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Early Development of the Tower of Terror

The Tower of Terror is one of the most famous attractions at Walt Disney World and also one of the most popular, but one of the original ideas for it would have seriously brought a different attraction the Studios than the one we see today. The story of the Tower of Terror that almost was comes from former Disney Imagineer C. McNair Wilson, who worked on the Tower of Terror project at its infancy. and shares a story of how an attraction starts out with an idea dn morphs into something else by the time it's done.

Often Imagineers will bring into a team their ideas from other projects that were not implemented so ideas from Geyser Mountain as well as other Disneyland Paris projects found their way to the Studios when Marty Skylar, Head of Disney Imagineering told Disney Imagineer C. McNair Wilson to put a team together of his favorite people to talk about a new project.

Mel Brooks

In the fall of 1989, Mel Brooks, Michael Eisner, Marty Skylar, C. McNair Wilson and the rest of the Imagineering group met together. The meeting was the beginning of an attempt by Eisner to bring Mel Brooks over to Disney to produce his films at the then brand new Disney-MGM Studios because he knew Mel and Mel's son Max were huge Disneyland fans and a joint collaboration between Brooks and Disney would be a good starting point for working together. Mel initially had to be sold on the idea of a theme park attraction after being explained that a theme park attraction has a lasting effect of being in place and seen every day of the week by about 20,000 people for anywhere from 10-20 years. Mel Brooks made about six trips to Imagineering and a number of telephone calls to work on the attraction. Disney Imagineers wanted to shoot for something scary and funny with Mel Brooks and at one point in the early development with Mel Brooks, what later became the Tower of Terror started out as "Castle Young Frankenstein" which would have featured a Bavarian village with winding streets to the castle with a drawbridge. The queue line would be towards the back of the "village" with a kind of indoor line that had the feel of Pirates of the Caribbean in the Magic Kingdom. The idea later changed to "Mel Brooks' Hollywood Horror Hotel".

Disney Imagineer C. McNair Wilson

Around the time the Disney-MGM Studios was opened, Bob Weiss wanted to do a 1930's art-deco high-end 4 or 5 diamond hotel at the front of the Disney-MGM Studios and had another group involving Imagineer C. McNair Wilson along with some architects and interior designers and started tour of hotels in the Los Angeles area called "deco LA" where they went to the great old buildings, theaters such as the Chateau Mormont and the Wiltern Theatre. Because murder mysteries were all the rage in the 1930's, McNair mentioned to Bob Weiss an idea for the hotel to build in little clues that could be found all around the grounds of the hotel and would be a mini scavenger hunt and had ideas like all the hotel staff would know little key phrases that would lead guests onto other clues and you could solve it and the end you could get a certificate that the guest had solved the mystery of the hotel.

This idea lead to another idea of the Hollywood Hotel having one end being covered in ivy and had broken windows and was falling apart and when you went into the hotel, if you went down the hall to that section, it would say "closed" or "condemned" and that part would be the Hollywood Horror Hotel (The Mel Brooks attraction project commonly referred to by the Disney Imagineers as "Hotel Mel") so that it was literally two buildings but it would look like it was one large building. In fact, if you look at the Tower of Terror today, the backend looks like it could be extended to attach to another building right along side it.

Some other ideas were tossed around, including an idea by the Kirk brothers (Tim and Steve Kirk were brothers who worked for Disney Imagineering) to have the hotel/attraction hybrid be self-contained and when you arrived at the Orlando Airport, you would be driven to the hotel in a 1938 Ford "Woody" station wagon and the curtains would be pulled down and you would be driven out to one location and be transported by another means of transportation somewhere else. Another idea to incorporate Mel Brooks into the Studios was to do a "comedy Haunted Mansion" that would feature Castle Young Frankenstein on the same grounds in case the elevator based attraction was scrapped.

Concept Art for the Tower of Terror

Mel Brooks eventually left the project at the time Disney Imagineers had some firm ideas and brought in an idea to have a moving elevator off it's track and moving down hallways and crash out one side of the building and they had architects and engineers brought onto the project and Mel lost interest partially because Disney wasn't building on Mel's original idea anymore and partially because Mel went off to make the movie "Life Stinks".

Once Mel Brooks had left, Imagineers started to figure out what the new attraction would look like and budgets and so forth and played with it some more and with Mel leaving, Imagineers started leaning toward that Spanish-Renaissance/Riverside Mission Inn "look" because of the great architecture and because it would fit in with the eclectic store fronts on Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards. Disney felt the attraction needed a movie reference and eventually settled on the Twilight Zone theme after calling around and see what movie rights were available. In fact, the idea of a Twilight Zone attraction was tossed around for one of the opening day attractions at the Disney-MGM Studios at one of the attractions that featured multiple movie and television brands such as the Great Movie Ride and Superstar TV. The Twilight Zone theme was a fairly easy overlay for the Disney Imagineers and went through all the Twilight Zone episodes to pick elements from the series although the theme did not change the attraction much. The one element that was lost in all of this was the comedy aspect to it that Mel Brooks had wanted but with Mel gone, Imagineers focused on the eeriness and thrill of the attraction with a Twilight Zone theme to it.

Concept Art for the Tower of Terror

One of the initial ideas for the Tower of Terror attraction was incorporating Disney Cast Members who would be dressed as different members of the hotel staff, such as a hotel manager, desk clerk and of course bellhops and each would have something about them that was just a little bit off. One idea along those lines involved having bellhops walking through the line with arms full of luggage asking guests if anyone wants to check their luggage or telling a random guest "Mr. Eisner, you car is ready!". Another idea was to have a bench near the queue with a man sitting down, hunched over with a newspaper in his lap and cobwebs between him and the newspaper and he would slightly move his head to the left and right and when he would sense a guest starring at him, he would "come to life", revealing he is a live actor and start conversing with the guest. There was another idea of having audio-animatronics including a elevator repair man sleeping in the boiler room. But this and other ideas were eventually scrapped because they slowed the line down too much, also because the line barely was in the lobby where the theme and a bellhop would make the most sense and because Operations didn't want to commit more people than were necessary to make the attraction work and a hotel staff member carrying room service around wasn't viewed as necessary.

If you're interested in reading more of the history of the Tower of Terror attraction, visit our sister site at TowerOfTerror.Org and read the entire history of the attraction which includes even earlier ideas for the attraction as well as photos and project art.