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.
Concept art for ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.

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.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House

Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But ever since her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House was turned into a hit Netflix series, her work has been experiencing a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.)

If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”)

In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. Shirley Jackson claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:

"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."

It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities.

Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. Shirley Jackson considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life.

“They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. Shirley Jackson died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.)

A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Singers George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, of the band 'Wham!', performing on stage, July 1986
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Andrew Ridgeley (right) and George Michael (1963-2016) of Wham! performing on stage together in Sydney, Australia during the pop duo's 1985 world tour, January 1985.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in the Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.

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