Believe it or not, even Disney gets it wrong once in a while. Sometimes, they get it really, really wrong.
Here on Theme Park Tourist, we’ve been building a library of Lost Legends – in-depth features that chronicle the epic stories behind the world’s best and most adored lost attractions. We’ve voyaged 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, escaped a vengeful goddess aboard TOMB RAIDER: The Ride, ignited a spark on Journey into Imagination, huffed and puffed through German forests aboard Big Bad Wolf, raced through Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and many more, all with the sincere hope that your comments, stories, and memories will preserve those long-lost but still-loved rides for a new generation.
But the hits are only half the story. Our new series, Disaster Files, dives deep into a very different world: theme park flops, failures, and missteps that simply can’t be forgotten. It started with our in-depth look at the Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management, a distinctly '90s overlay of a Walt Disney classic that was so disjointed, many fans were relieved when it literally caught on fire. We saw Epcot's most hated ride ever come to life in the full story behind Journey into YOUR Imagination. Then there was the in-depth story behind Disney California Adventure's Superstar Limo, understood as the worst dark ride Disney ever created.
But today, we’ll strap into one of – if not the most – disastrous, ill-fated, and unanimously disliked attractions Disney has ever designed. 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.
Arguably the worst attraction at any Disney Park on Earth, most fans will tell you that Stitch’s Great Escape is truly the embodiment of a disaster. And most unbelievably, after more than a decade of backlash and declining interest, Disney is finally beginning to mothball this most disliked attraction. But how did we get here? What’s the evolution behind the most despised Disney attraction on Earth? The story may be more complex than you know. Hold on tight.
Blast from the past
Stitch’s Great Escape opened November 16, 2004. But our story begins two decades before. Twenty years earlier, Disney’s destiny appeared sunk. If you can imagine, the Walt Disney Company in the early 1980s was floundering. A series of live action box office bombs and forgettable, regrettable animated films had stretched the company to its breaking point and – just as importantly – soured its once-golden reputation. Disney was far from an industry leader.
In 1984, a knight in shining armor arrived to revive Disney’s soggy status, rejuvenate its film and animation, and breathe new life into its slow-growing theme parks. We’re talking about Michael Eisner.
Sure, a few decades later (and even unto today), Eisner’s name would be tied to a creative and financial drought, leading to half-baked theme parks, under built rides, an irreverent infusion of cartoon characters, and company-wide cost-cutting. But in 1984, Eisner was exactly who Disney needed. Fresh from a stint as CEO of Paramount Pictures, Eisner’s finger was on the pulse of pop culture, entertainment, and film, and he at once set out to revive Disney from its foundation. Eisner’s influence is what triggered what we now know as the Disney Renaissance (when Disney produced hit after hit after hit from The Little Mermaid to Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast to the The Lion King and beyond).
While he might’ve been a natural in the movie industry, he knew decidedly less about theme parks. Allegedly, when he received the role as CEO, Michael invited his son, Breck, to tour Disneyland with him. Breck’s response – that Disneyland was for babies – shook Eisner to his core. He threw himself into the Imagineering facilities in Glendale, California and – surprisingly frankly – asked Imagineers to show and explain what they were working on. It was on that day, apparently, that Eisner began to green light projects left and right, trusting that Imagineers knew their parks and could craft exceptional attractions given the freedom to dream big. Eisner was certain that his team could build Disneyland into a place even teenagers would want to visit. To make it happen, he’d use his strength once again: movies.
Ride the movies
It was Eisner’s controversial idea that Disney Parks could be a place where guests would “ride the movies.” While that was a brave enough idea, he also argued that they didn’t necessarily have to be Disney movies! After all, remember that Disney wasn’t making many movies worth celebrating in the early 1980s. But someone was.
Eisner reached out to George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, about bringing the world of the film series (owned and distributed by 20th Century Fox) into Disney Parks. The partnership was a success, resulting in Captain EO (1986) and, less than a year later, the real test of Eisner's cinematic formula: a ride that changed Disney Parks forever. We chronicled the full and complete story of that stellar collaboration in a standalone feature – Lost Legend: Star Tours.
Star Tours' success paved the way for more, and Eisner’s movie-making mantra came to life again shortly thereafter when plans for a filmmaking-themed pavilion at EPCOT Center took on a life of their own and became a full-fledged, standalone movie-making park: Disney-MGM Studios. Shortly after opening, the park became home to its own Star Tours and, nearby, the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular based on Lucas’ other runaway smash property.
“The Tomorrowland Problem”
As the 1990s approached, Imagineers faced a unique and growing challenge: one we’ve often referred to here as the Tomorrowland Problem. Both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom contain Tomorrowlands – themed areas that, according to Walt’s dedication speech, are meant to “signify man’s achievements… A step into the future, with predictions of constructed things to come.”
Sounds easy. However, the “tomorrow” that Imagineers had designed in 1955 was set in the unimaginably distant year of… 1986. It didn’t last enough to become outdated, though. In 1967 – just 12 years after the park opened – Tomorrowland leapt forward. The New Tomorrowland Walt and his Imagineers designed was iconic – a white, geometric, simple land of pastel colors with the glorious Peoplemover zipping overhead, submarines churning through crystal lakes, the rotating Carousel Theater, and an expansion pad cordoned off to become the gleaming Space Mountain.
The “old” Tomorrowland had contained a starring attraction called Flight to the Moon. The predecessor to a modern motion simulator, Flight to the Moon was really just a series of seats arranged in concentric circles around a central platform (above). Seated guests would watch through projected “portholes” and “glass windows” at the center, simulating a trip through space and a moon landing. Evidence of “the Tomorrowland Problem,” Flight to the Moon wasn’t feeling very futuristic by the 1960s, as regular trips to the moon made the ride seem like the stuff of today’s headlines, not tomorrow’s. Fittingly, the simple attraction received a simple upgrade and re-debuted in this New Tomorrowland as the much more futuristic Mission to Mars.
When Magic Kingdom opened in 1971 with its own Tomorrowland, it had the benefit of learning from Disneyland’s mistakes and its Tomorrowland was already future-ready with its own Peoplemover, Circlevision, Carousel Theater, and a purpose-built Mission to Mars.
Trouble is, tomorrow always becomes today, and by the 1990s, both Tomorrowlands were feeling downright dated. Luckily, Imagineers had a new blank canvas on which to put a new idea to the test.
Imagineers designing Disneyland Paris set out to fix the Tomorrowland Problem permanently by leaving Tomorrowland out of the French park entirely. In its place stands Discoveryland, a retro-futuristic land. Discoveryland doesn’t even try to imagine what the future might really look like. Instead, it’s a vision of the future as imagined from great thinkers of the past! Rather than sleek white landscapes showcasing evolving technologies, Discoveryland is a golden seaport that looks right out of the pages of Jules Verne, Leonardo da Vinci, or H.G. Wells.
Spurred by the innovation, Eisner okayed a major change at Disney Parks in the U.S. He wanted Imagineers to craft New New Tomorrowlands. But unlike the New Tomorrowlands of old, these overlays would fix the Tomorrowland Problem permanently by taking the science out of the land. Instead of really trying to predict what the future might look like (an impossible, expensive, and maintenance-heavy task), these New Tomorrowland’s would follow Paris’ example.
This is where things get interesting…. Not to mention, terrifying.