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Stitch's Great Escape

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!

Image: Disney

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...

Image: Disney

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!

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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.

New Tomorrows

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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.

Alien Encounter

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.

Image: Disney

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

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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...

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Comments

As someone who has ridden Alien Encounter, Stitch's Great Escape and Superstar Limo I can tell you that without question Superstar Limo was by far the worst ride. No way was Stitch as bad as that monstrosity.

I never liked Stitch all that much--or Lilo, either. I found both characters highly annoying, and almost walked out of the theater a couple of times. I was irritated by Stitch's overwhelming popularity & dominance of the Disney Parks. My fave Disney character is Iago, and I made a tee shirt with a patch of Iago, and wrote underneath it, "Stitch drools, Iago rules!" Totally upset this one sensitive Stitch fan who worked at the candy store at Disney's Hollywood Studios, & haven't worn the shirt since. (I think she actually broke down in tears.) (And no, I did not like "Under New Management" even with Iago; the original Tiki Room is a childhood favorite.) I saw Stitch's Great Escape twice and thought it was okay (which is generous given other people's opinions), though I was quite distracted the first time as I was thinking about this cast member who was rude to me not once, but twice, before the show. Still, I'm glad it's gone now, and I'm glad ever since Elsa & Anna appeared on the scene, that Stitch's popularity is fading. I never did like crude humor, anyway.

I went on this ride in 2009 when I was 16. I was at the age where I can appreciate the work that went into animatronics, themes, and tech that went into each attraction. We did Stitch once. Just once. We did under new management once. Iago was ugly as all hell, Zazu looked much better but I was a huge fan of the Tiki Room in Disneyland and hated the corporate feel to Under New Management. Now Stitch was a weird one. I loved the theme, thought it was downright adorable. Hated the animation used for the ride, felt like the robot was out of place horribly since we see no robots in the Lilo and Stitch franchise at all. Thought the story of the ride was actually horrible. How'd Gantu forget about stitch? This clearly doesn't take place before the movie starts because he calls himself Stitch at the end of the ride right before he's transported to earth. Gantu wouldn't underestimate Stitch in the movie when he's in lockdown at the start after seeing what he did in the holding cell. It fit so horribly. That's my biggest problem with it. At least Star Tours just took place in the same universe and didn't say "Oh yeah and Quigon is driving the ship even though he's dead."

After all of that I wanted to ride it again. Why? Because the tech used in the ride was interesting to look at. I wasn't uncomfortable sitting in the ride, the pressing down of the harness doesn't hurt as much as someone his size actually standing on your shoulders like I've actually done with my young siblings. The jokes were childish but I was like "Oh this is for little kids." But you do make a very good point. The darkness isn't for little kids and my brother at the time still slept with a nightlight on. He didn't like it much and same with the rest of my family. I just wanted to see the Stitch animatronic again. Tokyo Disney did much better with putting Stitch in a pre-existing ride. I really liked what they did with it, there was actual passion that went into redoing Tiki Room with Stitch ruining the ride on purpose, it embraces what people actually liked about Lilo and Stitch and it was the modern Hawaiian culture mixed with a little bit of tradition, then a little bit of Stitch messing around and ruining everything. So I'm not against stitch in any way, I just find what we got versus what other places got is unfair. I was actually upset that other places got amazing technology put into their rides, mystic manor, shanghai pirates, etc, and what we got for our first trackless ride and remaking of pirates was a Ho-down and removing the wenches being sold off and removing my favorite parts of the ride, removing the oldman echoing through the caverns and putting in davy jones and now we don't hear the captain auctioning off the women. I loved those voices. We aren't doing well as far as our rides go in the states, we need the help of the imagineers who worked in the overseas parks.

Regarding the rumored replacement: Unfortunately the "sequel coming" is jettisoning the "retro game" thing in favor of the Internet and even calling it "Ralph Breaks the Internet" (read: naming it in reference to a stupid meme we all should have just long forgotten by now). Which answers the comment on how "Wreck-It Ralph" would fit into Tomorrowland, though the Internet being this cool new thing and a "world" unto itself is late-90s-mid-2000s dated territory if you ask me.

I agree with everything you have to say about the ride itself, but I do object to the implication that Lilo & Stitch has aged poorly. It's true that Disney has run the franchise into the ground with countless ill-advised sequels and a dubious TV spin-off, but the original film, taken by itself, still holds up as one of Disney's strongest features from the early 2000s.

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