The Disney World Ride So Nightmare-Fueling It Got Shut Down For Good

In the annals of weird Disney park history, it's not often you'll see a ride that was originally based on an R-rated horror movie. Yet that was the case with the attraction that eventually became Disney World's ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. It was first developed as a ride called Nostromo, based on the spaceship in the 1979 sci-fi horror classic "Alien."

As the story goes, Michael Eisner — then CEO of the Walt Disney Company — wanted to bring more thrilling rides, targeted at teens, to Disney from the mid-1980s onward. Eisner's own teenage son, Breck (who grew up to direct a remake of the horror film, "The Crazies") was reportedly unimpressed with Disney. Since attendance at the parks was down, it seemed he wasn't the only one. Not everyone at the company, however, thought a film like "Alien" — with its famous tagline, "In space no one can hear you scream" — would be a good match for the Most Magical Place on Earth.

Plans for the Nostromo ride were abandoned, but in 1989, the ship found its way into The Great Movie Ride, another Disney attraction that's now extinct. It wasn't until 1995 that a new, original version of the former "Alien" attraction, now called Alien Encounter, debuted in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom. "Star Wars" creator George Lucas — whose characters already had a presence in Star Tours — helped tone the attraction down. But Alien Encounter was still suitably terrifying, so much so that it lasted less than a decade at Disney.

The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter

On the one hand, Alien Encounter was upfront about its intent to give guests an experience with "ExtraTERROR." Signs outside the ride warned people that it was maybe "too frightening for small children," and that it took place "in a confined setting with loud noises and moments of total darkness." On the other hand, this was the Magic Kingdom, a family-friendly theme park where visitors weren't necessarily accustomed to the true terror of being up close and personal with an aggressive monster in the dark.

The storyline for Alien Encounter involved a company called X-S Tech demonstrating a new teleportation product at a convention center in Tomorrowland. Despite the sinister company robot S.I.R.'s assurances that the teleportation process was "practically painless," the pre-show saw a cute alien named Skippy being disintegrated, then reintegrated as a charred, red-eyed monstrosity, before his molecules were left suspended in teleportation indefinitely.

For the main show, guests would file into the theater-in-the-round auditorium where the Magic Kingdom's Mission to Mars attraction was once housed. There, they'd be locked into place with shoulder bars, unable to move out of their seats no matter how scary or intense things got. Trouble arose when the teleporter accidentally intercepted a huge, carnivorous, extraterrestrial lifeform. As the creature escaped from the teleportation chamber, the lights went out, people started screaming, and Alien Encounter became an even more terrifying, sensory-driven experience.

[Featured image by Steven Miller via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 2.0]

'A sensory thriller'

Alien Encounter billed itself as "a sensory thriller." The attraction certainly lived up to that name, getting physical and four-dimensional with guests. Using binaural sound, it was able to give people a surround-sound experience where the alien appeared to be circling right behind them. You could feel the monster thumping your seat, breathing and drooling on the back of your neck. The heightened atmosphere of people screaming in the dark while the alien mauled a maintenance man left some young Disney guests in tears.

It's one thing for a kid to start crying in Pirates of the Caribbean, where music filled with jolly yo-hos accompanies the sight of skeletons and burning towns. With such "dark rides," there's usually more distance between the guests and the scary sights they're passing. What made Alien Encounter different was that it pinned guests down. The horror was designed to come right at them in an actual pitch-dark setting, where their imagination could run wild with fear.

Amid mounting complaints from parents over the ride's content, Disney finally closed Alien Encounter in 2003, replacing it with Stitch's Great Escape. Today, you can still spot a nod to X-S Tech in the queue for the Guardians of the Galaxy – Cosmic Rewind roller coaster at Disney World. Alas, that's all that remains of Alien Encounter — what may well be the most nightmare-inducing Disney ride ever conceived.

[Featured image by LEONARDO DASILVA via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 2.0]