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The ExtraTERRORestrial Files -- Part 3

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 3

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OUR STORY SO FAR:

It was going to be the next big franchise for the Disney theme parks. A terrifying sit-down show that would dazzle audiences worldwide with its amazing use of 3D sound and in-theater physical effects.

That was the plan, anyway. In reality, Disney's "Alien Encounter" attraction was beset with problems from almost the moment it came off the drawing board. Chief among these was some senior Imagineers' concerns that a scary show built around 20th Century Fox's acid-drooling "Alien" monster really didn't belong in the company's theme parks.

At first, Disney CEO Michael Eisner refused to listen with these WED veterans. He initially sided with the young who'd dreamed up this scary new Tomorrowland attraction. That's when these senior Imagineers decided to plead their case to someone with considerable clout in Tinseltown: the legend behind the mega-hit "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" film series, George Lucas.

These Imagineers talked to George. George talked to Michael. And suddenly 20th Century Fox's movie monster was on the outside of the Magic Kingdom, looking in.

This left the Imagineers who'd cooked up "Alien Encounter" in a real quandary. Without a well-known movie monster to serve as the center of their show, would this proposed Tomorrowland attraction still even work? How much story exposition would WDI have to do to make sure that audiences knew exactly what they were dealing with as they sat -- strapped in -- in the dark?

As it turns out, a lot of exposition. Considerably more than the Imagineers had planned on. But we'll get to that shortly, folks. First, Disney Company management has to decide which of its theme parks gets the honor and the privilege of opening the very first version of "Alien Encounter" ...

 

Almost from the inception of the project, it had been assumed that the "Alien Encounter" show would open at Disneyland first as part of the "Tomorrowland 2055" project.

"Tomorrowland 2055." Sigh. Just mentioning the name of this proposed Disneyland redo is enough to send some Imagineers into a spiraling depression. Championed by veteran Imagineers Bruce Gordon and Tony Baxter, "Tomorrowland 2055" wouldn't have just been a simple retheming of this side of the park. But rather, a elaborate rethinking of the whole Tomorrowland concept.

Picture Disneyland in 2055. A time when a trip into the vast reaches of outer space is no big deal, like strolling 'round the block. An age when we take for granted that there's intelligent life elsewhere in the universal. How do we know for sure? Because quite of a few of these extraterrestrials have made the star trek to Anaheim and have set up shop here right in Tomorrowland.

I mean, take a gander at what used to be the Carousel of Progress. No, that's not a spinning electronics trade show. That, my friend, is a full-sized flying saucer that's vaguely reminiscent of the Mother Ship from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Were you to wander up that gangplank, you could sample the out-of-this-world entertainment presented at "Plectu's Fantastic Intergalactic Review."

Overhead, shiny steel catwalks allow guests access to a whole new level of Tomorrowland shops and restaurants. On the ground, odd crystalline shapes that glowed brightly and weirdly shaped other-worldly plants would have given this side of the park a truly exotic feel.

"Tomorrowland 2055" would have become a real showplace at Disneyland. It could have set a whole new standard for theming and storytelling at the Anaheim park by taking guests on a fantastic trip to the future. But what do we get instead? An economy class ticket to "Imagination and Beyond" aboard Tomorrowland 1998.

Sigh.

Now do you understand why Imagineers get depressed when you bring up "Tomorrowland 2055?"

Don't get me wrong, folks. Baxter and his "Imagination and Beyond" team did do the best they could with the money they had. And they did create a dazzling new entrance to Disneyland's Tomorrowland by bringing Disneyland Paris's Orbitron over to Anaheim, placing it just off the hub and framing it with that rockwork.

But the loss of "Tomorrowland 2055" still pains the Imagineers. Mostly, because this Disneyland redo seemed like a done deal. So much so that Disneyland actually closed its "Mission to Mars" attraction in November 1992 to make ready for the supposedly soon-to-begin radical revamp of this side of the park.

The Imagineers even designed a new art deco exterior for the show building that was to house the Anaheim version of "Alien Encounter." (Those of you lucky enough to see "Theme Park Design: The Architecture of Reassurance" exhibit during its nationwide tour a year or so ago may recall the model for Disneyland's "Alien Encounter" show building. Its chief design feature was the stylized sculptures of oppressed workers that served as support columns for the exterior of the attraction. Insert your own over-worked Disneyland employee joke here.)

Sadly, Disneyland's long planned "Tomorrowland 2055" project hit an unexpected snag in early 1993 when the Euro Disneyland resort began hemorrhaging money. Suddenly concerned about containing cost in all corners of the Disney Company, Eisner reportedly balked at the estimated cost of the elaborate Anaheim redo. Though Michael really liked a lot of the concepts WDI had cooked up, he just couldn't stomach "Tomorrowland 2055"'s projected price tag. At least not then. So he ordered Tony's team to scale back their plans until they came up with something more affordable for Anaheim. All that redesign work pushed the start of construction on Disneyland's new Tomorrowland back from Fall 1994 to Spring 1997.

The loss of "Tomorrowland 2055" for Disneyland remains a real sore point with many Imagineers, particularly since Eisner came so close to actually greenlighting the project. How close? The next time you're at Disneyland, go into the Tomorrowland Terrace and look up at the ceiling. Pretty cool, huh?

This ceiling was actually done as a test for "Tomorrowland 2055," to see if the wild palette of colors and shapes WDI proposed using on this part of the park would work. A similar test was done on the old "Mission to Mars" show building, where one stylized window was retrofitted onto the exterior of the attraction.

Tests were also made for the atmospherics that would have been featured in "Tomorrowland 2055." Bruce Gordon commissioned a new soundtrack for the proposed revamp of the park. This futuristic music wittily combined old Tomorrowland favorites like "Miracles and Molecules" and Buddy Baker's "Monorail March" with memorable Epcot tunes like "It's Fun to Be Free." Bruce even got this recording played regularly in Disneyland in the mid-1990s. The downside was that the only place you could really hear the entire "Tomorrowland 2055" soundtrack was if you stood inside the Tomorrowland men's room for an hour or so. Which made it kind of tough for female Disneyana fans to check out the new tunes. But I digress ...

The ceiling, that window, and Bruce's soundtrack music weren't the only pieces of "Tomorrowland 2055" that actually made it into Disneyland. Take a look to the Moonliner. A recreation of that 1950s Tomorrowland icon also factored heavily into "2055"'s design plans. But not as some dinky drink dispenser. Picture that slick looking retro-rocket being three times as high as it is now, towering over Tomorrowland.

The Imagineers were so certain that the Moonliner would make a cool icon for "Tomorrowland 2055" that they actually had a logo made up for this Disneyland redo project that prominently featured the sleek finned spaceship. This image was then slapped on "Tomorrowland 2055" production team jackets, t-shirts, and coffee mugs.

These in-house WDI promotional items for "Tomorrowland 2055" have now become highly prized items among Disneyana collectors. The Imagineers? They really don't seem to like seeing this stuff. It just brings back too many painful memories of a great thing that almost happened.

Sigh.

Enough about the tomorrow that never came ... let's get back to the saga of "Alien Encounter," shall we?

The delay of Disneyland's Tomorrowland redo meant that -- by default -- "Alien Encounter" would open in Florida first. Disney's sensory horror attraction would have its world premiere in the Fall of 1994 at WDW's Magic Kingdom. The show would be the last thing to open as that park completed its own year-long rehab of its Tomorrowland section.

This change of plans also meant that it would be a year or more before serious work would continue on "Alien Encounter." That's why the team at WDI that originally dreamed up the project moved on to other assignments. In the interim, Eisner began to have real concerns about whether or not this proposed Tomorrowland show would be too scary for the typical Disney theme park guest to handle. So he ordered WDI to assign a new team of writers to the "Alien Encounter" project deliberately lighten the show up a bit, add a few laughs to the attraction.

This these Imagineers did. Which made Eisner happy. The downside is that these new gags significantly weakened the show's story. But that wouldn't become apparent 'til things were almost too far along at WDW's Magic Kingdom.

Speaking of which ... Walt Disney World senior staff was thrilled when they learned that the Florida park would get to premiere this ambitious new attraction. That's why WDW's publicity department pulled out all the stops to promote "Alien Encounter." This office created a clever series of teaser ads that made the soon-to-open show sound like the scariest thing that had ever been staged in a Disney theme park. WDW management was so certain that the attraction would be a hit with the public that they ordered up a ton of "Alien Encounter" souvenir merchandise.

Exterior work on the old "Mission to Mars" show building was completed by August. WDI's installation team had "Alien Encounter"'s hardware loaded in by late October. All that was left for Imagineering to do was a few weeks of on-site "test and adjust" work on the attraction. Then they'd turn "Alien Encounter" over to the operations staff at WDW's Magic Kingdom.

That was the plan, anyway. WDI spend the first part of November training the opening crew for "Alien Encounter." They'd then run a few test audiences through the attraction ... just to make sure that everything worked the way it was supposed to. With any amount of luck, "Alien Encounter" would be up and running by late November and the California-based Imagineering installation team could be back home in time for Thanksgiving.

Too bad it didn't quite work on that way.

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