Alien Encounter: The Life and Death of Walt Disney World's Scariest Ride Ever 

Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was hard to hear the dialogue above the screams, but riders sitting through early test runs of ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, got the ride’s basic premise. A friendly group of aliens are showing off their new teleportation technology. Halfway through the demonstration, something goes wrong: They accidentally send a carnivorous monster to Earth, and when the lights flicker off, the alien creature starts attacking audience members.

Though the attraction didn’t offer any steep plunges or high-speed turns, it aimed to be one of Disney’s premier thrill rides, with the most heart-pounding moments taking place as guests sat still in complete darkness. But when Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner experienced ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter for himself in January 1995, he was unimpressed.

By that point, Disney had already spent eight years developing the ride, which was meant to be the showpiece of Tomorrowland's $100 million makeover. It frightened early test-riders—the Orlando Sentinel reported people screaming over the dialogue and running for the exit—but Eisner felt the ride wasn't scary enough. Instead of clearing it to open later that month as planned, he ordered the park’s designers (also known as Imagineers) to shut it down and ramp up the intensity.

Five months later, one of the most terrifying rides in theme park history opened in "The Happiest Place on Earth."

From Alien Encounter to ExtraTERRORestrial

Concept art for ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.Disney, Wikimedia Commons

Disney wasn’t a top destination for thrill-seekers when Michael Eisner took over the company in 1984. The parks’ classic rides, like It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, and even The Haunted Mansion, were beloved for their nostalgia, not for their fear factor. Eisner’s teenage son Breck made this clear when he turned down the chance to go to Disneyland in California, saying the park was too lame. Determined to lure the teen demographic, Eisner began looking for ways to bring more thrills to Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Alien Encounter was conceived as part of this reimagining. A lot of the early ideas of what the ride would be ended up making it into the final product—guests would be seated in an arena-style theater facing an animatronic alien that would ultimately escape and terrorize them all in the dark. But instead of a generic alien, the villain was originally meant to be the Xenomorph from the Alien franchise.

A gory, R-rated property may seem like an odd match for Disney World, but the partnership was years in the making. Disney had come close to building an Alien-themed ride in the 1980s called Nostromo, where riders would shoot down Xenomorphs with laser guns mounted to their cars. Nostromo never made it past the design stage, but Alien found another home at Disney World when The Great Movie Ride opened at MGM Studios in 1989. The ride recreated iconic scenes from film history, including Ripley’s showdown with a Xenomorph at the end of Alien. Following that attraction’s success, Disney looked for more opportunities to use its license of the Alien franchise.

Disney launched an ambitious renovation project of Tomorrowland around that time. Walt Disney’s concept of the future hadn’t aged well since the parks first opened, and Imagineers were tasked with recreating the world of tomorrow for modern audiences. Tomorrowland 2055 would welcome parkgoers into an intergalactic alien spaceport—a.k.a. the perfect setting for the next attempt at an Alien ride.

Eisner was 100 percent on board with Alien Encounter, and a full-fledged Alien ride may have opened at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World if it wasn’t for some detractors working behind the scenes. Many of the theme park’s more seasoned Imagineers opposed a ride that was not only based on an R-rated property, but contradicted Walt Disney’s optimistic vision of tomorrow. Unable to convince Eisner to nix the project on their own, the Imagineers enlisted the help of entertainment heavyweight George Lucas, who was working as a consultant on the Indiana Jones ride for Disneyland at the time.

Lucas also felt that Alien Encounter was too intense for the family-friendly park, and he agreed to collaborate on a toned-down, Xenomorph-free version of the ride. With Lucas’s name attached, Eisner was willing to let go of the Alien brand, and an updated take on Alien Encounter, now called ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, went into development.

Though their project no longer featured aliens that burst through chests or bled acid, the design team still had the chilling atmosphere of Alien on the brain. The movie’s influence was apparent when ExtraTERRORestrial opened in Tomorrowland on June 20, 1995.

ExtraTERRORestrial: A Ride "Too Intense for Children and Some Adults"

After months of anticipation, ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter finally earned Eisner’s approval, and Disney World guests were able to experience it for themselves. By adding new special effects and tightening up the story, Imagineers had retooled the ride into something guaranteed to engage and terrify even the toughest critics.

Warnings posted outside indicated this wasn’t an average Disney ride: “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter is a frightening theatrical experience in a confined setting with loud noises and moments of total darkness,” one sign read. It went on to say the ride “may be too intense for children and some adults.” But that didn’t stop parents from taking their young children into the attraction.

Once inside the building, guests waiting in line watched a robot voiced by Tim Curry demonstrate a “teletransporter” made by the fictional alien technology company X-S Tech, using a furry, yellow alien named Skippy as his guinea pig. When transporting Skippy from one containment tube to the other, the machine glitches, and the cute alien materializes looking burnt-up and in pain. The disturbing pre-show was meant to introduce riders to the teleportation device’s intended purpose, as well as its flaws, and to give them a taste of the ride’s dark tone while they still had time to turn around and run.

The main show began when riders were ushered into the theater-in-the-round and strapped into their seats with harnesses. A team of Alien X-S Tech representatives greeted Earthlings from their home planet via video monitors and announced that they were about to do an interstellar demonstration of their teleportation device. X-S Tech’s chairman volunteered to make the journey to Earth, but what appeared in the tube at the center of the room was clearly not the same alien audience members saw on the screen.

Through strobe light flashes and billowing fog, riders caught a brief glimpse of the animatronic creature—a towering monster with leathery wings, a reptilian tongue, and glowing red eyes. The sound of shattering glass echoed throughout the theater and then the lights went dark: The creature had escaped.

In an effort to impress Eisner, the Imagineers tasked with tweaking the ride added more tactile special effects. They borrowed elements from Honey I Shrunk the Audience!, a newly opened show at Epcot that used 4D effects, such as water spritzers to simulate being sneezed on.

On ExtraTERRORestrial, these same effects were meant to horrify parkgoers, not gross them out. Through strategically placed speakers and 4D devices, riders heard repulsive slurping and crunching noises, then were sprayed in the face with warm water—making them think they had been splattered with fresh blood. At one point, harnesses pressed down onto riders’ shoulders to make it feel as if the monster was crouching on top of them. Warm air and water released from the seats replicated what it might feel like if the creature was slobbering down the back of each audience member's neck. Instead of watching the horror unfold on a screen, each guest was made to feel as though the alien was stalking them personally. Screams filled the room from start to finish, though it wasn't always possible to tell which cries for help were coming from audience members and which were part of the scripted show.

Eventually the monster was captured and the lights came back on, revealing that no one in the theater had actually been harmed ... or consumed.

Though the ride didn’t inflict any physical damage, it did leave some psychological scars. Children often left the theater in tears. As The Missoulian reported in 1996, one 9-year-old was too scared to get an ExtraTERRORestrial T-shirt from the gift shop after the show. Karal Ann Marling, author of Designing Disney's Theme Parks, told the Ottawa Citizen, "This is the first time in a Disney park you're really, authentically scared.”

Stitch invades ExtraTERRORestrial

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, ExtraTERRORestrial was Disney World’s most divisive attraction. Young kids and parents coming to Disney to see Cinderella and Goofy may have felt betrayed by the ride’s intensity, but older kids and teens, the group Eisner originally wanted to win over, loved it.

Despite the praise it received, ExtraTERRORestrial’s life at Disney World was cut short. In 2003, Disney closed the ride with plans to open a new, much tamer theme park experience in its place: Stitch's Great Escape! recycled much of ExtraTERRORestrial’s setting, special effects, and concept—but instead of surviving an encounter with a bloodthirsty alien, riders instead faced the cute protagonist of Disney’s hit property, Lilo & Stitch.

Disney never explicitly stated why it shuttered ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, but it was clear they wanted Stitch’s Great Escape! to appeal to a wider audience. The Orlando Sentinel called the new ride, "a milder version of the Magic Kingdom's too-scary ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter."

Designing it for everyone didn't make Stitch's Great Escape! very popular. The 4D effects that had felt thrilling on ExtraTERRORestrial now seemed obnoxious; instead of splattering you with "blood," Stitch let out a chili-dog scented burp in your face.

Attendance was so low that in the 2010s, the ride transitioned to seasonal operation. In 2018, the ride closed indefinitely, and while Disney denied reports that Stitch’s Great Escape! was gone for good, leaked images of a dismantled Stitch animatronic suggest the ride won’t be reopening.

Though ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter has been closed for more 15 years, the demise of Stitch's Great Escape! is a loss for fans of the original attraction. The updated show had recycled many parts of the 1990s ride, including animatronics like Skippy the alien (he was never tortured in the Stitch version). Now nostalgic Disney lovers have to scour memorabilia on eBay for evidence that the horrifying Magic Kingdom ride ever existed.

11 Gifts for the Sci-Fi Fanatic in Your Life

Amazon
Amazon

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Science fiction has found its way into countless books, movies, TV shows, and video games over the years, making it tough to figure out which products are actually worth your time when shopping for a fan of the genre. We’re taking the thought out of it with these 11 recommendations for the sci-fi fan in your life.

1. Star Trek: The Original Topps Trading Card Series; $22

Abrams/Amazon

Topps trading cards were the essential collectible during the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s—so it was only right that Star Trek would have its own set for fans to obsess over (though it actually debuted seven years after the original series was canceled). In this chunky coffee-table book from Abrams, high-quality scans of the fronts and backs of all 88 standard cards are featured alongside insights and essays from Trek experts Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Star Trek Socks; $25

Bio World/Amazon

Though you might not want your loved one to walk around the house in a Starfleet uniform, you should definitely get them these Next Generation socks to make their feet feel a bit more official. And whether they relate to the command, engineering, or science division of the Enterprise, there’s a pair here for them.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga; $28

Ace/Amazon

With a new take on the Dune movie franchise hitting theaters soon, there’s no better time to make sure the sci-fi buff in your life has the first three installments—Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune—in author Frank Herbert’s landmark book series.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Sci-Fi Book Cover Postcards; $21

Penguin Books/Amazon

One of the most striking aspects of the sci-fi genre is the imaginative, if not downright weird, book covers that come along with it. This collection of postcards features reproductions of 100 covers from publisher Penguin’s past, featuring work from H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ray Bradbury. This set is ideal for any avid collector, especially ones that want to turn the postcards into unique crafts and decorations for the home.

Buy it: Amazon

5. and 6. The Making of Alien and The Making of Aliens; $31-$42

Titan Books/Amazon

If you ever want a comprehensive behind-the-scenes book about your favorite movie, look for the name J.W. Rinzler. He’s best known for his in-depth accounts of the original Star Wars trilogy, but he’s also dabbled in other franchises, like the first two movies in the Alien series. Packed with rare photos, unused concepts, original script drafts details, and more, these books contain all the anecdotes and details a fanatic could ever want.

Buy it: Alien (Amazon), Aliens (Amazon)

7. The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women; $20

The Library of America/Amazon

Some of sci-fi’s best women writers get the spotlight in this expansive anthology collection from the Library of America. The stories themselves range from the campier pulps of the '20 and '30s through the more thoughtful and serious evolution of the genre in the ‘60s. This is a crash course in sci-fi history, told through the lens of an often-unappreciated group of authors, including James Tiptree, Jr. (real name Alice Bradley Sheldon) and Leigh Brackett, who was responsible for the first draft of 1980's Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Classic Sci-Fi Magazine 1000-Piece Puzzle; $22

Brook & Wyman/Amazon

Though sci-fi is usually exclusive to novels and blockbuster movies today, it really got its start thanks to the plethora of genre magazines on stands during the ‘30s and ‘40s. And now, you can put together those striking—and impeccably surreal—covers to Fantastic Adventures, Amazing Stories, and more in this 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Cyberpunk 2077; $60

CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077 has arguably been the most anticipated piece of sci-fi media over the last five years. CD Projekt Red already created one of this generation’s best games with The Witcher 3, and now the studio is throwing players into a Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk world, where every choice you make will shape the world around you in different ways. Plus, you’ve got an arsenal of weapons and augmentations at your disposal. This one hits shelves on December 10.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films; $113

Criterion/Amazon

Godzilla’s unique charms resides in the way the franchise seamlessly alternates between thought-provoking and schlocky. And in this handsome, 15-movie Blu-ray set from Criterion, fans can revisit the series’s most influential installments, from 1954's groundbreaking original all the way through the campier later days of Megalon and Mechagodzilla. The set also contains both the U.S. and Japanese versions of 1963’s cringe classic King Kong vs. Godzilla. In typical Criterion fashion, the whole package is accompanied by hours of extras and a gorgeous hardcover book filled with original artwork.

Buy it: Amazon

11. Moebius Library: The World of Edena; $34

Dark Horse Comics/Amazon

One of sci-fi comics’ most important artists, Moebius helped define a visual style that would influence George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and pretty much every other major force in the genre for decades to come. In this collection, Moebius’s The World of Edna stories are reprinted in beautiful hardcover format, complete with lush colors that perfectly complement the strange worlds to which he transports readers.

Buy it: Amazon

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You Can Now Buy Your Very Own Baby Yoda Space Macarons

© Lucasfilm
© Lucasfilm

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

When the hit Star Wars series The Mandalorian premiered on Disney+ last fall, executives withheld merchandise to make sure viewers were surprised by the sudden appearance of The Child, a cooing puppet that appears to be of the same species as Jedi master Yoda. Knowing demand for toys and other items for "Baby Yoda" would be high, Disney stood firm.

Those days are over. Now, fans of the series can buy everything from The Child plush dolls to the space macarons the goblin-faced tyke munches on in the fourth episode of the show’s second season. The blue macarons, dubbed Nevarro Nummies after the name of the planet Mando and The Child landed on in the episode, are available at Williams Sonoma for $49.99.

Nevarro Nummies.Williams Sonoma

According to the company’s site, the “ethereal French-style almond macarons” are perfect for “capturing the essence of this scene.” Bear in mind the “essence” of the scene involves The Child throwing a Force tantrum by using his skills to swipe the cookies from a student’s desk while briefly placed at a school.

The precocious creature’s voracious appetite has been a running theme on the series, with some viewers taken aback by a scene in an earlier episode in which he devoured the eggs of a critically endangered frog species. (“Baby Yoda Canceled Amid Accusations of Genocide,” read the Vanity Fair headline.) What will Baby Yoda eat next, and can you buy it? Tune in this week to find out.

[h/t Nerdist]