The History And Technology Behind Alien Encounter (originally appearing at Progressland)


“The mid-1990’s were an interesting time for the Walt Disney Company. In the Parks and Resorts sector, high-scale attractions like Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror began to open stateside, as EuroDisney was being “plussed” with Discovery Mountain. These attractions were expensive, elaborately themed, and offered more thrill than the archetypal Disney attractions.

Walt Disney Imagineering had been tinkering with an “effects chair” for quite some time and decided that the theaters occupied by Flight to the Moon and Mission to Mars could be converted into a new blend of attraction. George Lucas, who had previously collaborated with WDI on Star Tours, had worked with Imagineers to innovate a new binaural audio system, tested in the post-show for the Disney MGM Studios’ “Monster Sound Show,” provided some consulting for the project. This new type of technology was serviceable on a small scale, creating auditory illusions such as a simulated haircut. But WDI hoped that this kind of system could be scaled larger, using 3D sound to create a theater attraction equally exciting as Lucas’ Star Tours. Having secured the rights to the Alien franchise, designers began to dream on where and how it could be implemented in the parks.

Originally intended for Disneyland, there was a growing concern that using the monster from Alien in Walt Disney’s beloved park would dilute the brand and create irreparable disconnect. Yet, there was pressure to reach a teen audience from management, who hoped that  “Alien Encounter” could be franchisable in the imminent Tomorrowland overhauls on both coasts building off the success of “Star Tours,” an attraction based off classic science fiction.

But Lucas’ original vision greatly differed from the final product in a far more interesting way. Rumor has it that Lucas’ original idea did introduce the fictional organization of XS-Tech, but involved them in a much more sinister storyline. The pre-show would feature scientists, not aliens as seen in the realized iteration, but recycled AAs from the Mission to Mars attraction. Guests would be invited to an open house with the hopes of seeing cutting edge technology demonstrations. In this alternate version, the grand reveal would occur just after guests were harnessed into their seats. The XS-Tech “open house” was a guise to bait visitors, the audience thus becoming experimental subjects for a different, intended Alien Encounter. Guests would be subjected to a dangerous species of alien, beamed in by XS-Tech with the intention of seeing the carnage this creature could produce. The creature is then beamed in, like in the final product, and briefly terrorizes the audience. But then the attraction reveals the second and better twist: the alien isn’t there to harm the audience: it wants to help everyone escape and to exact revenge on its captors. When the scientists of XS-Tech become cognizant of the situation they began making preparations to destroy all forms of life inside the chamber. The alien creature figures out how to release the shoulder harnesses freeing the guests before it is too late, thus thwarting the scientists. As the guests exit the show room, audio effects imply that the alien has made its way back to the pre-show area.

This is the infamous version of “Alien Encounter” deemed too scary.

The original Alien Encounter team assumed that Alien Encounter would first be seen at Disneyland, a cornerstone part of the “Tomorrowland 2055” overhaul, but when the project was significantly altered it was deemed that Alien Encounter would debut in Florida’s “New Tomorrowland.” This created a setback when designers had to adapt their plans to fit the Magic Kingdom’s “Mission to Mars” show building. As a direct result the original Alien Encounter team were shuffled internally to work on other projects. Therefore, a new group of writers were assigned to the show given the task to lighten the mood to make the attraction more accessible to a broader age group. This writing change drastically alters the tone of the attraction, the changes shift the overall experience.

For the film portions of the experience, Jerry Rees was brought in to direct as well as to shape the dialogue. Rees had previously worked on sequences for the Disney MGM Studios “Back to Neverland” and “Michael and Mickey,” as well as sequences for “Cranium Command” at the Wonders of Life Pavilion in EPCOT Center. But Rees’ true background was in animation, co-writing the screenplay for The Brave Little Toaster with the late Joe Ranft. The first sequence shown serves as a promotional film for  XS-Tech: introducing guests to the company and its leader: L.C. Clench. On screen, Tyra Banks portrayed an alien spokeswoman who gives a quick history of the company and its business dealings. Next, an animated sequence shows planets radiating from a central hub, each signifying a differentiated business venture that X-S Tech now holds a monopoly in. This solar system motif is reflected in signage outside the attraction and behind Clench’s desk. The tone of the film shifts when the audience first meets Chairman Clench, played by Jeffery Jones. The character tries to dissuade the notion that the company is invested in Earth for commercial reasons, condescendingly acknowledging the moral obligation to help the less fortunate. The mantra of “Seizing the Future with X-S” is expressed once again as guests are moved into the next show room.

The first iteration of this room featured a robot named T.O.M. 2000 (Technobotic Oratorical Mechanism Series 2000), and was described by Senior Show Writer Dan Molitor as “not the brightest robot around.” Voiced by the late Phil Hartman,  T.O.M. 2000 lightheartedly echoes the selling points of the previous film, but also expresses a fundamental theme of Tomorrowland 94’: “Science Fiction becoming Science Fact.”  We are then introduced to “Skippy” a cute alien Audio Animatronic with a bevy of facial expressions. Skippy is the guinea pig for this demonstration of teleportation. The excellent character design of Skippy makes him a sympathetic figure in the eyes of the audience when he is significantly damaged in the transportation process, mostly due to T.O.M.’s inability to harness the power of the technology at hand, an effect cleverly achieved through the use of mirrors angled at 45 degrees. The same effect would be replicated in EPCOT’s Journey Into Your Imagination ride. “He does his best, but his memory circuits aren’t what they used to be…unfortunately for Skippy” comments Molitor. Although the original pre-show displays the imminent danger of the technology, the tone is light and the dialogue is unthreatening.

Next, visitors enter a dark corridor, perceptually enhanced by the use of shadows and ominous noises. This created an environment dubbed “Deco Tech” by Senior Show Producer Ron Chesley. Chesley explains, “It’s a sinister blend of Art Deco designs and menacing machine-age technology.” Similarly, the art directors for “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992-1995) had produced a style they coined “Dark Deco,” very akin in aesthetic. The hallway serves as an important transition into the imposing teleportation chamber theater. The guest’s eyes transition into a darker environment while the threat of imminent danger becomes more and more real. The audience is strapped into the shoulder harnesses and the show begins.

When test audiences experienced the attraction in December of 1994, problems in the show structure were exposed. The tone of the pre-show inadequately prepared test audiences for the intensity of the experience. The experience itself wasn’t communicating well: the audience’s screams were drowning out crucial binaural audio tracks, leaving guests confused upon exit.

It was this disconnect, not Michael Eisner’s insistence that attraction lacked adequate thrills that spurred a six-month rework of the attraction, ultimately streamlining the story for the average visitor. These audio and video changes did take weeks to calibrate due to the complexity of the attraction’s running system. Alien Encounter ran on what is called a show-supervisor unit. You may recall Disney’s impressive, yet bulky DACS system: which controls the majority of the Audio-Animatronic figures for use in Epcot and the Magic Kingdom; Alien Encounter was ran on an similar individual system. The SSU is a rack-mounted system that coordinates the audio, video, lighting, and special effects for a given show. Three SIUs (show-interface units) were necessary to run the show, one for each of the show rooms and another for the pre-show, and are controlled by the parent SSU. For Alien Encounter, MAPO specifically designed MFSC (Multi-Feedback Servo Cards), which could control up to eight specific functions on an audio animatronic figure. Given the new learning curve on the technology, even the slightest adjustments prolonged the process. After six months of modifications, the show was ready to debut, with the only technological aberrations occurring as a part of the show’s storyline.

Alien Encounter opens to guests on June 20, 1995 as the centerpiece of “New Tomorrowland” retailored to close plot holes and help the storyline obtain a better flow. Pre-opening literature dubbed the experience as a “sensory-thriller.” Senior Show Producer Ron Chesley adds “This show is definitely different than anything ever seen.” He was right.

Analyzing Alien Encounter and Marketing the Product

Now that the fundamental backstory for Alien Encounter has been divulged, as students of themed design and storytelling, we can analyze the entire experience.

To set a more accurate tone, Phil Hartman’s performance as T.O.M. 2000 in the pre-show was stripped in favor of a more facetious interpretation of the character, provided by Tim Curry. Now dubbed “S.I.R.” (Simulated Intelligence Robotics), the robotic salesman adopted a much sinister personality, better reflecting the show experience to come. Curry’s delivery is fantastic: part Machiavellian salesman – part televangelist. S.I.R.’s disrespect toward Skippy the test subject enforces the fundamental notion shown in the pre-show film: XS-Tech isn’t the least bit concerned with the safety or side effects that may accompany their new technology. I note this because it marks a major shift in thematic tone between the first and second iteration. Originally, it was the malfunctioning equipment and inadequacy of T.O.M. 2000 that led to Skippy’s unfortunate fate, whereas in the final cut the salaciousness of the demonstration is a product of the technology and the company itself. Before making our way into the main theater, S.I.R. invites us to relish the opportunity to participate in a scaled demonstration of what we just saw, revealing that one audience member will be chosen for teleportation.

Unlike the first version, the Curry-narrated pre-show casts a shadow of general unease and discomfort over the audience. For example, S.I.R.’s dialogue tries to mix in bits of humor, often expressed through careful articulation by Curry: [“Don’t worry, it’s prac-tic-al-ly painless”], when the teleportation process clearly is. However, the attempt at humor is usually lost under the unease of the gallery. Even more direct attempts at humor such as [“Oh, shut up, scruffy! You’re not burned; you’ve just got a healthy glow”] are lost in a sea of anxiety, instead of being embraced as macabre comedy.

Now the guests are ushered into the teleportation theater with a fairer expectation of what lies ahead of them. A live video feed shows two additional aliens, one male and one female, mid-conversation regarding the overall readiness of the teleportation device. Dr. Femus, portrayed by Kathy Najimy, is arguing that the technology has yet to produce a successful transmission over a great distance. Spinlock, played by Kevin Pollak, insists on the contrary. Then the fundamental argument of Alien Encounter is reciprocated yet again: Dr. Femus accuses Spinlock of once again putting sales before science, to which Spinlock sardonically replies [Exactly. Someone’s got to be a role model].

Before the audience demonstration can be properly executed, the proceedings are interrupted by the emergence of Chairman Clench on the video screen. His entrance is hurried and seems delighted when he is told that the program is ahead of schedule. Dr. Femus, who is still being largely ignored, continues to plead for reconsideration. This is not the calm, dissuading Chairman Clench that we were introduced to in the pre-show, instead we are shown a Chairman Clench who expresses a mixture of nervous energy and intransigent determination. Claiming that he had been “seized,” Clench volunteers to make the trip to Earth himself. Whether in a burst of ego, or a panic from an undisclosed event, Clench demands to be teleported immediately, providing the catalyst for the grand theme park attraction cliche: something goes wrong.

There is no better instance than the main show scene of Alien Encounter to call attention to the attraction’s lack of  continuous vision. Almost immediately after the transmission is sent to Earth, and Spinlock benightedly introduces the creature as Chairman Clench comes the first of the “faux tourist” dialogue, designed to make it seem that the strangers in the audience are interacting with the show. Dialogue like [It’s my mother-in-law!], [we’re just screaming for the fun of it!], and [whose blood is this?] were recorded by radio and comedic actors, sought after by Jerry Rees, describing the show as “a certain sense of dark comedy.” In fact all of the actors in the show hail from comedic backgrounds. The “black comedy” of the second writing team shines through in a way that does not balance the attraction. The horror element still largely outshines the comedic bits.

On paper, the concept of Alien Encounter has appeal. A spooky science-fiction story with memorable characters, using instruments and technology from the wildest of 30′s pulp magazines. Even if it was bred for Disneyland, it was adapted to fit New Tomorrowland. So where is the disconnect? The juxtaposition in dialogue has been addressed. But tonal differences have not always been detrimental to an attraction. Often the clash in individual influences leads the visitor to (sometimes) accidental “flashes of brilliance”: Claude Coats’ moody interiors for Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion paired with the light character work of Marc Davis. Perhaps the solution falls in their placement. For example, on the Haunted Mansion the more serious-toned Coats portion-is paired with X Atencio’s dialogue and Yale Gracey’s illusions. When we as visitors descend from the attic into Marc Davis’ elaborate and whimsical graveyard scene, the narration stops completely.  Is this the key? To blend styles by separation instead of convergence? Perhaps.

I think that Alien Encounter as an attraction walks on a distinct tightrope between an interesting morality-play and a cheesy B-movie. What it did well was to cast a very large shadow of discomfort, building up incredibly well to the climax of the attraction. But from an audience participant perspective there is no significant experiential payoff to the attraction other than “I survived.” Unlike an attraction such as “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror”, whose payoff comes with the release of tension through its free-falls, Alien Encounter’s resolution is the alien (unseen) exploding within the tube. Instead of experiencing zero-gravity, the audience is doused in water disguised as alien guts.

It is important to note that Alien Encounter revolutionized what a “first-person experience” could be within a Theme Park setting. Unlike a traditional ride or show, experienced in groups, Alien Encounter used the effects chair to isolate the participant from the collective whole. The guest is not thinking about who is directly next to them, when they perceive an man-eating alien to be behind them, breathing down their neck.

Sensing a hit on their hands, the marketing team materials produced especially interesting materials for The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. In park, the construction walls for New Tomorrowland boasted Alien Encounter as the featured experience “It’s coming and there’s nothing on Earth you can do about it.” On television and in promotional videocassettes depict Alien Encounter as the thrill to be had in the New Tomorrowland, boasting its reputation as the scariest experience in any Disney Theme Park worldwide.

But by far the most interesting aspect of the New Tomorrowland advertising campaign was the use of guerilla marketing in the form of a television special entitled “Alien Encounters from New Tomorrowland.” Originally (and only) aired in March 1995, in only five U.S. cities, as a documentary on the existence of UFO’s and extraterrestrial life. Hosted by Robert Urich, a minor celebrity with a slight resemblance to the great American astronomer Carl Sagan, and with an introduction by Michael Eisner, the special features New Tomorrowland, albeit briefly. The special saves the blatant promotion for the end of the program.

Andy Thomas, who was the head of “special marketing” for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and had produced the TV show “Cops” was chosen to write the script and direct the special, with the only stipulation being the final segment promoting the Alien Encounter attraction. The special was an unusual way to familiarize the public with the new offering.”

Excerpted from Progressland: The Future That Never Was


The History And Technology Behind Alien Encounter (originally appearing at Progressland)

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