The Inside Story of Disney’s Mythic UFO Documentary and Conference: Part One

In 1995, an intriguing documentary was broadcast on TV stations across the United States. It was titled Alien Encounters from New Tomorrowland and supposedly was produced with the sole purpose of promoting Disneyworld’s then-new “ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” attraction in Orlando, Florida.

Throughout the documentary’s forty-minute run-time, the 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 US military research,” and “Military and scientific leaders will soon release nearly a half-century of official documentation of ongoing alien encounters on earth.”

The majority of the documentary is focused on UFOs and extraterrestrials as a factual reality. The ‘ExtraTERRORestrial’ ride itself receives very little screen-time, and seems 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 notice—an incredibly odd marketing strategy considering its purpose was to promote a major theme park attraction for families.

Disney’s ‘ExtraTERRORESTRIAL Alien Encounter’ attraction.

Since its original limited broadcast in 1995, the Disney documentary has become engrained into conspiracy lore, or, perhaps more usefully, we could say that it has become entrenched into what Lorin Cutts terms The UFO Mythological Zone, which he describes as “the gap between fact and belief, what we see and what we want to see, what we experience and how we interpret it.” Cutts observes that “People are forming highly personalized variations of the one core belief—the belief in a UFO reality. All else is up for individual interpretation via the UFO mythological zone.”

Cutts’ theory certainly applies to Disney’s now legendary UFO documentary. Soon after its original broadcast, many in the UFO community quickly began to speculate that it was a form of “soft Disclosure;” a test of public reaction to a possible future announcement of alien contact. In recent years, rumours have swirled online that the documentary was “lost,” or even “banned” by shadowy forces. This is categorically not the case. It was never lost. It was never banned. It was simply never transferred to video or DVD, and it remained in a state of limbo until a few years ago when someone inevitably decided to upload an original TV recording of the documentary to YouTube. It has since received more than a million views online.

Despite there being no truth to rumors of its suppression, the documentary remains something of an oddity, and the justification for its production remains fuzzy to this day, especially in the context of a related project that was produced in the same year as the documentary, also supposedly intended as a marketing tool for Disney’s “ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” ride. This tie-in project was a major UFO conference held at Disneyworld in January of 1995, a couple of months prior to the broadcast of the documentary. Titled “UFOs: The Reality of the Phenomenon,” this Disney conference has also since passed into The UFO Mythological Zone.

While researching my book, Silver Screen Saucers, I decided to track down the writer/director of the Disney UFO documentary, Andrew Thomas. He told me I was the only person ever to have contacted him about this curious little production, and he was only too happy to talk about it. I also wanted the inside story of the Disney UFO conference, and how it related to the theme park ride. To this end, I interviewed Don Ecker, the man responsible for organizing the conference for Disney. Like Thomas, Ecker told me that, to the best of his recollection, I was the only person ever to have sought an interview with him on this topic.

This two-part article presents the inside story of Disney’s 1995 UFO documentary and conference, as told by the two men most directly responsible for them respectively: Andrew Thomas and Don Ecker. It also provides some limited speculation as to the possible purpose of these two related projects; be warned, though: in doing so, it skirts around the edges of The Mythological Zone, albeit hopefully without losing its footing and slipping into the sludge.

Before we go any further, in the further interests of maintaining balance, I’d like to point the readers’ attention to another article—an excellent two-parter by David Halperin, which also explores the history and assumed purpose of these very same Disney projects. By reading both my article and Halperin’s, you will hopefully get a full and level history of this curious chapter in UFO lore, though you may still be left scratching your head as to precisely why these curious projects ever were funded in the first place.

I interviewed the documentary’s writer/director, Andrew Thomas, in 2011. Thomas told me how he had been selected by Disney for this project based on his background in reality TV, 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. Thomas had also worked for Columbia Pictures as head of special marketing on Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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.” Disney’s only stipulation was 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 plan from the outset was to “seed it into independent television stations across the country.”

But why did Thomas’ 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 alien visitation has been going on for 50 years, and everybody’s known about it. I thought it fit with the ultra-realistic nature of the ride that we were eventually trying to promote. I did it kind of naively. I said to myself ‘okay, 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 the UFO phenomenon was real…’ We didn’t make up anything, but it certainly surprised the people at Disney.

Thomas told me he wrote 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 told me that he 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.

Former Disney CEO, Michael Eisner.

These statements from Thomas almost completely dismantle the idea that the Disney documentary was anything other than a promo for a theme park ride. However, there were aspects of the Alien Encounters project that even Thomas considered strange. Disney CEO Michael Eisner took a direct interest in the documentary, personally vetting its content and even filming his own introduction for the piece. Thomas mused:

I thought it was really odd because this was kind of a minor marketing project, but Disney put a lot of weight into it. I mean, Eisner doesn’t have to stop walking down the street to pick up a twenty-dollar-bill—it’s not worth his time. But they had him look through this. And he filmed this intro to the show. He had his own film crew take him out to a sound stage and film his own intro, which I thought was just really surprising.

Also surprising to Thomas was Disney’s inexplicable TV scheduling for the documentary, which he described as “completely counter-intuitive” because “it played on independent stations in the afternoon at like 2 o’clock or 3 o’ clock, or some horrible time when no one would be watching it.”

Why was Michael Eisner so personally invested in what, on the surface at least, was a minor TV marketing project? And why the bizarre and “totally counter-intuitive” TV scheduling for the documentary?

Let us for a moment indulge the popular conspiratorial interpretation of events. If powerful UFO-related interests were involved in the documentary—perhaps having recommended Thomas to Disney knowing what he would produce based on his sophisticated viral work on Spielberg’s Close Encounters—then Thomas himself may have been oblivious to this fact. He would have been a pawn in a much larger game. But this interpretation seems incredibly farfetched, and I put no stock at all in the “acclimation” theory. There’s simply no evidence to support it.

However, there is compelling circumstantial evidence for the theory that Hollywood historically has been exploited as a tool for UFO “perception management”—an agenda more subtle and complex than simple acclimation; one relating to psychological warfare, in which controllable, faith-based subcultures are exploited, cultivated and steered towards various intelligence ends, both foreign and domestic, not necessarily even related to UFOs. Anyone who doubts that popular UFO beliefs have been steered and shaped significantly by intelligence operatives for self-serving ends should make time to prove themselves wrong by reading Greg Bishop’s Project Beta and Mark Pilkington’s Mirage Men.

Certainly, it can be said that the content of the Disney documentary served to strongly reinforce ideas that had thus far been sown into the UFO community by disinformation operatives dating back at least to the early-1980s. Was the documentary intended as a furtherance of these covert efforts to encourage certain misguided and exploitable beliefs within the UFO subculture?

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 as a potential conduit for its propaganda. The panel’s attraction to Disney made sense given the animation giant’s then firmly established working relationship with the US government: not only was Uncle Walt a trusted friend of President Eisenhower’s chief propagandist, C.D. Jackson, in the early-mid-1950s, he also made numerous propaganda shorts for the US military during WWII and later helped produce films promoting 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 also significant because the Panel’s recommendation to debunk UFOs through media channels is known to have been acted upon in at least one instance: the CBS TV broadcast of UFOs: Friend, Foe, or Fantasy? a 1966 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 not unreasonable to speculate that the government may at least have attempted to follow through on the Robertson Panel’s Disney recommendation.

There appears to have been a direct connection between Disney, UFOs, and the military in a case involving the famed Oscar-winning Disney animator, Ward Kimball. While speaking at a conference for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) in 1979, Kimball claimed that the USAF had approached Walt Disney himself in the mid-1950s, requesting his cooperation on a documentary that would help acclimate the public to extraterrestrial reality. Kimball knew this because, as one of Disney’s most trusted animators, he was directly involved in the project. In exchange for Disney’s cooperation, said Kimball, the USAF would supply the animation giant with real UFO footage for exclusive use in his documentary. According to Kimball, Disney accepted the deal and began work immediately on the USAF project.

Famed Disney Animator, Ward Kimball.

While Disney waited patiently for the USAF to provide the UFO footage, his animators (Kimball among them) produced conceptual designs of what an alien might look like. However, the offer of the UFO footage was eventually withdrawn, provoking Kimball himself to challenge the official military liaison for the project–a USAF Colonel who told him that “there was indeed plenty of UFO footage, but that neither [Kimball], nor anyone else was going to get access to it.” The project was abandoned and forgotten by all but the few who had worked on it.

Disney has maintained its close historical ties to officialdom over the decades. In 1994, one year prior to the Alien Encounters documentary, Disney worked closely with the Pentagon during the production of In the Army Now (1994). The Pentagon gave this feature-length Army recruitment advert its full cooperation, providing Disney with expensive military hardware and on-set advice from DOD personnel. Disney has also historically been tied to the US arms industry. Between the years 2000 and 2011, Disney directors-board-member John Bryson simultaneously served as a director of the Boeing Company, one of the world’s largest aerospace and defense contractors (selling dreams with one hand, and missiles with the other).

Andy Fickman, director of Disney’s 2009 UFO movie, ‘Race to Witch Mountain.’

More bizarrely, the 2009 Disney UFO movie Race to Witch Mountain appears to have received covert assistance from the CIA. In a highly unusual production arrangement, Fickman claims he and his crew were closely assisted by an active employee of the Agency whose advice extended even to designing the film’s onscreen alien language. Fickman’s advisor—whom he secured through “back door channels”—also recommended that certain UFO-themed content be removed from the script and even accompanied Fickman on a private tour of NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain facility where they chatted with military top brass. “I don’t think there was anything abnormal about what they were doing,” Fickman told me in 2010, “I just think it was that phone calls were being made and doors were sort of opening.”

All of this is very intriguing, no doubt. But, let’s face it, the above examples of Disney/government cooperation prove nothing at all with regards to the 1995 Disney UFO documentary. Frankly, I would be inclined to disregard the Disney documentary entirely as any kind of intelligence-related project if not for the fact that it was tied closely to another, more baffling Disney UFO project…

In Part Two, I’ll present the inside story of Disney’s now-mythic UFO conference.

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Robbie Graham has lectured around the world on the UFO subject and has been interviewed for the BBC, Coast to Coast AM, Canal+ TV, Channel 4, and Vanity Fair, among many others. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, New Statesman, Filmfax, and Fortean Times. He holds first class degrees in Film, Television and Radio Studies (BA hons) and Cinema Studies (MA) from Staffordshire University and the University of Bristol respectively. He is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies (White Crow Books, 2015) and the editor of UFOs: Reframing the Debate (White Crow Books, 2017). Visit robbiegraham.uk
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