Throughout Walt Disney World's history, there have been a lot of unique attractions. While it often feels like every piece of Magic Kingdom has been there since it opened in 1971, the park, like every Disney park, has gone through a number of changes. To be sure, a lot of the park's early attractions have been replaced by something new, but not everything that has been closed down is even close to that old. One attraction that Disney World fans still talk about would only be 25 years old today if were still around, which is fairly young in the grand scheme of things. But ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was something quite different, as it's generally agreed to be the scariest attraction ever put in a Disney park.
There are many adjectives one might use to describe any given ride at Walt Disney World. 'Fun' is a good one, perhaps even 'exciting' or 'thrilling,' but "utterly freaking terrifying" is generally not an emotion one associates with Disney World... outside of the prices, of course. It's the reason others look back on this attraction fondly, and others not so much. So how did something that was too scary for many Disney fans even get built in the first place? As with most Disney ideas of the '80s and '90s that were either brilliant or insane, it starts with Michael Eisner.
It Was Supposed To Be An Alien Attraction
Back when Michael Eisner became head of The Walt Disney Company, one of his major initiatives was to create new attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World that would be attractive to a teenage audience, a group that appeared underserved at the time. This eventually led to major hits like Star Tours and Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland. However, in securing the rights to some non-Disney films for the upcoming Disney/MGM Studios (now Disney's Hollywood Studios) theme park, one of the franchises Disney got the rights for was Ridley Scott's Alien, and Eisner thought this was the perfect vehicle for a scary attraction.
The original concept for the Alien attraction was a sort of action/adventure dark ride called Nostromo that would put guests in an armored vehicle with guns, and they would shoot at the Xenomorph as they moved through the ride. It's basically a very grown up version of what would eventually become Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters.
From most accounts, the general consensus among Walt Disney Imagineering ranged from somewhere between confusion and actual horror. Alien seemed like the last thing that should be getting an experience at a Disney park. They felt it just didn't fit the mold. If nothing else, an Alien attraction would mark the first time an R-rated film had been the basis for an experience in a Disney park, and many felt that was simply a step too far.
However, there were some who saw potential, and a basic idea was drawn up that would replace the existing Mission to Mars attraction, which had existed in one form or another since opening day at Walt Disney World, into a new attraction. Eventually it was decided that using the Alien license was the wrong way to go. Some stories indicate that it was actually George Lucas, who Michael Eisner trusted and was working with Disney on Star Tours and Captain EO, who convinced the Disney CEO that Alien was the wrong thing for Magic Kingdom. However, the general concept moved forward as an original attraction, and George Lucas' name would end up being attached to it.
What Was ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter?
The original attraction went through some redesigns after a soft opening at the end of 1994 did not meet with guest approval, but generally speaking, the attraction kept the same layout as the original Mission to Mars. It was a circular theater space, but while the previous attraction had floor and ceiling screens in the center, this time there was a large glass tube. A pair of pre-show sequences introduced guests to a new alien teleportation technology, and the viewer is in line to get a demonstration of this technology.
The show is supposed to teleport a humanoid alien, played by former Ferris Beuller principal Jeffrey Jones, into the main theater, but then something goes wrong and instead what appears is something massive and ravenous looking. Then, the alien appears to break the glass, the power is cut and then the guests are subjected to a series of sensations, via touch, sound and even scent, that imply the alien is moving around the dark space wreaking havoc and looking for food. It's implied that the alien eats several people before being recaptured.
Why ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter Closed
It should be said that a lot of people loved ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. While it was certainly unlike anything in Magic Kingdom, that was a good thing for many. However, it's hard to argue that there weren't also those who thought it was completely out of place. There were some legitimately scary bits, and as far as I know, Alien Encounter was the first and only time that Disney had to put a warning on a ride that it might be too frightening for small children.
There are other reasons that likely contributed to the ride closing. One was the presence of actor Jeffrey Jones throughout the ride in multiple video segments. In 2002, the actor was arrested for possession of child pornography. Being as concerned with public perception as Disney usually is, this likely played into things. Even then, the ride might have still survived, maybe with some changes. But the word is that at some point in development, Michael Eisner, who had been the driving force behind the initial concept, lost interest in the attraction, so there was nobody at the top fighting for it. Whatever the ultimate reason or reasons, the show closed down in 2003, only eight years after it had opened.
It Was Replaced With Something Worse
There may have been a lot of people who had problems with ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, but they were not prepared for what would come after it. Stitch's Great Escape was a quick and dirty refurbishment of Alien Encounter that kept the basic concept of the previous attraction, and simply replaced the big scary, murderous alien with cute little Stitch just getting up to no good. Now the audience isn't subjected to violence in the dark so much as they are subjected to "adorable" shenanigans.
It was awful. The attempt to take the premise of what was intentionally designed to be scary and turn it into something "fun" just didn't work. This version survived a lot longer than the previous one, but it's fairly telling that when the ride shifted to a seasonal schedule, the traditional first step before a closure, nobody seemed to bat an eye. Usually, a ride closure brings fans out of the woodwork, but this one did not.
And I will never get the scent of artificial chili dog out of my nose. Worst. Thing. Ever.