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.

 

-ds

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.

-ds

 

Squash Game Tonight – AT&T True Experience (1995)

The ’90s are full of ahead-of-its-time ideas, particularly when the internet is involved.  We could not wait to make the internet our slave, and were simultaneously just as eager to create a critical umbilical between our lives and the internet that could barely tolerate any disruption.  Windows 95 was full of ways to plug into the internet to stream music and video and access information about the world around you. Online services like Prodigy, Compuserve,and America Online provided communities, news, and up-to-the-minute stock updates.  The problem was that it took forever; broadband was a rarity and dial-up internet moved at a snail’s pace. “Up-to-the-minute” was “thirty-minutes-ago” at best and more frequently “yesterday”.

You can’t fault the world its enthusiasm, though; the internet was exciting and the possibilities were endless! Here’s a video for an AT&T service that never took off, a way to use the family computer as a personal assistant hub for events in the family’s life. AT&T’s strength then, and now, was the ubiquity of communication it held domain over; cellular phones were starting to become more widespread, landlines were still heavily relied upon, and AT&T was poised to serve as the connective tissue between the internet and all of the other devices in your life. You could also use the microphone to send commands and, obviously, make voice recordings for others.   We take it for granted now, but all of this was a novel idea in 1995.

The idea is great, the execution…not so much.  The fact that you had to dial into the service to sync and receive updates was just enough to take the promise of a seamless ‘everywhere you are’ digital assistant and reduce it to being only as useful the schedule of the lazy humans required to enter and update the data themselves would allow.  Also, this never made it to market, so there was really no execution to speak of.


Still, this video’s worth a watch. It’s got that beautifully bland infomercial panache, a strained narrative, and a good look at the devices of the day – huge cellphone with the buttons on the back, huge landline,  and that enormous CRT computer monitor – and if you can place yourself into a 1995 mindset, this is a very exciting idea.

Here’s the whole thing.

-ds

 

 

It Keeps My Kids At Home – SEGA Game Channel Infomercial (1990s)

The fact that streaming video game services are only just now entering the mainstream shows how innovative The SEGA Channel was in the early 1990s.  Harnessing the power of and the enthusiasm for cable TV, SEGA worked with local providers to roll out the SEGA Channel in 1994.  This subscription service ($13/mo) offered a rotating selection of 50 downloadable Genesis games and other content that included betas, hints, and even exclusive titles that weren’t getting physical releases in the US.

Seems like a great offering, but there were a few mis-steps.  For one, this came out in 1994.  The Genesis came out in 1989. It was almost dead at this point and the Saturn was just around the corner; launching a big idea like this could have been a play at squeezing a few more years out of the old console, but it wasn’t really seen as a great value. Also contributing to that was the price. Thirteen dollars was a lot to ask parents for every month for unlimited access to those brain-rotting video games.

Still, we may owe a lot to SEGA for trying this.  SEGA worked with cable companies to clean their signals in order to be able to effectively upload games to subscribers, a move that facilitated the advancement of broadband later in the decade.  If you can watch this (spoiler) awful infomercial SEGA Channel infomercials without any freezing or stuttering, you’ll have even more reasons to thank SEGA than you thought.

So yeah, the infomercial – this parody of itself aired on cable in 1994 and 1995 and hits an almost “Saved By The Bell” level of adult-interpretation-of-what-cool-is.  It’s amazing that such a great, envelope-pushing idea was stained so deeply by its marketing. Trying to sell a service as both desirable to kids and safe to adults pretty much requires throwing any idea of ‘cool’ out the door. They should have just stayed focused on ‘fun’, but the ’90s were the ’90s and this is what we got. In a way, I’m glad for it.  It’s a special kind of awful.

Our first host of two hangs out on a set that resembles those ‘unconventional’ class picture backgrounds….

…while our second is ‘on location’ at EPCOT, where SEGA had a station in the Innoventions pavilion.  A deserved position for the idea but still, this guy’s the worst.

Cut in between these two hosts are soundbites from kids and parents alike. The kids halfheartedly represent how desirable this service his, and the parents speak to decade-old talking points reflecting the fear of your child having any existence outside of the home. Some choice lines:

“It keeps my kids at home.”

“My kids are in a safe place.”

“My friends and I used to sit around and talk about boys; now we talk about our SEGA Channel high scores.”

And my favorite, from our host:

“Stop just watching TV, start playing it, with SEGA Channel!” They were playing TV before, when the console was hooked up to it!

It’s eight minutes that feels like eighty, and it’s terrible and hokey and fantastic. Enjoy.

-ds

 

 

Super Mario All Stars VHS Promo Video – 1993

Imagine going to pick up your pre-order of Super Mario All Stars for the Super Nintendo in 1993 and receiving a bonus VHS containing twenty minutes of Mario celebration along with reviews of  other contemporary SNES games, all hosted by Lister from Red Dwarf.

Are you imagining it?

This video is simultaneously an awesome pack-in for a video game, a huge bonus value, and a cringeworthy commercial that tries so hard to be cool that it comes off as like when the chaperones try to dance with the students at the school dance.

Craig Charles hosts from a very Dwarf-esque control center, narrating a brief history of the Mario series before rolling through some talking points on the bigger SNES games of the time like A Link to the Past, Mario Kart, Starwing (Starfox here in the US) and Battletoads.

The video also oddly rates its own games? Why would you present the game that you’re trying to sell to kids as anything other than 100%?

Lister then “beams down” to meet the Nintendo hotline headquarters representatives. While it would have been easy to portray the hotline headquarters as a futuristically lit gaming lair featuring loads of slick actors paid to look like savvy gaming know-it-alls, Nintendo made the bold choice to portray the hotline headquarters as a futuristically lit gaming lair featuring the actual hotline representatives who aren’t necessarily camera friendly and have no formal on-camera training.

The video then doubles down on this strategy, giving the representatives the chance to review Aladdin, Mario Paint, and more, in obnoxiously over-effected segments.

An educating but disappointingly dry five minute segment on how a video game is made leads into a run of game cheats. This is arguably the only valuable part of the entire tape.

The valuable part lasts only so long until the segment turns into a commercial for the SNES Score Master and the Nintendo Scope. I’m not sure ‘buy this accessory to play the game better’ counts as a tip.

Lister throws a few snarky one liners and the video is over.  Like I said, this is simultaneously a great bonus item for a game and a terrible video. But adorably terrible.  Here it is.

-ds