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UFOs and Disney: Behind the Magic Kingdom

By Robbie Graham Silver 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 raised 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."

Thomas’s meteorite information did raise a red flag at Disney, however: "They called me in and they said ‘we’re really concerned about this thing about NASA exploring rocks in Antarctica.’ I told them it was absolutely true and to let me go back to the office and I’ll get the material [sources] so they can check my facts... no big deal. So it wasn’t any big secret, it was just that the official [NASA] announcement came later."

Former Disney CEO, Michael Eisner
There were aspects of the Alien Encounters project, however, that even Thomas considered strange – not least of all was the fact that Disney CEO Michael Eisner took a direct interest in the documentary, personally vetting its content and even filming his own introduction for the piece:

"I thought it was really odd because to me this was kind of a minor marketing project, but they [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. I didn’t do that. 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."

Overall, Thomas’s testimony punches serious holes in the theory that Disney’s Alien Encounters documentary was a government-sponsored UFO acclimation effort. Yet questions remain; indeed, some of Thomas’s statements only add fuel to the fire: 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?

Indulging the conspiratorial interpretation of events for a moment: if powerful UFO-related interests were involved in the documentary – perhaps having recommended Thomas knowing what he would produce based on his sophisticated work on Spielberg’s Close Encounters – then Thomas himself would likely be oblivious to this fact. He would have been a pawn in a much larger game, so to speak. I’ll be the first to admit that this interpretation sounds farfetched; but it is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. Certainly, during the time the Alien Encounters documentary was produced in the mid-1990s, Disney was working closely with the Pentagon on two separate pro-establishment Hollywood movies: In the Army Now (1994) and Crimson Tide (1995), both of which received generous production support from the Department of Defense in the form of expensive military hardware and on-set advice from DoD personnel. Indeed, Disney’s continuing willingness to support establishment power structures was effectively demonstrated more recently when it released the TV movie The Path to 9/11 (2006), which was heavily skewed to exonerate the Bush administration and blame the Clinton administration for the 9/11 attacks – provoking outraged letters of complaint to Disney from former high-level Clinton Administration staffers. The nature of Disney’s output makes sense given the company’s historical ties not only to the US defence department, but to the arms industry also. Even now, a long-time Directors Board member of Disney is John Bryson – also a director of The Boeing Company, one of the world’s largest aerospace and defence contractors.

President Obama with Disney/Boeing director, John Bryson
Despite Disney’s demonstrably cosy relationship with secretive institutions, however, and putting aside a couple of unanswered questions regarding the documentary’s personal vetting by Eisner and its curious TV scheduling, there simply is no direct evidence to suggest that Alien Encounters was ever anything more than marketing project for a theme park ride. However, a much more compelling case for Disney/government UFO collusion recently has come to light.

Race to Witch Mountain

Directed by Andy Fickman – a self-confessed "UFO buff" born and raised in Roswell, New Mexico – Disney’s Race to Witch Mountain (2009) depicts the arrival on Earth of two blonde-haired, blue-eyed, human-looking extraterrestrials (UFOlogy’s ‘Nordics’) and their plan to save their own dying planet from total atmospheric degradation. In a September 2010 interview, Fickman explained to me how he had sought to ground his movie as firmly as possible in UFOlogical reality by personally schooling his cast in UFO history: "I would spend time with my actors literally just going through ‘UFO 101’ – we’d watch every DVD that was out there, every documentary; I would give them book, upon book, upon book."

Although the vast majority of the film’s UFOlogical content came from Fickman, at least some of it was the result of CIA input. In a highly unusual production arrangement Fickman claims he was closely assisted by an active employee of the CIA whose advice extended so far even as to designing the alien writing seen in the UFO during the film’s climactic scene. Fickman is unwilling to name this advisor, but claims he is an Air Force Colonel with a background in Technical Intelligence, that he had been "very active in Hollywood" and "had a lot of connections in the computer world and experience in satellite imagery." Fickman said of his CIA advisor:

"All of the on-camera alien language in terms of their spaceship and everything – that was all designed by him in the sense [of what] the mathematics of communication would be, so you know... there would be a similar mathematical equation that the government probably has if they were to ever come across an alien race. So a lot of the things we ended up using were things he was bringing to me... and the next thing you know, that’s what I had on screen."

While on-set, Fickman took the opportunity to ask his CIA man some probing questions: "In typical ‘can’t confirm, can’t deny’ manner," said Fickman, "no matter what I would personally ask him about anything from ‘who killed Kennedy?’ To ‘what happened at Roswell?’ He always played it with a nice smile that implied 'I don’t think you have the security clearance for me to talk to you about anything.'" The CIA advisor also recommended that certain UFOlogical content be removed from the script: "there were things we got rid of in the script that he was just trying to follow logic on from a protocol standpoint," said Fickman, although he would not elaborate on the nature of the changes made.

Andy Fickman, director of Race to Witch Mountain (2009)
Fickman further claims that he was afforded a visit to NORAD’s sensitive Cheyenne Mountain facility in 2008, where – accompanied by his CIA advisor – his team spent 12 hours taking photographs and talking with on-duty military officers, including the heads of NORAD. "We wanted our Witch Mountain to resemble what NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain look like inside," he said. "We took a thousand photos and then by the time they released us into the wilderness maybe we had three hundred that had been approved for us to somewhat copy [for production design purposes]."

Incidentally, Fickman’s Cheyenne Mountain visit took place just a few weeks after the high-profile Stephenville Texas UFO sightings. Remembering that witnesses had described seeing fighter jets in pursuit of the Stephenville UFO/s, Fickman raised the incident with NORAD officers: "I asked the question of all the NORAD people point blank: ‘so, what about those jets – did you guys release those jets?’ And after a kind of thoughtful pause, the guy in charge said ‘hypothetically, if something had invaded US airspace, we would have responded in kind. I have no indication one way or another that jets ever pursued any unknown object at the time you’re referring to.’" Fickman found NORAD’s ‘non-denial denial’ to be "very telling."

The CIA, for its part, claims to have had no involvement in Race to Witch Mountain. In an email to the author, Paula Weiss, Media Spokeswoman at the CIA Office of Public Affairs, said: "We have no knowledge of any CIA officer having assisted with this film…It’s very easy for outsiders, including Hollywood film people, to assume any US intelligence officer is CIA when in fact he could be from DIA, NSA, NGA, etc. Sorry I can’t resolve this for you based on the available information."  

Fickman was puzzled by the CIA’s denial. When I asked the director whether or not the CIA man could have been retired from the Agency and had been acting in a private capacity (as is the case with a number of ex-CIA operatives in Hollywood, including Robert Baer, Milton Beardon and Chase Brandon), he replied: "there’s no way we would have had what we had, had he not been an active CIA employee..." Indeed, throughout the NORAD visit, Fickman claims he relied heavily on the influence wielded by his CIA man: "Nothing happened at NORAD without him flashing his card and making his calls."

Fickman believes it was due in large part to the fact that his military and intelligence advisors were secured "through back door channels" that his production was granted such extraordinary access to the inner-workings of the national security apparatus, but he insists there was no hidden agenda behind his government’s uncharacteristic generosity in this regard: "All of a sudden I was in places that I don’t know I would have been had I gone through normal channels. I don’t think there was anything abnormal about what they were doing, I just think it was [that] phone calls were being made and doors were sort of opening."

Fickman’s claims carry with them the weighty implication that the CIA may be operating in Hollywood beyond the dry remit of its media liaison office, which is to provide "impartial advice on matters of accuracy and authenticity" in relation the CIA’s image while on set, and certainly does not extend to accompanying a director on a private trip to NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain facility, nor designing fictional alien language for a feature film in which the CIA itself is not even depicted.

Behind the Scenes

The real reasons for the CIA adopting an "advisory" role on Disney’s Race to Witch Mountain (as well as on numerous other Hollywood productions) were pointed to in a solitary comment by former Associate General Counsel to the CIA, Paul Kelbaugh. Whilst at a College in Virginia in 2007, Kelbaugh delivered a lecture on the CIA’s relationship with Hollywood, at which a local journalist was present. The journalist (who has since requested anonymity, but who is known to me) published a review of the lecture which related Kelbaugh’s discussion of the 2003 Disney-produced thriller The Recruit, starring Al Pacino. The journalist noted that, according to Kelbaugh, a CIA agent was on set for the duration of the shoot under the guise of a consultant, but that his real job was to misdirect the filmmakers: "We didn’t want Hollywood getting too close to the truth," the journalist quoted Kelbaugh as saying. In a blunt email to my colleague Matthew Alford, however, Kelbaugh denied having made the public statement and claimed that he remembered "very specific discussions with senior [CIA] management that no one was ever to misrepresent to affect [film] content – EVER." The journalist stands by the original report, and Kelbaugh has refused to be drawn into further discussion of the matter.

As a closing thought on Disney’s establishment ties in relation to the UFO question, in January 2011, the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) staged its 5th Annual Global Competitiveness Forum (GCF) – a major International business convention which this year featured keynote speeches by the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Intriguingly, this year’s GCF event also featured a special panel discussion entitled: "Contact: Learning from Outer Space," in which names such as Stanton Friedman, Jacques Vallee, Nick Pope and Professor Michio Kaku addressed the wide-ranging implications of UFOs and potential extraterrestrial life. How is this relevant to our topic? Well, it might not be, but the primary sponsor of the GCF event was Boeing – a company highlighted by Disclosure Project witnesses as being a key player in UFO-related ‘deep black’ programmes and which you’ll also recall is linked at a directors-board-level to the Walt Disney Company – and a key note speaker at the event was none other than Chairman of Walt Disney International, Andy Bird. UFOs, Disney, Boeing, even former heads of state – all under one roof, so to speak. It proves nothing of course, but is nevertheless worthy of mention in that it brings to mind what the famous ex-CIA operative Robert Baer once told me regarding the Hollywood/Washington relationship: "All these people that run studios – they go to Washington, they hang around with senators, they hang around with CIA directors, and everybody's on board." Certainly, Disney has long been "on board" with supporting government and military power structures; as to whether or not this support extends to an involvement in some indefinable "Hollywood UFO conspiracy" is impossible to say. For now, at least, all we can do is weigh-up what little evidence is available to us and each draw our own conclusions as to precisely what UFO secrets – if any – might lie behind the Magic Kingdom. 

Copyright © 2011, Robbie Graham