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.
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 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. However, 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.
As I mentioned above, it’s difficult to pick a favorite between the Tokyo DisneySea and Disney’s Hollywood Studios versions of the attraction. My opinion on it waivers back and forth.
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.