Alien Encounter: The Life and Death of Walt Disney World's Scariest Ride Ever 

Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was hard to hear the dialogue above the screams, but riders sitting through early test runs of ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, got the ride’s basic premise. A friendly group of aliens are showing off their new teleportation technology. Halfway through the demonstration, something goes wrong: They accidentally send a carnivorous monster to Earth, and when the lights flicker off, the alien creature starts attacking audience members.

Though the attraction didn’t offer any steep plunges or high-speed turns, it aimed to be one of Disney’s premier thrill rides, with the most heart-pounding moments taking place as guests sat still in complete darkness. But when Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner experienced ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter for himself in January 1995, he was unimpressed.

By that point, Disney had already spent eight years developing the ride, which was meant to be the showpiece of Tomorrowland's $100 million makeover. It frightened early test-riders—the Orlando Sentinel reported people screaming over the dialogue and running for the exit—but Eisner felt the ride wasn't scary enough. Instead of clearing it to open later that month as planned, he ordered the park’s designers (also known as Imagineers) to shut it down and ramp up the intensity.

Five months later, one of the most terrifying rides in theme park history opened in "The Happiest Place on Earth."

From Alien Encounter to ExtraTERRORestrial

Concept art for ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.
Concept art for ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.

Disney wasn’t a top destination for thrill-seekers when Michael Eisner took over the company in 1984. The parks’ classic rides, like It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, and even The Haunted Mansion, were beloved for their nostalgia, not for their fear factor. Eisner’s teenage son Breck made this clear when he turned down the chance to go to Disneyland in California, saying the park was too lame. Determined to lure the teen demographic, Eisner began looking for ways to bring more thrills to Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Alien Encounter was conceived as part of this reimagining. A lot of the early ideas of what the ride would be ended up making it into the final product—guests would be seated in an arena-style theater facing an animatronic alien that would ultimately escape and terrorize them all in the dark. But instead of a generic alien, the villain was originally meant to be the Xenomorph from the Alien franchise.

A gory, R-rated property may seem like an odd match for Disney World, but the partnership was years in the making. Disney had come close to building an Alien-themed ride in the 1980s called Nostromo, where riders would shoot down Xenomorphs with laser guns mounted to their cars. Nostromo never made it past the design stage, but Alien found another home at Disney World when The Great Movie Ride opened at MGM Studios in 1989. The ride recreated iconic scenes from film history, including Ripley’s showdown with a Xenomorph at the end of Alien. Following that attraction’s success, Disney looked for more opportunities to use its license of the Alien franchise.

Disney launched an ambitious renovation project of Tomorrowland around that time. Walt Disney’s concept of the future hadn’t aged well since the parks first opened, and Imagineers were tasked with recreating the world of tomorrow for modern audiences. Tomorrowland 2055 would welcome parkgoers into an intergalactic alien spaceport—a.k.a. the perfect setting for the next attempt at an Alien ride.

Eisner was 100 percent on board with Alien Encounter, and a full-fledged Alien ride may have opened at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World if it wasn’t for some detractors working behind the scenes. Many of the theme park’s more seasoned Imagineers opposed a ride that was not only based on an R-rated property, but contradicted Walt Disney’s optimistic vision of tomorrow. Unable to convince Eisner to nix the project on their own, the Imagineers enlisted the help of entertainment heavyweight George Lucas, who was working as a consultant on the Indiana Jones ride for Disneyland at the time.

Lucas also felt that Alien Encounter was too intense for the family-friendly park, and he agreed to collaborate on a toned-down, Xenomorph-free version of the ride. With Lucas’s name attached, Eisner was willing to let go of the Alien brand, and an updated take on Alien Encounter, now called ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, went into development.

Though their project no longer featured aliens that burst through chests or bled acid, the design team still had the chilling atmosphere of Alien on the brain. The movie’s influence was apparent when ExtraTERRORestrial opened in Tomorrowland on June 20, 1995.

ExtraTERRORestrial: A Ride "Too Intense for Children and Some Adults"

After months of anticipation, ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter finally earned Eisner’s approval, and Disney World guests were able to experience it for themselves. By adding new special effects and tightening up the story, Imagineers had retooled the ride into something guaranteed to engage and terrify even the toughest critics.

Warnings posted outside indicated this wasn’t an average Disney ride: “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter is a frightening theatrical experience in a confined setting with loud noises and moments of total darkness,” one sign read. It went on to say the ride “may be too intense for children and some adults.” But that didn’t stop parents from taking their young children into the attraction.

Once inside the building, guests waiting in line watched a robot voiced by Tim Curry demonstrate a “teletransporter” made by the fictional alien technology company X-S Tech, using a furry, yellow alien named Skippy as his guinea pig. When transporting Skippy from one containment tube to the other, the machine glitches, and the cute alien materializes looking burnt-up and in pain. The disturbing pre-show was meant to introduce riders to the teleportation device’s intended purpose, as well as its flaws, and to give them a taste of the ride’s dark tone while they still had time to turn around and run.

The main show began when riders were ushered into the theater-in-the-round and strapped into their seats with harnesses. A team of Alien X-S Tech representatives greeted Earthlings from their home planet via video monitors and announced that they were about to do an interstellar demonstration of their teleportation device. X-S Tech’s chairman volunteered to make the journey to Earth, but what appeared in the tube at the center of the room was clearly not the same alien audience members saw on the screen.

Through strobe light flashes and billowing fog, riders caught a brief glimpse of the animatronic creature—a towering monster with leathery wings, a reptilian tongue, and glowing red eyes. The sound of shattering glass echoed throughout the theater and then the lights went dark: The creature had escaped.

In an effort to impress Eisner, the Imagineers tasked with tweaking the ride added more tactile special effects. They borrowed elements from Honey I Shrunk the Audience!, a newly opened show at Epcot that used 4D effects, such as water spritzers to simulate being sneezed on.

On ExtraTERRORestrial, these same effects were meant to horrify parkgoers, not gross them out. Through strategically placed speakers and 4D devices, riders heard repulsive slurping and crunching noises, then were sprayed in the face with warm water—making them think they had been splattered with fresh blood. At one point, harnesses pressed down onto riders’ shoulders to make it feel as if the monster was crouching on top of them. Warm air and water released from the seats replicated what it might feel like if the creature was slobbering down the back of each audience member's neck. Instead of watching the horror unfold on a screen, each guest was made to feel as though the alien was stalking them personally. Screams filled the room from start to finish, though it wasn't always possible to tell which cries for help were coming from audience members and which were part of the scripted show.

Eventually the monster was captured and the lights came back on, revealing that no one in the theater had actually been harmed ... or consumed.

Though the ride didn’t inflict any physical damage, it did leave some psychological scars. Children often left the theater in tears. As The Missoulian reported in 1996, one 9-year-old was too scared to get an ExtraTERRORestrial T-shirt from the gift shop after the show. Karal Ann Marling, author of Designing Disney's Theme Parks, told the Ottawa Citizen, "This is the first time in a Disney park you're really, authentically scared.”

Stitch invades ExtraTERRORestrial

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, ExtraTERRORestrial was Disney World’s most divisive attraction. Young kids and parents coming to Disney to see Cinderella and Goofy may have felt betrayed by the ride’s intensity, but older kids and teens, the group Eisner originally wanted to win over, loved it.

Despite the praise it received, ExtraTERRORestrial’s life at Disney World was cut short. In 2003, Disney closed the ride with plans to open a new, much tamer theme park experience in its place: Stitch's Great Escape! recycled much of ExtraTERRORestrial’s setting, special effects, and concept—but instead of surviving an encounter with a bloodthirsty alien, riders instead faced the cute protagonist of Disney’s hit property, Lilo & Stitch.

Disney never explicitly stated why it shuttered ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, but it was clear they wanted Stitch’s Great Escape! to appeal to a wider audience. The Orlando Sentinel called the new ride, "a milder version of the Magic Kingdom's too-scary ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter."

Designing it for everyone didn't make Stitch's Great Escape! very popular. The 4D effects that had felt thrilling on ExtraTERRORestrial now seemed obnoxious; instead of splattering you with "blood," Stitch let out a chili-dog scented burp in your face.

Attendance was so low that in the 2010s, the ride transitioned to seasonal operation. In 2018, the ride closed indefinitely, and while Disney denied reports that Stitch’s Great Escape! was gone for good, leaked images of a dismantled Stitch animatronic suggest the ride won’t be reopening.

Though ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter has been closed for more 15 years, the demise of Stitch's Great Escape! is a loss for fans of the original attraction. The updated show had recycled many parts of the 1990s ride, including animatronics like Skippy the alien (he was never tortured in the Stitch version). Now nostalgic Disney lovers have to scour memorabilia on eBay for evidence that the horrifying Magic Kingdom ride ever existed.

Every New Movie, TV Series, and Special Coming to Netflix in October

Charles Baker as Skinny Pete in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019).
Charles Baker as Skinny Pete in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019).
Courtesy of Netflix

It has been six years since Breaking Bad fans last caught a glimpse of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), as he sped away from Albuquerque and the men who held him captive there for so long (Walter White included, at least in a metaphorical sense). While we've longed to see what happened next, and what Jesse might be up to today, that it would ever become a reality seemed unlikely ... until earlier this year, when Vince Gilligan confirmed that he had secretly shot a Breaking Bad movie titled El Camino, that will catch us up on the man formerly known as Cap'n Cook.

In addition to that October 11th premiere, Netflix has plenty of other movies, shows, and specials coming your way in October.

October 1

Carmen Sandiego: Season 2
Nikki Glaser: Bangin’
93 days
A.M.I.
Along Came a Spider
Bad Boys
Bad Boys II
Blow
Bring It On, Ghost: Season 1
Charlie’s Angels
Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle
Cheese in the Trap: Season 1
Chicago Typewriter: Season 1
Crash
Exit Wounds
Good Burger
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Honey 2
House of the Witch
Lagos Real Fake Life
Men in Black II
Moms at War
No Reservations
Ocean’s Thirteen
Ocean’s Twelve
One Direction: This Is Us
Payday
Rugrats in Paris: The Movie
Scream 2
Senna
Signal: Season 1
Sin City
Sinister Circle
Supergirl
Superman Returns
Surf’s Up
The Bucket List
The Flintstones
The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas
The Island
The Pursuit of Happyness
The Rugrats Movie
The Time Traveler’s Wife
Tomorrow with You: Season 1
Trainspotting
Troy
Tunnel: Season 1
Unaccompanied Minors
Walking Out

October 2

Living Undocumented
Ready to Mingle (Solteras)
Rotten: Season 2

October 3

Seis Manos

October 4

Big Mouth: Season 3
Creeped Out: Season 2
In the Tall Grass
Peaky Blinders: Season 5
Raising Dion
Super Monsters: Season 3
Super Monsters: Vida’s First Halloween

October 5

Legend Quest: Masters of Myth

October 7

Match! Tennis Juniors
The Water Diviner

October 8

Deon Cole: Cole Hearted
The Spooky Tale of Captain Underpants Hack-a-ween

October 9

After
Rhythm + Flow

October 10

Schitt’s Creek: Season 5
Ultramarine Magmell

October 11

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
The Forest of Love
Fractured
Haunted: Season 2
Insatiable: Season 2
La influencia
Plan Coeur: Season 2
The Awakenings of Motti Wolenbruch
YooHoo to the Rescue: Season 2

October 12

Banlieusards

October 15

Dark Crimes

October 16

Ghosts of Sugar Land
Sinister 2

October 17

The Karate Kid
The Unlisted

October 18

The Yard (Avlu)
Baby: Season 2
Eli
Interior Design Masters
The House of Flowers: Season 2
The Laundromat
Living with Yourself
MeatEater: Season 8
Mighty Little Bheem: Diwali
Seventeen
Spirit Riding Free: Pony Tales Collection 2
Tell Me Who I Am
Toon: Seasons 1-2
Unnatural Selection
Upstarts

October 19

Men in Black

October 21

Echo in the Canyon
Free Fire

October 22

Jenny Slate: Stage Fright

October 23

Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
Dancing with the Birds
Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy

October 24

Daybreak
Revenge of Pontianak

October 25

A Tale of Love and Darkness
Assimilate
Brigada Costa del Sol
Brotherhood
Dolemite Is My Name
Greenhouse Academy: Season 3
The Kominsky Method: Season 2
Monzon
Nailed It! France (C’est du gâteau!)
Nailed It! Spain (Niquelao!)
Prank Encounters
Rattlesnake
It Takes a Lunatic

October 28

A 3 Minute Hug
Little Miss Sumo
Shine On with Reese: Season 1

October 29

Arsenio Hall: Smart & Classy

October 30

Flavorful Origins: Yunnan Cuisine

October 31

Kengan Ashura: Part ll
Nowhere Man
Raging Bull

10 Intriguing Friends Fan Theories

Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images
Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images

Friends is a classic sitcom about twentysomethings navigating life, love, and work in New York City. Or at least that’s one theory about the beloved sitcom, which premiered on September 22, 1994. Here’s another: Friends is a glimpse inside a mental ward, where six disturbed patients are working through their personality disorders. In the 25 years since it made its debut, Friends has inspired a ton of wild fan theories on Reddit and Twitter. Here are a few of the strangest (and be careful: Mr. Heckles’s murderer is still at large).

1. Rachel dreamed the whole thing.

In the summer of 2017, this photo of the Friends season four DVD box ignited a fan frenzy. The image on the box shows the titular pals snoozing side by side. Ross, Phoebe, Monica, Chandler, and Joey all have their eyes shut, but Rachel—resting right in the middle—is wide awake and looking directly at the camera. Why is she the only one with her eyes open? Some fans suggested Rachel was plotting something sinister, or secretly very “woke.” But plenty more insisted it was proof the whole show was Rachel’s dream. According to one Twitter fan, Rachel fell into an anxiety-fueled dream the night before her wedding to Barry and imagined her own group of hip New York friends to cope with her frustration and dread. Except she woke up to reality the next morning, as shown on the DVD cover, where she’s surrounded by her dream friends.

2. Phoebe hallucinated the show.

Another popular theory suggests that Friends was all in Phoebe’s head—only this take is much darker. The basic premise is that Phoebe never got off the streets. She was a lonely, homeless woman with a meth addiction who peered into the window of Central Perk one day. She noticed five friends laughing over coffee, and imagined herself as part of the gang. In this fantasy, her pals didn’t always get her weird sense of humor, but they loved her anyway. In reality, the twentysomethings in the window were wondering why that “crazy lady” was staring at them. This theory gained so much traction that a journalist asked Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman about it at a television festival. She quickly threw water on the whole thing. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard,” Kauffman replied. “That’s a terrible theory. That’s insane. Someone needs a life, that’s all I’m saying."

3. It was one long promotion for Starbucks.

The cast of 'Friends'
Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images

According to one manic Facebook rant, Friends was not a sitcom at all. It was actually a 10-year marketing ploy, designed to make Starbucks the new go-to destination for young people. Why else do the characters spend so much time in a coffee shop? True, the shop is not called Starbucks, but the subliminal evidence lies in Rachel’s last name (Green, like the Starbucks company color) and hair (styled like the mermaid in the Starbucks logo). Then there’s Ross and Monica’s last name, Geller, which is close to the German word gellen. It means “to yell,” just like the Starbucks baristas calling out customer names. The case only gets flimsier from there, but if you really want to read about how Chandler and Moby Dick are connected, you can dive down that particular rabbit hole here.

4. Ross lost custody of Ben because he was a bad dad.

Ross’s son Ben arrives in the very first season of Friends, in the aptly titled episode “The One with the Birth.” He’s a constant character for several seasons, but as the show goes on, Ross seems to spend less and less time with his kid. Ben disappears after the eighth season, and never meets his half-sister Emma onscreen. There’s one explanation for this drop-off: Ross lost custody of his son due to increasingly disturbing behavior.

The blog What Would Bale Do lays out a bunch of examples: Ross sleeps with his students, tries to hook up with his cousin, and asks a self-defense instructor for help scaring his female friends. He’s also generally pretty jealous and possessive. According to this theory, Ross’s ex-wife Carol hit a breaking point and took full custody of their son, which is why Ben stops coming around his dad’s apartment in the later seasons.

5. Mr. Heckles was murdered.

Rachel and Monica’s mean old neighbor dies of natural causes in season 2—or at least that’s what they want you to think. By one Redditor’s account, Mr. Heckles was killed in cold blood. Moments before he dies, Mr. Heckles shows up at Monica and Rachel’s door, complaining that their noise is disturbing his birds. (He does not have birds.) Monica says they’ll try to keep it down and as Mr. Heckles leaves, he says he’s going to rejoin his “dinner party.” Minutes later, he’s dead. Ergo, his dinner party guest killed him. Of course, the likelier explanation is that Mr. Heckles was a crazy old man who wasn’t even having a dinner party. But where’s the fun in that?

6. There's a reason why the gang always got that same table at Central Perk.

The cast of 'Friends' chats with talk show host Conan O'Brien
Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images

How did the gang manage to snag the coveted center couch at Central Perk every single time? Simple: Gunther reserved it for them. It was all part of his ongoing campaign to win Rachel’s affections, and it explains why the group never had to fight for seating space. Well, except that one time.

7. There's a Parks & Recreation crossover.

In “The One With All the Candy,” Rachel insists she doesn’t sleep with guys on the first date, only for her friends to immediately call her out. Monica rattles off three names: Matt Wire, Mark Lynn, and Ben Wyatt. Could she be talking about the same Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation? According to Reddit, their ages check out. Ben would’ve been 26 at the time of the episode, making him a perfectly acceptable one-night stand for 29-year-old Rachel. But how does Leslie Knope feel about this?

8. Monica was the product of an extramarital affair.

Ross and Monica’s mom doesn’t even try to hide her favoritism. Judy Geller thinks Ross is a genius and Monica is, well, trying. (But could be trying harder.) One bonkers (and since-deleted) fan theory suggests Judy’s preference stems from a family secret: At some point in her marriage to Jack Geller, she had an affair, one she could never forget because it spawned Monica. Judy’s shame over this tryst is what causes her to lash out at Monica and praise Ross, her one 'legitimate' child.

9. There's all in a psych ward.

David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, and Matt Leblanc in 'Friends.'
Getty Images

What if Central Perk wasn’t a coffee shop at all, but rather the cafeteria at a mental institution? As one theory goes, all six main characters are suffering from personality disorders. They’re confined to a facility for treatment, and can only shuffle between their rooms (i.e. their “apartments”) and the cafeteria (i.e. “Central Perk”). This situation also explains why the group is so hostile toward new people. They’re not actually teasing Monica’s new boyfriend; they’re attacking anyone who tries to take one of the friends out of the mental hospital.

10. Joey really wanted some pancakes.

This very silly—but very solid—fan theory is centered on Joey’s love of food. In “The One With Ross’s Library Book,” Joey has a one-night stand with a woman named Erin. He doesn’t want to see her again, and asks Rachel to break the news to her over pancakes. Apparently Chandler used to do this when he lived in the apartment. He’d even save extra pancakes for Joey. Rachel refuses to be a part of this, but once she’s left alone with Erin, she feels bad and offers to cook. Things escalate over the episode and pretty soon, Joey is the one who’s too clingy for Erin. Rachel has to tell him and, feeling bad yet again, she offers pancakes. Reddit claims this was all just a plot for pancakes. It kind of adds up: Joey can’t cook but likes to eat, and he has enough soap opera money to pay an actor (Erin) to play a part in this conspiracy. So he cons his roommate into making pancakes, twice, in a ruse that’s both delicious and diabolical (and, yes, a little bit silly).

This story has been updated for 2019.

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