From Journey into Imagination to Indiana Jones Adventure; The Enchanted Tiki Room to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea... There's no denying that Walt Disney Imagineering has created some of the most sensational, unbelievable, and innovative stories, technologies, and experiences on the planet. Look no further than Theme Park Tourist's LEGEND LIBRARY, stocked with in-depth stories of both closed, classic Lost Legends and today's fan-favorite Modern Marvels, each a testament to the industry-defining advances and imaginations at Disney.
But that doesn't mean Imagineering always gets it right... In fact, sometimes things go wrong – very, very wrong. That's the purpose of Theme Park Tourist's Declassified Disaster series, where we dive deep into the usually-secretive world of theme park flops, failures, and missteps that simply can’t be forgotten, like the staggingly stupid Superstar Limo, the disastrously doomed DisneyQuest, the misunderstood Dinoland, the frazzled Rocket Rods, and so many more.
But if you ask Imagineering insiders, that's especially true of an attraction some Disney Parks fans call the worst that Walt Disney World has ever hosted... Avoided by guests, skipped by fans, and mercilessly mocked by all, this can only be the story of the Magic Kingdom menace that is Stitch’s Great Escape!
In today's in-depth feature, we'll fast-forward through the extraterrorestrial tale that lead to this character's Tomorrowland invasion, endure a walkthrough of the experience inside, and take a look at the moves Disney finally made to mothball this detested attraction for good. Could this seemingly-simple family attraction really be a source of misery and madness earning such hatred? Once you read, we'll let you decide in the comments below...
But to understand where Stitch's Great Escape came from, we need to start at the beginning. If you haven't already, you'll want to make the jump backwards in time to "Part I" of this alien escape – our in-depth history of the Lost Legend: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. You won't want to miss the making of Disney's "scariest attraction ever..." or the reasons it closed, which will become a part of today's story, too...
Once you've caught up on Alien Encounter, you can skip to page 2 of this feature by tapping here. But for those who just need a quick refresher, here's the one-page catch-up.
The story so far...
Since 1955, Tomorrowland has been a staple of Disneyland. And for almost as long, Imagineers have been struggling to keep it relevant. After all, time always seems to pass, and no matter how accurately designers were able to capture the architecture, spirit, and science of any given era, it consistantly fell out of favor with prevailing pop culture, actual innovation, or both!
Take for example Disneyland's ROCKET TO THE MOON – a 1955 original promising previews of commercial flights to space that Imagineers expected would be commonplace by the '80s. Housed in two twin domed theaters, guests would sit in concentric, tiered rings of seating facing inward. This "motion-less" simulator would provide guests with projected views of lift-off, space, and the moon via "windows" in the floor and ceiling at the center of the rocket.
Barely a decade after Tomorrowland's debut, its style had fallen out of favor, necessitating a New Tomorrowland in 1967, bringing with it a rebuilt and upgraded version of the ride – FLIGHT TO THE MOON – accounting for the Space Race and humanity's very real attempts to make it to the moon. Unfortunately, just two years after the attraction's auspicious reimagining, humans actually made it to the moon, instantly dating the attraction's narration and footage.
Luckily, when Magic Kingdom opened, it, too, offered dual theater-in-the-round auditoriums for the attraction, and in 1975, both the Anaheim and Orlando rides were updated again, this time to MISSION TO MARS – a clever way to buy time since actual trips to the Red Planet seemed far off.
This Mission to Mars remains for nearly two decades, still showing its 1970s footage as late as 1992! It was time for yet another reimagining – not just for the attraction, but for all of Tomorrowland.
In the 1980s – under the leadership of then-chairman Michael Eisner – Disney was evolving. Brought on specifically to right the sinking ship of Disney's long-stagnant studios after decades of duds, Eisner brought with him decades of experience in the film industry. His connections had convinced him that movies weren't just the answer for Disney's filmmaking business; they could save Disney's long-neglected theme parks, too.
Eisner famously kickstarted the "Ride the Movies" era – a substantial period spanning the '80s and '90s where Disney invested as never before in its parks, opening elaborate, ambitious, and expensive attractions that infused the characters and stories people cared about... even if they weren't Disney characters and stories! Of course, that's the origin of the Lost Legends: Captain EO and STAR TOURS – attractions born of Eisner's desire to inject pop culture and thrills into Disney Parks, making them cool, hip, edgy places for teens and young adults.
Eisner's ambitious, cinematic attractions coalesced with the growing need for yet another New Tomorrowland. However, executives wanted this facelift to the land to be the last by eschewing actual predictions of things to come or commitments to continuous upgrades in favor of timeless, evergreen Tomorrowlands not bound by time and taste. In other words, Tomorrowlands based not on science, but on fantasy and science-fiction.
It aligned perfectly with a project Eisner had taken great interest in: finally filling that tired, dusty Mission to Mars theater in Disneyland and Magic Kingdom with something more his taste.
Though he ultimately rebuked Imagineers' efforts to use 20th Century Fox's 1979 horror film Alien, Eisner adored the idea of a multi-sensory, technological special effects show using sound, lighting, and "4D" effects to convince guests an alien had escaped into the crowd after a routine demonstration. If Eisner had his way, "Alien Encounter" would be the anchor of a New Tomorrowland in both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom.
As Imagineers in Glendale put the finishing touches on their plans for Alien Encounter, Eisner announced that things had changed. The 1992 opening of Disneyland Paris – meant to be his magnum opus and lasting legacy with the company – had failed. The European resort had entered a financial freefall upon opening, and Eisner declared that bankruptcy was under consideration.
Plans for a New Tomorrowland were outright cancelled in California, meaning the Alien Encounter attraction needed to debut in Florida instead. It did – and as an anchor experience in an ambitious and sensational New Tomorrowland that barely squeaked through before Paris' pitfall.
The 1994 New Tomorrowland overlayed the formerly-simple-70s land with Factory Pomo architecture and elaborate alien eccoutrements, creating a living sci-fi city of landed spacecrafts, robotic newsboys, and mechanical palm trees – a comic book retro-future inspired by pulp stories of Buck Rogers.
Best of all, this New Tomorrowland was an early adopter of the kind of immense world-building and interconnectivity that only became standard after the opening of the Wizarding World fifteen years later – in fact, all of the rides, attractions, shops, and even restaurants in this land were all subtly connected within one overarching mythology; a frame story that explained the land as a "real, living" city of alien immigrants and visitors, real public transit, a science museum, and more.
And hosted in the Interplanetary Convention Center was X-S Tech, an alien tech-conglomerate advertising demonstrations of their new teleportation technology. This is the place to be sure you've read up on the Lost Legend: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.
First, it started with a disturbingly dark pre-show where a simple demonstration of the technology – teleporting a fuzzy alien creature named Skippy from one side of the room to another – goes horribly wrong, leaving the unwitting volunteer burnt to a crisp, wailing and in pain. This morbid and startling pre-show was an intentional check meant to weed out guests who couldn’t have imagined that this terrifying attraction might actually offend.
Guests who dared continue on entered into the main demonstration chamber. Still arranged in concentric circles, guests now faced a massive glass tube fed by wires and pipes overhead. Locked in via shoulder restraints, the technological showcase would begin.
Of course, when the commander of X-S Tech offers to beam himself to the theater, we know something is likely to go wrong, and boy does it. The teleportation ray is intercepted by a bloodthirsty insectoid creature that gets beam in, instead. It makes quick work of shattering the glass tube and taking flight into the audience. As the lights sizzle, guests are left in pitch black darkness as special effects embedded in the seats, harnesses, and floor simulate the stomping alien growing closer, growling in guests’ ears and drooling down their necks, splattering blood from an unlucky convention center worker overhead, and more.
At the last second, the alien is lured back into the shattered glass tube as the X-S technicians boost the power. Wires break loose spewing fog as the machine powers up and a metallic blast shield falls just as the creature explodes, splattering guests with goo. The intense attraction took place almost entirely in pitch-black darkness and the innovative use of 3D audio and in-seat special effects meant that it was inescapable. Think about it – closing your eyes would only make it worse! Terrifyingly intense, brilliantly original, and a rare dark experience at Magic Kingdom made Alien Encounter a cult classic adored by fans.
So what went wrong? If you thought a carnivorous, flying alien was horrifying, just wait until you see what came next. Read on...