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The Tower of Terror is a unique species of Disney thrill ride, though it borrows elements of The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland Park. The story is that you're touring a once-famous Hollywood hotel gone to ruin. As at Star Tours, the queuing area immerses guests in the adventure as they pass through the hotel's once-opulent public rooms. From the lobby, guests are escorted into the hotel's library, where Rod Serling, speaking from an old black-and white television, greets the guests and introduces the plot.
The Tower of Terror is a whopper at 13-plus-stories tall. It breaks tradition in terms of visually isolating themed areas. The entire park is visible from the top, but you have to look quickly!
The ride vehicle, one of the hotel's service elevators, takes guests to see the haunted hostelry. The tour begins with a startling fiber-optic star field effect, and from there things quickly get seriously weird. You have entered the Twilight Zone. Guests are subjected to a full range of special effects as they encounter unexpected horrors and optical illusions. The climax of the adventure occurs when the elevator reaches the top floor (the 13th, of course) and the cable snaps.
DCA's Tower of Terror is very similar to the Walt Disney World version, but they are definitely not clones. In Florida, you start by slowly approaching the tower through mood-setting decayed gardens, while in DCA you simply step off the street and through the hotel's front door. From there, the adventure begins the same way -- you pass through the hotel lobby and into the library for the preshow, after which you enter the boarding area. DCA's boiler room is much bigger with colorful (that is, less creepy) lighting, and it's decorated with additional insider nods to the original TV series.
Once you're on the elevator, however, the two attractions really part company. In the Disney World version, the elevator stops at a couple of floors to reveal some eerie visuals, but then actually moves out of the shaft onto one of the floors. The effects during this brief sojourn are remarkable, and more remarkable still is that you don't know that you've reentered the shaft until the elevator speeds skyward. In the DCA Tower of Terror, the elevator never leaves the shaft. The visuals and special effects are equally compelling, especially the unique ghostly mirror not found in Orlando, but there's never that feeling of disorientation that distinguishes the Florida attraction. The DCA Tower of Terror is more straightforward, and consequently a little less mysterious. Once the elevator dropping ensues, both versions are similar, but Florida features multiple randomized drop profiles, making each re-ride a surprise, while every stay in DCA's hotel is the same. Regardless of which version you try, unless you're already fanatically familiar with the superior original, you're unlikely to be disappointed.
The Tower has great potential for terrifying young children and rattling more mature visitors. If you have teenagers in your party, use them as experimental probe -- if they report back that they really, really liked it, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. Seriously, avoid assuming this attraction isn't for you. A senior from the United Kingdom tried the Tower of Terror and liked it very much, writing:
I was thankful I had read your review of the Tower of Terror, or I would certainly have avoided it. As you say, it is so full of magnificent detail that it is worth riding, even if you don't fancy the drops involved.
Because of its height, the tower is a veritable beacon, visible from outside the park and luring curious guests as soon as they enter. Because of the attraction's popularity with schoolkids, teens, and young adults, you can count on a footrace to get there when the park opens. The tower used to be mobbed most of the day, but newer attractions such as Toy Story Midway Mania! and Cars Land have siphoned away some of the lines.
To access The Tower of Terror, bear left from the park entrance into the Hollywood Pictures Backlot. Continue straight to the Hyperion Theater and then turn right. To save time, when you enter the library waiting area, stand in the far back corner across from the door where you entered and at the opposite end of the room from the TV. When the doors to the loading area open, you'll be one of the first admitted.
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