Remember, Stitch's Great Escape! opened in November 2004 – and even then, two years out from the debut of Lilo & Stitch, it must've seemed like Stitch was an evergreen breakout character who would stand among Pooh and Tinker Bell as timeless merchandising icons. In fact, that's why Stitch was inexplicably promoted to stand among the "Fab 5" on merchandise (see above). Yep – Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto... and Stitch.
Meanwhile, all those Lilo & Stitch sequels, spin-offs, and series that debuted in quick succession between 2002 and 2006 saw rapidly diminishing returns, each earning less than the one before. (Frankly, another tried-and-true mark of the late Eisner era: pulsing out products for quick financial return without considering how low quality products serve as "brand withdrawals," cheapening future products and reducing loyalty.)
2005 and 2006 saw Walt Disney World gift shops wildly overstuffed with Stitch merchandise that just wasn't moving, even as those spin-offs and sequels desperately introduced new characters whose sole purpose was clearly to inspired more merchandise. The wave was over. Perhaps in part because of the oversaturation of Stitch, interest in the character and its associated merchandise fell off of a statistical cliff.
And while Disney could easily ship its excess merchandise to wholesale distributors and off-property warehouse depots, one thing that could not be so easily covered was that two-year-old Tomorrowland attraction now playing to half-empty – and worse, half-hearted – audiences.
Stuck with Stitch
Stitch's Great Escape might have seemed like a coup when it opened in 2004 – at the height of Disney's investment in the Lilo and Stitch franchise... But reporting on Stitch's Great Escape just over a year after its debut, entertainment writer Jim Hill noted:
"Even though this Tomorrowland attraction has officially been open for less than 15 months now, the current wait time for Stitch's Great Escape has already fallen (on average) to 10-15 minutes.
Now keep in mind that this lack-of-line flies directly in the face of an on-going promotional campaign for this new Tomorrowland attraction. After all, every guest who uses the monorail to get to the Magic Kingdom still has to hear an on-board spiel that hypes Stitch's Great Escape.
And yet all this extra effort has yet to translate into any extra bodies in [its] queue. In fact, if what some Tomorrowland-based cast members have been telling me proves to be true, attendance levels for Stitch's Great Escape has already fallen below the numbers that Alien Encounter used to pull in. Meaning that the $25-30 million that WDI reportedly spent to turn Alien Encounter into a more family-friendly attraction was basically a wash."
Why was Stitch's Great Escape such a disaster for Disney Parks? Here are our top reasons.
1. IT CAUSED THE DEATH OF ALIEN ENCOUNTER. Again, we'll readily admit that Alien Encounter wasn't perfect. In fact, by most metrics, it was probably one of the weakest products to emerge from Michael Eisner's "Ride the Movies" era. It was relatively inexpensive, emotionally uneven, and (obviously) short-lived compared to the other cinematic attractions of the time.
But it was also original; ambitious; different. It was gritty and unique, crafted solely by Disney Imagineers in coordination with George Lucas himself, armed with a dystopian sci-fi mythology. Alien Encounter is probably more beloved today than it was when it was open. In many ways, it's evolved into a cult classic more appreciated in hindsight's rose-colored glasses.
Put another way, Alien Encounter probably wasn't actually as good as fans like to think it was. After all, the same effects they detested on Stitch – pounding shoulder harnesses, occasional sprays of water, and extended periods of darkness – were literally just exported from Alien Encounter to its cartoon replacement! The difference is all about context, and Alien Encounter's original, eerie, and imposing mythology made all the difference – it was a true original, and Stitch taking its place fits neatly into the other cartoon invasions we explored earlier as a cheap and cheerful downgrade.
2. IT WAS ANOTHER HIT TO TOMORROWLAND. Though the New Tomorrowland Imagineers debuted in 1994 may have been divisive for covering up the classic Space Age architecture of yesteryear, even detractors have to be in awe of the narrative attempts the land made to create an immersive, connected, world-building story the likes of which wouldn't become industry standard until the Wizarding World and its peers in the 2010s!
Obviously, that sci-fi styling and the "real world" locales within were pretty much bulldozed by the cartoon invasion. Suddenly, a pulpy, comic-book city that once offered interconnected attractions became a catch-all for Lilo & Stitch, Toy Story 2, and Monsters Inc.
That left the ambitious sci-fi exteriors as a gilded shell; a style being piecemeal walked back as we speak, with those extraterrestrial ornamentations being stripped away to return Tomorrowland to its geometric '70s simplicity... not that that would excuse the mashing-together of Toy Story, Monsters Inc, and TRON any better, but at least it doesn't have a pretense of being something it's not.
3. IT WAS TROUBLINGLY INFANTILE. In the early 2000s, the success of the Disney Renaissance and the advent and accessibility of computer animation lead to something Disney hadn't faced before: competitors. Suddenly, other studios decided to get in on the animation game and if they couldn't necessarily match Disney's heart, they would find a new way in: modern music, celebrity voice actors, irreverent humor, and – for lack of a better term – "fart jokes."
Think of 2001's Shrek, which singlehandedly proved Disney was no longer the lone horse in the race. Unsurprisingly, Disney's early 2000s efforts were meant to fight back Shrek and its peers by matching their irreverence and humor, which in turn became a major component of those direct-to-video sequels, TV series, and crossovers Disney was producing.
The kind of "gross-out" humor, fourth-wall-breaking references, and cartoon comedy crossovers we see in Stitch's Great Escape were also evident in fellow Declassified Disasters: Superstar Limo, The Enchanted Tiki Room - Under New Management, Journey into YOUR Imagination, Disney's California Adventure, and many of those quick character overlays in the era.
4. IT WAS APPROPRIATE FOR PRACTICALLY NO ONE. At the end of the day, this may be the most important error Stitch’s Great Escape made, and the easiest for us as fans of the industry to learn from. Stitch’s Great Escape didn't have an audience. Stripped of its original mythology, its viral word-of-mouth, and its promise of terror, the "cartoonified" alien encounter with Stitch at the helm was offensively annoying and pandering to anyone over the age of 10.
And maybe that's an okay trade-off – after all, one of the major goals of Stitch's Great Escape must have been to transform the traumatizing Alien Encounter into a more family-friendly experience more fit for Magic Kingdom... But anyone under the age of 10 (Lilo & Stitch's core audience) would've still been horrified by the enclosed spaces, anxiety-inducing special effects, darkness, and pandemonium.
In other words the reformatted experience wasn't reliably "better" for any single demographic! Quite the contrary, there was no age group that could predictably enjoy it. It was still too scary for kids; now it was just too juvenile for anyone older.
The End in Sight
On September 21, 2016, Disney's spokesperson confirmed that, as of October 2, 2016, Stitch's Great Escape would switch to seasonal operation, opening only when crowd levels at Magic Kingdom peaked around holidays – a well-known death-knell for Disney Parks attractions.
When the crowds left Walt Disney World at the conclusion of its 2017 holiday celebrations, Stitch left too. The attraction was quietly closed on January 6, 2018 and hasn't opened since. Its first pre-show room was briefly converted to "Stitch's Alien Encounter" meet and greet (get it?), and it's likely that – at least for now – that'll become a standard use for the site...
That October, images surfaced online of both the Stitch and Skippy animatronics figures stripped of their parts. In other words, Stitch's Great Escape appears to have closed for good without much fanfare, without an announcement or entry on the Disney Parks Blog... and with no indication of a replacement.
Interestingly, insiders say that the decision was made in part due to exit surveys. Data collected from guests allegedly signaled that guests who visited Stitch's Great Escape tended to rate their overall experience at Magic Kingdom lower than guests who skipped it. By statistically significant measures, overall guest satisfaction with Magic Kingdom was actually higher on days when Stitch's Great Escape was closed.
In other words, Magic Kingdom as a whole may have been stronger with no attraction in that space than with Stitch's Great Escape.
Even before Stitch officially closed, it was long reported that it would be replaced with virtual reality (VR) attraction themed to 2012's Wreck-It Ralph. Had this rumored Wreck-It Ralph attration come about, the remains of the Mission to Mars theaters would likely be leveled, replaced with individual motion simulating pods equipped with VR headsets. Guests would've been transported via those immersive VR headsets into the film's candy-coated Sugar Rush video game to race alongside Ralph and Penelope.
But Wreck-It Ralph and its 2018 sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet came and went without any movement inside Stitch's Great Escape. It feels too late now for a Ralph attraction, which is perhaps the best confirmation that there shouldn't have been one to begin with. Like Stitch, it probably would've felt like a short-sighted and technologically-trapped show doomed to continuous replacement. And after the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, it seems exceedingly unlikely guests will be putting on VR headsets anytime soon.
Still, Disney filed permits in March 2020 officially seeking to demolish the interior of Stitch's Great Escape. Whether the extended closure of the pandemic allow that demolition to proceed has yet to be determined, and even if it does, the inevitable budget cuts coming in the wake of COVID-19 all but assure that any planned replacement for the space will be delayed or cancelled entirely.
Let’s face it: with Stitch’s Great Escape, Walt Disney World had by far its least successful attraction creatively, commercially, and emotionally. It was too scary for kids, too juvenile for teens; filled with dated humor and '90s straight-to-video styling; it was a thoughtless and hasty replacement of a storied cult classic… it was a laughing stock. Just as insultingly, only a few tweaks (and a new and improved Audio Animatronic alien) kept Stitch’s Great Escape from becoming Alien Encounter once more. But that ship has sailed.
Will Alien Encounter ever appear at another Disney Park? Don’t hold your breath. We maintain still that Alien Encounter could still today work at Disneyland if and when a New Tomorrowland finally lands there, but today's Disney is far less interested in original concepts and far more likely to bring more of the characters they own into Walt's world of tomorrow.
... Of course, Disney's $71 billion purchase of 20th Century Fox in 2019 did bring 1979's Alien into Disney's character catalogue...
If you enjoyed looking through the details of this Disaster File, make the jump to our LEGEND LIBRARY to dig into another disastrous feature.
Then let us know: Have you ever been on Alien Encounter or Stitch's Great Escape? How do they compare? Do you agree with our assertion that Stitch's Great Escape is one of (if not the) worst attractions Disney's ever dealt in? Or are we overexaggerating? As we continue our Disaster Files series, we look to you to share your thoughts, memories, and stories in the comments and to let us know what other "disasters" in Disney Parks and beyond you'd like to hear the full stories behind. We can't wait to read your comments below!