There’s a timelessness to Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial—which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year—that can’t be denied. It encompasses movie magic on a level that transcends the screen through its music and its story of a friendship between a boy and an alien that defies the odds. It’s set to return to the screens later this summer on IMAXbut there’s one place it’s never left.
Horse Universal Studios Orlandothe only opening day attraction is still operating ET Adventure. The ride, which opened in the summer of 1990, was originally the first of three, with Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Japan also featuring the dark ride. “ET Adventure is near and dear to Steven’s heart,” shared Jason Surrellexecutive creative director at Universal Creative, known for working on the Jurassic Park attractions at Islands of Adventure and Halloween Horror Nights. Surrell discussed with io9 how closely the legendary director worked with Universal to bring ET Adventure to life with the theme park. “ET Adventure was created in full collaboration with Steven Spielberg, who also serves as an overall creative consultant for Universal Parks and Resorts. He reviews almost everything we create for Universal parks around the globe, and gets even more intimately involved with projects based on his films.”
As an LA kid, my first visit to Universal Studios Hollywood was to ride ET Adventure after my parents introduced me to the movie. They’d seen it in the ’80s in theaters so when it was released on VHS, I watched it at home with them and promptly asked for a bike, imagining myself taking off and flying across the moon. Naturally a trip to Universal was in order and I still remember most of the details, like the forest queue and its smell, being a little afraid before hopping onto the bikes to experience the familiar movie scene, and my surprise that the experience included a trip to ET’s home world, the Green Planet.
The space adventure of the latter half of the ride was inspired by the art and additional alien characters in William Kotzwinkle’s sequel novelization, ET The Book of the Green Planet—something that, as Surrell pointed out, helped make the attraction extra special. “The fact that the story continued beyond the movie and took us to the Green Planet, [it took] everything we loved about the film and combined it with new locations and characters to create a continuation of the story, which had never been done before in a theme park attraction.” On the whimsical Green Planet, you meet new aliens like Botanicus, Orbidon, and Magdol, along with so many baby ETs Like so many other fans, ever since that childhood trip, ET Adventure instantly became my favorite ride.
Themed entertainment producer Johanna Atilano, who has worked in business development for live events for the Jim Henson Company and managed the production of attractions at Universal Creative, shared a similar story about growing up on the West Coast. “My dad loved taking my cousins and I to theme parks every year, and somehow my parents allowed me to celebrate my birthdays there as well,” she said. “While I grew up with theme parks and loved everything about them, I was also heavily into filmmaking and Steven Spielberg films. Which is why Universal Studios Hollywood was particularly special to me. Like when I rode a theme park attraction ET Adventure my little mind was blown. I could not believe that my favorite films came to life in front of me. I rode a bicycle with ET!”
Sadly, the Hollywood iteration of the ride closed in 2003 to be replaced by an indoor coaster, Revenge of the Mummy, and Japan’s version ended its run in 2009. For fans like me and Atilano, the love for the ride has transferred over to the original ride in Universal Studios Orlando, which still remains in operation and is long rumored to be under Spielberg’s protection.
“The fact that ET Adventure is still in operation over 32 years after the park opened—largely unchanged—is living proof that the attraction is a timeless classic,” Surrell shared. “It’s a testament to both the enduring legacy of the film on which the attraction is based as well as the fact that the ride is a unique fly-through experience unlike anything else in the world. Where else can you ride a bike that takes flight as ET himself emerges from the basket in front of you to guide you on an intergalactic adventure?”
The kindred excitement shared by anyone who wanted to be friends with ET speaks to how much the ride sticks with you—like its iconic pine scent, a specific detail that seems to be a part of everyone’s memory. It’s immediately nostalgia-evoking. When I visited the ET ride on the East Coast for the first time and the building’s air wafted towards me, I felt like I could smell the moment in time when I first rode the ride as a kid. Every time you ride it, it’s like a homecoming for you when Orbidon says, “Welcome home, you’ve arrived.” Somehow no matter how often you visit, it just transports you.
And Atilano echoed the sentiment. “One of my personal favorite things about ET Adventure is showing the attraction to friends and family who have not experienced it in years and I get to see the nostalgia and happiness glow in their faces. Almost everyone has the same memory—the queue’s forest scent!” (The ever-present ride smell, she shared, has an official name: Pine Forest and Fern.) She understands exactly how it evokes such nostalgia for anyone’s earliest memories of the ride. “I vividly remember being terrified because the flying sensation on the bicycles felt realistic—I thought I was going to fall out! But that doesn’t mean I hated it. I was fascinated. ET was a movie I loved endlessly as a kid… and I finally got to meet that cute little creature… in person. These early memories are a huge part of why I got into the theme park industry. There is something amazing about the books, movies, or stories you love that are suddenly a physical experience. You get so used to watching movies, but theme parks bring you into the movies. The fantastical worlds that I loved became tangible.”
It jumped out for Surrell, too, when he gave us his Universal Studios opening day account of when the Orlando park premiered with the ride. “I was working in the Central Florida theme park industry while in college during that fateful summer of 1990, and visiting Universal Studios Florida during its opening months remains one of my fondest memories,” he remembered. “I’ll never forget stepping into that darkened ride building as I made my way through the moonlit pine forest that you could actually smell, and then flying high above the twinkling lights of the city and across the moon with ET himself on an intergalactic adventure that took me beyond one of my favorite childhood films.” He emphasized “the moment when John Williams’ score swells as your bike takes flight in the moonlit sky” as being the most powerful moment—and indeed, it’s a moment when you feel like you’re a part of the movie in ways you only imaged before.
It’s all there, including the details from the film that help immerse you in its world. “Eagle-eyed fans are sure to spot the homemade communication device that ET used to ‘phone home’ alongside the queue through the piney forest, and that has to be the single biggest Easter egg from the film itself,” Surrell said.
Atilano, who’s also worked with Universal Creative legends, shared with us her favorite fun fact, from former co-worker and friend Greg MacLaurin who was the special effects designer for ET Adventure in Hollywood and Orlando. “There are 33,000-plus individual fibers for the exploding tunnel,” she said of the moment on the ride when the stars burst you to the Green Planet. “With just Greg and a team of five, these individual fibers were hand placed, [drilled] and inserted into the wall and took six months to complete. Today, I am sure the scene would’ve been designed as projection mapping, but we are blessed with a fully practical and glorious fiberoptic effect that still amazes guests today.”
The ride has its own meaningful sense of transformative make-believe that even newer rides can’t replicate. “I keep reminding myself that when ET Adventure opened, it was ahead of its time in 1990,” Atilano said. “The animated figures, suspended ride system, scale, scents. After the pre-show, each guest provides their name to the team member, and is given an Interplanetary Passport. And at the finale, ET says your name!”
ET Adventure is truest to the themes of why the Universal Studios parks are not only an escape into the movies but a source of inspiration for future movie makers and creatives, including Surrell and Atilano. Here you have the legendary Spielberg in the pre-show entrusting you with getting his friend home safely—something masterfully set up by the director, who is as much of an icon as ET; he’s the one who invites you to the set to meet his alien friend who needs to get back home so his healing touch can save his planet, as if ET was a real alien cast in a movie about his own life! What’s more fourth-wall breaking than that? And at the end he remembers your name, if you’re lucky since this feature has a lot of off days. Side note: I have been lucky enough to have been on the ride when it broke down and walked through the Green Planet set with the lights on (video here). It only enhanced the experience to get an unofficial behind the scenes look that didn’t take away from the magic.
To this day, every time you get back in that queue it feels like the first time as soon as you breathe in that nostalgic pine scent. “There is something amazing about the books, movies, or stories you love that are suddenly a physical experience. You get so used to watching movies, but theme parks bring you into the movies. The fantastical worlds that I loved became tangible, and that was something so crazy as a kid,” Atilano said. “Yes, there are extremely complex and interactive theme park attractions today, but let’s not forget that it was 1990! I think it’s extremely important that an attraction like ET Adventure is still in operation.”
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