By Linda Shrieves | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted March 3, 2003
Joy ride. (RED HUBER/ORLANDO SENTINEL)
Mar 1, 2003
The bellhops, usually a dour-looking lot, break into smiles at the sight of Harriet Williams.
"Hello, Harriet!" they call, waving and smiling. The 76-year-old retired schoolteacher smiles in return but zips her three-wheeled red scooter straight to her destination, her blue eyes intensely focused on the mission at hand.
She is here, at the Tower of Terror, to set a record.
Because Harriet Williams loves to fall.
And fall and fall and fall.
For six years, this Indiana snowbird has spent her winters riding the Tower of Terror, a haunted hotel attraction that drops riders down an elevator shaft -- a free fall from the13th floor straight to the basement.
And for six years, during her annual three-month hiatus in Central Florida, she has dutifully recorded her total in her diary. Sometimes she rides once or twice a day. Sometimes she rides 10 times -- in a row. But today, she is here for a personal best -- her 500th ride.
Amid throngs of teenagers in shorts and sneakers and Midwestern families milling about, Williams pilots her scooter, emblazoned with stickers of Mickey Mouse and Jeff Gordon's No. 24 race car, straight for the handicapped entrance backstage.
Trailed by her daughter, Mary Holmes, a preschool teacher from Indiana, and her daughter-in-law, Rory Williams, who flew in from Dallas for the big event, Williams is ready for her 15 minutes of fame.
T.J. Wollard, the chief bellhop at the Tower of Terror, obliges.
"Why, hello Harriet," he intones in his best Twilight Zone persona. "And congratulations."
If anyone has ridden the Tower of Terror more than Williams, Wollard's unaware of it. So Williams is, by many rights, a celebrity.
Wollard seats her and her party in the front row of the 20-person car. Then, he announces to the tourists on the elevator car that Williams is embarking on her 500th ride. The group -- most of whom are at least 30 years younger than she -- applauds.
As the elevator car equipped with bench seats makes its way through the allegedly haunted hotel, Williams watches the sights go by -- the pitch-black hallway dotted with starry lights, the ghosts wandering past.
When the elevator creeps to the top of the 13-story hotel -- and the rest of the riders clutch the lap bars with white-knuckle grips in anticipation -- Williams smiles serenely.
And then comes the best part: the terrifying series of 13-story drops that leave everyone else on board howling and screaming and perilously close to crying for their mommies -- everyone except Williams,waving her hands in the air and flashing a broad grin as she relishes the experience like the teenagers who flock to this ride.
This hair-raising attraction is Williams' obsession.
Since age 16, when she first rode a roller coaster at an Illinois amusement park -- an excursion that made her strait-laced parents frown -- Harriet Williams has adored coasters.
Later, after she had children, she took her whole family on vacations to ride roller coasters, visiting parks such as Six Flags Great America Park near Chicago and Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. The result? Two of her three children are also nuts about roller coasters -- though Mary, who has come to Disney wearing wristbands that prevent motion sickness, never liked them.
Williams is less mobile these days and uses a walker or her scooter to get around. And roller coasters are hard for her to climb into. The Tower of Terror, on the other hand, is easy for her to maneuver into. But the reason she comes over and over and over is this: The ride has distilled the essence of a roller coaster's thrill into one succinct, breathtaking ride.
"The part I love about a roller coaster is when you climb the first big hill and then drop over the top. The feeling is . . . oh . . . so wonderful," she sighs, rolling her eyes heavenward.
Even today, 60 years after she first experienced the thrill of weightlessness, of flying up in the air and hanging on for dear life, she marvels at the sensation.
Her eyes glitter when she describes it. And while the younger folks stagger off the ride dazed or slightly dizzy, Williams never, ever gets sick.
In the past two months, she has been on a Tower of Terror tear. When she arrived in Florida from Hobart, Ind., on Jan. 3, she had 407 rides under her belt. With the 500th ride within sight, she ramped up her schedule, riding the tower five, six times a day, closing in on 500.
As the 500th appeared imminent, Williams' daughter-in-law, Rory, alerted Disney. And, Disney being Disney, the company held a celebration in Williams' honor.
At the celebration, Wollard crowns her with a bellhop's cap bearing a gold "500" on the band.
Terror staffers line up to have their pictures taken with her. And the official photo -- of Harriet smiling on ride No. 500 -- will go into the celebrity-picture album, where staffers keep photos of movie and TV stars caught riding the elevator -- the likes of Bruce Willis, Mariah Carey, Joe Montana, Steven Tyler and Tim Allen.
But on this day, Harriet Williams is the real celebrity. After the TV crews drift away, tourists pepper her with questions about her feat.
The ultimate compliment, however, comes from 15-year-old Tabetha Benintende of Staten Island, N.Y. She wants just one small favor: to have her picture taken with Harriet Williams, the legend.
Williams smiles broadly as Tabetha's dad snaps the picture.
"I feel," she gushes, "like a movie star."
Linda Shrieves can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5433.