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What inspired the Imagineers to build the Tower of Terror? Would you believe an attraction at a Six Flags theme park?

Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

What inspired the Imagineers to build the Tower of Terror? Would you believe an attraction at a Six Flags theme park?

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I know, I know. JHM hasn't exactly been playing its A game lately. For which I apologize.

You see, this past 10 days or so, I've been on divorced daddy duty. Which first involved flying from Manchester, NH all the way to Honolulu, HI, so that I could collect my beautiful 12-year-old daughter, Alice. Then she & I reversed that process. Flying all the way back to New England just so that Alice could then spend the next two weeks reconnecting with various members of the Hill clan.

As you might imagine, what with all the traveling that's involved with doing something like this, the large chunk of time that I normally devote each day to writing and/or researching new stories for JHM has shrunk down to almost nothing lately. Now add to this mix some rather challenging houseguests who've been visiting with Alice, Nancy and I this past week or so as well as a death in the family ... What was once a little free time that I could then use for writing has now turned into less than nothing.

Which is why -- rather than hurriedly slapping together a new piece for today -- I'm going to follow a suggestion that longtime JHM reader Frank just sent me via e-mail. His note (which Frank sent me yesterday) reads as follows:

Just a quick note from a long-time reader. Seeing that I'm really fond of Jim's stories of rides that never make it of the drawing board, I've spent the last week digging through the JHM archives. I happened to stumble across a series of articles on the original Tower of Terror, which are externally hosted at tower-of-terror.com. Seeing that Disneyland Resort Paris will soon welcome its own version of the Tower, I was quite interested in this tale of the creation of the original. Unfortunately, the tower-of-terror.com website appears to be offline.

Do you happen to have those articles lying around somewhere in a dusty and dark archive? If so, I would love it if you could re-publish them on the site.

Let me just add a short thank you to this quick email, because I've spent many interesting hours at the JHM website reading about the Walt Disney Company's theme parks history, present, future and future that never was.

Thanks folks! As an industry insider, I really enjoy reading about "the competitor". Keep up the great work!

Yours sincerely,


Per Frank's request, here's a lightly rewritten version of one of those articles that I did for tower-of-terror.com back in 2002.  

Falling in France

Just ask the bellhops who work at Disney-MGM Studio theme park. They'll tell you all about the weird questions that guests ask them about this amazing attraction. "Is this really a ride?" "Can I go up partway, but get out before the final drop?" and (my personal favorite) "How come Disney hasn't repaired the hole in the front of the building yet?"

But the big questions, the really important questions -- like "How did the Imagineers ever come up with the concept for such an outrageous show?" -- these same tourists never seem to find the time to ask. Maybe it's because their brains are still scrambled by the time they reach the off-load area. Or maybe it's just because these folks are already trying to figure out what they want to ride next at Disney-MGM.

Well, I know you Tower of Terror fans. You're definitely a different breed of cat. You guys are always itching to learn more about your favorite theme park attraction. Which is why -- today -- we're going to begin an exploration of the REAL origins of this attraction.

And -- believe it or not -- this story doesn't actually begin where you thought it might. Not inside those non-descript warehouses that house Walt Disney Imagineering and/or inside the mind of Rod Serling. No, the tale of Disney-MGM's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror actually gets underway inside a theme park. Just not a Disney owned one.

Copyright 1988 The Walt Disney Company

To really understand how this ride came about, you need to come back with me to the summer of 1982. That's when Magic Mountain in Valencia, CA. unveiled its latest thrill ride: Freefall.

Back in those days, Freefall (which was developed by Intamin AG, by the way) was considered pretty cutting edge stuff. Immediately upon boarding the attraction, Magic Mountain guests would strap on a safety harness. Their four-passenger car would then slide backwards into the drop tower before zooming up 87 feet. Then their vehicle would slowly slide out to the edge of the drop tower, when suddenly...AIEEE! These guests would be plummeting straight toward the ground at 55 MPH. The next thing they knew, these folks were flat on their backs as their ride vehicle tipped backwards as it zoomed out toward the end of Freefall's L-shaped ride track.

The total length of their trip? 20 seconds. The amount of time that guests typically stood in line before getting their chance to ride Freefall? Sometimes as long as 2 to 3 hours. But Magic Mountain visitors seemed happy to do it. Putting up with the overly long lines, I mean. All for the chance to experience that one-of-a-kind feeling of free-falling through space.

Of course, these impossibly long lines full of happy theme park guests didn't go un-noticed by Magic Mountain's competitors. Particularly the folks at WED (AKA Walt Disney Imagineering). At the time, the Imagineers were just buttoning up their work on Epcot Center and Tokyo Disneyland. And these guys were itching for some new challenges.

Copyright 1988 The Walt Disney Company

And here was this then state-of-the-art technology that Magic Mountain guests were obviously going ape over. So the Imagineers began to wonder: "How could we adapt this Intamin technology for use inside a Disney theme park?"

You see, the real problem was (at least back during this era in the company's history) that Disney didn't do bare bones rides like Freefall. The time honored Disney tradition called for all of its theme park shows to have strong overlays of story elements built into each attraction to enhance the guest's experience.

Take -- for instance -- Space Mountain. To be perfectly honest about it, Space Mountain at both Walt Disney World & Disneyland is a fairly tame steel coaster. Were you to ride the Tomorrowland attraction while its work lights were on, you'd be amazed at how slowly you appear to be moving.

Ah, but Disney doesn't allow its guests to ride Space Mountain while the attraction's work lights are on, now do they? Which is why-- as you zoom through the darkness aboard this Tomorrowland thrill ride, never quite knowing when the next dip or turn is coming -- it really is quite thrilling.

Copyright 1989 The Walt Disney Company

But to hear the Imagineers tell it, the real key to Space Mountain's continued success with theme park guests isn't because you get to ride around on a roller coaster in the dark. It's because of all of that space-themed material that you get to walk by as you make your way to Space Mountain's boarding area. These are the elements that actually set the stage for the guests. Placing them inside the story. Making them aware that they're about to embark on this out-of-this-world experience.

This -- in a nutshell -- is what the Imagineers consider the Disney difference. Taking a Plain Jane steel coaster like Space Mountain and -- by placing the ride inside a darkened show building as well as inserting space themed elements into the attraction -- you end up with a coaster-plus. An evergreen attraction that guests never seem to get tired of riding. Why For? Because -- for a few moments at least -- they're taking part in this exciting story.

That's what the Imagineers were looking to do with Intamin's Freefall technology. To take this then state-of-the-art ride system and -- by folding in a few crucial story elements -- create a one-of-a-kind ride experience for Disney's theme park guests.

But given that Freefall's most memorable moment -- the drop -- goes by in just the blink of an eye, how could WDI ever use this technology to try and tell a story? The Imagineers explored all sorts of scenarios. The most obvious choice was to pass off the Freefall technology as something that a mad scientist had cooked up. Some infernal device that was used to...well...frighten people.

Copyright 1989 The Walt Disney Company

This is why -- for a while -- Freefall actually played an important part in the Imagineers' plans for Euro Disneyland (AKA Disneyland Paris). You see, the original design for that park's Discoveryland section called for a large-scale version of Captain Nemo's secret lair to be built INSIDE of Space Mountain/Discovery Mountain. The third, fourth and fifth floor of the show building would have been where the steel coaster would be located. Whereas the first & second floor (as well as the sub basement area) of the show building ...

How should I describe this? Do you know the story of Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island"? By that I mean the film version that Ray Harryhausen did back in 1961? Well, according to that movie, Captain Nemo and the Nautilus somehow managed to survive the cataclysmic events that came at the end of Disney's 1954 live action version of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." Nemo then took his crippled ship and hid it in a grotto under a smoldering, somewhat dormant volcano.

This is what the Imagineers were hoping to recreate as Discoveryland's centerpiece. Guests would walk into the cave-like entrance to what-was-then-called Discovery Mountain and -- after their eyes adjusted to the darkness -- they'd spy...a full-sized recreation of the Nautilus! Anchored in this secret lagoon that was located right inside Discovery Mountain.

Had this version of Discoveryland actually been built, guests could have had a variety of experiences to choose from while exploring Nemo's secret lair. They could have walked down a ramp that seemingly took them below the surface of the lagoon and into the Nautilus itself. Here, they would have had the option of touring the sub itself (this -- of course -- is very similar to the "Mysteres du Nautilus" walk-through attraction that eventually opened at Disneyland Paris in 1994) or dining in high style inside the Grand Salon.

Copyright 1990 The Walt Disney Company

Guests who were looking for something a bit more exciting than a walking tour of a submarine and/or French cuisine would have been well advised to head over to the far side of the lagoon. Why? Because that's where Nemo's secret lab was supposed to have been located.

Here, the Captain had supposedly been attempting to harness the power of the volcano. (Oh? Did I forget to mention that -- at least in this version of Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland -- that Space Mountain / Discovery Mountain was supposed to have been built right on top of a somewhat dormant volcano? The Imagineers were thinking that Nemo had been using the super heated steam that came up through underground vents to power the Nautilus, all the equipment in his lab, maybe even those spaceships that were supposedly zooming around upstairs inside of "From the Earth to the Moon" AKA "Space Mountain.")

Anyway... For those guests who were feeling somewhat adventurous, they could board a bare steel elevator that was supposed to take them up to the uppermost rim of the volcano. Once there, these visitors would supposedly have been able to see some unique features of Discovery Mountain (as well as get a great view of the rest of the theme park).

But then -- of course -- in the grand Disney tradition, once the guests get to the top of Discovery Mountain aboard their rickety steel elevator...SOMETHING GOES HORRIBLY WRONG! Supposedly, there's some seismic event...which knocks the elevator off its track. Which then sends your ride vehicle hurtling down back into the darkness, reportedly missing giant rock formations and hissing steam vents by mere inches.

Copyright 1990 The Walt Disney Company

Sounds like a pretty fun way to bring Intamin's Freefall technology on board at a Disney theme park, doesn?t it? Well, the only problem was that this version of Discoveryland was that -- with all its bells and whistles -- it was going to be hugely expensive. And given that the Walt Disney Company was already pouring hundreds of millions of Euros into the creation of the rest of the Euro Disneyland Resort, there just wasn't enough money in the budget to cover the creation of a secret indoor grotto for Captain Nemo. Which is why the Nautilus eventually ended up parked outside of Discovery...er...Space Mountain.

And -- since Nemo's secret lab was no longer a featured attraction in Discoveryland -- there was no reason for the Imagineers to go forward with their plans to build a Freefall-like ride as part of the opening day attractions at the Euro Disneyland Resort.

But that's okay, gang. Because great ideas never die at WDI. Particularly when there are places like Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park that are (as of the early 1990s) woefully short on thrills.

And that part of the story ... We'll save for another time ...

FYI: For those of you who enjoyed all of the Discoveryland concept art that was used to illustrate today's article, all of the images were cribbed from Didier Ghez's excellent book, "Disneyland Paris: From Sketch to Reality." If you'd like to pick up a copy of your very own, you can do so by dropping Didier an e-mail at this address: [email protected]

Beyond that ... Alice and I will be flying back to Hawaii this coming Wednesday. Once I hand my daughter off to her mom (The Fabulous Shelly Smith), I then start the trip back to New Hampshire on Thursday morning. Allowing for a slight case of jetlag as well as some post-parental depression, things should start to get back to normal at JHM on or about Monday, July 31st.

Again, my apologies if the pickings have seemed rather lean at this website for the past week or so. I promise that -- by the first week of August -- JHM will be back to offering its usual selection of big, meaty stories about the Walt Disney Company.

That's it for today. Now -- if you'll excuse me -- I have to go finish packing for the family camping trip that Alice, Nancy and I will be taking tomorrow.

Have a great weekend, okay?

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  • Now THIS is the type of story I like seeing on JHM.

    In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing the older stories pop up from time to time (like an Inside the JHM Vault type of thing).  It would work especially well if Jim reprinted the initial stories before revisiting and finishing his multi-part articles.

    I'll take more stuff like this (even if it is through reprinting old articles) if it means we can finally move on from all of the focus on Wall Street and Box Office returns and various money matters.

    I know I can't be alone in thinking that it wasn't business analysis that brought me here; it was stories about Disney history, the development of attractions, and the often-painful dreams that never came to reality.  The creative side of things is far more interesting, at least to me, than the business side of things.

    //as well as a death in the family//

    Sorry to hear that, Jim.  My condolences.
  • Great article.  Well done, good luck with everything.
  • Thanks for republishing the article, Jim!  I completely agree with Anonymouse- this is so much more interesting than box office predictions.  I wouldn't mind old stories popping up from time to time, either.  That idea of Captain Nemo's laboratory sounds so neat.  I wonder if it'd be more fun than ToT....
    Have a safe trip!
  • I know I have been critical of Jim before, but this article was awesome. I did not know of these plans for Discoveryland... Does anyone think this idea would work in WDW? Maybe the Magic Kingdom, were 20K used to be? How about in Animal Kingdom?
  • Jim, thank you for today's great article.  I also think an occasional offering from the "Jim Hill Vault" would be a great feature!  These are the kind of stories that brought me here in the first place.  God bless you and your family as you travel - they come first.
  • Personally I love box office finance threads.  They also get the highest amount of comments, so others do, even if it's the Howard Stern syndrome, where they hate them so much they can't let them go.

    But that's largely because some people can't accept box office predictions as just, well, financial predictions and expectations, and feel the need to cheerleader their favorite movies and call the people that invested in them "idiots" for disagreeing with some of the paying customers...

    I love these articles, too, though.  The nostalgia ones.  And the could-have-beens.
    So Euro Disney almost got a huge Nemo focal point... and DW no longer has any Nemo at all.
  • I think you have a hit on your hands, Jim.

    Nothing like being given kudos for taking the day off....
  • Is that freefall ride the same ride as the Edge at Six Flags Great America in Illinois wayyyyyy  back when??  Seems I remember some issues with that ride.....
  • >> Is that freefall ride the same ride as the Edge at Six Flags Great America in Illinois wayyyyyy  back when??  Seems I remember some issues with that ride.....

    Yes, I believe it is... and yes, it had problems.
  • //Personally I love box office finance threads.  They also get the highest amount of comments, so others do, even if it's the Howard Stern syndrome, where they hate them so much they can't let them go.//

    The box office threads are weird.

    Sure, they get comments...but cerainly not the type of comments one would really desire.  It's usually left brain versus right brain, business versus art, quoting quoted responses to quotes that were quoted.

    And, as most of these articles lately have been about CARS, it's basically been people defending Cars, often with harsh words for Jim, against people who still prop it up as a disappointment.  (As an aside- Pirates is doing astonishingly well and from what I hear, it's done diddly-squat for Disney stock, so maybe Wall Street isn't the best gauge for determining a film's success.)

    Any day of the week, I would rather read a story about a ride that was never built instead of a story that's primarily a chart with box office figures to show how Cars has underperformed, or anything like that.
  • //Any day of the week, I would rather read a story about a ride that was never built instead of a story that's primarily a chart with box office figures to show how Cars has underperformed, or anything like that.//

    I like the variation (as well as your method of distinguishing quotes.)

    I enjoy hearing the inside reactions from Disney.
    I enjoy seeing the hard breakdown of where the money goes.
    And I enjoy hearing how the toys are selling.

    But sometimes you want to ignore the money and get swept more into fantasy with the "could have been" articles.  
    But sometimes those drive you insane as you realize how much better the park would have been without Eisner, haha.
  • PingBack from http://www.buildawebsiteeffortlessly.com/?p=20
  • Amazing. Utterly amazing. I love these types of stories because it makes you realize that since they don't completely throw these abandoned ideas away, they always spring up in present and future attractions and projects.
  • PingBack from http://eurotrip.exchangeratesequal.com/?p=26
  • Thanks Jim, you're the best!
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