The Top 10 Disney Elevators

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a great movie. Well, to be more accurate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a great book that was made into a great movie (re-titled Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory in an early attempt at product placement) that was then remade into a kind of mediocre movie. Sadly author Roald Dahl hated the first movie because it took some liberties with his story, and hated the second one even more because he was dead. Maybe he was just grumpy because his parents forgot the key N making his name pointlessly difficult to pronounce.

Seems like a happy fella.

In the original film chocolate factory hallways contorted into MC Escher like optical illusions, walls were fruit flavored lick-able treats and orange faced little people danced around delivering moral messages that explained why chewing gum was in fact bad for you but better still than smoking.

The Cast of Jersey Shore

The Tim Burton directed remake did away with all references to alcohol, tobacco and hellfire and replaced them with a meaningless back story explaining why Willy Wonka was so kooky… not since the Star Wars prequels has an origin story been less relevant. But both versions along with the original source material have some pretty incredible locations. Chocolate rivers flow past edible (or is that eat-able?) meadows and gargantuan mushrooms filled with marshmallow goo.  All doors lead to untold excitement, to a fantasy, and to a dream of pure imagination.

Make this real, I mean really for real.

Straight ahead you leave the mundane world behind, turning right you enter a world of unbelievable innovation and futuristic vision, to the left you are thrust into an exotic adventure. It sounds a bit like Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom and in fact the two have a lot in common. The book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964, the height of Walt Disney’s fame and a heyday for Disneyland. The most telling connection of the two is Harper Goff the extraordinary set designer famously known for creating the Nautilus as it appears in Disney’s version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Harper worked extensively with Disney from designing the Jungle River boats and actually laying out the path the river follows to creating the Golden Horseshoe saloon and much of Main Street. In fact Goff had a major impact on many aspects of Disneyland and later Walt Disney World as well.

Harper at work on the famous Chocolate Factory. How could one guy do so much stuff I love?

Harper however also was the set designer for the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory. He created the factory and the SS Wonkatania and the Inventing Room and all of the beautiful fun house visions seen throughout the film. I always wished that the original Wonka movie was made by Disney, it feels like it should have been made by Disney (except for that part where the chicken gets its head cut off and Willy is acting like he is on an acid trip… or come to think of it maybe precisely because of that moment). Beyond that I yearned for (and still do) a Wonkaland at the parks… it is such a no brainer. It is a perfect fit for Disney Hollywood Studios and Harper has already done all the heavy lifting, the land and the ride are pretty much designed and all ready to go.

There actually is a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ride in England, but it sucks.
Only Disney could really do this justice, Universal could as well but then Willy would
end up blowing something up just before sneezing on us.

Just like in the film iron gates guard the perimeter of the land… WONKA flickers from huge smokestacks looming in the distance. Just outside the gates a candy store mimics that of the film filled to the brim with chocolate bars of all shapes and sizes, slender glass jars of brilliantly hued hard candies are backlit to reveal their jewel tones and taffy pulling machines crank out the gooey good stuff. Charlie’s ramshackle little house can be seen on the hill but we forge forward along the red carpet over the cobblestones and are welcomed inside the magical palace of sweet excess into a world where anything can happen.

A world where anything can happen… this is exactly what I thought the first time I went to the Magic Kingdom and I would guess that if you have navigated the myriad mazes of the internet to end up here you too have had such an epiphany. Perhaps it was Disneyland or EPCOT Center, maybe it was 1955 or 1982 but the results were the same, your imagination allowed you to be transported away from the humdrum and into a fantastical fantasy transformed into a shockingly tangible reality. The fact that the film premiered the same year that Walt Disney World opened may be a coincidence but it made the connection that much stronger to me. My first visits to both Walt’s and Willy’s Worlds were pretty much at the same time and the two always were inseparable in my mind.

Two of a kind.

The Wonka ride of my dreams continues as guests (golden tickets in hand) wind past diminishing hallways and beyond fanciful candy making contraptions before proceeding to a ride on the chocolate river and a finale in the glass elevator. Ah yes, the glass elevator, as Harper Goff envisioned it might as well have been an escape pod from the Nautilus. The Victorian “Steam Punk” vibe was heavy; a brass chassis accented by a plethora of buttons and controls and an ornate bullet design. Of course we could opt for the vision of the glass elevator from the Burton film or in other words a poorly computer generated rectangle with a jet pack strapped on the top but lets stick with the good stuff and the eventual point of this post. Disney may have never created a Willy Wonka ride with an elevator that can go “up and down, sideways, slantways, and any other ways you can think of but they have in fact created many marvelous elevator effects incorporated into a wide spectrum of attractions and experiences around the world.

Sure, it’s more like the Great Brass elevator but cool nonetheless. 

Yes, an elevator can be a totally functional, boring even, part of daily life… or it can spring to life as an added layer of detail, as an attraction in an of itself, as something special and something more than it needed to be. It is this type of additional thought and care that exemplifies why fans love the best of Disney.

Normally I would not attempt to assemble a comprehensive list, I have learned from watching Shane flounder around that this is a trap. However with Shane off tanning himself in Hawaii (Normally the guy just hits the tanning beds, we call him Snookie behind his back) I must cowboy up and present you with:

10) Cinderella’s Castle elevator (Magic Kingdom)

This is a bit of a cheat… first of all because it no longer exists in quite this form, secondly because it was never open to the public, and thirdly because it was not themed at all but nonetheless based purely and selfishly on my own personal experiences it earns number 10. From the parks opening all the way to the addition of the Castle Dream Suite there has been an elevator that one could ride from the ground level utilidors under the castle to very near the top of the turrets.  As a cast member I covertly took the trip several times. I was not authorized to do so, I do not believe that I was encouraged to do so either, but I did anyway. As a result I got to step out onto the balconies of the upper floors and peer down across the park, lording over it like a true king in a living dream. Pretty freaking cool and the vague danger associated with the whole operation only heightened the thrill.

Now you either need a really big set or a really big wallet to get here.

9) Elevator to Club 33 (Disneyland)

It’s only this low on the list because once again it is not something most people have a chance to experience (though these days it feels like admission to Club 33 comes with every ticket sold). Slipping past the discreetly marked door in New Orleans Square guests step foot into a small foyer and reception area before being led forward and faced with a dilemma. Would you prefer to enter the private Club 33 dining rooms by traversing a staircase or be whisked there by an antique caged French lift?  The choice should be obvious, especially if you know the history that Walt Disney himself tried to import the elevator this was based on from a hotel after a stay there. Upon being refuted he tasked the imagineers with creating their very own. Slide the door shut and enjoy your one story ride into the arms of elite luxury and also just so-so overpriced country club level food… but it’s not the filet that brought you here in the first place now was it?

Choose Wisely.

8) Walt Disney Family Museum train ride elevator (San Francisco)

Yea, I know, the Walt Disney Company did not have anything officially to do with designing this very well realized museum, but Imagineering influences are clearly all over it. There are many wonderful touches and flat out jaw-dropping moments in this place but perhaps one of the subtlest and least expected takes place when visitors travel from the lower floor galleries up a level to continue the tour. Rather than simply a ride up to the next level the elevator is decorated with red velvet curtains and windows complete with shades and a view. Guests realize that this is not actually an elevator at all but rather a train car (if a bit oddly proportioned one). As the lift rises narration tells us about Disney’s trip aboard the train to California and the start of something big.

The small stuff counts

7) Walt Disney Concert Hall scenic elevator (Los Angeles)

Again not technically affiliated with the Walt Disney Company but still infused with a little extra attention to detail. This is not particularly flashy and it lacks any obvious Disney touch but it is as close to the glass elevator from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (or better yet it’s sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator) as you are likely to find. Elegant in its simplicity and sheer minimal modern aesthetic its glass walls, door and ceiling make you feel as though you are floating through a huge Apple store or perhaps have been transported to the year 3000. This substantiates that you don’t have to dip everything in pixie dust to make it “magical”.

A place this beautiful better have a cool elevator… but you should see the bathrooms!

6) Disney’s Dream cruise ship main lobby elevator (Caribbean cruises)

It is about taking the mundane and making it something a bit special. From the Mickey Mouse gloved hand floor indicators to the ornate scroll metal work on the railings this elevator is clearly not one you would find at the local mall, or even a premium “Deluxe” level Disney resort. However it is the nice surprise that takes place inside the elevator that elevates (yes, cheap pun) the experience. Through the large glass walls a cavalcade of Disney’s most beloved characters reveal themselves in between floors, all 11 of them. From the flying house in Up to classic characters such as Dumbo and Peter Pan if it is an airborne animated Disney personality you’ll find it here.

5) DisneyQuest Ventureport elevator (Walt Disney World, formerly Chicago)

In an attempt to set the stage for what Disney hoped would be an ongoing interactive multimedia virtual reality (and any other mid 90’s tech terms they could possibly conjure up) franchise DisneyQuest made it clear that this was not your local arcade right from the start. Guests pass through the lobby and are directed onto elevators to take them to the Ventureport… the hub of the attraction. Once on board the lights dim and through some simple Pepper’s Ghost style presentations the Genie from Aladdin cracks wise while unintentionally making the short trip feel oh so much longer. Despite the tired humor, not so much the actual jokes but rather just the whole idea of a self reverent pop culture skewering animated jester (Shrek, I’m looking at you), the addition of the Genie and the unexpected and well executed presentation prove that a trip up a couple of floors can be made into a traveling theater surprisingly well.

4) Journey to the Center of the Earth Terravator (Tokyo Disney Sea)

You didn’t think any Disney list of the best of anything could slip by without including something from the Tokyo parks did you? In case you did not know this yet Disney hates you… they only love the Japanese and only the Japanese get the good stuff. At least it seems that way most of the time. In this case the awesome Journey to the Center of the Earth is preceded by one of the (maybe THE) coolest queues ever. As part of the pre-show / queue experience we descend down to a home base deep within the Earth’s core via the Terravator.  Featuring Victorian era Jules Verne inspired designs the subterranean elevator shimmies and shakes, the walls rumble as we hear rock and earth clatter by.  Gauges spin, lights flicker and there is a palpable sense of heat and humidity in the air. The relatively narrow space coupled with the high windowless walls gives a sense of claustrophobia and makes the comparatively wide vistas seen when the doors open that much more dramatic and effective. Bonus points for the fact that what feels like a trip hundreds of meters down is in fact a trip UP a couple of floors to set up the ride, awesome.

3) The Living Seas Hydrolators (Formerly at EPCOT)

The Hydrolators are perhaps the quintessential example of Disney adding extra detail simply to enhance the experience of an attraction. There was no physical need for them; they in fact went nowhere, and no financial benefit either (no Hyrdolator action sets were ever sold though honestly I probably would have purchased one had they been). The illusion for guests was that of descending deep below the ocean surface down to the visitor center of Sea Base Alpha, the fictional undersea scientific research facility that served as the conceit of the pavilion. After watching an admittedly dull and yet still oddly dramatic film (The DELUGE) guests entered a loading room made up of  suspended floors held over bubbling pools of water. Guests entered one of three Hydrolators, the walls shook, the floor dropped a few inches and most convincingly endless rockwork scrolled by seen through large glass windows as tiny air bubbles enveloped the cab. Background announcements detailing the air lock procedure and docking ports help sell the effect. We welcome you to The Living Seas. We welcome you to Sea Base Alpha.

Screw Nemo

2) Haunted Mansion Portrait Gallery (Disneyland)

In Stark contrast to our number three pick number two is strictly a functional device born out of necessity and hidden from awareness for the mass majority of its many visitors. The original Haunted Mansion has a very long and winding back-story, one that has books, websites and thesis length analysis devoted to it.  Certainly a history too convoluted for us to tackle here. Suffice it to say that the imagineers needed to figure out a way to get guests down below the berm and out of the traditional park boundaries. They could have herded them into a series of traditional elevators or sent them down huge staircases but instead they took the opportunity to “plus” the experience and created the first show scene of the attraction that just happens to occur before guests even board the ride (thus blurring the line as to when the queue ends and the show begins). From the foyer guests enter the Portrait Gallery more commonly known as the stretch rooms. Visitors experience an aura of foreboding, almost as if they sense a disquieting metamorphosis. Is this haunted room actually stretching? Well actually yes it is as in fact it is a giant elevator which drops down to the basement level allowing access to the main show building out back. Few normal park visitors (ie: none of our readers and certainly not a parkeologist) are aware that what appears as a parlor trick is in reality a required trip beneath the railroad tracks.

The Mansion elevator is a little known obscure fact about a seldom discussed attraction.
Next time you are in the parks mention it to your Disney trivia expert friends
to really impress them!

1) Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (Disney Hollywood Studios)

This one is a bit obvious I guess. A huge mega successful E-Ticket attraction based solely around an elevator, how could it not be number one on our list?

Perhaps the only real question is which version of this now classic attraction makes the grade? In this case despite the superior architecture and intricate detail of the Tokyo Disney Sea version I am giving the nod to the original at Walt Disney World. Not only did it set the bar very high for all similar attractions that would follow but also the Florida version comes  close to performing some of the tricks that the glass elevator from the chocolate factory can; not only does it move up and down but forward and backwards as well. Plunging 13 stories down, bouncing up in a rapid yo-yo like fashion and delivering thrills while maintaining the highest level of theme and detail the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror rules the roost.

 A completely candid, unretouched photo of the Tower of Terror.
Come on, what else was going to be number one?

There is always room on the list however should Disney one day wise up and decide to build my dream ride… I’m happy to make room for Wonka’s great glass elevator any time they are ready.

Thanks for dropping by…

Comments (13)

  1. @Beta Mike:

    I mentioned the coincidence of the movie and WDW opening in the same year but I must admit I missed the date on the ticket… amazing… thanks for the catch.

  2. One addition to the discussion of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory comparison: The opening date on the Golden Ticket to the Factory Tour in the film….October 1st.

    Oh, and the film’s opening year? 1971

    Kids…fate doesn’t align itself much greater than that.

  3. @ Joe…

    Really! Very cool, I did not know about it at all.

    I also just thought about the Encounter restaurant at LAX… the actual elevator is somewhat normal but when it goes up it plays this cool retro 60’s Star Trek-sh music.

  4. There’s one Disney-related elevator you missed: Top of the Rock. In the refurbishing of Rockefeller Center and the rooftop earlier this decade (in the wake of 9/11, GE realized that given the loss of WTC 1 and 2, there was a renewed demand for elevated views that Empire State couldn’t handle), they opted to redo the elevators as well.

    They went to Walt Disney Imagineering to do it. What they came up with is really nice. It looks like the normal mirrored roof type you see in any office building, until the doors close – then the lights go out and you can see dots lining up the elevator route all the way to the 68th floor (where you get off), while projected onto the glass is a “through the century” overview of NBC Newsreels, most covering NYC in some form, that plays while you ascend. Was actually really nice, and for those nervous about elevators, might make for a good distraction.

  5. @ Melissa:

    Thank you, typos corrected.
    What you may not realize , or perhaps as a regular reader it is all too obvious, is that I am perhaps the worst speller currently on the internet. I mean it is really laughably bad, a true problem. If not for spell check i woudl be screwed… so consider these little easter eggs for you to hunt out and find in the future.. a fun Wonka style game.

  6. No2w I really HAVE to go to Tokyo! And oh, let us shed one last tear for the hydrolators of Seabase Alpha!

    You know I say this with love, and only to make an already excellent article perfect, but I think your spellchecker let you down on the words “pier” and “discretely.” It was looking for “peer” and “discreetly.”

  7. Is it just me or does the UK Wonka ride’s Wonka sound like Mark Hamill’s Joker?

  8. @Lennox:

    Thanks for your thoughts! I was hoping to hear what others like in the world of Disney elevators (that really sounds odd).

    A couple that almost made the cut for me were the glass lobby elevator from the original Imagination Pavilion at EPCOT and also a really nicely themed elevator in Mysterious Island at TDS that takes you down to the Nautilus and a snack bar.

    Of course many of the hotels have cool ones as well.

  9. @Tim:
    Yea… I think at this point you pretty much just have to say please and you are in. Odd.

    Preferences for the films may be an age thing, not sure. Yes, the original is a bit 70’s but I actually tend to see it as timeless. It takes a long time to get to the factory and you certainly can cut a song or three but once inside it’s untouchable. Wonka is a nut job but just on the edge of sanity, the set design is stunning and it just feels so Disney park-like in so many ways. While I love Violet’s mom in the Burton version and several other things for that matter, overall it feels just too forced somehow.

    And YES, I also love the Indy queue but for me JTTCOTE jumps rams it up even more. It is in two parts with the Terravator smack in the middle and while I would give Indy the nod over the first half, the second half seals the deal for me. BTW, you now have had a glimpse into an upcoming Parkeology post.

    @ theelfqueen:
    Wonka is nutty for sure… but anyone who could dream up what Disney did was not playing with a full deck either, and I mean that in the best possible way!

  10. I was always a fan of World of Disney NYC’s elevator. Nothing particularly special about riding it that I can remember… but it looked like a beetleworx from Epic Mickey that had come a few years too early. The whole store was beautiful

    Of course that’s all gone now and we have an underwhelming and standard “themed” Disney Store in Times Square.

    Astro Orbiter has an interesting Pre-Ride elevator. But I haven’t done that in a few years so I don’t really remember if it was good or not.

  11. Except that Walt was not incredibly creepy like Wonka. I mean seriously. Wonka is beyond Creeptastic.

  12. Club 33 is still one of my to-do items at Disneyland. The relative ease of access fills me with hope that the next time the friend of a friend will actually be able to get us in. It was only a lack of openings that robbed me last time.

    In the mean time, two exceptions:

    1) I liked the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! Admittedly it was very much a “LOOK AT ME, I’M A TIM BURTON MOVIE!” but I cracked up all the way through it. Still do, in fact! The previous version is too awkwardly 70’s for my taste.

    2) I cannot express how much I love Journey to the Center of the Earth. It and Disneysea’s 20,000 Leagues are tied for my favorite Disney attractions of all time. That said, I do think Anaheim’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye has the better queue. It’s just that much awesomer. The Journey queue is fantastic, however, for really enhancing the story of the ride. If you’re keen-eyed, it sets up the climax superbly. There’s so much detail that you almost want the line to move slower.

    Also, the Disneysea Tower of Terror had a magnificent queue but the elevator itself was blessedly wimpy. Every time I go on Anaheim’s (I’ve never been to WDW) I fall just short of having a heart-attack. Tokyo’s was a gentle breeze in comparison.

  13. It’s good to see I’m not the only one who has noticed the considerable number of Club 33 trip reports. Do you get in with a certain number of cereal box tops or something?

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