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The ExtraTERRORestrial Files -- Part 4

Jim Hill

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The ExtraTERRORestrial Files -- Part 4

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OUR STORY SO FAR:

It was supposed to be the scariest show ever presented at Disneyland. A squirm-in-your-seat, scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs special effects extravaganza. Had construction of "Tomorrowland 2055" actually gone forward, "The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter" could have easily become *THE* attraction you *HAD TO* see while touring this radically revamped side of the park.

Only Disney CEO Michael Eisner just couldn't bring himself to sign off on the $200 million plus price tag for the "Tomorrowland 2055" project. Which was why he eventually pulled the plug on this ambitious Disneyland redo. Which is how "Alien Encounter" ended up debuting in WDW's Magic Kingdom rather than at "The Happiest Place on Earth."

Ah, but Uncle Mikey's meddling didn't end there, kids. Because "Alien Encounter"'s original production team had all moved on to other projects at WDI, Eisner assigned a whole new team to work on this Tomorrowland attraction. Their mission? Lighten up "AE," pull back on the intensity of this show by folding in a few new gags. Which -- hopefully -- would make "Alien Encounter" more accessible to children and families.

This the new WDI writers did. But what Michael didn't realize is that -- by ordering that extraneous jokes be shoe-horned into this Tomorrowland attraction -- he was also upsetting the balance of "AE"'s carefully crafted storyline.

The damage that had been done to the show by this rewrite wouldn't really become apparent until "Alien Encounter" began its in-the-field test and adjust period in December 1994. Of course, by then, it was too late to make any quick fixes ...

 

But -- up until that point -- everything about this Tomorrowland attraction seemed to be right on track. After all, Disney had its "A Team" working on its "ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter" show.

I mean, listen to the folks that the Mouse had riding herd on the original version of WDW's "AE" show:

Tom Fitzgerald, Senior Vice President of Theme Park Productions. Tom had had a hand in the creation of numerous Disney theme park attractions that successfully combined film elements with audio animatronic figures. Prior to "Alien Encounter," Fitzgerald had helped produce "Star Tours," "Jim Henson's Muppetvision 3D" as well as "From Time to Time." So Tom certainly seemed up for the "AE" challenge.

Then there was Eric Jacobson, Senior VP in charge of Creative Development at Walt Disney World. Name a huge new attraction that's opened at the Florida parks in the past 10 years -- "GM Test Track," "Rock 'n' Roller Coaster," etc. -- and Eric's probably had a hand in it.

Disney also recruited top notch talent to handle the film portion of WDW's "AE" attraction. Sitting behind the camera was noted animation director Jerry Rees. Best known as the visual effects supervisor on "Tron" as well as being the director of "The Brave Little Toaster," Rees had also helped produce another fine little film for the Disney theme parks. Do you remember the "Michael and Mickey" movie that used to run at the Disney-MGM Studios? You know, the one where Chernabog cowered before the Disney CEO and said "Sorry, Mr. Eisner. It'll never happen again." Jerry did that.

The Mouse then recruited a talented group of actors to appear in Rees' "Alien Encounter" film sequences. Among these was Academy Award nominee Jeffrey Jones as Chairman Clinch, the head of X-S Tech; TV favorite Kathy Najimy as the cautious Dr. Femus and comic Kevin Pollak as Spinlock, the impatient alien marketing rep. (Special bonus for all you "AE" trivia buffs: That out-of-this-world spokesmodel you see on the video monitors in the lobby? Under all that green make-up, that's Supermodel Tyra Banks!)

But -- even with all these talented, experienced people on board the project, trying to get "AE" to succeed -- there was still no getting around the flaws in "Alien Encounter"'s badly reworked script. According to WDI insiders, the production's first real mis-steps came when it was time to decide who would do the voice of the sales-droid in "AE"'s pre-show.

Hoping that he might be able to give WDW guests a few big laughs before they got scared out of their socks by the show in the main theater, the Imagineers hired Saturday Night Live star Phil Hartman to provide vocals for the robot who ineptly demonstrated X-S Tech's teleportation technology in the pre-show. Being the old show business hand that he was, Hartman turned in a wonderfully smarmy performance, very reminiscent of his failed B movie actor Troy McClure from The Simpsons.

Imagineering had assembled what they thought was a top flight production. They spent months redoing the exterior of WDW's old "Mission to Mars" show building so that it became the bland but somewhat sinister looking Tomorrowland Interplanetary Convention Center. When test audiences first entered the inner lobby area in December 1994, they were amused by the numerous in-joke meeting announcements they read on the overhead monitors (Eg: "Lunar Disneyland -- The Happiest Place Off Earth" and, my personal favorite, "Mission to Mars: Fact or Fiction?"). After that, these same WDW guests wandered into the pre-show, where they'll chuckled warmly as Hartman's robot character accidentally fried Skippy. Smiling broadly, these folks then wandered in the main theater ...

... and that's when all the trouble started.

Given how light and comical the pre-show elements of "Alien Encounter" had been, test audiences were shocked by how dark and intense the show in the main theater was. As guests left the "AE" show building, they complained long and loudly to cast members doing exit polls about the attraction that they had not been properly warned that this Tomorrowland show was going to be really, REALLY scary. They had assumed that "AE" would like all of the other supposedly scary Disney theme park shows, which are thrilling ... but not truly terrifying.

But even with no 20th Century Fox "Alien" creatures in sight, WDW guests still found this new Tomorrowland attraction plenty scary. And -- given that members of the test audience had walked right by huge signs that clearly told everyone about "Alien Encounter"'s intense nature -- the Imagineers wondered what else they could do to better prepare audiences for the show they'd see inside.

The obvious place to start was "AE"'s pre-show. As funny as Phil Hartman's performance as the sales-droid might have been, it was clear that this piece of the attraction wasn't doing that good a job of setting the stage for the show that followed. Sensing that "Alien Encounter"'s introductory scenes needed more menace, the Imagineers shelved Hartman's recording as they reworked the script for "AE"'s pre-show -- deliberately putting a much darker spin on the proceedings.

The Imagineers then asked "Rocky Horror Picture Show" legend Tim Curry to come and record some new dialogue for the sales-droid. The new script and Curry's sinister vocals did the trick. Guests still laughed at what they saw in the pre-show, but they were a little creeped out too. As they turned to enter the main theater, these WDW visitors were now filled with a vague unease. Which meant they were in the perfect frame of mind for the carnage that was to follow.

Having fixed the pre-show, WDI now turned its attention to the "Alien Encounter" attraction itself. Test audiences had found the first version of the 3D sound show intense but also hard to follow. By sitting in on dozens of performances of "AE," the Imagineers determined that the audience was screaming so long and so loudly at parts of the show that they were missing out on several crucial pieces of expository dialogue. Consequently, a lot of the members of the test audiences had trouble following the original version of the attraction's storyline.

Disney CEO Michael Eisner -- who first experienced "AE" in the field in December 1994 the weekend he was down at WDW to attend the grand opening of Pleasure Island's Planet Hollywood -- also agreed that the attraction had some serious story problems. (It's been rumored that Michael actually took Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzeneggar along with him the first time he test-drove this Tomorrowland attraction. Which is not as far fetched as it might seem, folks, given that both of these men were also in Orlando the weekend that Eisner was. Since all three were taking part in the WDW PH festivities. But -- to date -- I've never been able to get any official confirmation on this story. Sorry about that. Anyway ...) That's why Eisner agreed to let the Imagineers shut down "The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter" -- so that WDI could have all the time it needed to make the appropriate repairs to the attraction's plot holes.

So all those stories that you've heard over the past six years about how Michael Eisner ordered "Alien Encounter" closed because he didn't think the show was scary enough ... well, they're not entirely true, folks. Sure, Michael wanted extra thrill elements to be added to the show. But the real reason that Eisner allowed the Imagineers to temporarily close "AE" was because he wanted the show's storyline to come across more cleanly, more clearly, more coherently. Michael's main aim in closing the show wasn't to add extra scares. But rather because he wanted "Alien Encounter"'s story to be easier for the average WDW visitor to follow.

Mind you, this simple sounding task took an awful lot of effort. Some of the changes that WDI made to the "Alien Encounter" show were small and subtle -- like waiting an additional six seconds before playing a crucial piece of dialogue over the speakers in the theater (just so the line wouldn't be drowned by the audience's screams). Other changes involved providing the people who were in the middle of experiencing "Alien Encounter" with additional visual reference material (I.E. throwing a graphic up on the theater's four video monitors that clearly shows that the monster that was trapped inside the teleportation tube has a pair of wings ... that brief image was just enough to get WDW guests to finally understand how the monster was making its way around the room once it supposedly broke out of the containment field).

Perhaps the biggest change that was made to the in-theater portion of the "Alien Encounter" attraction was the show's new finale. In the original, jokier version of "AE," after the alien has been successfully beamed out of the theater, Chairman Clinch is finally beamed in. However -- given how disastrously the demonstration has gone -- Spinlock and Femus are reluctant to raise the blast shield on the teleportation tube. So, as WDW guests exited out of the theater, they could clearly hear the increasingly exasperated X-S Tech Chairman banging on the inside of the tube, demanding to be let out.

Again, a funny idea. But not really in keeping with the tone of the scary show that preceded it. That's why the Imagineers opted to drop the gag-filled ending of the show and go with a new "Blood & Guts" finale. To add a disgusting coup de gras to the whole "Alien Encounter" experience, the guests seated in the "AE" theater now got splattered with warm water just as the teleportation device supposedly overloaded and blew the evil alien creature in a million tiny wet chunks. (To put a grotesque but funny tag on this part of the show, the Imagineers deliberately added one additional piece of dialogue to "AE"'s explosive finale. The fat stupid guy who's supposedly been sitting behind you now says "Yuck! I had my mouth open." Ewwww!)

Given that most of these changes don't seem all that involved -- a new line here, a graphic there -- why did it take the Imagineers so long (nearly six months) to finally fix WDW's "Alien Encounter?" Simple. Given all the elaborate technology that was necessary to seamlessly co-ordinate the hundreds of elements of this Tomorrowland show, it took weeks to properly reprogram the show's computers so that they could smoothly handle even the simplest of changes.

For all you techno-nuts out there, here's a little insight in the gear involved with running "Alien Encounter": "AE" actually works off of an SSU -- a show-supervisor unit. This rack mounted system controls all the lighting and smoke effects as well as the audio and video elements used in the show. This ambitious little machine also keeps tabs on three SIUs -- show-interface units. One of these state-of-the art machines rides herd on the pre-show, while the other two take care of the side-by-side sit-down theaters. (Aren't you glad you asked?)

In order to get all the necessary changes made (which often involved hours and hours of trial and error), Disney officially closed WDW's "Alien Encounter" in January 12, 1995 -- less than six weeks after the Mouse had been begun doing test and adjust on its new Tomorrowland attraction. Though the show had never officially opened to the public, Walt Disney World was still abuzz with rumors about why the new Magic Kingdom attraction had suddenly shuttered.

The Mouse tried to put a funny spin on the story. They distributed thousands of copies of a flyer property-wide that had supposedly been written by X-S Tech Chairman, L.C. Clinch. In his message to WDW cast members, Clinch apologized for the delays involved with getting "Alien Encounter" opened. "We look forward to a profitable relationship with your species," or so said the pretend memo. The flyer then went on to say that the projected re-opening date for this new Tomorrowland attraction was Easter 1995.

Unfortunately, the Easter Bunny would be long gone before most WDW guests finally their chance to "Seize the Future with X-S." It wasn't until June 20, 1995 before "The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter" officially re-opened in Disney World's Magic Kingdom. By then, Michael Eisner had reportedly lost all enthusiasm for this new Tomorrowland attraction.

What exactly caused Eisner to sour on it? Some say that it was the additional $10 - $15 million Disney had to pump into "Alien Encounter" so that this new Tomorrowland attraction would finally play properly for WDW guests. Others suggest that it was all the negative publicity that was associated with the "AE" redo.

The most likely reason for the Disney CEO falling out of love with "The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter" attraction? I believe that Eisner eventually began to believe what those old Imagineers had been saying: that a scary show like "AE" doesn't really belong in the Magic Kingdom. Given the hundreds of letters that the Walt Disney Company still receives every year from angry WDW guests -- people who'd just gotten off "Dumbo the Flying Elephant" or just been whirled around in the Teacups, only to unwittingly wander in "Alien Encounter" and find themselves locked down in a chair, suddenly being threatened by a rasping, drooling monstrosity -- there are obviously quite a number of folks who feel this way.

Which -- to some Disneyana fans' way of thinking -- is a real shame. For -- as vocal as "Alien Encounter"'s critics may be -- there's an equally hardcore group of theme park fans who absolutely adore this Tomorrowland show.

These are the folks that you'll spy at the N.F.F.C. conventions proudly wearing their "Fried Skippy" t-shirts. These are the same people who eagerly snatched up all the "Alien Encounter" action figures Disney began selling last year. You can usually pick out their cars in the WDW parking lot. Their vehicles are the ones with the Skippy beanie baby sitting on their dashboard.

It probably won't surprise you to hear that there are also a lot of "Alien Encounter" fans inside WDI. These are the Imagineers who had their hearts set on adding this edgy attraction to every single Disney theme park worldwide. These guys insist that -- if Eisner had okayed construction of "Tomorrowland 2055" and followed Imagineering's original plans for "Alien Encounter" (and not the dumbed down, gag-filled WDW version) -- Disneyland's "AE" show would have been a huge hit right out of the box. A "Star Tours"-sized success which would have served a template for all the other "Alien Encounter" attractions to follow, giving the company a successful franchise show that they could have quickly rolled out at the corporation's theme parks worldwide.

Ah, but I guess that's not going to happen now. WDW's "Alien Encounter" appears to be the one and only version of this high tech new Tomorrowland attraction that will ever make it off the drawing board. (Though I would be remiss if I didn't mention the "Invasion! An ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter" interactive game that's currently available for play at DisneyQuest. I'm told that this multi-player game -- which is very loosely based on the WDW attraction -- is hugely popular at both the Chicago and the Lake Buena Vista DQ locations.)

But still you have to wonder. Given that WDI's reportedly in the process of putting together a new dark, scary, intense attraction -- the long-rumored "Armageddon" exploding-Russian-space-station effects show -- for both Disney's California Adventure and Disney Studios Europe, wouldn't it just be cheaper and smarter just to do "Alien Encounter" as it was originally supposed to be done? Featuring the creatures from 20th Century Fox's "Alien" movies?

Come on, Disney! "Seize the Future." Take another stab at doing "Alien Encounter."

Only this time, don't let Eisner muck it up.

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