This article was originally featured on HORRORWOOD Presents.
Written by Jeremy Herbert
"Fellow executives, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to the future of law enforcement," says Dick Jones, Senior Vice President of Omni Consumer Products, shortly before his pièce de résistance unloads into an onlooker with 13 seconds of uninterrupted gunfire. Worse yet, it embarrasses him in front of the boss. In the interest of transparency, that's just the director's cut of Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop. The theatrically released version only included eight seconds of uninterrupted gunfire. In the squeaky-clean TV version, the gore is substituted with the uncanny by removing the blood squibs and forcing the ill-fated executive to just kind of shimmy around. It's this version that provides the clearest analog to this scene's closest cousin: the '90s boom of corporate theme park horror.
Given the hearsay history of entertainment design post-Walt and pre-NDA, it's tough to nail down the earliest traces of the style, but the attitude certainly walked in with the power suits. In 1984, Walt Disney Productions teetered on an unprecedented brink. Steady downturn across all departments except the parks left the stock cheap and the company wide-open to a hostile takeover. Last-ditch negotiations with MCA Inc., then-owner of Universal Studios, to buy the place outright fell apart when the Disney family demanded CEO Ron W. Miller, Walt's son-in-law, be retained as president. With no other studios ready or willing to protect them, Walt Disney Productions paid-off its corporate raiders to the tune of $325 million. In the aftermath, the board ousted Miller anyway, enlisting Paramount Pictures president Michael Eisner and Warner Bros. vice-chairman Frank Wells to right the sinking ship as CEO and COO, respectively. Their combined boardroom acumen turned dollar stocks into ten-and-change by the end of the decade. In retrospect, the recruitment was an easy move, but Disney's history since has dulled its cataclysmic effect. For the first time in the company's existence, the powers that be were not personally anointed by the man himself.
The resulting culture shock was as subtle as the name change, from Walt Disney Productions to The Walt Disney Company. The turnstiles kept turning, but the hand-made veneer that so many brochures still call "magic" started to fade. Eisner and Wells struck deals with outside talent like Michael Jackson and George Lucas. Splash Mountain only got its name as a five-years-late promotional push for the Tom Hanks-Darryl Hannah mermaid movie, Splash. The hunt for white-hot product turned into an arms race with Universal Studios. Despite a trade ad depicting Mickey Mouse welcoming the competition with open arms, little public love was lost. MCA accused former Paramount president Eisner of stealing their plans from a 1981 pitch to the studio for financial partnership on the Florida park. Privately, the war was only getting bloodier. Disney wantedGhostbusters as a blockbuster centerpiece of The Great Movie Ride. Bill Murray faltered on likeness rights. Universal swept in and licensed the property for $250,000 per year per park plus a cut of all related merchandise, no robotic Bills needed. Disney replaced the Temple of Gozer with the Well of Souls from Raiders of the Lost Ark, taking further and cheaper advantage of Lucas' standing deal. Now Indiana Jones would sit uncomfortably between sci-fi and horror, following Eisner's most contentiously licensed property of all.
Alien belonged to 20th Century Fox. The property did not belong in a Disney theme park, and more than a few of the Imagineering old guard told their new boss as much when he considered pursuing it after his success with Star Wars. "Nostromo," a drive-through shooting gallery with heavy artillery and beasts that violate their victims both in a literal and a metaphorical way, might've passed muster with Eisner's oft-consulted teenage son, but it was borderline blasphemous to the company. At least, the company as it existed when Eisner first arrived.
By the end of the decade, as Imagineers toiled over a Dick Tracy attraction that armed guests with their own personal Tommy guns, the winds had changed direction. When Universal Studios Florida finally opened on June 7th, 1990, it came loaded for bear. Disney had Casablanca while Universal had King Kong. Disney made a tanker truck explode every three-and-a-half minutes while Universal did the same thing during a subterranean earthquake. Disney ended every night with fireworks while Universal ended every night with dueling speedboats and roaring Uzis. Eisner's worst fears were realized. For all advertised intents and ticketing purposes, Universal was cooler, hipper, and a whole lot louder than anything Disney offered, let alone at the underbuilt and oversold Studios. It was finally time to play the least magical card in the company deck.
The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter still lost its 20th Century Fox branding on the way to Tomorrowland, at the suggestion of trusty creative consultant George Lucas and the older Imagineers whispering in his ear, but the blueprint is unmistakable. Next to RoboCop, the Alien franchise may be the most nihilistically corporate movies ever made. Weyland-Yutani, more comfortably referred to in omnipotent euphemism as "The Company," is the most famous contemporary example of what cyberpunk legend William Gibson coined as "megacorporations." They own everything from start to finish, top to bottom, of entire industries, and those adjacent. Any public claims of independent oversight obscure the fact that the megacorporations in question own the independent oversight. In Aliens, junior executive Carter J. Burke cites the Interstellar Commerce Commission as a bottom-line authority on par with the federal government without mentioning that it's another division of Weyland-Yutani. At their most fundamental level, megacorporations take the HR-friendly concept of employees-as-lifeblood to the nightmarish extreme, functioning in practice as infernal meat-grinders powering endless, soulless, reckless expansion.
If the R-rated violence of "Nostromo" was too hot for Disney to handle, the devoutly capitalist disregard for human life never fell off the drawing board. The serial numbers were filed off, but Alien Encounter's rebranded megacorporation, X-S Tech, was Weyland-Yutani in all but name, described in spit-shined spiel as "The Largest Consumer-Oriented Research and Development Company in the Universe." If that wasn't clear enough, a nearby mural made X-S the literal center of the universe and its supported planets no more identifiable than the services rendered. These included ambiguously ominous industries like Techno Surveillance, Genetic Engineering, Planetary Restructuring, and Hyper Transport. Once Earth was discovered by a "market-research probe," X-S Chairman L.C. Clench couldn't help himself, but not because of something so crude as money. In his words, "I believe we have an obligation to help less fortunate planets upgrade their technologies; profit is merely a byproduct."
Due to disastrously underwhelming byproducts from Disney's ill-advised expansion into Europe, no aliens were ever beamed as intended to Disneyland. Instead, the first, last, and only teleportation machine would land in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, sealing the attraction's fate before construction even began. The California park had Star Tours, and the Indiana Jones Adventure, unapologetic thrill rides based on outsider IPs that came with rough edges right on the tin. By contrast, the Florida park had no attractions that broke the company line and nothing meaner than Space Mountain. Factor in the market demographics—Disneyland is primarily visited by locals and often, while Walt Disney World is visited mainly by tourists and only when they can afford it—and it was a lot easier to ruin a vacation in the Magic Kingdom.
When Alien Encounter soft-opened in December of 1994, guests were screaming too loud to hear the plot. The pre-show tried to warn them. TOM 2000, a glorified Home Shopping Network droid voiced by the late Phil Hartman, attempts to show the wonders of in-room teleportation. It goes so badly that he discovers morality, wondering in existential agony, "What have I done?" before accidentally shorting himself to death. Unfortunately, the intended message of technological incompetence, underlined by a cute and cuddly test subject getting roasted alive, was played for laughs. It worked in a RoboCop sense—a comedy by way of accidental, horrific violence in the name of free enterprise—but not well enough for Eisner. He closed the attraction within a month and gave the Imagineers a single directive: make it scarier.
After six months and $15 million worth of adjustments, The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter reopened to guests on June 20th, 1995. This version came with a few extra signs out front warning any parents who might've missed the capital letters on the marquee of its intensity. The revised pre-show swapped Phil Hartman with the significantly less silly Tim Curry. The cruelty was now the point. The same demonstration ended with the still-burned subject getting abandoned indefinitely in molecular limbo.
Whether or not unwary tourists got the picture, and hindsight proves the majority still did not, the main event was mostly unchanged. Instead of just hearing a hapless technician die and feeling his warm arterial spray, guests now watched him go head-first into the alien's mouth on monitors around the chamber. Extra screams were piped into goose the real deal. In the middle of the room, the monster, an animatronic cross between a dragonfly and a king crab, still escaped its teleportation tube and menaced captive onlookers through the magic of binaural sound. But now, due to concerted efforts at simplifying the drowned-out storyline, it exploded at the end of every show.
The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter scared children for eight years, a drop in the bucket for any Magic Kingdom attraction. The IP-forward replacement, Stitch's Great Escape, so universally loathed that guest surveys ranked the entire park more favorably when it was closed, lasted just over 14 years. But the sadistic lore of X-S Tech and its unnerving proximity to something like Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin, the Day-Glo descendent of "Nostromo," ensured Alien Encounter's immortality as an internet legend. Scarcely seen "prototype" version with a more disturbing story? Check. Aimed at the impressionable, unprepared adolescents who were still side-eying The Haunted Mansion? Check. Dark enough to nix any decent video recordings and exaggerate even the slightest terror? Double-check. Alien Encounter has more fans now than it did when it was open. It's the rare attraction that occasionally breaks the Disney blogosphere for belated headlines on the company's "scariest ride ever built."
It's the purest expression of corporate theme park horror ever constructed, the only full-bore attempt at "capital-H" Horror on Walt Disney World property. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror comes close, but it's still a Six Flags-standard drop tower deep down. In Alien Encounter, there was no visceral thrill beyond the threat of imminent, wet death. The style didn't always push guests to that limit, and it wasn't the exclusive domain of Disney Imagineers. Even Cedar Point, Ohio's proudest amusement park, got in on the ground floor with Disaster Transport, a low-budget Star Tours knock-off that opened in 1990. The original plot involved both a shoddy interstellar airline and a shoddy interstellar freight company. As is the curse of all regional amusement parks that try to play the Disney game, maintenance costs nixed most of the theming within a few years. For the rest of its operational life, Disaster Transport became an ambiguous "Something-Goes-Wrong" ride in a completely blackened show building.
Universal, the only competition that could play Disney's game and win once in a while, had better luck with it. The case could be made they'd been cornering the negligence-as-excitement market since the 1968 addition of a flash flood to their famous Hollywood tram tour. The opening day roster of Universal Studios Florida attractions skirted this setup, however, opting for death-defying escapes from non-corporate threats or pre-shows that emphasized the peril to come was all make-believe.
In 1993, two years ahead of Alien Encounter, Universal overhauled two attractions to better fit the mold. The Ghostbusters Spooktacular, formerly a bizarre mix of behind-the-scenes trivia interrupted by the movie itself becoming real, received a brand-new story in line with the fiction. "Come to the Ghostbusters Franchise Seminar!" screamed a new sign on the soundstage, punctuated with buzzy phrases like "Act Now!" and "Be Your Own Boss!" Enterprising guests were now prey to an unglorified sales presentation from client-turned-lawyer-turned-pitchman Louis Tully. Franchises started at just $29,999.99, American Express and Optima accepted. The fine print specified any and all damages were the franchisee's problem.
Though the Ghostbusters "brand" has always toed the line of endorsing corporate negligence in the name of unchecked capitalism, the original movie and this iteration of the attraction both explicitly frame government oversight of nuclear energy usage as the villain. The punchline softens that blow by placing the blame on ropey technology. Louis almost blasts a hole in row three. The EPA shuts down the containment unit, endangering everyone in the presumably county-wide blast radius. The resulting ghosts were plenty scary and still imposing today in terms of sheer animatronic scale, but The Ghostbusters Spooktacular didn't go any darker than the movies. The day is saved, wise is cracked, and the Ghostbusters theme song follows everyone out to the gift shop.
The other overhaul wasn't just a story of industrial butterfingers, but a product of it as well. Jaws: The Ride "1.0" didn't even last three months before Universal shut it down and sued the designer, Ride & Show Engineering, Inc. It was so unreliable, Steven Spielberg himself got stranded in the lagoon on opening day. One of the robotic sharks played its part too well and regularly popped the pontoons on passing boats. The original finale, borrowed from the original film, involved an explosive blood geyser that regularly stained the otherwise blue water brown.
Three years and four different design firms later, Jaws: The Ride "2.0" welcomed its first visitors in early 1993. The new-and-improved version was framed as a true-story sequel to the glossy blockbuster dramatization. The real Amity wanted nothing more than to move on and make summer money again, dabbling in only the most tasteful exploitation of the tragic shark incident(s). Captain Jake's Amity Boat Tours is just another way to bring vacationers back to the island and, according to the Captain himself, "It's almost completely safe." Insurance waivers are required. Seats are not available on all boats. Ask nicely, and you might get a picture with Chompy, The Great White Shark. Only the queue video from WJWS—The Station That Bites—provided this new context, mirroring the first two films' bureaucratic malaise in the name of cold, hard cash. The ride experience, give or take two of the trickier effects scenes, remained largely the same. Universal's closest cousin to Alien Encounter, however, had corporate horror in its chrome-plated bones.
Like The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, T2-3D: Battle Across Time pulled from a franchise James Cameron sequelized and hinged on one of the most infamous megacorporations in popular fiction. If Weyland-Yutani is the gold medal, Cyberdyne Systems dukes it out with Omni Consumer Products for the remaining places on the pedestal. Both are overshadowed by their greatest creations and abominations. OCP has RoboCop, while Cyberdyne has Skynet.
T2-3D takes place in an uneasy intersection of past, present, and future. The global annihilation as predicted and prevented in the first two Terminator movies hasn't happened, but John and Sarah Connor are remembered as domestic terrorists for their heroic efforts. In the attraction's early days, a closed-circuit TV loop like the WJWS broadcast filled in the narrative gaps since Terminator 2: Judgment Day for patiently waiting guests. CDYN—The Cyberdyne Interactive Network—brought back familiar faces like the long-suffering Dr. Silberman to make variations on the same sick joke, "We're back, bigger, and better than ever!"
Though the CDYN video was turned off in later years, that last line showed up in ominous voice-over in the pre-show proper, so nobody missed the point. But in all the ways Alien Encounter proved scarier without a branded warning, T2-3D weaponized franchise familiarity. The pre-show auditorium was dedicated in loving memory to Miles Bennett Dyson, the cybernetic expert who sacrificed himself and all his research to stop Skynet in the second film. From Cyberdyne's perspective, his mugshot belongs right next to John and Sarah's. But he was a company man, even if he literally tried to blow the company to smithereens, so he still got a little plaque on the wall, his name over the door, that unwary passerby took as genuine tribute if they noticed at all. It's a small detail, but fundamental—Cyberdyne was already altering history in its own image.
In the films, at least the two released by the time T2-3D opened in 1996, Cyberdyne isn't coded as evil so much as ambitiously ignorant. Progress for the sake of progress, side effects be damned. The pre-show presentation did such a swell job illustrating that "Know-Not-What-We-Do" spirit that it only got scarier with age. Entertainment that watches you watch it to better understand your preferences and lifestyle. Teachers handling dozens of classes at once by remote video. Satellite tracking systems so powerful they can read any given license plate to the souvenir Walt Disney World frame. Before a 2015 update ensured the showcased technologies were all futuristic again, captive guests giggled at the called shots that seemed so unthinkable and became so mundane. Thank goodness Cyberdyne didn't build Facebook or siphon user data off the back-end of Zoom or buddy up to the military-industrial complex because then we'd all be in real trouble. Thank goodness Skynet, to be unleashed at the end of a continually sliding decade, is just sci-fi nonsense.
T2-3D soon turns into the ground-breaking action extravaganza that the brand and Arnold Schwarzenegger's face all but guarantee. The first scene, however, deserves credit for coming the closest to its RoboCop forebear. When guests are safely seated in the Dyson Auditorium, with "safety visors" on and video cameras off, the demonstration begins with six Cyberdyne Series 70 Autonomous Infantry Units rising up fog-shrouded elevators like the latest Ford models. The 8-foot-tall "T-70s" watch the crowd, scan them with red LED eyes, and sweep 10-round-a-second Gatling guns across their souvenir hats. In a deafening moment, even by Universal standards, the prototype Terminators open fire on paper targets overhead, raining bullet-sized confetti on the startled masses. Unlike the RoboCop gold standard, this presentation goes as planned. Had one of the T-70s mistakenly targeted some poor bastard making his way to the men's room, there would've been no difference at all. At least Cyberdyne might've named a broom closet after him.
T2-3D was the last great example of corporate horror in theme parks. It can be traced in echoes through attractions that followed soon after. The original Test Track hinged on General Motors personally recruiting theme park guests as crash test dummies. Dinosaur involves the forcible enlisting of museum visitors to survive the late Cretaceous period in the name of ill-defined science. If it survives at all, the style lives on in faded shades of the more generalized entertainment design standby, "Something-Goes-Wrong." By the new millennium, only six years after Alien Encounter, corporate horror was out of fashion, just like the power suits that brought it in.
The reason corporate horror captured park-goers' imaginations and tickled their goosebumps is the same reason it came and went so fast. The subliminal, short-hair tension of something like Alien Encounter stemmed from being physically restrained by a fake amoral megacorporation for a possibly dangerous scheme while also being physically restrained by a real amoral megacorporation for a possibly dangerous scheme. The line between fiction and fact has never been and never will be that blurry again in major American theme parks. Michael Eisner and Frank Wells might've pulled Disney from the brink, but as the "Greed-Is-Good" '80s wore on and the Disney Decade started collapsing before its halfway mark, public perception turned. Eisner pushed himself as the next Walt, not quite as an entertainment visionary, but a warm-and-fuzzy household fixture on various incarnations of The Wonderful World of Disney.
Disney-MGM Studios guests could watch him pal around personally with no less than Mickey Mouse, each wearing a wristwatch with the other's likeness. Having a living, breathing, mugging face came in handy during the company's contentious transition from family-owned-and-operated to one of the biggest media conglomerates in recorded history. But when the checks started to bounce with Euro Disneyland, DisneyQuest expansion, and California Adventure, as well as Frank Wells' tragic passing in a helicopter accident, Eisner's self-appointed title of "Superstar Executive" lost its luster.
RoboCop's bleeding-edge satire clocked the rise of corporate cynicism a decade early. It got harder to keep boardroom warfare like MCA's continued allegations of intellectual theft out of the press. The average Magic Kingdom guest already knew too much. An attraction hosted by a CEO with teeth too white for any human being, who betrays unsuspecting tourists in the name of careless capitalism, only looked worse with every incensed mom or dad yelling at the park's Guest Services department for what Disney did to their unsuspecting son or daughter.
As it did since opening day, IP saved Universal. T2-3D guests knew exactly what they were getting into with the show. Jaws: The Ride guests knew exactly what they were getting into on the boat. When Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, guests boarding its transplant of Universal Studios Hollywood's Jurassic Park: The Ride knew exactly what they were getting into with the wet seats. But times were already changing. The Jurassic Park franchise is up there with the rest in terms of clumsy corporations, but the island only falls due to targeted sabotage in the first movie. The Universal attractions were both built as alternative sequels, in which John Hammond managed to parlay the original disaster into smaller satellite parks in California and Florida. The Hollywood version, which opened only a few months after T2-3D, is a standalone "Something-Goes-Wrong" attraction. It's part of an entire themed land in Florida and the only "Something-Goes-Wrong" attraction of the bunch. Even the fictional conglomerates were going soft.
Jurassic Park and Islands of Adventure signaled a broader theme park design trend, even if it took another decade and another billion-dollar IP to stick. Branded immersion was in. One-off attractions didn't cut it like they used to. Eisner stepped down as Disney CEO in 2005, less than a year after Alien Encounter's Stitch-branded replacement opened. Except for Expedition Everest, Soarin', and some extensive refurbishments, no brand-new IP-free attraction has been built on Walt Disney World property since. The hunt for white-hot product never slowed down, but the hunters prefer to keep it out of the trades now. The companies are no longer who owns them, but what they own, hiding in plain sight behind action figures and interactive wands and cinematic universes. Reminding guests they're in the hands of the biggest media megacorporations ever conglomerated doesn't just take some of the fun out of that Mickey Mouse photo-op—it's plain bad for business.
Not that Disney completely disavowed its pet megacorporation, X-S Tech. It's still too popular, by infamy or otherwise, for that. The company letterhead most recently resurfaced in the queue for Guardians of the Galaxy - Mission: BREAKOUT at California Adventure, which like Stitch's Great Escape, is a licensed redressing of an existing attraction's infrastructure. X-S Tech lives on the only way it can, merged into the margins of a mega-hit superhero franchise.
The smallest, most straightforward example of how the times have changed lies in the video loop before The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter's pre-show. The accompanying 1994 remodel of Tomorrowland brought a unified theme as a bonafide city of the future. Naturally, X-S Tech would hold its demonstration in the Tomorrowland Interplanetary Convention Center. Overhead monitors regularly announced upcoming events held elsewhere on the premises. Most were just silly sci-fi jokes or references to Tomorrowland attractions past. However, one announcement still stands out: "The Walt Disney Company's Pan Galactic Stockholders Meeting" would be streaming live from "The Happiest Place Off Earth." In 1994, it played like a flip joke by a company with stars in its eyes. Now, it almost feels like a threat.