I met Walt Disney. It was the fall of 1955, when I was 7 and beginning third grade. The brand new Walt Disney School of Levittown, Pennsylvania, which had been in construction across the street from my house for the previous year or two, had just been opened for our education, and the great man himself came to the dedication.
He pinched one of my classmates on the cheek, hit another on the head (playfully) with a book (slender). With his mustache, I thought he was the handsomest man in the world.
He certainly was one of the most culturally influential. There can’t be many of my generation who didn’t hurry to the TV set each week as Disney’s show came on the air, to watch Tinker Bell exude fairy-dust and advertise Peter Pan Peanut Butter while the voice of Jiminy Cricket assured us that “When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are / Anything your heart desires / Will come to you.” Baby boomers that we were, most of us probably more or less believed it.
When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the US in 1959, he wanted to see California’s Disneyland–not yet upstaged by Florida’s Disney World–but was barred for security reasons and proceeded to throw a tantrum over it. (“But just now I was told that I could not go to Disneyland. … Then what must I do? Commit suicide? … I cannot find words to explain this to my people.”)
For Khrushchev–for my boomer generation–for hundreds of millions of people all over the world–the Disney name has been shorthand for American popular culture at its most grassroots. So when, in 1995, the company that inherited that name produced a TV special endorsing UFO reality, it’s possible to see this as the high-water mark of the UFOs’ penetration of our culture, the closest they’ve come to moving into the mainstream.
Or was it? The hour-long show (counting commercials), its full name “Alien Encounters From New Tomorrowland,” deserves a closer look.
Easy enough to find it on Youtube. At over 200,000 views on one site since February 2013, it’s very possible that more people have seen it in the past few years than ever saw it when it was first released. Reliable details about it are a good deal harder to find. The websites that speak of it usually don’t make their sources clear, and it’s possible they may be copying misinformation from one another.
The program was never shown nationally. An article from the Orlando Sentinel of May 3, 1995–reproduced among the useful compendium of sources at http://ufologie.patrickgross.org/htm/disneyce.htm–claims that it was “broadcast locally on WOFL-Channel 35 in Lake Mary [just north of Orlando] on March 18″ but “attracted little attention from the public, perhaps because it ran at midnight.” Other websites speak of local showings in five US cities, on different dates in February and March 1995.
Afterward it was supposedly “pulled,” whatever that means.
Written and directed by one Andy Thomas, narrated by actor Robert Urich, it’s a truly awful program, stinking of dishonesty and manipulation. No mystery about these UFOs. On the contrary, we know exactly what they are: extraterrestrial spaceships, arrived in response to the nuclear explosions at the end of World War II, with unclear but probably ominous intentions.
“This is an actual spacecraft from another world, piloted by alien intelligence.” That’s how the narration begins, as accompaniment to a video that purports to show a UFO in flight. For the next hour there isn’t the smallest hint that any informed person might think differently. Of the UFO “experts” interviewed, some are genuinely expert (like Kevin Randle) some controversial to say the least (like Clifford Stone). No UFO skeptic puts in an appearance, or is even mentioned.
“Just as we explore the genetic package of alien life,” the viewer is told about two-thirds of the way through, “visitors from space are routinely examining human specimens, abducting men, women, and children in order to conduct disturbing biological experiments.” The late Budd Hopkins is on hand to back up this “fact,” along with a sampling of unnamed abductees.
If there’s any doubt in your mind that this presentation has the imprimatur of the Disney Company, CEO Michael Eisner is promptly on hand to dispel it. He appears (as ufologie.patrickgross.org describes it) “standing in front of what looks like a military hangar, guarded by about a dozen heavily armed troops.” He says:
“Tonight we celebrate the New Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World in Florida with a television special that’s out of this world. Hello, I’m Michael Eisner, head of the Walt Disney Company. At a top secret military installation somewhere in the United States, there are those who believe that the government is hiding the remains of an alien spacecraft that mysteriously crashed to earth. With more and more scientific evidence of alien encounters and UFO sightings, the idea of creatures from another planet might not be as far-fetched as we once thought. In fact, one of you out there could have the next alien encounter. Enjoy tonight’s special. I’m going to walk over and see if I can sneak a peek.”
He turns to do that, and the soldiers raise their weapons. Whereupon Eisner gives the audience a cute grin, and says: “Maybe not.”
In its language, not exactly a ringing endorsement: “there are those who believe”; “not as far-fetched as we once thought.” But the action of this brief scene follows and reinforces the script according to which UFO truth is suppressed by a grim conspiracy in which the US military plays a central role.
Even in the Disney-adoring days of my childhood, I couldn’t escape noticing the uncomfortable fact that the Disney TV shows tended to function as extended advertisements for something else, usually Disney movies or Disneyland attractions, that you had to pay to go see. As its title suggests, “Alien Encounters From New Tomorrowland” climaxes with a plug for a Tomorrowland attraction at Disney World, a “ride” called “ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.”
“When we return,” viewers are told right before the commercial–right after they’ve heard from Budd Hopkins and the UFO abductees–“Robert Urich takes you to the New Tomorrowland in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, where Disney imagineers are creating ExtraTERRORestrial excitement, preparing the public for cosmic contact with a virtual alien encounter.” Sure enough, we’re told a few minutes later that “most Americans will likely explore outer space aboard crafts of alien origin,” and Urich goes on to explain:
“Statistics indicate a greater probability that you’ll experience extraterrestrial contact in the next five years than the chances that you will win a state lottery. But how do you prepare for such an extraordinary event?”
Answer: go visit the New Tomorrowland, where “scientists and Disney engineers have brought to life a possible scenario that helps acclimate the public to their inevitable alien encounter.”
If this alien encounter is “inevitable,” God help us all.
“It was TERRIFYING! … I cried through the whole thing!” “I begged and whined not to do it, but my parents forced me. … It was absolutely horrible.” “I thought it was the end and I would never get out. This is where I had my first ENCOUNTER with a panic attack.” “OMG that shit scared me to death! I remember I cried non-stop for like 4 hours!” “I HAD NIGHTMARES FOR MONTHS.” “I THOUGHT I DREAMT ABOUT GOING ON THE EXTRATERRORESTRIAL RIDE BUT IT WAS REAL AND IT WAS TERRIFYING I’M HAVING FLASHBACKS OH MY GOD.”
So much for “acclimation.”
“ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” in fact had nothing to do with UFOs or abductions, but was a hyper-intense haunted-house experience, heavily influenced by the 1979 horror movie Alien. According to Wikipedia, it opened on December 16, 1994, but was closed on January 12 because Eisner didn’t think it was scary enough. It re-opened on June 20–obviously amped up considerably–and was finally closed on October 12, 2003, presumably because it was too frightening.
“Cosmic representatives,” says Urich as the folks take their seats, “will demonstrate the secrets of a brave new world. … These happy humans are about to discover a disturbing truth: when science fiction becomes science fact, the results could be terrifying.” The “happy humans” are shown screaming in what looks like raw terror; and cut to the “Alien Encounters” logo while a voice intones: “‘Alien Encounter: opens at Walt Disney World summer 1995.”
“Disturbing” is Urich’s favorite adjective–or rather, the favorite adjective of the script that he mouths. Its nearest rival is “chilling.” In line with the horrific character of the “attraction” it touts, “Alien Encounters” pulls hard for the interpretation of UFOs as looming menace, generating dread in all whom they approach. (Budd Hopkins, speaking of children’s reactions to cards that he shows them with a picture of a UFO alien: “It can be extremely moving, because I’ve seen children just collapse when they see the drawing of the alien, crying, hugging their fathers or their mothers in terror.” That’s “moving”?)
Just as we’re given no hint of the existence of UFO skeptics, we’re not allowed to know that there are (or were, in 1995) abduction researchers like the Harvard psychiatrist and Pulitzer-prize-winning author John Mack, for whom alien abductions were a benign phenomenon, heralding a spiritual leap forward for humankind.
That this vile piece of trash was “pulled,” and never given the nationwide exposure that Eisner et al. had presumably intended for it, was surely due to its having harped too much on the “disturbing”/”chilling”/”terrifying” theme. Most of all, it never should have shown those people howling in terror at the “ride” to which it was supposed to lure customers. Still, the fact that Disney executives were willing for a few months in 1995 to consider that hopping aboard the UFO bandwagon might be good for their balance sheets, is a cultural datum of no small importance.
In which connection, we need to consider another bit of information. Namely, that from January 23 to February 17, 1995–that is to say, almost at the beginning of the five-month hiatus in the operation of “ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter”–the Walt Disney Company hosted a conference for UFO researchers and experiencers, involving an all-expense-paid week at Disney World for the participants. Why did they do this?
I’ll come back to this question in two weeks, in the second part of this post.
by David Halperin
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