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The ExtraTERRORestrial Files -- Part 2

Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

The ExtraTERRORestrial Files -- Part 2

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1984 was a dark time for the Disney empire.

Teens reportedly felt that all the rides and shows found at the Mouse's theme parks were lame, preferring the edgier entertainment to be found at Universal Studios and Six Flags Magic Mountain. That's why newly arrived CEO Michael Eisner ordered the Imagineers to come with concepts for attractions that would quickly broaden Disney's appeal to the younger generation.

Buoyed by the success of "Star Tours," WDI decided to design a ride around another highly successful 20th Century Fox science fiction film series. This time around, however, the Imagineers hoped to build an interactive attraction that featured the vicious, acid-drooling monsters from the "Alien" movies.

Naturally, several senior members of Imagineering management freaked out when they learned about this proposed Tomorrowland attraction. Arguing that an attraction this scary and intense really didn't belong in a Disney theme park, they successfully got the project shut down. Or so they thought.

Little did these older Imagineers realize that several young turks at WDI were secretly scheming to bring the "Alien" based show idea back from the dead. In fact, the version of the show that these guys wanted to go forward with made the first incarnation of the "Alien" attraction look tame by comparison ...

The Imagineers had decided to go for broke.

This being WDI's first real attempt at a horror-based attraction, the "Alien Encounter" project team didn't want to just frighten their audience. They wanted to break through the fourth wall and really assault the guest's senses. That's why they decided to push the envelope when it came to the proposed show's use of in-theater effects.

Picture this: The audience sit in the darkened "Mission to Mars" theater. They've told that the monster from the "Alien" movies is loose in the building. They can hear the creature creeping up behind them. They can feel its drool dribbling onto their clothes. And as the monster's tongue begins flicking through the hair on the back on their head ... AIEEE!

All these atmospheric elements that WDI wanted to use to make "Alien Encounter" a sensory break-through show may sound cutting edge and expensive. In truth, they were all low-tech effects that were incredibly easy to do. The sensation that the monster is right behind the audience member, breathing down their neck? Simple. That's just warm, moist air being blown through a hole in the guest's headrest -- synchronized to raspy breathing sounds on the show's soundtrack. That dribble of monster drool? That's less that a teaspoon of warm water -- dripped from a precisely positioned pipe, hidden high in the ceiling of the theater. The monster's tongue, flicking through the guest's hair? That's a single strand of plastic coated wire, that quickly pokes out of the headrest and lightly brushes the guest's hair. All ingenious illusions, it's true. But -- more to the point -- they were in-theater effects that could be produced on a bargain basement budget.

Keeping the installation costs down of their proposed new Tomorrowland show was one of the "Alien Encounter" team's main goals. With the hopes of impressing Eisner with their ingenuity, these Imagineers deliberately designed "Alien Encounter" so that it could be staged in the pre-existing "Mission to Mars" theaters with minimal structural changes to the show building. If all went according to plan, Disney could get a brand new cutting edge attraction at cut-rate prices. Best of all, WDI would finally give Eisner what he'd been begging for all these years: a Disney theme park attraction that had some real teen appeal.

On paper, it looked like this idea couldn't miss. By combining all these in-theater effects and the "Alien" movie series mythology, Imagineering wouldn't just be creating a thrilling new show for the "Mission to Mars" theater. They would be moving the Disney theme park experience to a whole new level. This time around, guests wouldn't just passively sit, watching a show. They'd feel like they were right in the middle of the action.

When Eisner heard the pitch for "Alien Encounter," he loved the idea. He immediately saw the show as a franchise, an attraction that the Disney Company could install at each of its theme parks worldwide. He quickly okayed development of the project, with the hope that "Alien Encounter" would be ready in time to serve as the centerpiece of Disneyland and WDW's long overdue Tomorrowland overhauls which were tentatively scheduled to get underway in the early 1990s.

The young Imagineers immediately threw themselves into their work. They quickly created a prototype chair for the "Alien Encounter" attraction that featured hidden speakers in its headrest. VIPs touring WDI during this period were often treated to a demonstration of Disney's 3D sound system. They vividly recall being strapped into the chair -- with the "Alien Encounter" test soundtrack playing through the speakers -- squirming helplessly as a monster snuck up behind them.

The demo version of "Alien Encounter" proved to be a hit with WDI visitors. Even so, those same senior Imagineers who had earlier shut down the "Nostromo" project began whispering in Eisner's ear about their concerns for the new "Alien" project. They still worried that a show built around a creature as frightening as 20th Century Fox's "Alien" monster didn't belong in a Disney theme park.

In response, the "Alien Encounter" team insisted that their proposed attraction had to be built around 20th Century Fox's monster. Their argument was simple: by using a character that most theme park visitors were already familiar with, the Imagineers didn't have to waste precious showtime on needless exposition. In-park surveys showed that the average Disneyland guest already knew who the "Alien" monster was. Upwards of 80% of those polled had seen one or more of the films in the series.

This -- the Imagineers argued -- was the added bonus of using the monster from the "Alien" film series for their proposed attraction. Guests who'd seen the "Alien" movies and liked them would rush to see an attraction based on the series. Those Disney theme park visitors who hadn't cared for the movies would just steer clear of the new show. It was a win-win situation.

Having listened to both arguments, Eisner sided with the "Alien Encounter" team. Recalling the boffo business Disneyland did when "Star Tours" opened, he reasoned that another attraction based on a popular sci-fi film series could have a similar impact on attendance. Besides, having a direct tie-in to 20th Century Fox's movies would make "Alien Encounter" that much easier to promote. It seemed like the logical choice to Eisner.

This news appalled the senior Imagineering staff. They were horrified at the thought of the "Alien" movie monster starring in a Disney theme park attraction. Since Eisner hadn't heeded their counsel, these Imagineers decided to appeal to a higher authority: George Lucas.

At the time, Lucas was working closely with Walt Disney Imagineering. He was helping WDI finalize plans for the "Indiana Jones Adventure," a ground-breaking new attraction that the Imagineers hoped to install at Disneyland's Adventureland in the mid-1990s. Given Lucas's extensive experience with special effects and sound effects, he and his staff at ILM were also doing some consulting on the "Alien Encounter" project.

Who actually spoke with George and what was said ... no one today is willing to say. Why for? Well, relations between Lucasfilm and Disney are at an all-time low right now (that's why "Star Tours" still hasn't gotten its new ride film -- the one inspired by the pod race sequence from "Phantom Menace" -- yet) and no one at WDI wants to be the guy that says something that makes George even madder.

What is known is that these senior Imagineers discreetly approached Lucas and voiced their concerns about "Alien Encounter" being too intense for small children. George allegedly listened politely, then agreed that 20th Century Fox's movie monster probably didn't belong in a Disney theme park. Lucas promised to talk to Eisner about the proposed attraction, and then ...

A few days later, Eisner called a meeting with the "Alien Encounter" production team. He announced that he'd had a change of heart and no longer believed the show should be built around 20th Century Fox's movie monster. Eisner went on to say that he felt that the "Alien" monster was just too scary to serve as the central character of a Disney theme park attraction. He then said -- while he appreciated all the hard work the Imagineers had put into the Fox monster version of the show -- he was certain that WDI could come up with a monster of its own that would be just as good. One not quite as frightening as the first monster was, mind you, but something that would still work within the confines of the show.

Oh ... and one other thing Eisner mentioned: George Lucas would now be acting as an unofficial producer on the "Alien Encounter" project.

While the senior Imagineers were secretly thrilled with this news, the "Alien Encounter" team was aghast. Rework the show so that it no longer featured the movie monster? Was that possible? Would "Alien Encounter" still work under these conditions? And why was Lucas suddenly riding herd on the project?

It was at this precise moment that many folks at WDI believe that "Alien Encounter" went off track. By not making use of 20th Century Fox's well known monster, the show suddenly lost its hook. Without having the easily recognizable "Alien" creature driving the action of the show, the attraction's storyline became harder for the average theme park guest to follow. The Imagineers would now have to make sure that the audience understood exactly what their new monster was capable of doing before they turned off the lights. Otherwise, the guests would just sit there in the dark, having no idea what was going on around them.

Since the initial concept for the "Alien Encounter" show had now been creatively compromised, many at WDI felt that Imagineering should have pulled the plug on the project. But Eisner was still so enthusiastic about the idea of Disney doing a "monster-in-the-dark" show. He seemed downright eager to give the Imagineers all the money they needed to develop all those special in-theater effects. And WDI did want to keep the boss happy.

So the Imagineers reluctantly began to revamp "Alien Encounter." But -- before they started on a new version for the show -- one of the first things they did was called Disney's publicity department. The Imagineers then asked the PR people to return all "Alien Encounter" pre-production art they had been given to help promote the proposed attraction. The reason the Imagineers did this? All that artwork was from the original version of "Alien Encounter," which prominently featured 20th Century Fox's movie monster.

Disney's PR department ignored WDI's request. In fact, they continued to use that "Alien Encounter" pre-production artwork -- which clearly showed 20th Century Fox's monster bursting out of the tube at the center of the proposed attraction -- to promote the show for the next two years.

The Imagineers then turned their attention to producing a new script for "Alien Encounter." For months, they labored -- trying to come up a new plot line that audiences could grasp quickly. Finally, they settled on the 'XS Tech' scenario -- where a sinister alien corporation tries to sell teleportation equipment to the people of Earth ... when something goes horribly wrong! Admittedly, this version wasn't nearly as much fun as the original 20th Century Fox's "Alien" based story. But the Imagineers hoped that the show's innovative use of in-theater effects would still put "Alien Encounter" across to the Disney theme park audience.

Eisner -- who reportedly really enjoyed the jabs at greedy corporations the Imagineers slipped into this version of the script -- okayed the 'XS Tech' scenario. Lucas also gave his approval of the new storyline. So WDI threw together a production team and gave the project a preliminary budget. With that, work on 'Alien Encounter' officially got underway in the fall of 1992.

Given the multi-media aspect of the show, lots of individual pieces had to be put together before Imagineering knew if "Alien Encounter" was actually going to work. Academy Award nominee Jeffery Jones, comic Kevin Pollak and TV favorite Kathy Najimy were hired to play XS Tech employees for the film vignettes to be featured in the attraction. Elaborate foley sessions were staged to record the numerous 3D sound effects used in the show. AA figures for the pre-show, as well as the two "Mission to Mars" theaters, were built at WDI's Tujunga facility.

As work continued on "Alien Encounter," Imagineers assigned to the project kept wondering when George Lucas was going to get actively involved with the show. During the development of "Star Tours" and the "Indiana Jones Adventure," Lucas had played a very active part in the creative process on these attractions. But on "Alien Encounter," Lucas offered very little input. After attending a few initial story meetings, he pretty much left the Imagineers working on the show alone. For all intents and purposes, George was the absentee landlord of this attraction, its producer in name only.

Now, it's crucial to understand that -- while "Alien Encounter" was actually in production -- the Imagineering division of the Walt Disney Company was going through one of the worst periods in its corporate history. Euro Disneyland has just opened and was hemorrhaging money. The Westcot and Port Disney projects had stalled. And Disney management was putting tremendous pressure on the division to cut staff and contain costs.

So WDI was hit by wave after wave of layoffs, which left the remaining staff depressed and demoralized. Then Imagineering management -- in a further attempt to keep costs down -- decided to cut back on in-house testing on work-in-progress attractions.

This last bit of news terrified the "Alien Encounter" production team. WDI had never put together a theme park attraction that was as complicated as "AE" was. For this show to succeed, video clips, binaural sound, in-theater physical effects, and audio animatronic figures would all have to work in perfect synchronization. Without that split second blending of multimedia technology, "Alien Encounter" would be a hopelessly jumbled mess.

To avoid this sort of disaster, the Imagineers needed as much time as possible to run tests on the "Alien" attraction at WDI headquarters in Glendale, CA. At least there -- if they ran into problems -- the "Alien Encounter" team would have other talented Imagineers right on hand to help them quickly debug the attraction.

WDI management wouldn't hear of it. They insisted that -- after the physical pieces of "Alien Encounter" were completed -- they were to be immediately shipped out to the field for installation. After the equipment was loaded into the "Mission to Mars" show building, then the "Alien Encounter" team could make all necessary adjustments to make the show succeed.

The "Alien Encounter" team begged for more time, but WDI management turned a deaf ear to their pleading. They couldn't be bothered with the production staff's complaints that their show wasn't getting enough advance in-house testing. The heads of Imagineering were far more concerned with determining which Disney theme park would get the "Alien Encounter" attraction first.

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