Disney Space Stories You Never Knew

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

With the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing as well as the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, my thoughts have drifted to the Disney involvement with outer space.

The temptation is to write another article about the three iconic Ward Kimball Tomorrowland episodes that aired on the Disney weekly television show in the 1950s, or perhaps one of the space attractions that appeared at a variety of Disney theme parks over the decades.

However, for today, I thought I might write about Disney's stardust, very small, usually unnoticeable things that sometimes can still have an impact.

In 2015, it was determined that at least 60 tons of actual cosmic stardust falls on the Earth every day. Most of this material is almost microscopic and insignificant. However, some of the particles are a little more substantial and can actually effect changes in the environment.

Here are a few short stories that might be considered the stardust in the history of the Disney universe and contain a little glimmer of illumination and in some cases a brief moment of wonder.

Ward Kimball's UFO Mystery

Wilbur Wilkinson and Karl Hunrath disappeared November 11, 1953, after setting off from the Gardena Airport in Los Angeles County in a rented plane to make contact with a supposed grounded UFO in the Mojave Desert. They had roughly three hours of fuel, but the men nor the plane were ever found again despite an extensive search.

Underground Comix artist Robert Crumb wrote in 1975:

"Bob Armstrong, Al Dodge and myself were visiting Ward Kimball. He told us an interesting story. Back in the 1950s, they were working on a series about rockets and outer space technology for the Disneyland TV show. I remember seeing those shows when I was a kid. There was a scientist named Wilkins who worked on the project.

"Wilkins started bringing around this guy called 'Huunrath,' supposedly a colleague of his. Kimball said at first no one took much notice of the guy Huunrath. He was just unobtrusive. Later, people started asking 'Well, just who is this Huunrath?' He was kind of strange. He didn't say much. He walked kind of stiffly and he wore a suit and tie that were ill-fitting. Then Wilkins and Huunrath disappeared and people tried to remember what they could about Huunrath.

"Ward recalled that once at a dinner party at his house oatmeal cookies were served for dessert. Huunrath picked up a cookie and was turning it over in his hands and studying it very closely. Then he bit off a little piece, chewed on it awhile and asked Ward's wife what the cookie was made of. The last time anybody saw Wilkins, he said he and Huunrath were going 'where there was no death or taxes.' Then he laughed! Ward Kimball was very serious when he told us this story. He was amused, yet he thought it was strange."

Obviously, Crumb meant "Wilkinson" rather than "Wilkins" when recounting the story and misspelled Hunrath's name.

In addition, Wilkinson couldn't have been a consultant on the Disney space programs if he disappeared in November 1953, because Kimball didn't even propose a rough outline of the show to Walt until April 17, 1954, and the first official consultant, Willy Ley, came on board roughly two weeks later.

While Wilkinson didn't consult on the Disney space shows, Kimball held parties at his house to discuss flying saucers and invited a variety of enthusiasts to participate. Both Wilkinson and Hunrath were well enough known in those circles to receive an invitation.

Kimball also attended parties elsewhere about UFOs, including at least one at the Encino home of Bob Karp, the writer of the Donald Duck comic strip, that was documented in the Los Angeles Examiner dated December 10, 1958, where there were about 30 qualified experts (astronomy professors, engineers, photographers, a representative from Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Lab and more).

I heard the following story from Kimball, but he was quite a mischief-maker and known to sometimes enhance the facts to tell a good story. Kimball asked Werhner von Braun about the 1947 Roswell incident where, supposedly, a UFO crashed in the New Mexico desert. The scientist got very quiet and was very hesitant to discuss the incident and made Kimball swear not to reveal any of this story publicly.

As Kimball remembered it, von Braun and some of his associates were taken to the supposed crash site after the majority of the military personnel had left the area. They did a quick tour and the craft debris seemed very thin, light and aluminum colored, like chewing gum wrapping, but the craft itself seemed almost biological in nature.

Von Braun also claimed that there were small creatures, but he described them as very frail, large eyes and more reptilian in nature, with skin the texture of rattlesnakes von Braun had seen at White Sands where he was working on launching some of his V-2 rockets that the U.S. had acquired in Germany after World War II. Supposedly, von Braun had mentioned similar information to others over the decades.

Space Mountain Movies That Never Were

Over the years, Disney has put into development several movies to be based on Disney theme park attractions that never survived much beyond the initial announcement. Remember director Guillermo del Toro's The Haunted Mansion movie that was announced in 2010, and he is supposedly still working on the script?

That same year it was announced that director Jon Favreau signed on to do a movie called Magic Kingdom with a script by Michael Chabon where a family visits Disneyland and all of the attractions come to life and start interacting? According to Favreau, he is still developing the property.

A January 2012 issue of Variety, the movie industry trade newspaper, reported that screen writer Max Landis had sold a pitch to Walt Disney Pictures for "an untitled space adventure" that would "benefit all of the company's divisions." Andrew Panay was announced as the producer.

There was an aura of secrecy because it was a film that was based on the Space Mountain attraction. Years earlier, Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios Dick Cook began an initiative to turn Disney theme park attractions into films, which eventually led to the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.

The description of the film from Landis was "Space Mountain – Set in a retro 1950s version of the future, a young man must travel across a solar system in the wake of a terrible disaster unraveling a mystery as he searches for his lost sister."

Landis actually planned to keep the film very close to the concept of the attraction, with the characters using rocket ships on rollercoaster tracks to travel at light speed.

However, when someone came back from traveling at light speed, they were nine and a half grams—supposedly the weight of a human soul after it leaves the body—lighter but seemed normal. It turns out that the human soul can't travel at light speed and, during the day after they return from their travels, a terrifying transformation takes place.

Landis revealed, "So whole ships come back with people with no souls who seem normal but then turn into horrible monsters. My Space Mountain movie was cool. It was a '50s retro future movie. They had rocket ships and ray guns but no cell phones and internet."

Disney mysteriously halted pre-production, even though concept art had been done on the rocket ship vehicles on the project in October 2012 stating that they were producing another property that was too similar. Disney had acquired Lucasfilm and would be making new Star Wars movies.

A few months after the announcement of Landis' film, it was announced that screenwriter Max Borenstein had been hired to write his own "space-set sci-fi adventure" called Paladin with Justin Springer (Tron: Legacy) producing. It was later revealed that this project was also based on the Space Mountain attraction. Its pre-production was also abruptly halted by the acquisition of the Star Wars movie franchise.

Borenstein went on to write the scripts for Gareth Edwards' Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island. Years later he said, "It has not been made yet, but it is not out of the question. It's for Disney, and they have some other space adventures that you might have heard of. We'll see what happens. I think the script is in a good place, and the producer, me and the people involved are excited about it. So, we'll see what happens, and when the moment is right. I've seen that movies that I thought were dead, come back to life. And that one is far from dead."

Carl Barks and the Sci-Fi Fans

Malcolm Willits died April 15, 2019 and it didn't seem to make any impact in the fan press. Willits was the owner of Collectors Book Store in Hollywood that opened in March 1965 and for the last two decades or so of its existence was primarily known for selling movie memorabilia.

However, Willits was also a well-known Disney collector who began his collection at the age of ten in 1945. He was also a science fiction fan and published a photo-offset sci-fi fanzine called Destiny for eleven issues from 1950-1955.

He was the first person to interview Carl Barks (artist on the Disney ducks comic books) for publication, and the first person to interview Floyd Gottfredson (the decades-long artist on the Mickey Mouse comic strip) for publication.

He hosted both artists at his Pasadena, California, home in 1982 where they met each other for the very first time and had their photo taken in Willits' vintage 1938 V-16 Cadillac limousine, the very same that he used when visiting Barks and his wife for the first time in 1961.

Just a little earlier, one of Willits' acquaintances, John Spicer and his brother Bill had also visited Barks. They were the first fans to discover Barks identity as the "Good Artist" on Donald Duck.

Over the years, I got to talk to Willits who recalled:

"Barks chose to acknowledge his two newfound fans with the June 1961 issue of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories (No. 249) in a story titled Stranger Than Fiction. I had already informed him of my abiding interest in science fiction, and of how my parents refused to allow it in the house when I was young, and how much I wished he'd do more stories with this theme [of science fiction].

"In this story, Donald is enraged to find his nephews reading a science fiction book and proceeds to throw it in the trash. The book in question is Ten Seconds to Mars by Spicer Willits. Naturally, the kids have the last laugh as what Donald considers to be science fiction turns out to be fact. As with many of Carl's stories, a moral is involved, but even if it wasn't, John and I were delighted in being immortalized, however briefly, in one of his works."

By the way, it was Willits who arranged to have Gottfredson, with the permission of the Walt Disney Company, produce 24 paintings of Mickey Mouse adventures from 1978-1983.

The Black Hole Comics

The Black Hole (1979) was a film Disney produced that was a loose adaptation of their film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Returning in the year 2130 to Earth, the spacecraft USS Palomino discovers a black hole and the long-lost USS Cygnus, commanded by the mysterious Dr. Hans Reinhardt who reprogrammed his crew into drones to serve him as he attempts to enter and explore the black hole.

Originally titled Space Probe One and meant to compete with the recent success of the original Star Wars movie, this is the first film from Disney to receive a PG rating.

During the 1970s, artist Mike Royer was the primary inker on the comic books of Jack Kirby. In spring 1979, he joined the staff of the Walt Disney Company.

Black Hole comic adaptation by Jack Kirby

Royer suggested that Kirby pencil The Black Hole adaptation for the Sunday comic strip Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales that ran versions of Disney films in newspapers to promote them.

The script was written by Carl Fallberg, a long time writer for Disney comic books.

Fallberg supplied both the Sunday page breakdown and the dialogue and captions on a single sheet of 8 ½ by 11" paper that were all handwritten and with figures significantly indicated.

Using a shooting script and photos from the film, Kirby pencilled the comic strip and Royer did the inking, sometimes slightly altering Kirby's artwork especially on the robots to more closely align with the film version.

The Black Hole adaptation was published in a standard full page, full color version that appeared in most newspapers, as well as a smaller, black-and-white version that was reprinted at ½-page size or smaller. These smaller versions featured the same artwork but with the panels rearranged to fit a squatter format.

The adaptation ran for 26 episodes from September 2, 1979 - February 24, 1980. The strip was reprinted in French in both a hardcover book for bookstores and a softbound edition for newsstands in 1980 by Hachette under the title Le Trou Noir. The American Disney Adventure Comic Zone digest Fall 2007 issue reprinted the first six episodes in a re-colored version.

In 1980 Whitman (formerly Gold Key) published several comic books related to The Black Hole:

  • Golden Press The Black Hole 11295 The Illustrated Adaptation of the Exciting Film! This edition was square-bound & soft cover with a movie photo cover. Written by Mary Carey & drawn by Dan Spiegle. 48 pages of story.
  • Gold Key Comics: Walt Disney Showcase #54 Movie photo cover. Written by Mary Carey & drawn by Dan Spiegle. 48 pages of story.
  • Walt Disney's The Black Hole No. 1. Reprints first half of Walt Disney Showcase No. 54. Movie photo cover.
  • Walt Disney's The Black Hole No. 2 Reprints second half of Walt Disney Showcase No. 54. Movie photo cover.
  • Beyond the Black Hole No. 3. Movie photo cover. Original story titled "Another Earth - Another Universe!" written by Michael Teitelbaum with art by Al McWilliams introducing a race of people on the planet Tyr called Virlights whom the crew of the Palomino aid against Dr. Reinhart and his robot army. 24 pages.
  • Beyond the Black Hole No. 4. Concludes the story from the previous issue by Teitelbaum and McWilliams. Cover art by Chuck Liese. 24 pages. Considered one of the rarest comic books because of its limited printing and only being available in Whitman three comic pre-bagged packs sold in toy stores in North America. A high grade copy was sold for over $6,000 in 2014.

Issues 5 and 6 were also produced and distributed (by Editorial Novaro) under the title El Abismo Negro but only in Spanish (for the Mexican market); there are no known Whitman copies of these issues in English.

Issues 5 and 6 of Beyond the Black Hole were only created in Spanish

Now that Disney has controversially made Kirby a Disney Legend, isn't it about time that some American publisher reprint Kirby's newspaper strip version of The Black Hole?

Disney Space Cartoons Made/Unmade

Mickey Mouse Works was a half hour television series featuring the classic Disney characters. The gag shorts, which only lasted 90 seconds each, were grouped into different themes like "Pluto Gets the Paper," which was a series of episodes detailing the difficulties in Pluto going out to get the newspaper for Mickey Mouse. The episode titled Pluto Gets the Paper: Spaceship has Pluto going outside to fetch the newspaper, but being abducted by an alien spaceship where he is examined. A transformation ray quickly changes him into having just two legs, an alien, a Mammoth, a quill pen and parchment writing paper, and a gigantic dinosaur. He is returned to normal, returned to Earth and brings the paper to Mickey. Mickey pats him on the head but his ears turn into alien antenna. It was shown on television on Season 1, Episode 4 and also shown in theaters with the live action film My Favorite Martian in February 1999.

Space Walkies is the title of a Disney Channel Mickey Mouse cartoon that aired November 7, 2014. The rocket that Mickey uses resembles Disneyland's TWA Moonliner, but with the lettering "TVA." At the end of the cartoon is a glimpse of Space Mountain in the background. Mickey and Pluto are on a routine space mission when Pluto urgently needs to go to the bathroom at the worst possible time so Mickey needs to rush him back to Earth.

Tad Stones spent almost 25 years writing, producing and supervising cartoons at Disney Television Animation. He pitched CEO Michael Eisner in 1984 a half hour television special titled Mickey Mouse in Outer Space that Eisner liked, but wanted to do something bigger with the character. Stones also developed a character called Space Duck for DuckTales as a recurring role, but Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg did not care for the character.

Stones pitched an idea for another half-hour television series to be shown in the Disney Afternoon syndicated television block to be called Maximum Horsepower. Stones came up with the premise that Horace disappeared from cartoons in the 1940s because, tired of playing just bit parts in the animated shorts, Horace decides to head to Walt Disney's office to insist he get an audition to star in The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1940). On his way, he is abducted by aliens who transport him across the galaxy, because they think that Horace is actually a hero from the bits of cartoons they have seen and can save them. Light years away from Hollywood, Horace finds himself having to become that hero he always wanted to be but desperately longing to get back to Earth to resume his acting career.

In an August 2004 interview with Animation World Network, Stones recalled, "I pitched a science fiction television series. Everybody on staff loved it except the key guy, Gary Krisel. He just didn't get it. I had done it totally on my own time. I think I did 36 pitch cards in full color. The show's title was Warp Wild about a space trucker who finds himself saddled (it sounds exactly like Darkwing Duck that I worked on) with kids, but it was a whole different dynamic. There was a robot maid, but she was an ex-military model and would kind of go psycho and drop back into her military mode. Even though there were humans and aliens, it was very much a Darkwing-type comedy as far as broadness."