When I was a kid and my parents were planning a trip to Disney World for me and my sister, I was looking forward to seeing the ocean again even more than the Magic Kingdom.
We were staying on the Gulf side of Flordia, a little over an hour’s drive to the amusement park. I’d been to Myrtle Beach before and loved it, but never Florida. And I wanted to see the ocean again. The sand, the sunrise over the water, the waves. That was my happiest place on Earth (Sorry, Mickey).
I’ve always felt a strong connection to the water. I’m drawn to how it looks, hypnotized by how it moves. I instantly feel calmer when I hear the sound of rain and waves. I love the smell of water, the feel of it. I even love how water tastes.
When it comes to water in nature, I’m not all that picky. Give me a babbling brook, a small pond full of plants, a shining lake, a swiftly moving river. It’s all soothing to me.
But I especially love the ocean. I’d love to always have a quiet place to write. A little beach house — with a desk facing a pair of open French doors. I could tap away at my laptop to the sound of the waves and the smell of the sea breeze lighting up my senses.
But for now, I’m firmly planted in the Midwest, so I guess I’ll have to settle for listening to the crashing waves of YouTube and using my box fan to simulate a cool breeze. It’s not quite the same, but it does the trick to help me stay calm and focused.
I imagine one day having my own beach house. But, I don’t think I’d want it to be in Florida. After my childhood trip there, it’s not exactly where I want to settle down.
An Anxious Place
Our day trip to the theme park started out okay. I remember feeling excited. Yes, I loved the ocean, but Disney World was a new adventure, a place I’d never been, and I was definitely ready to see it for the very first time.
Aside from my excitement, I also felt a little nervous. I was 12, and I’d recently been to a therapist for some issues with anxiety and panic attacks. For some reason, amusement parks always brought my panic symptoms to the surface.
Racing heart, sweaty palms, shortness of breath — I could get it all just from listening to the clink of a roller coaster train groaning its way up a hill. I also have this thing about heights…so, a lot of rides are out for me.
On top of that, amusement parks are just so crowded. Yet, you don’t know a soul around you except for the little unit you’re walking the hot cement walkways with. You’re around a dense crowd of strangers all day, but you’re still alone.
For the most part, I’m just not a theme park kind of gal.
But I am a Disney geek. I love the movies and the music. More than anything, I was looking forward to seeing characters like Belle and the Beast, Aladdin and Jasmine, Ariel and Eric. Anything with a female character who could sing the house down was a Disney movie I enjoyed.
And, if I kept my nerve up, I could handle my fair share of rides (as long as they weren’t rollercoasters).
It Wasn’t All Princesses and Fairies
Everything was going well on the drive to Orlando. I remember we left so early that we arrived before the park opened.
Those first steps into the park were the best — seeing the castle made me feel some kind of way, and suddenly, even as a pre-teen who was preoccupied with generalized anxiety disorder, I really got it. I understood why people flocked to this place.
Throughout the day my mom, dad, sister, and I interracted with characters. We watched shows. We ate overpriced foods, browsed gift shops, and rode the rides.
The one ride that stands out the most was called ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. Turns out, my mom and dad didn’t realize how terror-inducing this attraction would actually be for me.
It was more of a “theater-in-the-round” experience than a traditional ride. Located in the Tomorrowland section of the Magic Kingdom, the Alien Encounter was a dark, comical blend of sci-fi show and thrill ride.
There were a few actors playing different roles. The first was the storyteller, explaining the narrative to us on a pre-recorded voiceover while we waited in line inside the building. According to our guide, we were about to see something unlike anything we’ve encountered in this world. Something scientists held captive for study in the “testing chamber” — the room which we were about to enter.
Once we were in the testing chamber, we each took our seats and strapped ourselves in as another Disney cast member frantically checked to see that we were all safe and secure. There was a large glass container in the center of the room — a round column-like structure.
Empty, for the moment.
We sat through a short multi-media show. There was a live animatronic robot, and a film playing out on several different screens.
Within a few minutes, we encountered some technical glitches. The entire room went dark, and the glass column lit up, revealing an inky black alien creature. There was more narration over the speakers— a dialogue between scientists about the creature they’d contained.
“Those people are in a lot of danger!”
The alien started getting a little agitated. It banged on the glass and made some pretty terrifying noises. Its little temper tantrum continued until the glass cracked. Then the room went pitch black.
For a moment, everything was quiet. Then, sirens blared and emergency lights flashed. A thick fog seeped through the broken glass.
Over the speaker system, we heard yelling and, eventually, screaming.
“Get it back in the tube before it eats someone!”
I felt cool water spray across my face — not the calming mist of the ocean, but the alien “spitting” at us. My seat vibrated as the alien’s footsteps got closer and then passed me by, a narrow miss.
Though the entire ordeal, we never once caught a glimpse of the escaped alien. But the evidence that we were under attack was as clear as day. We could hear it, feel it, sense it.
Walt Disney World’s Scariest Attraction
The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was a darkly humorous experience that used binaural sound to achieve many of its effects. It was a team effort between Walt Disney Imagineering and Lucasfilm, which was not yet a part of the Walt Disney Company.
The ride closed down in 2003. Apparently, it was far too frightening for children. Park officials placed a warning sign outside the ride to let parents know that it was appropriate for ages 12 and up. But parents still took their little kids in. And then parents constantly complained that their children had been traumatized.
I was one such child.
Would I love sitting through this thrilling experience today? You betcha! Did I love it back then? Not one bit. That ride scared the ever-loving shit out of me. Even though, looking back on it now, I think it’s so freaking cool.