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UFOs Over Disney: Just Plain Goofy


Seth Shostack

Skeptical Briefs Volume 5.2, June 1995

(From the Editor)

The Walt Disney company has embarked upon a multi-pronged media blitz designed to promote its new “Alien Encounters and Extraterrestrial Experiences” attraction scheduled to open this summer at the new "Tomorrowland” exhibit at Walt Disney World in Orlando. According to Phil Klass in his Skeptics UFO Newsletter, (March 1995) Disney Chairman, Michael Eisner, visited the exhibit and found it disappointing and ordered it closed down for drastic changes. Disney decided, however, to go ahead with its planned “UFO Summit” to give news media and invited guests the opportunity to meet with leading UFO "experts” such as Budd Hopkins, Kevin Randle, and a number of abductees.

Disney has also devoted the majority of the May issue of its children’s magazine Disney Adventures to UFOs, including such articles as “Aliens in Hollywood,” “I Met an Alien-and Lived!,” “D.A,'s Handbook for UFO Hunting,” “Alien Alert (We Believe),” and “Skeptics United (We Don't).”

To further promote its attraction, Disney produced and broadcast in March a syndicated one-hour feature titled “Alien Encounters.” The Wall Street Journal (3/6/95) reported, “On hand to introduce the show is Michael Eisner, chairman of Disney, bringing word that at a top-secret military location in the United States, the government is hiding the remains of a mysterious spacecraft and that there is ‘more and more scientific evidence of alien encounters.'” The show goes on to describe government conspiracies, alien abductions, the taking of genetic material, and impending invasion.

Does this sound like somewhere you'd like to take your kids?

The Disney program did not escape the attention of Seth Shostak, a scientist with the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Dr. Shostak sent the following letter to Disney and a copy of it to CSICOP.

20 April, 1995

Dear Mr. Kurtz:

The Disney corporation, in an effort to flog their newest Tomorrowland attraction “Alien Encounters,” recently produced and broadcast a particularly disturbing television show aimed at kids that promoted the view that extraterrestrials had landed and were probably up to no good. Unlike most TV fare having similar themes, this was presented as a “straight” documentary. Many viewers, I’m sure, took this to be an investigative piece, and there has been a fair amount of negative reaction on the Internet from folks in education and research.

People here at the Institute were sufficiently disappointed to prompt the enclosed letter. If you haven't seen the television special, I could arrange to make a VHS copy for you.

19 April, 1995

Mr. Michael D. Eisner, Chairman
Disney Co.
500 S. Buena Vista Street

Burbank, CA 91521

Dear Mr. Eisner:

It was with feelings of disappointment and consternation that I viewed the recent Disney television program “Alien Encounters,” produced by Andy Thomas. This program includes a long, documentary-style report on the alleged indisputable reality of UFOs, the cover-up of their existence by the government, and the prediction that we will soon be confronting aliens face to face. For good measure, the additional claim is made that microbes on Earth are the aliens’ “point men,” an infestation that precedes invasion. None of this was qualified in any way. It was presented as fact.

Unfortunately, it is all disingenuous nonsense. Despite nearly a half- century of modern UFO reports, not a single convincing bit of physical evidence attests to their existence. The many hundreds of orbiting satellites that continuously photograph the Earth’s surface and atmosphere have never seen a UFO.

Whether or not Mr. Thomas personally believes in alien visitors, this show is an unfortunate exploitation of the natural credulity of young people. I am sure you are aware of the many test results showing that America’s youth are dangerously unskilled in science. Newspapers regularly print editorials stressing the crying need for students who can think critically. In light of these national concerns, it is disheartening to find that the Disney organization apparently wishes to perpetuate the problem, rather than contribute to the solution.

I would not offer similar objections to Disneyland’s “Haunted House,” although one might argue that ghosts fall into the same category as UFOs. After all, despite popular belief in ghosts, there is no scientific evidence for their existence either. However, the subjects differ in two regards. First, I know of no television special posing as serious documentary that has told young people that ghosts really do exist (but are being kept from us by a paranoid government). Second, the “Haunted House” is not in Tomorrowland.

This latter point is important. I first went to Disneyland in 1959, and still vividly remember the attractions that presaged future scientific and engineering developments. My later studies in physics and astronomy were inspired by the “Trip to the Moon.” The Monsanto ride through “inner space” is still a subject of praise among science educators. But “Alien Encounters"-at least to judge by the television special-is devoid of science. It seems fitter fare for Fantasyland.

This need not have been the case. Our institute, as well as organizations such as the Planetary Society, the University of California, and Ohio State University, are engaged in a serious effort using radio telescopes to find evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations. Numerous researchers, many of them within NASA, are busy trying to uncover planets around other stars. The question of whether life once existed on Mars is being actively investigated.

Not all of these research projects will bear fruit immediately. But some will. At that point “Alien Encounters” will be in striking discordance with scientific evidence. This is reminiscent of Chester Gould’s elaborate descriptions of Moon Maid and other characters in his comic strip, “Dick Tracy.” Although he never pretended to portray reality, Mr. Gould’s lunar characters were suddenly and completely upstaged when Neil Armstrong stepped onto a sterile moon in 1969.

Why Disney has chosen to ignore the real story of life in space is puzzling. In 1992, Dr. John Billingham, who then headed up the NASA project to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, was approached by Hank Robitaille about the possibility of incorporating some ideas from the NASA effort into an exhibit at Epcot Center. Nothing seems to have come of this contact. Has a decision been made to offer the sizzle instead of the steak?

I had hoped that a company that has been so closely identified with responsible-even educational-products such as the award-winning Living Desert, might wish to offer kids something better. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is accessible science, not the arcane research of theoretical physics or abstruse mathematics. The ideas and the consequences can be appreciated by school children and the lay public. Our institute has developed very successful curriculum materials that capitalize on children’s natural curiosity about E.T. to introduce them to basic concepts in astronomy, biology, and geology. It is no great surprise to find that kids are interested in science when it is presented as exciting discovery.

In closing, let me emphasize that my concern is not with the imaginative aspects of “Alien Encounters.” After all, even Albert Einstein noted that in research, imagination is more important than knowledge. But imagination alone should not be sold as science, especially when the science is every bit as interesting as the fantasy. Slimy critters intent on human abduction are no more than ciphers for the real civilizations that might be scattered among the half-trillion stars of our galaxy. You should at least temper your skewed presentation of contact with cosmic inhabitants by mentioning the scientific attempts to answer one of the most enduring questions ever posed by human-kind: Are we alone in the universe? Kids love fantasy, but in matters of discovery nothing rivals the power of fact.

Dr. Seth Shostak
SETI Institute

Seth Shostack

Seth Shostak is Senior Astronomer with the SETI Institute and host of Are We Alone?