Home » Disney Will Never Build Another Horror Attraction. This is Why.

Disney Will Never Build Another Horror Attraction. This is Why.

What happens when two conflicting ideologies, ones that are diametrically opposed, suddenly come into contact? Let’s look at a practical example. During the average year, Hollywood offers consumers the opportunity to watch at least ten horror movies. The underlying purpose of these slasher flicks is to scare viewers in a way that we somehow relish. It’s an odd part of humanity that we like the sensation of feeling scared, at least in a controlled setting.

During that same average year, Disney releases a couple of animated movies. One of them comes directly from Disney while the other is a part of their Pixar library. In recent years, each and every one of these animated releases is a masterpiece in the eyes of most critics. Even the worst regarded recent film, The Good Dinosaur, is 76 percent fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. Most movie producers would kill (possibly literally) for their releases to prove so popular with critics.

Since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, The Walt Disney Company has proven literally hundreds of times that it’s the master of family films. Their theme parks stand as a testament to the intellectual properties that they’ve created over the past 80 years. But what happens when they do something bold by their standards? What’s the chain of events if Disney offers a new property at their most popular theme park, one that flies in the face of convention?

What’s the solution and, for that matter, what’s the problem when Disney introduces a horror title rather than a family-friendly theme park attraction? What happens when the irresistible force of adults wanting to feel scared clashes with justifiably protective parents not wanting their kids to get scared to death at Disney? The answer is that the Magic Kingdom experiences a huge Turning Point due to the aggressively mixed reception of ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. So, what changed and what did Disney learn from the experiment? Read on…

An ongoing concern

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Finding the perfect balance between thrilling attraction and something too scary for child is an issue Disney has fought since its inception. Snow White’s Scary Adventures opened with Disneyland in 1955. Since the first day of its existence, Imagineers struggled to deliver an Evil Queen that could entertain families without reducing small children to tears. No matter what the marketing slogan says, it’s never the Happiest Place on Earth when a kid sobs uncontrollably.

In the four decades that followed, Disney introduced and gradually tweaked four different iterations of that same ride. By this point, the company believed they understood what customers wanted. They could craft an attraction capable of entertaining without terrifying. They were clearly overconfident…and wrong.

During the early 1990s, then-CEO Michael Eisner christened what he called the Disney Decade. Part of his ambitious plan involved enhancing the appeal of Magic Kingdom. At the time, it wasn’t the most popular theme park in the world, falling behind Tokyo Disneyland, although it was the most trafficked one in the United States. Disney understandably didn’t like that the most popular Disney theme park in the world didn’t belong to Disney but instead The Oriental Land Company.

In order to boost its perception, Eisner aspired to add attractions that were more than just exciting to fans. He considered that preaching to the choir. As a former movie studio boss, Eisner appreciated the value of major media news cycles. He wanted to construct rides that could entice CNN and the network morning talk shows like The Today Show and Good Morning America to send live crews to his theme parks. Even his detractors noted that Michael Eisner never lacked for ambition.

The perils of ambition

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

The type of stories that spoke to Eisner were the same ones he’d heard as pitches back when he was the CEO of Paramount Pictures. He loved stories that screamed big box office, and he felt the same underlying concept applied to theme parks as well. Splashy attractions would sell themselves, particularly if anchored to famous brands. It was an understandable thought process for a man whose Paramount titles included Beverly Hills Cop, Grease, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saturday Night Fever, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. More than 30 years later, all of those films maintain instant recognition amongst even casual movie viewers.

Disney’s Imagineers correctly deduced that they could persuade him to greenlight a new ride as long as it had the right hook. They felt they’d found it with a science fiction franchise carrying the stamps of approval of no less than Ridley Scott and James Cameron. They pitched the idea to their boss that Magic Kingdom could add an Alien attraction.

You know what sounds appropriately Disney? An alien that claws its way out of human intestines.

I don’t mean to sound dismissive here. I just don’t understand who signed off on this premise and what they were thinking. Mickey Mouse is a cuddly character who wants to snuggle all the good girls and boys who visit his theme park homes. Aliens are parasitic entities who seemingly exist only to subjugate the other species across the universe (even Predators!).  The disconnect between the Disney brand and the Alien franchise is unimaginably vast.

The reality of fiction

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Ignoring all the other reasons why an Alien-based attraction wouldn’t work, the films released in the franchise up to that point had all earned an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Disney is the G-est thing this side of Kenny. If this were a Hollywood marriage, it would stand as the equivalent of Rudolph Valentino and Jean Acker. She locked him out of the bedroom on their wedding night, with the entire marriage lasting approximately six hours.

Calmer heads at Disney prevailed. Imagineers scrapped the Alien franchise tie-in, saving their eventual relationship with James Cameron for Avatar. They replaced the initial concept with a similar theme, albeit one lacking in stomach-busting aliens. The attraction they built in its place was a true masterpiece known as The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. To this day, Disney zealots swear by the majesty of the attraction experience.

Image: Disney

The premise of The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter is simple. A theme park audience finds itself trapped in the same room as…something. Disney Imagineers cleverly used the space previously reserved for the defunct Mission to Mars to construct an in-the-round theater. The showpiece at the center of this room is the giant holding cell where the alien teleports into the room. From that point forward, chaos reigns as the alien escapes captivity, slithering through the audience. Guests could feel wind, sounds, and other effects to foster the sensation that the alien was right beside them.

The claustrophobic effect is likely familiar to you. It’s similar to the inferior version now residing in place of The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. You know it as Stitch’s Great Escape! The difference in quality between the two attractions is the difference between climbing a small flight of stairs and climbing Kilimanjaro. Guests routinely name Stitch’s Great Escape! as one of the worst attractions at Walt Disney World. Conversely, fans of The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter hold out hope to this day that it’ll make a triumphant return at some park one day.

The why of cry

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Unfortunately, that hope is a pipe dream. Disney isn’t likely to bring back their riskiest attraction ever. By way of explanation, please watch this video. Pay attention to the reactions to the alien encounter, particularly the sounds at the 6:45 mark. You’ll notice that the adults in the crowd are having the time of their lives. You also should hear the sound that proved problematic to Disney. That’s a crying child who is decidedly not having the time of his/her life.

And that’s why The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter is no longer at Magic Kingdom, replaced by one of the most popular Disney characters of the 21st century. The second version of the ride, the one that wasn’t an Aliens license but close enough in spirit, terrified small children. The park planners did what they could to give the ride a chance. They posted a giant sign by the ride queue. It plainly indicated kids would find it frightening.

Everyone involved with the project understood that Alien Encounter was a gamble. Magic Kingdom needed more attractions targeted to adults. The problem they faced is one that parents know all too well. Disney doesn’t do age limitations for their rides, but they did institute a rare 48” criteria, effectively making it for children 8 and up. All the danger signs caused kids to want to ride it that much more. They viewed the attraction as a rite of passage, a way to show that they were advancing in the maturation process. As is so often true, kids didn’t understand why warning signs exist in the first place. Children large enough to enter the attraction discovered that they weren’t as grown-up as they’d hoped.

In 2003, Disney strategists accepted reality. The incongruity of such a terrifying attraction at a family theme park simply didn’t work. No matter how much adults loved The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, it proved too divisive. Rather than strip it for parts, Disney used the same space and premise for a much calmer albeit vastly inferior ride. Their decision wasn’t based in numbers but rather logic.

Thanks to the Aliens ride and its evolution into Alien Encounter, park planners learned that Disney theme parks, especially Magic Kingdom, should have limits. It’s the same boundary Universal Studios is currently testing with their Skull Island ride. The difference is that Universal Studios Florida clearly caters to an older clientele.

Image: Disney

Walt Disney World is the Most Magical Place on Earth due to its timeless, child-like sense of wonder. Even their “scary” rides such as Expedition Everest are harmless fun with Disney’s signature theming rather than genuinely fear-inducing. The turning point in the company’s safely falling on the riskless side of the fear boundary was, sadly, one of its cleverest attractions. Rather than have aliens busting out of test tubes at Magic Kingdom, Disney chose to include an encounter with a real Alien in The Great Movie Ride instead. Since the closure of The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter in 2003, all alien interactions at Disney occur only in a controlled environment on an attraction that most kids find too boring to want to ride. That’s not accidental although it is a tad depressing.

Do you miss The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter at Magic Kingdom? Is there anything that you think Disney could have done differently to alter the attraction in a way that was more suitable for children? Do you think it could still come back one day? Let us know in the comments section!

If you want to learn more about the dramatic events of The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, read this exceptional in-depth retrospective by Theme Park Tourist’s Brian Krosnick.