Ever since Roger Ebert’s famous dismissal of the original as a haunted house in space, the Alien franchise has seemed a natural fit for theme parks – at least as natural as a series based around an allegorical rape monster can be. It did take a while for anyone to connect those dots, however.
In 1993, Alien War, a combination of live theater and immersive sets, opened in the basement of a London mall and became a minor legend. Re-Animator’s Stuart Gordon directed the ride footage for the spectacularly subtitled motion simulator, Aliens: Ride at the Speed of Fright in 1997. Alien vs Predator vs You, sadly an indoor laser tag arena and not a handy instructional video, gave fans a socially acceptable way to say “game over, man” in 2009. A cutting edge hybrid of 3-D movie and stunt show in the vein of Universal Studios’ T2 3-D: Battle Across Time was designed and never built (below), though Alien vs Predator did eventually earn a few mazes at Halloween Horror Nights. This summer, wax museum/hall of dead-eyed stares Madame Tussauds (London) will be opening new experience Alien: Escape, in honor of the latest installment.
But the franchise’s most enduring theme park appearance is still its first and most unlikely.
Since 1989, Xenomorphs have been harassing tourists daily on The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, maiden name Disney-MGM Studios. To represent science fiction and horror, the grunge-caked, claustrophobic corridor of the Nostromo was lovingly reproduced down to the drinking bird. That alarm blares. Ripley cradles her flamethrower. Monsters hide among the machinery. It’s an impressive scene and certainly reaffirms Alien’s place in film history – and it’s a surprising fit for a park that also has a musical devoted to The Little Mermaid within spitting distance.
More surprising is that Disney wanted to bring the Xenomorph into its theme parks even sooner, and much more violently.
When Michael Eisner joined The Walt Disney Company as CEO and chairman in 1984, the theme park division accounted for 70% of all income. And that was with dwindling attendance. It didn’t take long for Eisner to realize where financial security was hiding, and where more money could be made. After his son, eventual director Breck Eisner, turned down a chance to visit Disneyland on account of its total lameness, Michael decided to go after the one demographic the company could never quite nab – those crazy teenagers.
Disney went straight for the cultural jugular and partnered with George Lucas to build Star Tours, a technologically marvelous motion simulator into the world of Star Wars. The greenlight didn’t come from any department head or Imagineer or even Michael Eisner himself. He left it up to 14-year-old Breck; if he thought the idea was cool, that was good enough for his dad. Disneyland cost $17 million to build in 1955. Star Tours cost $32 million when it opened in 1987. But it didn’t matter – Breck was right. Star Tours broke attendance records held since The Haunted Mansion opened its creaky doors in 1969.
Eisner didn’t want to lose the momentum and charged Imagineers with designing another blockbuster thrill ride with another attention-grabbing license. Enter Nostromo.
As early as 1974, Disney toyed with the idea of a ride-through shooting gallery. The first attempt amounted to little more than a working title – The UFO Show – and a few concept renderings. The idea was mothballed until Disney had a promising new sci-fi franchise on the horizon in 1979. The Black Hole flopped. But it wasn’t long before another promising new sci-fi franchise arrived in 1982. Tron flopped harder. After the success of Star Tours, the next attempt wouldn’t gamble on an unproven property.
Nostromo would’ve enlisted guests on a rescue mission into the alien-infested spacefreighter of the same name. Boarding APCs, brave tourists would take aim at the Xenomorph hordes with appropriately heavy artillery mounted to their seats.
While an exciting prospect to readers of websites with words like “bloody” and “disgusting” in the name, the old guard of Imagineers, most of whom worked with Walt before he died, were downright disturbed. They couldn’t imagine little kids blasting away at R-rated nightmare beasts a few feet from America Sings, a show where an animatronic eagle explains patriotism in song. All it took was a few words to Eisner and Nostromo self-destructed. The shooting gallery-on-wheels concept would eventually become Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin in 1998, with brighter, less horrifying extraterrestrials to fill full of lasers.
But not all Imagineers were so averse to Alien. The centerpiece of Disney-MGM Studios was to be a massive ride celebrating the history of cinema and all its genres. Originally, designers wanted a different property to check the sci-fi and horror boxes – something a bit lighter. But Universal beat Disney to the licensing punch and secured the rights to a Ghostbusters attraction for its competing studio park up the highway.
With Alien still on many minds after the Nostromo project, Disney formally licensed the franchise for theme park use. 28 years and six movies later, the Alien scene still makes children cry on The Great Movie Ride. It turned out so well, in fact, that Imagineers wondered what else they could do with the series and where they might put it.
Tomorrowland was beginning to look an awful lot like yesterday by 1990, but a vast (read: expensive) reinvention was in the works. Dubbed “Tomorrowland 2055,” the project would’ve revitalized the respective lands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom with a Jules Verne-inspired makeover. One of the aging attractions on both chopping blocks was Mission to Mars, a theater-in-the-round effects show that used to take visitors to the moon until astronauts actually did that.
A group of enterprising young Imagineers saw an opportunity. Keeping the same infrastructure, a new show with modern effects could be built in its place. A show that would lock guests in a room with a barely restrained (audio-animatronic) carnivorous creature, then set it loose in the dark. A show set entirely in the cynically incorporated world of Alien.
Eisner loved the concept and the cost-efficiency. Alien Encounter was underway. The design team got to work creating the binaural audio that would convince everyone in the audience that the Xenomorph was leaning over their shoulder and their shoulder alone. Mixed perfectly with low-budget effects like dripping water and hot bursts of air, it would’ve been the most intense attraction Disney had ever attempted.
If only everyone at Disney was onboard. The old guard that nixed Nostromo had the same reservations over Alien Encounter. The project team argued that brand familiarity made the storytelling easier and, considering it would be Disney’s first true horror attraction, allowed for a much-needed safeguard against complaints; if unsure guests recognized the Alien name, they knew what would be in store. Eisner ultimately sided with the Alien Encounter team on the Star Tours principle – nothing draws crowds like a hot property.
But the opposition wasn’t about to let a Xenomorph loose in the same park as It’s a Small World. Undeterred, they covertly enlisted someone Eisner might be more apt to listen to – someone who happened to be around the offices overseeing the design of an Indiana Jones ride anyways.
George Lucas agreed – Alien was too harsh for the Magic Kingdom – and convinced Eisner of the same.
The Xenomorph has been confined to The Great Movie Ride ever since.
Work on Alien Encounter did continue, however, dropping the franchise ties and eventually opening in 1995 as ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter at the Magic Kingdom in Florida. The development in between was fraught with uneasy compromise, budget cuts and other assorted confusion. Despite having a synonym for “fear” right there in the title, guests complained en masse about the attraction’s intensity. Why? They never thought it would be so scary.
Hard to make the same mistake with the Alien name on the marquee.
Looking at ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, the signs are still there. It’s a story of a faintly sinister corporation abusing technology it doesn’t understand as well as it should to the detriment of guests/humanity. An enormous animatronic alien appears, escapes and menaces tourists. It snorts, drools and crawls on them.
To its credit, ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was the first Disney attraction to splash its riders with the arterial spray of a slain maintenance man.