Disney Had to Close its Scariest Ever Attraction. Here's Why.By Brian Krosnick, Sunday, March 15, 2015 04:30
Shattering glass. Pitch black darkness. Pulsing heartbeats. A guttural purring growl inches from your ear. Warm, thick drool drips against your neck. Wings beat against the stagnant dusty air thick with breathless horror. Sparks illuminate a twisted, spider-like figure with gnashing fangs and horrible claws. Blood splatters down from the ceiling as you grip your harnesses in terror. This is the end.
Sounds like something out of a nightmare, right? But for eight years, this experience was the norm. Every ten minutes or so, a horrific interstellar alien was set loose on unsuspecting guests at Magic Kingdom Park. With one of the shortest life spans of any attraction to occupy a Disney Park, The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter (emphasis included) has developed a cult following from those who experienced – and in some cases were devastated by – Disney’s edgiest attraction.
In our new Lost Legends series, we're looking back on forgotten fan favorites to clear the mists of time and immortalize these incredible attractions. In our series, we've chronicled the in-depth, detailed backstories of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Horizons, the Peoplemover, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Maelstrom, Journey into Imagination, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, KONGFRONTATION, and many more. Today, we’re going to dive headfirst into the tale of Alien Encounter, discussing the history and lore that surround it. As time marches on, fewer and fewer guests can actually recall what Alien Encounter was like, so we’ll walk you through the harrowing experience from the entrance doors to the exit and then discuss what brought about its demise. Could Alien Encounter have found a new home at Disneyland Resort? What of the original attraction remains today? Let’s look back together.
The leader Disney needed
The story of Alien Encounter begins more than a decade before it opened. In 1984, Michael Eisner became the CEO of The Walt Disney Company. Fresh from a stint as the CEO of Paramount Pictures, the young Eisner was smart, and with a résumé that proved his expertise in business and film. He was hands-on, too. Rather than sending a representative, Eisner himself immediately began checking in with Disney Parks Imagineers, eager to learn about their work and their projects.
(Many years later, Eisner’s tenure at Disney would be fraught with the frustration of fans, his legacy tied to cost-cutting, internal tensions, and micromanagement. By 2003, Walt’s nephew, Roy O. Disney would resign from Disney’s board and initiate a campaign to have Eisner and his team ousted. The “Save Disney” campaign he built would vilify Eisner for years of neglecting the company’s theme parks, losing touch with shareholders, and releasing mediocre films at the box office in an effort to make big money with little expense. Eventually, Eisner would retire before his contract expired, even allegedly turning down his contractual right to use Disney’s corporate jet and maintain an executive office at the company headquarters due to his frosty legacy.)
That’s probably the Michael Eisner you imagine today, but in 1984 Eisner had exactly what Disney needed: a fresh perspective that could re-invigorate the company’s film studio, which had lost its traction and its roots.
Think about it: Eisner’s tenure with Paramount made him keenly aware of the filmmaking side of entertainment, and his foresight and investment in those areas helped re-shape Disney’s flailing film studio. He was able to begin to transition into what we now easily recognize as the "Disney Renaissance." It was under Eisner’s leadership that the company produced hit after hit after hit starting with The Little Mermaid in 1989 through 1999’s Tarzan. As well, Eisner oversaw the acquisition of Miramax Films, ABC, and ESPN to diversify Disney’s offerings, turning it into the international conglomorate it is today.
Turning around the company’s theme parks would be more difficult. Soon after he became CEO, Eisner asked his son Breck to tour Disneyland with him. Breck reportedly said, “That place is lame, dad.” Eisner was rightly horrified and determined to change the perception of Disneyland from a place for kids to a place for the whole family… even teens. That’s when Michael took a tour of Imagineering and began green-lighting projects left and right. In Disneyland, Fantasyland became home to Videopolis, a nightclub-esque theater for teens playing top 40 music videos on oversized screens each night.
Thanks to his studio roots, Eisner recognized the pivotal role that films, pop culture, and beloved characters could play inside Disney Parks. Trouble is, Disney itself wasn't producing much worth seeing at the time. The studio was in an infamous slump pre-Oliver & Company, so Eisner would have to reach elsewhere.
In an effort to infuse more of the film industry into Disney Parks, Eisner brokered an unprecedented deal with George Lucas, the visionary creator of Star Wars. It was Eisner’s assertion that Disney Parks could be a place where guests could ride the movies. What’s more, those movies did not necessarily have to be Disney movies. It was an absolute departure from Disney’s past, but with aging parks that looked increasingly less relevant, it was a worthwhile risk.
Imagineers were given the green-light to develop attractions based on Star Wars, but they would be at least a few years out. Eisner called upon Lucas to create something more immediate that could reverse the parks' aging identities and bring in some pop culture as soon as possible.
Disney and Lucas came together to create what was – at the time – the most expensive film per minute of any on Earth: Captain EO was a cinematic journey. Part music video, part adventure; with the latest 3D technology combined with in-theatre effects like lasers, strobes, and more. This was not your grandmother’s movie, especially since it starred Michael Jackson and Anjelica Huston under the direction of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. With Captain EO, Disneyland was suddenly a place that teens found something for them.
The concept of a simulator-based ride was novel, and Eisner’s cinematic résumé spoke up again. While collaborating with George Lucas on EO, Imagineers were working on the biggest element of the Lucas partnership. In January 1987, a new E-Ticket attraction opened in Tomorrowland at Disneyland, inserting Lucas’s cast of Star Wars characters right alongside Disney classics. We chronicled the whole in-depth story of this monumental partnership and how it changed Disney Parks forever in its own Lost Legends: Star Tours entry that's a must-read for Disney Parks fans, but here's what you need to know: the attraction was a must-ride – a little “edgier” than the rest of the park’s fairytale offerings, and just right for teens. It was also the first time that guests at Disneyland could step into a cinematic world not based on a Disney property. It wouldn't be the last.
Just two years later, Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened with a stunt show based on Lucas’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Indiana Jones popped up again in his own dark-natured, cinematic ride through the ancient Temple of the Forbidden Eye in Disneyland in 1995. But the groundwork was set – Disney Parks didn’t have to be just for children. Using advancing technology and new partnerships, the more risqué world of PG-13 adventures was open to Imagineering.
In space, no one can hear you scream
Bolstered by the success of Star Tours, Imagineers in 1987 began toying with another external property to infuse into Disney Parks. Particularly, designers were tasked with incorporating 20th Century Fox’s other interstellar franchise.
Alien debuted in theatres in 1979 and, even more than a decade later, was considered a groundbreaking piece of film history. Its tantalizing story, incomparable special effects, and titular Xenomorph alien creature had turned science fiction on its head, introducing a gritty, industrial view of the future that was entirely at odds with the gleaming, flawless visions commonly seen at the time.
Specifically, Imagineers were tasked with creating a dark ride experience that would envelope the audience into the world of Alien. To be called Nostromo, the dark ride would’ve placed guests aboard the spacecraft of the same name from the film. Each guest would’ve been armed with a laser gun and challenged to blast the Alien as it attacked.
Senior Imagineers were apparently horrified by the idea that Disney Parks would bring an R-rated film to life. Just as Jaws had done years before, Alien had traumatized a generation with its gory effects and carnivorous creature. Imagine it: the spider-like Facehugger aliens that implant exterrestrial embryos down the throat of unwilling human hosts; juvenile Xenomorphs bursting out of their host's chest cavity; nudity and sexual undertones; cursing. Alien was just too intense, they said.
Not to mention, Ridley Scott's Alien had purposefully represented a future entirely opposed to Walt's. While Disney's dedication for Tomorrowland has cast it as a "world of wondrous ideas, signifying Man's achievements... and the hope for a peaceful, unified world," Alien did just the opposite: set in a dirty, steaming, industrial space craft with a killer alien species aboard, it was entirely antithetical to Walt's vision, and horrifying to boot.
And if you imagine, those senior designers also balked at the idea of arming guests – especially young ones – with guns and telling them to shoot them during the ride. (This fear, we now see, they managed to get over.)
Those senior Imagineers endured a few heart-to-hearts with Eisner, eventually convincing him that the Alien shooting dark ride was simply not right for Disney Parks. Eisner relented and allowed the project to die.
However, the story doesn't end there... a young group of upstart Imagineers was enthralled by the idea of a dark and sincerely gritty Disney ride. In secret, they began to develop a plan to bring Alien to Disney Parks. And their idea would cast the ride in an even more sinister tone that would make the controversial shooting dark ride look like an elementary school field trip.