Shattering glass. Pitch black darkness. Pulsing heartbeats. Sparks illuminate a twisted, spider-like figure with gnashing fangs and horrible claws, its eyes fixed on you... Wings beat against the stagnant dusty air, thick with breathless horror. A guttural growl rumbles inches from your ear. Warm, thick drool drips against your neck... This is the end.
Though it may sound like the horrific makings of a paralyzing nightmare, a carnivorous insectoid alien was set loose among the crowds of Magic Kingdom every ten minutes or so, every day, for eight years. With one of the shortest lifespans 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 traumatized by – Disney’s edgiest attraction.
In the hazy view of hindsight, fewer and fewer guests can actually recall what Alien Encounter was like! Luckily, that's what Theme Park Tourist's LEGEND LIBRARY is here for; to capture the full stories of closed classics and forgotten favorites for a new generation, while allowing Imagineering fans to relive the rides of yesteryear. Today, we’ll walk you through the harrowing experience of Alien Encounter from the entrance doors to the exit and then discuss what brought about its demise. Think you know the story of Disney's scariest attraction ever? Let’s look back together.
Naturally, the story of any Imagineering experience begins long before the first guests ever step inside... And today's tale begins with a prologue familiar to fans of Disney parks history...
The Disney Dark Ages
In the 1970s, Disney was in decline. Though it's difficult to imagine today, the decade after Walt's 1966 death had seen Walt Disney Productions spiral into obscurity, with the studios' films faltering at the box office. Films like The Black Hole, The Watcher in the Woods, Dragonslayer, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Black Cauldron simply failed to land, and one after another, Disney's descent looked less and less likely to ever reverse. Could it be that "Disney" was simply a tarnished brand that wasn't meant to outlive its iconic namesake?
In fact, by the end of then-CEO Ron Miller's tenure, it appeared that Disney was destined to fall to corporate takeovers that would undoubtedly sell of the company's assets and licenses for good. Luckily, Walt's nephew, Roy E. Disney (who retained a seat on the board of directors) decided to fight back. His first "Save Disney" campaign ended in the ousting of Miller, to be replaced by someone Roy had helped hand-select...
In 1984, Frank Wells (left) and Michael Eisner (right) became the president and chairman of Walt Disney Productions, respectively. With extensive résumés at Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures, the duo were chosen very intentionally with hopes that their cinematic experience could revive Disney's live action and animation businesses.
As we know, they succeeded wildly, kicking off the so-called "Disney Renaissance" with 1989's The Little Mermaid, with a string of critically-acclaimed box office blockbusters that lasted a decade. But all the while, Wells and Eisner also expanded Disney as never before. In fact, Eisner's acquisitions of ABC and ESPN literally helped rename Walt Disney Productions to today's Walt Disney Company, forming the basis of the international media conglomerate we know.
Eisner's massive transformation of Disney also included taking a fresh look at its theme parks, which had similarly stagnated in the '70s (mostly marked by bare steel coasters as opposed to the epic dark rides of the '60s overseen by Walt, like Pirates and Haunted Mansion). Though he admitted to knowing significantly less about theme parks than films, he was determined to get hands-on to give them a new lease on life, too... and it would change the parks forever...
As part of Eisner's onboarding with Disney, he was invited to Disneyland with his family. As the story goes, the new chairman invited his pre-teen son Breck along, only to have him retort, "Dad, that place is for babies."
Naturally, that insinuation horrified Eisner. For all the work he was planning to modernize Disney's studios and to make their brand relevant again, his own son was reporting that Disney's theme parks were stagnant, tired places teens detested. Unfortunately, he was right. Though those attempts in the '70s to bolster the parks with "cheap and cheerful" steel roller coasters had been positive steps, Disneyland and Walt Disney World still featured only the pop culture of Walt's time – 30 years earlier!
Eisner made a pledge then and there to change the perception of Disney's theme parks, bringing Breck along for a tour of WED Enterprises (today, Imagineering). It's there that Eisner green-lit projects left and right, with particular emphasis on thrills, media, and pop culture. In a matter of months, for example, Videopolis sprung up at Disneyland – a nightclub-esque theater for teens playing top 40 music videos on oversized screens each night.
That was merely the first step in Eisner's quest to infuse Disney Parks with pop culture. It was his (controversial) vision that Disney Parks should be places to "Ride the Movies"; to encounter the characters, stories, and stars that mattered to modern audiences...! The problem is, Disney wasn't making many movies worth riding at the time... But someone was.
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 and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though Imagineers had the green-light to develop attractions based on Lucas' fabled stories, the pop culture transformation of Disneyland couldn't wait.
That's why the first example of Eisner's "cinematic" touch is still one of the best remembered. Disney and Lucasfilm together created – at the time – the most expensive film per minute of any on Earth... Part music video, part adventure, with the latest 3D technology combined with in-theatre effects like lasers, strobes, and more. We can only be talking about another Lost Legend: Captain EO, the celebrated 1980s musical extravaganza starring Michael Jackson and Anjelica Huston under the direction of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Disneyland was suddenly a place that teens found something for them; a pop culture paradise for '80s youth!
As we know, Lucas's biggest collaboration with Imagineering was still to come. 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.
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 Modern Marvel: 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.
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 only a decade later – was recognized a groundbreaking and iconic film. From the claustrophobic corridors of the space ship Nostromo to its unprecedented body horror special effects, Alien had turned science fiction on its head, introducing a gritty, industrial view of tomorrow that was entirely at odds with the gleaming, white, flawless future commonly seen in cinema at the time.
Alien had also launched a sci-fi horror film-franchise packed with iconic imagery, memorable characters, and signature creatures. Central to the film's legacy was the iconic "Xenomorph" species of interstellar alien... hideous, skeletal, biomechanical creatures with elongated skulls, retractable inner pharyngeal jaws, slimey drool, acidic blood, and barbed tails. Unlike the orderly, technological, and ritualistic hunters of 1987's Predator, the Xenomorph aliens were primal, hissing, ruthless animals.
Perhaps all of that makes it sound even more unexpected that Imagineers were tasked with creating a dark ride experience that would envelope the audience into the world of Alien. Yet that concept – allegedly to be called Nostromo – 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 Xenomorph and its leaping facehuggers as they 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 argued.
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 can 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.)
The legacy designers had 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, complementing Eisner's "Ride the Movies" mantra in transforming Disney Parks... In secret, they began to develop a plan to move forward with bringing Alien to life, 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...