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ExtraTERRORestrial | The Making of Disney World’s Nightmare Attraction

Creators and visitors recall Disney World’s short-lived ExtraTERRORestrial, its origins as an Alien movie ride, and the role of… George Lucas?

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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, and 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 traumatized 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.

A pair of souvenir Alien Encounter figures and an early concept poster offered for auction by Van Eaton Galleries in LA. The figures show the predator Xenomorph-esque alien and the adorable Skippy. | Courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries.

“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 chili 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.”

Recreating ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter

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.

A rare surviving piece of external signage for ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter and part of a wooden model of the attraction’s exterior. | Courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries.

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 signaled 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.

A show design manual and set of blueprints for Alien Encounter showing details of the animatronics and floor plan for the attraction. | Courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries.

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.

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