Scouting The Tower of Terror in Los Angeles

Last week, I was scouting the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles when I suddenly got the strangest feeling…

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As I was taking pictures of the lobby, with its gorgeous Moorish Revival vaulted ceiling, a thought hit me without warning: I’ve been here before.

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Except I hadn’t. This was my first visit to the Biltmore – and yet something about it seemed so familiar, beyond deja vu…

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And then I realized: I had been here before, though the hotel I’d visited had gone by a slightly different name…

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I knew it as the Tower of Terror.

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The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride at Disney World is my all-time favorite – I even wrote about it as a Scouting NY April Fools post a few years back under the guise that it was an abandoned hotel in southern California (and felt terrible as a whole bunch of people actually thought it was real). For those who are unfamiliar with it, it’s a Twilight Zone-inspired ride that takes you into the abandoned – and possibly haunted – Hollywood Tower Hotel in Southern California for a death-defying elevator ride.

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I’d always heard the Tower of Terror was an amalgamation of a number of classic Los Angeles-area hotels, but I had no idea how closely Disney’s Imagineers had modeled the ride after the real thing until visiting the Biltmore. While it’s obviously a caricature, from the vaulted ceiling to the arches…

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…the ride’s fictional Hollywood Tower Hotel is nothing short of a love letter to the very real location:

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Photo by Brett Kiger

Built in an attempt to finally provide Los Angeles with a grand hotel, the Biltmore opened in 1923 as the “finest and largest hotel west of Chicago,” covering half a city block and offering 1,000 guest rooms (the Biltmore was never actually a part of the famed hotel chain; in fact, the name was licensed to add a level of prestige). Pictured below is the original lobby in its heyday (today, it’s a tea room of sorts). Note the check-in desk between columns…

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…an element that was recreated in its Disney counterpart:

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The highlight of the Biltmore’s lobby is its incredible ceiling…

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…lovingly mimicked by the ride’s designers:

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Here’s a closer look at the Biltmore’s ceiling, made of plaster and featuring 24 carat gold accents…

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A close-up of the central pattern:

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The lobby is dominated at one end by a beautiful Imperial staircase…

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…which leads to a Spanish Baroque Revival bronze doorway above:

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The hanging clock still works to this day:

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Though the hotel was restored in the mid-1970s and is in immaculate shape, if you take the time to look, you’ll find a number of details that would look perfectly at home in the Tower of Terror were they ever allowed to reach an advanced level of abandonment and decay. For example, just imagine the Biltmore’s twin chandeliers covered in cobwebs and dust…

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Running along the base of the ceiling are a number of rather creepy cherub and goat heads…

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And would this harpy-like creature at the base of the stairs not fit right into Disney’s haunted decor?

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That explained the interior of the ride…but what about the building itself? Did the Hollywood Tower Hotel’s exterior have a real-world counterpart as well?

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The most obvious inspiration would be the Hollywood Tower apartment building, located on Franklin and Argyle in Hollywood:

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In addition to the similarities in its name and neon sign, if you focus on the central building, you can definitely see echoes of the fictional hotel’s ascending design (though at only seven stories, you’d be slightly more likely to escape a supernatural elevator crash here).

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One of Hollywood’s classic Golden Age apartment buildings, the Hollywood Tower was built in 1929 as “La Belle Tour” (it was later renamed in the early 1940s). It featured 50 apartments and three penthouses along with a rooftop garden, and is said to have counted numerous show business professionals among its tenants over the years. Below, the tower in 1940.

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Though the building is only 110 feet tall, its faux French Normandy architectural flourishes create the illusion of it being taller than it actually is, a technique regularly used in Disney parks.

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A peek inside the lobby, which still has touches of old Hollywood:

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Other Hollywood institutions played a role in inspiring the Tower of Terror’s imposing size, such as the Chateau Marmont…

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But none would explain the ride’s neo-Mediterranean style. For that, you have to travel an hour outside Hollywood…

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…to Riverside’s Mission Inn.

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There’s no greater injustice one can do to the Mission Inn than attempting to photograph it from the front – it just doesn’t work.

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For one thing, the property is sprawling, spanning an entire city block. On top of that, it’s low to the ground, with much of it hidden by foliage. Finally, the hotel features dozens of different architectural styles, from Spanish Colonial to Mediterranean Revival, so a picture of one end might look completely unrelated to the opposite. Below, an early postcard featuring the entirety of the hotel:

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An aerial shot is really the only way to get a true sense of how gargantuan and multifaceted the Mission Inn truly is:

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Originally a small cottage hotel dating to 1876, the owner’s son, Frank Miller, began expanding the property in 1902 and didn’t stop until his death in 1935. Rather than stick with just one theme, the Mission Inn is instead a wild collage of architectural styles, and really has to be explored in person to truly appreciate.

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It’s not hard to find a number of matching elements in the Tower of Terror’s facade:

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One final element of the Tower of Terror was derived from the Mission Inn. As you wait in the ride’s queue, you find yourself winding through a series of latticed gardens…

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…and arcades past statuary.

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One of the most beautiful features of the Mission Inn is its garden/courtyard…

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…which also has a number of walkways…

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…that are just too similar to be coincidental:

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As someone who’s spent the past seven years writing about the most minuscule of details, I’ve always appreciated the Disney designers for going out of their way to include historical referential flourishes for those who bother to look. While your average ten-year-old might be too busy fighting his way to the front of the line to notice, it’s nice to know there’s something very real behind the fantasy.

-SCOUT

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6 comments

  1. Don’t forget – the top of the tower was also designed to blend in with the Moroccan pavilion at Epcot because they knew the ride would be visible from there no matter what!

    • Yes. That’s the reason for the coloring. And since the TOT at DHS came first, it stands to reason why the one at DCA is like it is. I’m sure the resort has some influence,but it was mostly to blend in with Morocco when viewed from the bridge looking across the lake.

  2. Excellent article! I originally saw your guest post on LAist, but am now your latest subscriber. Looking forward to reading more of your takes on LA’s historic and hidden sites.

  3. That is just so cool! I can’t wait until you visit Disneyland (Anahiem) and see what you can find there. The Disney California is great and they have a “Hollywood Tower of Terror” right there.

  4. It’s great to hear that places like this have survived – I recall reading a biography of Chaplin years ago, and being shocked at how many of the apparently important buildings from that era have been demolished, to make way for anonymous strip-malls, etc.

    Coming from the UK, we can sometimes be over-protective of our historic (or at least old) buildings, but there must be a happy middle ground, somewhere…

    Keep up the good work!

  5. Hi Scout,

    I’ve been following you from NY and now I’m following you across the country. I always wondered where the inspiration for the ride came from – great post! Thanks!