You hear the crunch of splintering bones. A gulp. Hot, sticky breath trickles down the back of your neck. You are not alone, here in the deep, lonely dark. Whatever this is, this crawling thing – it’s not human. You want to run, but can’t. It’s sat on your shoulders, lightly digging its claws into your flesh. A scream. Then another one. A spray of liquid hits your face. Was that spit? Blood? Only those who lived through it may remember but, in the late ‘90s, you could experience all of this (and more) in the most magical place on Earth – Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
For just under a decade, ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter sat in the Tomorrowland section of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, somewhere in between the Coca-Cola stands and the giant bins of plushies. Here, you’d come face-to-face with a ravenous, slobbering alien, teleported into the room from some distant planet. After the lights went out, it would run around, eat a few guests, cause some havoc, before eventually being teleported away. You’d walk back out into the bright, Florida sunshine, relieved that you’d survived such a harrowing adventure.
Alien Encounter was a “theatre-in-the-round” style attraction, installed into the space previously occupied by Mission to Mars, an opportunity for guests to experience all the simulated thrills of space travel. It contained two separate show theatres, each accommodating around 180 guests. Its history is brief, but shrouded in myth and hearsay – it first opened for previews on 16 December, 1994, but was closed after less than a month, long before the general public ever had the chance to see it.
Disney’s Imagineers, the park’s design team, retooled the show and readied it for an official opening on 20 June. It attracted near-instant notoriety. There was talk of traumatised kids and incensed parents, who couldn’t believe that a drooling, carnivorous alien had crash-landed into the middle of their perfect holiday. “It was so frightening and seemed really out of sync with the rest of the rides at Disney,” says Kirsty Ward, who was only eight years old when she first went on Alien Encounter.
“When you’re six, the boundaries between what is reality and what is not are blurred,” says Callum Birrell, remembering a family trip to the Magic Kingdom in 1996. “On some level, I probably understood that it was all part of the gag, but any rational part of my brain was overridden by the sheer visceral and nightmarish elements of the attraction.”
Alien Encounter would eventually close on 12 October 2003. In its place, Disney would open Stitch’s Great Escape!, which took advantage of the popularity of Lilo & Stitch’s puppy-like, blue-tinted extraterrestrial star. But, in many ways, it was the same attraction, only with the scares now replaced by chilli cheese burps and mischievous tickles. Stitch’s Great Escape! had its final run on 6 January, 2018, with Disney this year confirming that the ride was closed for good.
The space now lies empty, waiting. But the memory of Alien Encounter lives on. It’s one of the only Disney rides to have amassed a genuine cult following – though the company has buried almost all reminders of its existence, fans will still enthusiastically trade t-shirts, pins, and plushies. Disney’s parks had never seen anything like it before. And they may never again. “Alien Encounter may have been inappropriate,” says Callum. “But it had integrity. It wanted to make me cry and it did.”
I have my own memory of Alien Encounter. Or, to be more specific, I have a memory of missing out on it. My family were on a Disney World trip at some point in the early 2000s. We’d come across an ominous-looking building, with its tall spire and darkness within. It stood out like a half-gangrened thumb. The warnings plastered all over the entrance (“a frightening theatrical experience!” “loud noises!” “total darkness!”) triggered a family meeting. My father, our designated lab rat, would go in alone and report back. I’m not sure what my mother and I did in the meantime – maybe we just poked around the gift store. But I do remember the exact moment my father returned, ashen-faced, his head shaking vigorously. We avoided all talk of Alien Encounter for the rest of the trip.
And so, I’ve had to carefully construct an image of the ride from the various video recordings and written descriptions now tucked away on the internet. You would first arrive at the “Tomorrowland Interplanetary Convention Center” – where the ride is meant to take place – by invitation of an alien corporation known as X-S Tech and its chairman, LC Clench (Jeffrey Jones). The queue was lined with screens, detailing other scheduled events like the “Championship Pet Show” and “The Walt Disney Company’s Pan Galactic Stock Holders Meeting” – as always, the parks never missed an opportunity to break the fourth wall. An alien with a curved, elongated skull (a pre-fame Tyra Banks, though her voice was dubbed by another actor) would then detail the history of X-S Tech, “the galaxy’s leader in innovative high technology”. Their slogan, “Those Who Seized”, already seemed to hint that something more nefarious could be at play.
Guests were ushered into a demonstration room, overseen by X-S Tech’s “most advanced cyber-botic performance unit to date”, Simulated Intelligence Robotics – or SIR, for short. In Tim Curry’s smooth, haughty tones, SIR would talk through a new teleportation system, before pointing to Skippy, the day’s guinea pig. A big-eyed, elephant-nosed scamp of an alien, he’d sit in a glass tube off to the side and coo nervously at every beat of SIR’s speech. At the press of a button, Skippy disappeared in a bluster of flashing lights and garbled squeaks, as the tube at the other end of the room would start to pulsate. And, voila, Skippy returned – in BBQ form, sizzled to a crisp. After tiring of the creature’s protestations, SIR would teleport Skippy once more, leaving him in indefinite, suspended animation.
A set of doors would then open to a second, circular chamber. Rows of seats were centered around a teleportation tube, much larger in size this time. Guests would be seated before harnesses descended from overhead. Here, we’d be introduced to two more X-S Tech employees, Spinlock (Kevin Pollak) and Dr. Femus (Kathy Najimy). Their plan was to transport a guest not just across a room, but across the entire “span of the universe”. As machines scanned the audience for a suitable volunteer, there’d be a sudden interruption by Clench – you’d hear yelling in the distance, as he stumbled into view, his sentences odd and hasty. He would be the one teleporting now. And it had to happen fast.
Somewhere in the chaos, a lever was pulled and the teleportation signal passed through an unknown planet on its way to Earth, accidentally picking up a hitchhiker. It was trapped in the tube now. As the fog cleared, its features would gradually come into view – glowing eyes, razor-sharp teeth, horns, pincers, spindly limbs, and two translucent wings unfurling like battle standards. In a panicked state, it would start to smash its head and limbs against the glass. The tube would break just as the room fell dark.
You’d then hear a chorus of screams, some pre-recorded and some from your fellow guests. “I remember my mum trying to comfort me, telling me that it was only make-believe, but she was largely drowned out by the sound of my own screams,” says Callum. The thrum of wings signalled that the alien was moving through the room, landing on guests and pushing down on the restraints. “I also think my Dad who was sat behind me may have tried to wind me up at some point before it started by grabbing my arm,” Kirsty recalls. “But this could just be an effect of how scared I was.” At one point, a confused mechanic – actually a cast member with a flashlight – would walk down the catwalk above everyone’s heads. He’d be promptly eaten, as blood dripped down on the audience. “Alien! Don’t eat me. Eat this one!” a pre-recorded cry would ring out. The alien settled behind you – it snarled, sniffled, then licked the back of your head. Right at that moment, Femus would lure the creature back into its cage, attempting to return it to its home planet. But the teleportation malfunctioned. An explosion sent alien guts flying across the room. “Ugh! My mouth was open!” a voice in the crowd would yelp. At least you were free.
Alien Encounter was created to induce the feeling of pure terror – not the electric thrill of a rollercoaster. And, for the ‘90s, it was a genuinely radical thing to see, not only in Disney World but in any of America’s major parks. Intensive, immersive horror experiences are now commonplace thanks to the exponential growth of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, where, each year, its parks will play host to ever more elaborate mazes and scares zones. Even Hong Kong Disneyland has hopped on the bandwagon – since 2007, it’s offered seasonal horror walkthroughs inspired by properties like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Alice in Wonderland.
But, for the most part, Disney has always been about the “creepy”, never the “outright scary”. Think of the ghoulish, wry expressions of the operators on The Haunted Mansion or The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Think of their dimly lit hallways, elegantly peppered with cobwebs. In fact, the Imagineers who first worked on The Haunted Mansion would frequently clash over the ride’s proposed tone. A compromise was reached – the ride starts out eerie and foreboding but ends with one, big phantasmal party. Disney’s parks, after all, are family parks. And that’s how they’ve always been.
In Space, Everyone Can Hear You Scream
Alien Encounter owes its existence to a single piece of technology – binaural sound, which describes the effect of recording on two separate microphones, with the intent of creating a kind of 3D sphere of sound. On the ride, individual speakers were mounted onto the shoulder restraints, next to each ear. Screams could be made to sound like they were coming from the person sat next to you. To give the impression the alien was moving around the room, banks of subwoofers would create heavy, pounding vibrations that felt like footsteps. Water sprinklers and air blasters, installed into the row in front, could stand in for drool, blood, breath, or an explosion of guts. A soft textile tube with air blown through it served as the alien’s tongue.
Following Walt Disney’s death in 1966, the company fell into somewhat of a slump. We witnessed the era of The Black Cauldron (1985) and Return to Oz (1985) – strange, dark films that barely made a dent at the box office. In the late 80s, Michael Eisner took over as chairman of the company and kickstarted a full-scale rejuvenation. In animation, he ushered in the ‘Disney Renaissance’ that began with The Little Mermaid (1989). He oversaw Disney’s takeover of ABC and ESPN, while also making sure the parks fell in line with the tastes of contemporary pop culture. In 1987, Star Tours – a motion simulator through the many planets of the Star Wars franchise – became the first attraction based on a non-Disney property.
It was a massive hit, so Eisner naturally began to ruminate on what else its creator, George Lucas, could offer the parks, having already served as the executive producer on Captain EO (1986), a 3D film headlined by Michael Jackson. At a meeting with the director, alongside key Imagineers and executives, the idea of binaural sound was offered up. An idea started to percolate: a sci-fi-themed, haunted house attraction, where the technology could be used to give the impression a monstrous alien was on the loose. Tom Fitzgerald, who served as the creative lead on Star Tours, was enamoured by the concept and went away to develop it further on his own. Dan Molitor joined the project as its official writer in 1988, mere months after he’d first started working for Disney. “I wrote dozens of scripts, created video animatics, and mock-ups,” he tells me, after I reached out to him to ask a few questions about the behind-the-scenes process. “I worked with the rest of the creative team to develop visual styles, special effects, sound design and the design of what would become the final creature.”
That part of the story has always been uncontested – it’s the rest of Alien Encounter’s history that’s ended up riddled with rumours and half-truths. Some say the concept for ride originates from an aborted Nostromo attraction, which would have taken place inside of the iconic spacecraft from 1979’s Alien, and outfitted guests with lasers guns so they could shoot down Xenomorphs – a little like Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, which exists today. The first iteration of Alien Encounter, then, was supposedly based on the film, though senior Imagineers were horrified at the thought of an R-rated property in the parks. Others claim Lucas was behind a discarded storyline with a major twist – that the extraterrestrial was friendly, and only wanted to escape. In truth, Lucas had very little to do with Alien Encounter. “He was busy with other projects and wasn’t that interested,” Molitor says. A copy of his script was sent to Lucasfilm for approval, though he’s not sure that anyone at the company actually read it. The director’s name only appeared on the ride’s marquee as part of contractual obligations, since he’d been in attendance during its initial conception.
And while there was a version of Alien Encounter that included the Xenomorph, it was neither central nor essential to the project’s future. “Largely because of the Disney-MGM Studio project [which opened in 1989 and is now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios], and Eisner’s belief that the parks needed more IP-based attractions, the company was actively pursuing outside IPs,” says Molitor. When working on the initial concept, Fitzgerald crafted two different versions: one that featured original characters, and one that could be built around Ridley Scott’s Alien. The latter would have integrated Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, in both video and animatronic form, as well as the Wayland-Yutani Corporation. But, as Molitor makes clear, “both were pretty much the same and very close to what was eventually built.”
As time went on, Disney’s efforts to accumulate outside IPs began to stall – largely because studios like Fox and Paramount had started to develop their own theme parks – and the Alien concept fell by the wayside. The film had, however, already made its way into Disney World, to the newly opened Disney-MGM Studios. Fox had agreed to let an animatronic Xenomorph and Ripley appear as part of the Great Movie Ride, which transported guests through iconic scenes from films like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Casablanca (1942). The pair remained there until the ride’s closure in 2017.
Tomorrowland Belongs to Me
Alien Encounter was first proposed for Disneyland, as part of its botched ‘Tomorrowland 2055’ renovation, which envisioned an intergalactic future awash with visiting aliens and strange, candescent crystals. Here, Alien Encounter would have been wrapped in an imposing, art deco facade, taking a cue from the biomechanical chimaeras of HR Giger’s imagination, and featuring pillars that took the form of hunched, oppressed humanoids. Though the development of ‘Tomorrowland 2055’ went on for several years, it “never really excited anyone”, Molitor admits. It was eventually scrapped when financial troubles connected to the opening of Disneyland Paris – then Euro Disney – in 1992 saw major projects cancelled across the board.
The company instead focused on a $100m, retro-futuristic makeover of Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland, inspired by the pulp space comics of the 1930s – intergalactic payphones and metallic palm trees included. The Alien Encounter project was revived, only to face another long stretch of obstacles. “One of the most difficult, which was never really overcome, was trying to figure out how scary it would be,” says Molitor. There was a clear, and sometimes heated, divide within the Disney team – much like the battles over The Haunted Mansion in the 60s. Some baulked at the overt horror elements; others argued that the park could do more to appeal to teen guests. You’ll often hear the story of how Eisner’s son Breck, after an invitation to Disneyland, bullishly declared: “That place is lame, Dad.” The chairman was quick to heed those words – in the late 80s, Fantasyland’s Videopolis theatre would transform nightly into a neon-drenched, pop-blasting dance club.
But, as Molitor laments, “these two sides were never able to reconcile and the attraction suffered as a result, trying to please both sides while ending up pleasing no one.” It didn’t help that the project’s migration between two different parks meant it often passed between teams and competing visions. The iteration that first opened for previews in 1994 featured, instead of Tim Curry’s SIR, a more hospitable robot by the name of TOM 2000, or the ‘Technobotic Oratorical Mechanism’ series 2000 – voiced by Phil Hartman, the man behind The Simpsons’ Troy McClure. But the all-singing, joke-cracking host failed to prepare audiences for what really lay ahead. Imagineers spent the next six months trying to readdress that balance. At this point, Molitor left the project, and Mike West took over as writer.
There were issues, too, with the binaural sound. As Molitor explains: “They require a quiet environment in order to work. But rather than quietly sitting there in fear, guests did what anyone but a deluded Imagineer would do: scream their lungs out.” At its first public showing, and despite the protestations of Imagineers, several children were allowed into the audience. As soon as the lights started to dim, a small boy began to wail: “Mom! Get me out of here! Get me out! Get me out!” It was hard to get back control of the room after that point. The live actor – the mechanic up on the catwalk – was added as a way to shift the pace of the show. There were other, smaller changes to the audio and to the physical effects.
But it was never quite enough to save Alien Encounter, which spent its entire run treated as if it were the black sheep of the Disney World family. Today, there are still a handful of signs of its existence. At California Adventure’s Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout!, you’ll find a paper invoice from X-S Tech left out somewhere in the queue. As Molitor says, “I think the right audience would have embraced the show, even back then”. Perhaps it didn’t belong in the Magic Kingdom, so close to the ever-smiling, mechanical children of It’s a Small World. Perhaps it was just ahead of its time. Disney has since gone out of its way to accommodate older guests – Epcot now regularly hosts food and wine festivals, while places like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Pandora – The World of Avatar, and the upcoming Avengers Campus have expanded on the very idea of what a Disney park should look like.
With the Alien franchise now under Disney’s ownership, thanks to its takeover of 20th Century Fox, the company now has a swathe of R-rated film franchises that, eventually, they will want to take advantage of. Is it too wild to dream that Alien Encounter might one day return? Will we ever see a Xenomorph crawling through the vents of Tomorrowland? The most magical place on Earth could do with wreaking a little havoc.
Shoutouts: A huge thanks to Tim Plath, Lutz F. Krebs, and Richard Amos Behana, three of our Kickstarter backers who made The Companion possible!
Clarisse Loughrey is the chief film critic for The Independent & also acts as a regular stand-in for Mark Kermode on BBC Radio 5 Live’s ‘Kermode and Mayo’. She’s worked extensively with the BBC, making guest appearances on Radio 4, Radio 3, BBC 4, and Radio 1’s Screen Time podcast. She’s also written for BAFTA, GamesRadar, and Little White Lies.Find her on Twitter at @clarisselou