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