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

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.

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There are 8 comments.

I think moving it to future world would have been a fantastic solution. EPCOT needs a new attraction. I think now would be a good time to re-introduce it. I doubt they ever will though.

I loved The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. Michael Eisner was a great CEO because he realized Disney isn't just for the kids. You need to have something for the adults to do and this was one of my favorite attractions at the parks! The special effects were fantastic. From showering you with water droplets to simulate the glass breaking that housed the alien, to the breath you felt on your neck and feeling it was right there with you! Keeping little kids off the rides you would think would be the parents job. But apparently not. Removing this attraction was the 2nd worst idea post Eisner CEO's did. Closing Pleasure Island was the First stupid idea. Now everyone leaves disney to go to Universal Citywalk when the adults want to enjoy the nights. Keeping in mind, Church Street station is where all the bars went out of business when Disney opened Pleasure Island. The dance club Mannequins, with rotating dance floor was my favorite and I have only been to Disney a few times since Pleasure Island closed. I would rather go support SeaWorld and do Universal and Islands of Adventure. Disney doesn't seem to care, kids grow up, so since they don't care, we have outgrown their parks.

I remember this attraction. I experienced it, and it scared the crap out of me. It was one of the best experiences I had.

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.

I loved Alien Encounter, wish it was still there!

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.

"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.

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.

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