UFOs and Disney: Behind the Magic Kingdom

09/02/2015 22:40

By Robbie Graham S ilver Screen Saucers 

The role played by Hollywood in shaping our notions of potential alien life has long been a subject of fascination and contention in the UFO research community. Although there seems to be a consensus among UFOlogists that big screen depictions of UFOs serve to acclimate the populous to the reality of the phenomenon, opinions diverge on whether this acclimation effect is the product of design (inferring the existence of a "Hollywood UFO conspiracy"), or is merely the result of a natural cultural process driven by generic trends and stemming from a simple recognition among Hollywood executives that, when it come to the box office, aliens sell like hotcakes. Within this ongoing debate concerning UFOs and Hollywood, the name of one studio consistently has rung out over the decades – Disney. The House of Mouse has overseen the production and/or distribution of numerous UFO and alien-themed movies in recent times, with the best known examples including Flight of the Navigator (1986) Signs (2002), Lilo and Stitch (2002), Chicken Little (2005), Lifted (2007), I am Number Four (2011), Mars Needs Moms (2011) and the forthcoming John Carter (2012). 

Once Upon A Time...

The Disney/UFO connection can be traced back to 1953 when the CIA-sponsored Robertson Panel recommended that the US government make efforts to strip UFOs of their "aura of mystery" through the exploitation of mass media including television and motion pictures. In this context, the panel highlighted Walt Disney Productions specifically as a potential conduit for its propaganda. The panel’s singling-out of Disney made sense given the animation giant’s then firmly established working relationship with the US government: during World War II Disney made numerous propaganda shorts for the US military, and in the 1950s corporate and government sponsors helped the company produce films promoting President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" policy, as well as the retrospectively hilarious Duck and Cover documentary, which depicted schoolchildren surviving an atomic attack by sheltering under their desks.

That the Robertson Panel highlighted Disney is significant in that the Panel’s general recommendation to debunk UFOs through media channels is known to have been acted upon in at least one instance: this being the CBS TV broadcast of UFOs: Friend, Foe, or Fantasy? (1966), an anti-UFO documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite. In a letter addressed to former Robertson Panel Secretary Frederick C. Durant, Dr Thornton Page confided that he "helped organize the CBS TV show around the Robertson Panel conclusions," even though this was thirteen years after the Panel had first convened. In light of this case alone, it seems reasonable to assume that the government may at least have attempted to follow through on the Robertson Panel’s Disney recommendation.

With this in mind, consider the case of the Oscar-winning Disney animator Ward Kimball. Best known for creating iconic Disney characters such as Jiminy Cricket and The Mad Hatter, Kimball also worked as Directing Animator on Disney classics including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) and Pinocchio (1940). While at a MUFON symposium in 1979, Kimball claimed that the United States Air Force (USAF) had approached Walt Disney himself in the mid-1950s to request his cooperation on a documentary about UFOs that would help acclimate the American public to the reality of extraterrestrials. According to Kimball, in exchange for Disney’s cooperation, the USAF offered to furnish the production with genuine UFO footage. Kimball claimed that Disney accepted the deal and – ever faithful to Uncle Sam – began work immediately on the USAF project. It wasn’t long, however, before the USAF reneged on its offer of UFO footage. When Kimball challenged the USAF Colonel overseeing the project he was told that "there was indeed plenty of UFO footage, but that neither Kimball, nor anyone else was going to get access to it." The Kimball case, though, seems to be at odds with the Robertson Panel’s recommendations, which were to debunk UFO reality through media channels, not promote it. But perhaps another faction within the military-intelligence community – one with a UFO acclimation agenda – had similarly recognised Disney’s propagandist potential? We can only speculate.


Disney’s Alien Encounters

A tantalising case of alleged Disney/government UFO collusion is that of the 1995 documentary Alien Encounters from New Tomorrowland, which officially was produced with the sole purpose of promoting Disneyworld’s then-new ‘ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter’ ride. Yet, the content of this curious "promotional" documentary was viewed with suspicion by UFO researchers for the following reasons:

 - Throughout its forty-minute run-time, the documentary’s presenter/narrator, Robert Urich, makes numerous declarative statements to the effect that UFOs are one-hundred-percent real and extraterrestrial in origin. Such statements include: "For nearly fifty years, officials have been documenting routine alien encounters here on earth; "More than one alien craft crashed and was recovered for secret U.S. military research. The most famous case took place in July of 1947 just outside the community of Roswell, New Mexico"; and "Indications are that government, military and scientific leaders will soon release nearly a half-century of official documentation of ongoing alien encounters on earth."

- The documentary tells us of alien microbes found in meteorites in Antarctica that had been analysed by NASA. At the time the documentary was televised in 1995, NASA was indeed analysing a Martian meteorite recovered from Antarctica, and had indeed reached the tentative conclusion that it contained fossilised microbial alien life. The inclusion of this information in Disney’s 1995 documentary is intriguing, however, as NASA did not make a formal announcement about its findings until August of 1996 – 17 months after the documentary was televised.

- The actual ‘Alien Encounter’ ride received very little screen time, with the vast majority of the documentary’s content being focused on UFOs and extraterrestrials as a factual reality. The ride itself seemed like an afterthought.

- The documentary was aired in only a handful of US cities at seemingly random times on selected dates in February and March, 1995, with no advance notice – a rather odd marketing strategy considering its purpose was to promote a major theme park ride for families.

For the reasons cited above, many in the UFO research field felt that Disney’s Alien Encounters documentary was an effort by the powers that be to prepare us for Disclosure – a subtle test of public reaction to an official declaration that we are not alone. But in the sixteen years since the documentary was produced, not one UFO researcher has attempted to contact the film’s writer and director, Andrew Thomas, in order to learn the truth of the matter. So, in February 2011, I decided to do just that.

In an hour-long telephone interview, Thomas revealed to me that he had been selected by Disney for the documentary project based on his background in reality television, having been the original producer of the phenomenally successful TV show, Cops: "Making things exceptionally real was the line of work that I was in at the time," he said. The other key factor was Thomas’s previous position as head of "special marketing" for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in the mid-to-late 1970s. Regarding Close Encounters, Thomas explained that marketing executives at Columbia Pictures were concerned that Spielberg’s chosen title for the film made it sound "suspiciously like a pornographic movie, because no one had any reference to what that vocabulary meant." This was where Thomas came in:

"Eighteen months before the film [Close Encounters] was going to premiere... before we’d even sold it to audiences, we had a campaign to introduce that vocabulary and make it part of the vernacular, so when the film opened-up everyone would know what was being discussed, and there wouldn’t be any question. So what I did was I worked with a planetarium to create a planetarium show that was about twenty-minutes long... you sit down and a UFO shoots across the planetarium dome and then the audience is trained on how to figure out whether that was a meteor, a comet, or actually an extraterrestrial. We managed to bus-in tens-of thousands of kids from all around the country on the pretence of seeing an educational planetarium show, but what they really got was a sophisticated message to explain to them that extraterrestrials and UFOs are real and what an encounter of the first, second and third kind actually meant."

Clearly, then, Thomas was a natural choice for Disney’s Alien Encounters documentary, the entire purpose of which, according to the director, was to promote the ride itself. Thomas told me that Disney had requested a documentary "about the history of mankind and aliens. Not a film history, but more of a realistic approach... a special about the history of UFO sightings," with Disney’s only stipulation being that "the last five minutes had to focus on the ride." Thomas confirmed to me that, instead of giving the documentary network time, Disney’s plans from the outset were to "seed it into independent television stations across the country."

Chain structures in meteorite fragment ALH84001

But why did Thomas’s documentary take such a strong stance in favour of UFO/ET reality? He summed-up his approach as follows:

"I figured... instead of asking people to question ‘could it be possible?’ to just adopt the point of view that this [alien visitation] has been going on for 50 years, everybody’s known about it... And I thought it fit with the hyperrealistic nature of the ride that we were eventually trying to promote... I did it really kind of naively – I said to myself 'okay, I’m going to believe this right now, and I’m going to believe everything and I’m going to collect all this stuff and construct what would be a documentary if we all just had a consensus that it [the UFO phenomenon] was real...' We didn’t make up anything, but it certainly surprised the people at Disney."

Somewhat disappointingly for conspiracy theorists, Thomas claims to have written the script in just a few hours while flying back from Florida to his home in Los Angeles. "There was nothing to it," he said, "it just kind of came out, it was easy." Furthermore, Thomas claims to have conducted the vast majority his research at the National Archives and stressed that, beyond these archival visits, "there was no direct government contact" on the production. "I didn’t get any special access from anybody," he said.

But how did Thomas come to acquire his information about the NASA meteorite? "I found it on the Internet," said the director, matter-of-factly:

"It wasn’t a big secret. NASA had been doing that – they’d been getting meteorites... and inside I believe they were finding some complex amino acids, some material that could only be produced organically, that sort of thing, so it was an easy jump [in logic]. And the reason that NASA released the information months later is because they take their time. They don’t find something and release it. They find it and they study it."
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