! I didn’t know that. I mainly cruise the web via an iPad or iPhone. I’ll see if the Chrome app accepts the EXIF Viewer plugin. If not I’ll jump on the laptop. Good stuff!

  7. Chris D says:

    Don’t forget the “disappearing statue” illusion at DisneySea that, even after 3 rides, defied my attempts to figure out how it was done… Possibly the most “magical” effect I’ve seen at any Disney park, ever.

    I agree with your choice of it as #1 though – it’s unbelievably opulent and really transports you to another place. I’m now concerned I missed out on more stuff by taking the Fastpass queue line every time.

  8. Kelly M says:

    We are making our first trip to Disneyland/DCA this year and the first question I was asked by the family was ‘does it have a Tower of Terror?’.
    Without a doubt (the WDW version as its the only one I’ve been on), Best. Attraction. Ever.

  9. jessica says:

    The photos are stunning! I wish I could appreciate this ride in the way that so many people do, but I was so scarred by the first time I went on it in WDW, I am just terrified of the whole thing. It was right after it opened in 1994, so I was 9 and I guess I didn’t really know what the ride was, but I happily went on with my dad and I’m sure all the theming was lost on me (I don’t think many 9 year olds know much about the Twilight Zone show). At the time I believe it was one straight drop, not multiple drops as they have now, and I was literally trying to get under the bar – where was I planning to go?! – and my dad had to hold me down, and then carry me off the ride as I was too shaky to walk. I didn’t even scream once, I was so frightened. We had to sit down outside the ride for me to catch my breath, although he did buy me a t-shirt at the gift shop since I was ‘brave’.

    And ever since, I’ve just been too terrified of it to appreciate anything of the theming or atmosphere! I’ve been on it a few times since, one time I cried (my husband actually started laughing), but I just count every second until it’s over.


    Also, it would be great to continue this Disney Around The World series! It’s so fun seeing the differences in the various parks, on the same rides. In particular, I remember Hong Kong Disneyland having multiple Space Mountain warnings (drops! sharp turns! DARKNESS!!! BEWARE!) to the point where my husband and I were like, what the heck kind of ride did they make this, that they give you so many opportunities to get out of line? And then we went on it and I swear I did not feel one drop, just lots of turns (not even very sharp ones!), and we spent the whole time laughing.

  10. Dan Heaton says:

    I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the Tower of Terror at DCA. I figured that it would lose a lot without the 5th Dimension scene, but it was still a blast. The DHS one is my favorite (the Paris version was still being constructed when we were there), but the ride still works at DCA. My only main complaint is its location, which is near almost nothing that’s worthwhile.

  11. Scott says:

    I also think ToT is one of the best attractions Disney has ever done. Having done the DCA version first followed by DHS (haven’t gone to TDS yet though I’ll get there one day!), I have a different perspective on comparing the two. The consensus view is the original is the best and I thought I’d come to the same conclusion, but after riding at DHS I’d say both have their strengths.

    1) The context: The vastly larger landscape at DHS is obviously better. One of the best settings I’ve seen on ANY ride. Feels like you’re really at an abandoned hotel.

    2) The ride: I prefer the DCA version (though I still like the DHS version). The reason is the DCA version better preserved the illusion of being in an elevator while crazy stuff happens. The DHS version breaks this illusion when the cab moves horizontally, reminding me I’m in a ride (it doesn’t help that you can see the tracks). The scenes at DHS are also more “meta” in that they refer more to the Twilight Zone as a TV series (e.g. Rod Serling appearing at the end, the scene looking like a TV screen) while the DCA version keeps you “in story” better.

    3) The drop: The random sequence at DHS obviously boosts its repeat-ride value, which is one of the reasons it’s viewed as the best version. One drawback though is you could draw a weak sequence. This happened to us on our first ride, leading to a surprising first verdict of “Wow the DCA version is way better!” Only on subsequent rides did we get better sequences which improved our opinion of the ride. The DCA sequence, though it doesn’t vary, seems calibrated for maximum freak-out–it certainly did to me when I first rode it, with the cab shaking and the fake drops at the beginning.

    Talk about over-analysis… But only because the ride is so awesome! And debating which version is the best is maybe beside the point because I love both versions (and am sure I’ll love the TDS version too). I’m glad they ALL exist and aren’t direct clones of each other.

    Now I want to ride the elevator at the real Hollywood Tower to see if anything cool happens. :-)

    • Amy says:

      The DCA sequence really doesn’t vary? It seemed to me like it did, and we rode it four times in one day. I suppose that explains the reason my last trip to WDW yielded such disappointing results for me vis-a-vis Tower of Terror. I did ride it twice, but I must have gotten a bad ride sequence both times.

  12. Amy says:

    I definitely agree that the theming and overall experience of the Walt Disney World version is the best, but I still think the actual ride is best at Disneyland. I don’t know why, but the WDW version to me has shorter, less sudden drops than the version in DCA. Being a west coaster who now goes more frequently to Disneyland than World, I was actually disappointed when I visited WDW last year. I remembered loving Tower of Terror there as a child, but then rode it again and came away thinking: “wait really? That wasn’t nearly as fun as Disneyland’s version.”

  13. Dustin says:

    I have been wondering. How are you able to take all of these images with no one in the background?

  14. Doug says:

    That picture with the Tower of Terror at the end of Sunset Blvd is amazing!!! It really nails the sense of place and shows how great a job Disney Imagineering did in designing Sunset Blvd with Tower of Terror in mind.

  15. Danielle says:

    I totally read this entire post in the twilight narrator’s voice…

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