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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.

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Comments

This was the best experience the Magic Kingdom had to offer. I loved this attraction. I loved being on it and then almost as entertaining was to get an ice cream afterward and sit and watch the looks on the faces of the people exiting. Many looked stunned. Others were pale beneath their newly acquired tans. Children clung to their parents. Why on earth they put this awesome attraction in the MK is puzzling to me. I think it would still be going strong if it had been placed at Hollywood Studios. To me, it was the best kind of dark ride which used your imagination as the engine of a truly immersive experience.

"time of their lives"??
That sure wasn't me.
I didn't enjoy Alien Encounter, just as I don't enjoy the Stich replacement.
Both were/are very boring.

I think Disney should certainly consider another horror/scary attraction if they can come up with something much, much, much better.

If they had a focus on more "tongue and cheek" maybe it would had a chance. It is legendary among those who experienced it - not unlike the original mission space.

I loved Alien Encounter, wish it was still there!

As a teenager who lived for roller coasters, Alien Encounter was the best non-roller coaster thrill out there. Today, that crown now that crown belongs to Spider-Man. Sadly, Disney has lost its innovative edge.

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