With today’s news that Star Wars Celebration wouldn’t happen this year, with the official Star Wars convention not returning until 2022, we thought it might be fun to look back at Disney’s first, all-but-forgotten attempt at an official sci-fi convention: Contact 96. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard about it because honestly nobody has (people who were there barely remember it), but from its inauspicious beginnings, it would end up inspiring one of the key special events at Walt Disney World for decades and feed into the resort’s emphasis on food festivals and other limited time offerings, even while Contact 96 is very much lost in space.
On September 24, 1992, Disney held the first official Disneyana Convention at the Contemporary Resort Convention Center in Walt Disney World. (This, history buffs will remember, was the location of Richard Nixon’s famous “I am not a crook” speech. Yes, seriously.) Inspired by unofficial Disneyana conventions, where hardcore Disney fans would swap stories and sell memorabilia, the event featured official merchandise exclusive to the event, produced by Disney. It was a huge success for the company’s Walt Disney Attractions Merchandise division and more events followed. In 1993 the convention was expanded and took place in Disneyland and in 1994 and 1995 two conventions were held – one on each coast. By 1996, the same year as the proposed sci-fi convention, Disneyana had returned to being a Walt Disney World exclusive event.
And the Disneyana event had far-reaching implications for the resort. Disney now knew that a limited event, selling exclusive merchandise, could win over returning guests and entice new guests to the park. It went along with the throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach the company had in the 1990s, but unlike many of those initiatives, this one actually worked.
In 1995 the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival began at Walt Disney World’s second park, as a way of solidifying the science-and-discovery park’s “off season,” and would soon become a major draw. The same year the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival was launched. These would both become annual events for EPCOT that are still ongoing and have become major revenue-generators for the park, in terms of food and beverage sales and the sale of event-exclusive merchandise.
So, in terms of timing, the idea of an official Disney sci-fi convention couldn’t have been better – the formula clearly worked. And, what was even better, the mid-1990s saw a sci-fi renaissance with television shows like The X-Files, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a revamped Outer Limits, and movies like Alien 3, Independence Day, and Star Trek: First Contact. (The back half of the decade, after Contact 96, would be even more loaded, with Starship Troopers, Contact, Men in Black and the long-awaited return of Star Wars, The Phantom Menace.) In the 1990s, science fiction went from the fringes to the mainstream.
Disney advertised the event with full-page ads in travel magazines. “The biggest sci-fi event ever is coming into a world of its own,” the ad read, with a futuristic painting of a Mickey Mouse-shaped space station (that bears a striking resemblance to the Death Star). “Imagine the ultimate sci-fi vacation. Meeting the greats from Star Trek, Star Wars, Lost in Space and more. Sharing the adventures of real-life visionaries and explorers. Find rare and exclusive sci-fi treasure. All in the place where fantasy comes alive!” the excitable copy read. The “first sci-fi convention at Walt Disney World” would be held at the Contemporary Resort Convention Center, a favorite of Disneyana fans and Richard Nixon alike, from January 21 – 23, 1996. At least, that was the plan.
Disney was bullish about selling vacation packages centered around Contact 96, charging $596 per person for a room at the Contemporary and admission to the weekend-long convention. (If you were staying elsewhere, it was $96 for the entire run of the event.) Supposedly, when Disney first introduced the convention/vacation package they only sold 20. You read that right. They only sold 20 packages. Disney claimed they had actually sold more, but whatever the case, the convention ended up being radically reconfigured – instead of a weekend-long event at the Contemporary, it was shortened to a single day at the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland. Tickets were only $27 dollars and included admission to the park.
When Contact 96 actually lifted off, Disney’s “out-of-this-world sci-fi event” mostly fizzled. By all accounts “about 250 people” showed up to the first ever sci-fi convention in the Magic Kingdom, even though with the new price point and entry into the park, it was a steal. According to a sparsely worded Orlando Sentinel account, actors Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, Jonathan Harris and Bill Mumy all showed up, along with “several science fiction authors.” Cool. Contact 96 was supposed to be the first of many such events that would take place on Walt Disney World or Disneyland property, like the Disneyana event or the nascent Food & Wine or Flower & Garden festivals.
While the event was an embarrassing bust for Disney, one that is virtually forgotten about and equally impossible to Google (ironic considering that guests of Contact 96 “spent part of the afternoon chatting online on the Internet,” a novelty for the time), it did have an unexpected and hugely profitable side-effect: it helped inspire the Star Wars Weekends that would become a mainstay of what was then the Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) from 1997 to 2015. (It was canceled due to the ongoing construction of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars-themed land that opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios last year.) Out of the destroyed embers of Contact 96 came one of the more successful initiatives at Walt Disney World.