A Tsunami of Sightings – Alien Encounters From New Tomorrowland (1995)

In 1995 the Magic Kingdom took a turn for the scary. Not “hey let’s put more pumpkins in the park” scary or “hey let’s put a Dracula cape on Mickey” scary but like, legit “let’s make little kids cry” scary. Mission to Mars, the iconic theatrical ride featuring a simulated trip to the Red Planet, had shuttered in 1993, and 1995 saw its replacement in the form of the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.

The gist of the ride has park-goers captive in a dark theater as a technological glitch enables an alien to teleport among them. The lights mostly out, the theater uses sound, smell and touch to simulate an alien among the crowd, and even right behind you.

Fun fact: this was originally supposed to be THE alien, the Xenomorph; the ride was supposed to be the Nostromus, and the sponsoring company in the ride was supposed to be Weyland-Yutani. That idea was scrapped for two reasons: the Alien franchise was an R-rated franchise which made it a no-no for Disney park representation, and there was a concern that using the Xenomorph would make things TOO scary. It was probably the right move for the park’s image, but the ride ended up being very scary regardless and it became clear that Disney didn’t really know how to fit that into the promise of what the rest of the park offered.

The ride came out alongside the debut of New Tomorrowland, a very ’90s reimagining of that section of the Magic Kingdom. Mostly gone was the Walt-inspired approach of predicting the future in look, feel, and technology, replaced by a more amusement-park-ish celebration of rockets, lights and tubes.  A similar makeover was happening across the lake at EPCOT, too. Like the new design or hate it, it’s hard to argue that this new aesthetic did the task of branding a scary adult dark ride any favors.

Then there’s the documentary, probably the weirdest part of all of this. Disney-sponsored television specials in support of new parks or new rides were par for the course at this point, but this was something different. Instead of a Network prime time, star studded event, Disney instead commissioned an hourlong documentary focused on humanity’s encouters with alien life.  Titled “Alien Encounters from New Tomorrowland”, the special seemed meant to go viral, airing not in a high viewership slot on National television but instead late at night and on local cable outlets; the infomercial rotation.

This documentary takes a lot of interesting starting positions, the most striking of them being the fact that aliens have visited, aliens are still visiting, and something big is around the corner. Introduced by Michael Eisner, the special takes most of its time pointedly NOT talking about the new ride and instead relays historical accounts of UFO sightings, exhausts the Roswell story, and has interviews with several alien abductees who go into very un-Disney detail of their encounters.

When the special does get around to the ride, it positions the attraction as “preparing the public for cosmic contact with a virtual alien encounter”. Everything after that’s pretty standard ride-commercial stuff.  It’s an interesting line to straddle, making a “documentary” that fits the narrative of the world that the viewer would be in if they were ON the ride and then scheduling it on television as something to be discovered, but for some reason it just doesn’t really stick the landing.  Here it is:

 

The ride itself was similarly polarizing. Some liked the edgy adult experience, while others lamented its departure from the family-friendly Disney promise. The latter opinion won out, and the ride was softened up and turned into Stitch’s Great Escape in 2003.

Real talk: Stitch’s Great Escape is still too scary for me.

 

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USA Cartoon Express – Monster Bash (1993)

The USA Cartoon Express broke a lot of ground in the 1980s and 90s with its approach to a kids block. Tucked away on the then-still-nascent cable giant lived a one to two hour block, depending on where it was scheduled, that was all for kids.  The block was a full takeover of the network, a show of its own, a train ride where the network was the conductor and the cartoons were the passengers.

The USA Cartoon Express was a showcase for an impressive variety of cartoons; the Hanna Barbera library was a staple of the block, as were He-Man, Transformers, Alvin and The Chipmunks, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In between those heavy hitters were more obscure titles like Mighty Max and Savage Dragon. In between those shows, in addition to the train bumps, were shorter pieces created specifically for USA.  In a Minute segments featured real life and real kids answering real questions. The USA Network Kids Club gave viewers a chance to interact with the network and sometimes get featured on the block. All of this, all of this could warrant its own post but since we’re getting into spooky territory here now that it’s October let’s look at a series of custom shorts called Monster Bash.

The idea of all of the different types of monsters getting together and hanging out isn’t necessarily a new one, but Monster Bash brought a (then) new idea: Dracula owned a hotel with all of the other monsters and the difficulty of maintaining a hotel with all of those other monsters made for a handful of entertaining 30-second situations.

The staff are a weird mixture of adult monsters and child monsters.  The guests are never shown; the stories typically center around some aspect of hotel management that the staff has to resolve, with a minimal ‘monster’ layer thrown in.  They’re pretty good gags, all in all.  Check them out here!

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Put A Label On It! – Casio Devices (1980-90s)

When it came to ways to get technology  into your day-to-day life, Casio had some pretty big ideas.  Looking in hindsight from the vantage point of a world that has all-in-one smartphones in it, the number of big ideas they had really stands out. And that’s sort of the problem for Casio: they were all individual ideas, single-task devices that excelled at one thing.  That’s probably a safe bet to make as a company – up until someone makes a device that can do everything and makes all of your hard work pointless.

Still, let’s applaud Casio for their innovation. I won’t even get into the watches here, because those are bananas and deserve their own spotlight. Let’s just look at a few of the other siloed devices that would eventually all get wrapped into a smartphone.

Data Cal

How else can an on-the-go business man keep track of his work and personal life? The Data Cal has two astonishing features: it’s a finger-friendly calculator that fits in your pocket AND a databank for phone numbers.  Before this baby, businessmen had to carry full Rolodexes (Rolodices?) around with them. Imagine the space savings! This sort of thing must have been necessary; the commercial positions the businessman as a complete idiot without his technology, an ominous foreshadowing of our current state. His poor, exasperated wife.

 

Digital Diary/Secret Sender

It’s texting. It’s a texting device. I guess the diary aspect of it is sort of like texting yourself.  Again, in a pre-smartphone world this is a pretty appealing idea. It’s sort of like a walkie-talkie, except with text. It’s texting.

 

Portable TV

The grand promise of the ‘80s, a television you could carry around in your pocket.  Never mind the flimsy resolution, the strained reception, the absurdity of holding this thing to watch any program and actually pull any enjoyment from the act. It’s a portable television. Pretty big deal, and I’m not being sarcastic. This is the best looking ad yet.

 

Label Zone

It feels right to finish with a product that smartphones still can’t do (as of this post), one that also becomes hilarious when marketed at kids.  It’s the Casio Label Zone, encouraging children to (Yo!) put a label on it. Pre-Portlandia.

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All At Once – Red Devil Infomercial (1990s)

It has long been my position that the half-hour “Magic Bullet” commercial is the gold standard of infomercials. It hits all of the right notes of an infomercial: the hosts are enthusiastic to the point that you suspect they’re on an adjacent level of reality to the rest of us, there’s a strained attempt at a narrative, the product is too good to be true, and the supporting cast does almost as much work selling the product as the hosts.

All that said, I’m on my third Magic Bullet and I love it.

Mick and (a different) Mimi returned to the as-seen-on-TV fray with a follow up product, the Red Devil grill. The approach to the product was the same – create a method of food preparation that would cook anything under the sun using pretty much the same process – and while it doesn’t quite hit all of the notes that the Magic Bullet trilogy hits – there are no Bermans, no Hazels, no weird morning-after slumber parties – but it’s still worth a look.

The (thin) premise here is that Mick and Mimi are hosting a backyard barbecue, presumably at their own home. The whole (nameless) neighborhood is there, including one sad sack who’s been relegated to traditional grill duty at a barbecue that he’s not even hosting on a grill that the hosts – presumably the owners of the grill – are about to mock.

Mick wastes no time getting to the point – he’s got an amazing new contraption that will make all traditional grills obsolete. It’s the Red Devil, a gas-powered contraption that stands on three rickety legs and transforms from a grill to a wok to an oven with (hot) ease.

Mick and Mimi trade off cooking demos throughout the video, and the food starts to pile up. I really feel for whoever’s job it was to dress the food up to look appetizing; they didn’t, but it was probably because they couldn’t. All of this food is straight-up unattractive.

And nobody needs this much breakfast.

And then they add cinnamon rolls?

I’ve already spoiled the big reveal that the Red Devil does more than just grill – Mick and Mimi do a Barnum-esque reveal of each new function to the mild delight of the crowd…

 

…then Mimi blows minds by pulling a cooked lobster from a huge boiling pot that nobody noticed until this point. This is easily the climax of the infomercial.

Let’s appreciate the savagery on Mimi’s face .

The sad sack finally finishes his burgers, oblivious to all that has gone on ten feet away from him, and enthusiastically tries to engage the crowd only to be slapped down immediately by Mick for not cooking the mountain of food that they did. All this guy wanted to do was make food for his friends. It wasn’t even his grill!

And that’s it for the Red Devil. Fun fact: these grills were recalled due to them falling over because of their rickety legs! With that in mind it’s easy to see how carefully Mick and Mimi handle the Red Devil in their demos, while at the same time making an effort to show how ‘simple’ it is to set up/take down/carry around.

Here it is.

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A House That Has Not Been Built – 1991 Virtual Reality Report

I’ve been on a tight schedule lately but I wanted to take a minute to share this Primetime Live report from 1991 featuring virtual reality. There’s nothing really laughable or off-base about the report, which in itself is impressive; most of these ‘official’ reports of emerging technologies are the clunky equivalents of the chaperones dancing with the kids at the school dance.  The reporters usually don’t “get it”, and you could argue that these guys don’t either, but the segment comes off as inspired and optimistic about the future of VR tech. And for good reason – it was a promising idea then and continues to be now.

What is laughable is seeing how far we’ve come since 1991. These graphics are nothing to be ashamed of given the era, but this segment nods to a culture that embraced this level of fidelity as the final destination of the technology (see The Lawnmower Man). The thought of some rich dude shelling out $50,000 for a rig that could pull off this level of immersion is, well, the nineties in a nutshell.

Here’s the segment!

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