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An Alien Tale

by Keith Gluck
Guest Blogger

Alien Encounter Exterior

October 11, 2013, marks 10 years since the closure of the Magic Kingdom's ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. While we all know the story told during the ride, which featured a diverse cast of big-screen veterans, I wanted to delve into the story behind the infamous attraction. So I sat down recently with Jerry Rees -- creative genius, storyteller in all media, and the man who was involved in almost every aspect of the project's creation.

In August 1993, work began on a $100 million makeover of the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland. The land's appearance had become somewhat dated, thanks in part to "one designer back in the '70s predicting the future of architecture," according to Imagineer Eric Jacobson. In charge of design for the entire park, Jacobson set out to give the land a fresh look (the new theme was "yesterday's future"), as well as update or replace many attractions. Mission to Mars was on the chopping block, and Disney decided to replace it with an attraction called ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.


Mission to Mars Exterior


Alien Encounter would be like no attraction Disney had ever done. There was a time when the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland was thought of as legitimately scary, but it was toned down and infused with more gags. The Phantom Manor in Disneyland Paris opened in 1992, and scored slightly higher on the scare scale than its American cousins. However, none of Disney's mansions could ever produce the same reactions as the centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom's 1995 "New Tomorrowland" did.

The official line on Alien Encounter tagged it as, "A sensory thriller from Disney and George Lucas." It featured performances from Tyra Banks, Jeffrey Jones, Kathy Najimy, Kevin Pollak and, initially, Phil Hartman.

The show was designed to utilize a variety of mediums in which to tell guests its story, including audio-animatronics, video screens, and advanced audio effects. Enter Jerry Rees, the man who orchestrated the multi-faceted show "Cranium Command" for Disney just a few years earlier.

"Since Imagineering had gotten used to me as a 'film plus' director, meaning that I was comfortable merging film aspects with in-theater animatronics, effects, lighting, etc.," Jerry remarked, "they cast me with the 'everything plus the kitchen sink' Alien Encounter attraction."

At first, Jerry was only asked to direct the attraction's main media aspects, such as the pre-show promo for XS-Tech, the voice performance of the XS-Tech spokesbot S.I.R. (Simulated Intelligence Robotics), and the main theater "live" broadcast footage.

"I was not initially asked to direct all of the non-media in-theater storytelling aspects," Jerry said. "So after finishing the assigned aspects, I wished the project well and felt rather sad to see it go off for installation in the park without me."

That would change, however, after Michael Eisner reviewed the installed attraction. Eisner, along with a few others (including Marty Sklar), felt that the overall story wasn't being communicated dynamically enough. Jerry was called back in.

"Michael gave the 'bring Jerry in' instruction, and for the first time I was invited to direct the full experience soup-to-nuts," Jerry recalled. "I was delighted, since I'd been drooling to be involved with all aspects all the way to the finish line!"

Rick Rothschild was assigned to be Jerry's producer. The two met up in Florida and went through the entire attraction together, so they could assess what it needed and where. According to Jerry, they were "bubbling with ideas" upon exiting the ride. They put their ideas to paper almost immediately, and ultimately those notes became the foundation for all of the improvements they would make over the following six months.

"During that time Rick and I lived and breathed, ate and slept Alien Encounter!" Jerry declared. "It was all-consuming and very exciting."

One noticeable change completely altered the mood of the attraction's pre-show. S.I.R., voiced by Phil Hartman, would no longer be a friendly spokesbot who sang to himself while the audience filed into the pre-show area. English actor Tim Curry was brought on as the new voice of S.I.R., and he managed to add an underscore of menace to the narration.

"I loved working with Phil on the first pass of the S.I.R. voice," Jerry remarked. "But ultimately, after listening back to the tracks, I felt that a more edgy 'tech evangelist' would be more effective. Tim nailed it!"

Jerry came up with some clever motivation for Tim, asking him to picture himself as a southern evangelical preacher who was delivering the message of X-S to his congregation. Jerry also worked with S.I.R.'s audio-animatronic animator, helping to ensure that the appropriately grandiose body language would be implemented.

Like Cranium Command, Jerry had to juggle several different elements that would all ultimately have to come together in order to tell one cohesive story. Never an easy task, I asked him which aspect of this production he found the most challenging. He responded, "The most challenging aspect -- and also the most fun aspect -- was coordinating all the elements so that it was completely believable that a giant alien creature had escaped and was on the loose in the broken theater. This involved film, normal and binaural audio in bizarre speaker arrays, animatronics, live actors, hidden actuators, vapor, wind fans, and much, much, much more. Each audience member was even splattered by 'bug bits' (water) at the end when the creature was exploded. The myriad of cooperative storytelling elements was staggering. And super fun!" Jerry's unique ability to visualize multiple yet separate show components made him the perfect choice for an attraction of this nature.

Extraterrorestrial Alien Encounter enjoyed an 8-year run terrorizing guests in the Magic Kingdom. The level of terror, however, might also have been the reason for its eventual demise.

"So far as I know, there was never an official reason given for its closure," Jerry remarked. "It was very popular. My best guess -- and the guess from other insiders I've chatted with -- is that it was closed because it was located in the Magic Kingdom, where parents have an expectation that they can let their kids run free and all rides will be appropriate. There is no such expectation at Disney's Hollywood Studios, where Tower of Terror scares the heck out of people all day long. My firm belief is this -- if the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter had been built at Disney's Hollywood Studios rather than the Magic Kingdom, it would still be playing today.”


Keith Gluck has been a Disney fan his entire life. While Disneyland is his 'home park,' he has been to and adores Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris. He runs thedisneyproject.com, and also volunteers at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. If you were to ask him his favorite thing about Disney, his answer would always be, "Walt."


The previous post in this blog was Jim’s Attic: Where in the World is Mr. Limpet?.

The next post in this blog is Epcot Trade Celebration 2013.

Comments (23)

myma:

That show did freak me out. I went once, and never again.

Isabella:

I think it was around 95-96 when I rode alien encounter. At around 15, i was excited for the seemingly grown up ride.

I have never been so scared in all my life, lol. My only regret to its closing was that my husband, who would have loved it, never experienced it!

Rebecca Smith:

Alien Encounter was one of the best attractions ever! We've always suspected it closed because it was too scary, which speaks to how good it was. Kudos to Jerry Rees for his amazing work, I hope he knows how many of us loved it and were heartbroken when it closed. Maybe we can start a movement to get it reopened at DHS? Who's with me?

David:

Loved this attraction for the very reason that it WAS more scary than most anything else in WDW. Was sad to see it go...

Kelly M:

I truly miss this attraction, I loved it.
Wholeheartedly agree with Mr Rees that if this was in DHS we would still be enjoying it! (And still screaming a little)

Thank you for the info and a little walk down memory lane Keith!

Debra Fewster:

I remember this ride well. It was awesome! It was quite scary even for adults. Little kids would cry in fear it was so authentic. I recall there being a height restriction even though the ride didn't move. That was to keep the little kids out because it was so scary. I loved it and hated to see it go. I'm sure the fear factor was the reason for its demise.

Leah Nobile:

This is one anniversary, I am happy to celebrate. This ride traumatized me. I went one year around the time this had just opened. I was 12 or 13, it was my family's first time on the ride. We all piled in and we sat down. The shoulder bar came down and it was so tight it dug into my shoulders. I then remember the ride starting and it going dark and a glass in the middle of the room with an alien in it. I was ok, but then everything went array and the glass broke and then it went pitch black. After that all I remember is having my eyes shut so tight, squeezing my sisters hand, my feet off the ground as best as I could. Then I heard screaming and I was soooo scared. I thought someone was going to come out dressed as the alien and touch everyone, so I NEVER opened my eyes. I remember yelling to my sister, "I want off, I want off, I want mom!" To this day I still wont go on it as Stitch. I have not set foot on that ride since then. Of course now when I go my family doesn't let me live it down, especially because my 5 year old cousin wasn't scared at all the first time.

Leah Nobile:

I just realized after all these years my family tricked me on going on. I went on right before it closed but I did not realize this ride was open even earlier than that!! I have a bone to pick with them haha

Mel:

I am terrified of aliens. If an alien show comes up while I'm flipping channels, I freak out. Alien movies scare the poop out of me. But I LOVED this ride. Yes, it was scary, but come on? Parents need to be a bit more careful about what they put their kids on. There were signs everywhere that the ride was intense. It's CALLED ALIEN encounter. I was sooo disappointed when this was turned into the Stitch incarnation it is today. Disney knows it's fun to be a little scared...Haunted Mansion, Tower of Terror...and some people are scared of roller coasters. They didn't take away those!

Jim Korkis:

It's always a joy to see a new article by Keith who has become one of the most active of the new generation of Disney historians and this post does not disappoint. Originally, the attraction was planned to be much scarier because it was going to be based on the popular movie "Alien" but Disney was not able to obtain the rights. Jerry Rees deserves much more attention. Perhaps Keith can convince him to talk about making that live action short "Mickey's Big Break/Mickey's Audition" featuring Roy E. Disney as Uncle Walt discovering Mickey. This was an entertaining and accurate glimpse into Magic Kingdom history and I definitely look forward to future posts.

Chris lally:

We when on this in 1998 on our honeymoon. My husband screamed like a little girl. He still jokes with the kids ' don't eat me .. Eat him'

DianeN:

I agree that Alien Encounter would probably have had a much longer run if they hadn't chose to put it in MK. It was a cleverly conceived and very theatrical experience, but as an adult "rider" I found the shoulder harness way too constricting, to the point of being painful. I can just imagine how scary those harnesses (along with the darkness and the loud soundtrack) made it for kids. Cranium Command, otoh, was practically perfect. I still miss it!

Bill:

I didn't love this attraction, but it's replacement is on my all-time awful list!

Ashley:

It's strange how different people react to things. My whole family thought this attraction was hilarious!

Laurie Chopak:

I remember this ride well although I never experienced it first hand as I'm a big chicken. Anyway, during our first trip ever to Disney, my daughters, at the time 8 and 7 years old, went on with their Dad. When I say that I wanted to cry when they came off would be an exaggeration! They were both holding onto my husband with teary, red eyes and asking us how we could ever let them on a ride that was so scary. It broke my heart and I felt bad and helpless telling them that I had no idea that it would be that scary. I have to say that it influenced their decision to ride other rides during that whole trip. Although we can laugh about it now, then they were not happy.

Kelly:

I took my niece and nephews on this when the oldest was about 10yrs old. The were sooo scared! They were screaming to get out. I agree that if it were in Hollywood Studios it would still be around. It's too bad they couldn't just move the ride. It was very cool experience!

Kara:

I was an adult the first (& only) time I went on Alien Encounter. As an adult, I fully understod this was Disney magic & special effects and there was nothing to be afraid of. But once it started, I was completely terrified. The harness was tight, the darkness was awful, the noises were horrifying. The kids who were there were screaming. (These kids probably didn't sleep for a week - their poor parents!) I couldn't wait to get out & I never went back. The new version with Stitch is not popular either. Might be time for another reboot to that building....

JCH:

I think removing this attraction was the greatest mistake they have made as a theme park. I know that is extreme, but please hear me out. As a thrill ride junkie, this was my first time to WDW. I went into this on a friend's recommendation. I was so enormously entertained that my like of all things fast was shaken. Here is an attraction where I never moved, yet had a much greater thrill than the fastest of hyper coasters. I cannot begin to explain just how disappointed I was with the Stitch attraction, and I love the movie Lilo & Stitch. I understand why is was modified. It was too intense for small children; however, there should have been efforts to address this rather that totally removing it. They posted that it was too frightening for young children, but they needed to enforce it with a large height requirement. I also think it is a valid point that they rides at Magic Kingdom are not meant to be exclusionary. Nevertheless, Dumbo is exclusionary to teens. Here is the perfect ride for the teenager to hit while the younger sibling rides Winnie the Poo. Personally, I am older and love everything there. Alien Encounter also fit the theming (at the time) much better. No movie attractions in Tomorrowland, and all based on a retro-future. Obviously, that idea has changed with Monsters Inc. and Buzz, and that is fine. But they had a world class attraction and now a very sub-par show. Please bring it back.

Karen:

They should have never, ever, EVER closed this attraction.

Cheri Palmisano:

I personally LOVED Alien Encounter. My sister was very young and was scared, but we were able to comfort her afterwards and she calmed down.
I believe there is a very small fanbase for Stitch, even smaller than the fanbase for Alien Encounter. What happened is that they turned it into something that is milder, for the kids supposedly, and yet it is STILL scary for children! But lame for adults, and that burping smell is DISGUSTING! So I'm willing to bet that the Stitch version has a lot less fans than the Alien version ever did!

Chris Pressley:

My high school senior class went to WDW for our senior year class trip in '97. A group of us went on EAE together including our star football player, a 6'6" 310 pound "giant". He was so terrified during the attraction that he stood up in the middle of the show and ran out the emergency exit breaking his shoulder harness in the process! LOL!!! The whole attraction had to be closed for several hours while imagineering repaired it.
(The "scardy cat" went on to play offensive lineman for a very popular professional team in the NY area!)

Agnes:

It was a terrible pity they decided to close down Alien Encounter. I only had the priviledge of riding it once, but I remember thinking what an innovative concept it was, so simple and yet so effective. Everyone (including myself) knew it was just a hoax but panicked anyway! The Imagineers managed to create something as thrilling as a roller coaster merely by using the power of suggestion!

This was a great attraction and got even better with some of the tweaks that they made over the years. I didn't realize how good it was until Stitch arrived and used similar technology in a painful way. Just awful.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 24, 2013 8:24 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Jim’s Attic: Where in the World is Mr. Limpet?.

The next post in this blog is Epcot Trade Celebration 2013.

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