Thursday, January 22, 2015

All About Western River Expedition, Part One

Disney history has lots of "one that got away"s.  There's Lake Buena Vista New Orleans Square. There's the Asian Resort, the Equatorial Africa pavilion, Dick Tracy Crimestoppers, WESTcot Center, Beastlie Kingdomme, and more. For the next few weeks we'll be looking at the grandaddy of them all, the original One That Got Away.

If you are a theme park fan you have almost certainly at one point or another heard about the aborted 1971 attraction Western River Expedition. Western River is largely considered the greatest (or second greatest) unbuilt theme park attraction ever, but just as interesting as the attraction is the legend behind it: an earnest, serious effort to outdo the 1967 Pirates of the Caribbean, Western River Expedition was an ambitious attraction done in by just the right combination of bad luck, timing, expense, and its creator, Marc Davis. It's a great story, and a great myth, about a great designer and his best effort.

Until 2011, Western River was largely a "great whatsit" to me. We had all read the stories and seen the art, but it never seemed like an attraction that could actually cohere into actual reality - there were too many things in these tellings that made too little sense. Then, I was given the opportunity to spot-check a number of video presentations ultimately destined for D23's "Destination D" event, one of which was a partial virtual rebuild of Western River Expedition, I finally saw a number of models and made a number of connections that finally made sense of a ride that seemed previously to make very little. Building on the revelations I experienced while trying to mentally order the ride for the video, I'm now able to offer what I think is the most complete and accurate overview of the attraction yet possible.

The first thing which must be said is that besides getting the essential order of many things wrong, many of the online retellings of this ride have done a disservice to Marc Davis by continuing to reprint artwork for scenes that were not included in the final ride. Marc was a brilliant illustrator, and he produced mountains of artwork to demonstrate his ideas, but only a fraction of these were ever seriously earmarked to go in the final product.

Imagine, for example, if Haunted Mansion had never pulled itself out of development hell and we just happened to have lots of pieces of artwork floating around like this:


This would give a false impression of what the whole experience was truly intended to be. That's sort of what happened to Western River Expedition. In my digital tour in this article, you'll see that Western River was not only sensible, but dramatically very well constructed and very soundly conceived. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get oriented by going myth busting.

I. THUNDER MESA TRUE AND FALSE

Thunder Mesa and Western River Expedition are the same thing.

False. Thunder Mesa was a network of attractions surrounding a very large show building, inside of which was the Western River Expedition. Besides the Marc Davis attraction inside, Thunder Mesa would've offered a runaway mine train, a canoe flume ride, and walking trails and exhibits. It was to be situated on a piece of land carved out just for it in north-western Frontierland.

Western River Expedition was intended to be a twenty minute long attraction.

False. One of the reasons Western River had such a huge show building was because the whole idea was to recreate the vast open desert plains indoors. The ride would've been several minutes longer than the Florida Pirates of the Caribbean but not quite so long as the California Pirates of the Caribbean; probably ten to twelve minutes. This was not an unreasonably scaled project.

In the attraction load area, the Walt Disney World Railroad would have looked down from above.

False. The Railroad did indeed peek into the ride, but not at the point commonly described.

The ride would've had more audio-animatronics than any ride ever.

True and false. WRE was expected to have slightly more figures than Pirates of the Caribbean, but not nearly as many as World of Motion ended up having in 1982. I know it's hard to think in relative terms about some of these things, but cost of figure production alone was not was sunk Western River.

Western River Expedition would've ended in a large, outdoor drop, making it redundant with Splash Mountain.

False. I'm not sure where this idea began, although I will show how it occurred. Western River Expedition itself was, like Pirates and Small World, entirely contained inside its own attraction show building and never would've gone outside. Thunder Mesa was slated to include a canoe-themed log flume which would've climaxed in a long, rapid descent thru outdoor rapids down the front of the mesa. This ride was being developed separately from Marc Davis' interior show, but at some point somebody conflated the two.

Hoot Gibson, an audio-animatronic owl, would have narrated Western River Expedition.

Probably false. There are no pieces of Marc Davis art of Hoot, nor does there seem to be any places in the attraction where he could completely comfortably fit. When Mike Lee interviewed Marc Davis in 1999, he asked specifically about Hoot Gibson and Marc had nothing to say about him.

Of course, there's plenty of stuff in rides like the Haunted Mansion that no real concept art exists of, so that doesn't prove much. What I think is more likely is that Hoot was going to be featured in revised versions of the attraction that Marc was preparing following the opening of Walt Disney World. Since we can't be totally sure of that, these articles attempt to present the version of the attraction which came the nearest to actual realization: the original, 1971 version.

Wasn't the ride revised to make it more "politically correct?"

True. As documented by Mike Lee, at some point Davis prepared a version of the attraction which removed the Native American component all together, instead expanding the showcase "Saturday Night On The Town" sequence to fill the gap. Changing attitudes in America through the 1960s and 1970s would have made the use of native tribes for comedy purposes fairly objectionable, even if I'm not sure that Disney would have been able to attempt a Pirates of the Caribbean-style "purge"as they did in the 1990s. Unlike some, however, I'm not sure that this is what killed off the project, although it inarguably did cause the project to spin its wheels for years.

Western River Expedition never happened because the ride was conceived on an impossible scale.

False. If I had to choose a single thing that killed Western River Expedition permanently and forever, it's because Disney didn't want to be in the business of making rides like this past a certain point.

Following the Energy crisis, Walt Disney World went into full-on money conservation mode, only proceeding with Space Mountain because the ride foundations were up prior to the gas shortage. Throughout 1975 and 1976 the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland were stuffed to capacity due to the popular Bicentennial promotion, and at the end of 1976 WDP announced their intention to move forward with Tokyo Disneyland and EPCOT Center, two projects that monopolized all of their resources for six years.

Marc Davis retired in 1977, and so Western River Expedition was without its core advocate. The timing was simply all wrong to get it built.

But over the years because it was pretty elaborate and never got off the ground rumors have spread that Western River was just too big to come true, which is nonsense. Choose any of the 1982 Future World classics and you have an equally elaborate attraction. Western River was built on a foundation of what Davis knew Disney could do well: rocks, lighting, special effects and a slow moving boat.

If there's any one thing I want readers to come away from this article with, it's the fact that Western River was not some crazily impossible thing. Davis always built his designs and ideas around what he knew the technological limitations of WED were. It not only was possible in 1971, but it's still possible and compelling today.

Now that I can break down the attraction into a full picture of what was intended, I hope that a lot of misunderstanding can finally be erased. So let's go into our first section, and describe Thunder Mesa in some detail.

II. THUNDER MESA: THE EXTERIOR ATTRACTIONS

We've all seen this picture:



Most of you have probably seen this image dozens of times online and blown it off as totally impossible to comprehend, and that's because nobody's ever gone out and shown exactly how each part fits together. So let's start by doing that.

On certain early Magic Kingdom blueprints which make a frequent appearance online, the foundation of the actual Thunder Mesa complex may be observed, like so:


What you're being shown here is strictly a foundation; moreover, strictly a foundation for the interior attraction. The disconnect between the concept art and the final product is very apparent. There's two additional resources to help paint this picture for you; a model and a lineart drawing.

Take another close look at that postcard we've all seen; now, here's what Thunder Mesa looked like... from above:


And here's a gorgeous lineart piece from a slightly different viewpoint:


Okay, now that we've got these in front of us, let's start picking out landmarks we can recognize. There's three major landmarks on the outside of Thunder Mesa. The first is this curious collection of buildings on the southernmost side:


Notice the train running through the center of it. This was supposed to be the "Mesa Cafe", a sort of Western version of the Blue Bayou. The lobby and tables would be housed in the buildings running along the walkway, by all appearances a normal Western town from the front but inside a single connected curved open space. Inside, under the roofs of the town, tables faced out across a bucolic old west town, complete with a forced perspective central "street".

Every so often trains would roll through, carrying passengers up towards the pleateu of Thunder Mesa. In terms of style and execution, I imagine this as being something like a cross between the Blue Bayou and the boarding area of Disneyland's Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland:

Gorillas Don't Blog
Nearby, a gigantic ore elevator and mine shaft entrance burrows into the mountain, providing the entrance to the Western River Expedition boat ride:


A bit further along, a rambling railroad platform sits by a cove that's fed by a gigantic waterfall tumbling down off the top of the Mesa and flowing back into the Rivers of America:


This structure provides the loading and unloading platforms for two attractions, both of which take riders up into the top of the Mesa: a runaway train ride and a flume ride styled after white water canoeing.


Both attractions would bring riders to different areas of the top of the mountain, these areas probably being very much like various tableau and scenes seen along Nature's Wonderland.


Look carefully here and you can see a forest of cacti on the left, probably not dissimilar to Nature's Wonderland's Saguaro Forest. In the center is a Painted Desert, a forced perspective hill that rises up to a vanishing point above a tree line, thus implying that it continues on forever. To give an idea of how this would have worked, until the late 1980s the Walt Disney World Jungle Cruise used the same visual trick on their African Veldt:


On the right we can see a sort of "geyser gulch" the runaway train travels through just before it makes the big trip back down off the Mesa. Across the entire top of paths and trails. The kinship with Nature's Wonderland has no doubt fueled the rumor that Pack Mules were intended to go up the top of Thunder Mesa, but I've found no real suggestion of this in reality and the model we have suggests to me that these were walking paths.

As for the canoes, they would have loaded at a platform just below the train along that sheltered Western cove, then proceeded into a cave in the front of the Mesa, moving through a new version of the Rainbow Caverns as they chug up a lift hill:


Arriving at the top of the Mesa, the canoes would have commanding views of Frontierland and Adventureland, slip down through the valley of saguaros, then began a rapid plunge down a long canyon river, ending in some thrilling white-water rapids before returning to Load:


As it turns out this attraction was among the first assignments for a young George McGinnis, so as crazy as all of this stuff seems there were indeed teams moving forward with these ideas.

Now that we've identified the major components of Thunder Mesa, let's color them in on that pencil overview. The entrance and (possible) exit to the Western River Expedition appear in orange, the canoe ride path in blue, and the runaway train track in red.


Oh, and those pueblo houses, so famous for appearing on the postcard and the 1971 room wall map? Pretty sure those were just for decoration, so sorry guys, no Indian dance circle like Disneyland had.

Sorry, pueblo enthusiasts!
Looking at Thunder Mesa all decoded, it's hard not to notice that both the canoe ride and the train ride would have been rather short; just a few minutes each. It's not hard to notice either how elements of the canoe ride and train ride were squashed together to create Big Thunder Mountain; the rainbow caverns with a lift hill inside them, the race through a forced perspective Western town, the geysers around the train, there's even enough caves along the route to allow for a proposed bat cavern.

It's also easy to see how the boat ride inside the mountain and the canoe ride outside got conflated, leading to the idea that the Marc Davis boat ride ended with a large, outdoor drop a'la Splash Mountain. Thunder Mesa's white water course would have been a totally different kind of thrill than Splash Mountain's straight-down final plunge, but the similarities are there.

It's also hard not to see how Big Thunder Mountain is actually a pretty good compromise for the train and canoe ride. The unique idea of having two different rides which move through different areas of the Mesa is a great one, and that Mesa Cafe with its pastoral outdoor old west town seems to me a huge loss. But that was going to be Thunder Mesa, everyone. That was it.

III. WERE THEY ACTUALLY GOING TO BUILD THIS THING?

Apparently, yes they were. Multiple models were worked up, and I'm told blueprints and schemata were prepared by MAPO. There's even the old story that figure manufacture had begun. This wasn't a pipe dream, it was a buildable concept that Disney was ready to start work on.

They built the attraction's accompanying Train Station in 1972. Had the attraction been built, this structure would have sat near the colorful facades of the Mesa Cafe, and shortly after steaming out of the Frontierland station, the trains would have passed into a cavern in the side of the Mesa.

I've used the model and art above to give a conception of the scope of Thunder Mesa because, remarkably, they all match. There are, however, a few discrepancies. There's this 1969 elevation by Mitsu Natsume:


This thing doesn't square with either the 1970 postcard or the model or line art, so I suspect it's an earlier version of the project. Expand this one, please, and notice that the area where the entrance to the boat ride was to be has been pasted over with an ore elevator without an entrance below it; I suspect this has been modified at some point to be passed off as Big Thunder Mountain concept art.

And then there's the big Magic Kingdom model prepared in 1969. This model has some interesting discrepancies with the park as constructed, but it's overall a very accurate view of what they intended to build and actually did build. Thunder Mesa was there, too:


If you look carefully enough you can see the runaway train track heading down the side of the mountain.

No, they really were going to build this. It even sits perfectly along the bend in the river, the bend that was specifically carved out for it in 1971.


Come back for Part Two when we'll pry the lid off that building and take a ride on the Western River Expedition!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Notes on a Time That Was Not Happy



Sometimes it requires incredible amounts of devotion, of faith, and of mental stamina to be a fan.

Al Huffman / DisneyFans.Com
As a Disney fan, my first real crisis came in 1998. In the short span between one trip to Florida and the next, two of my favorite rides - two of the reasons I wanted to go in the first place - vanished entirely, Delta Dreamflight and Journey Into Imagination. A third which had terrified me as a child but I had just begun to really enjoy, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, closed too. And this was on top of the shuttering of World of Motion - my original favorite ride - and the fact that Animal Kingdom, then brand new, had almost nothing of the sort of experience I liked: indoor, slow moving dark rides.

In retrospect, the extent of my pain and shock from that sequence of events was only fully measurable in recent years. 1998 is when Disney lost my trust and has not and probably will never regain it. There were two effects of that trip, the long term effect being a doubling down of an effort to get to Disneyland. The short term is that I fell into extreme and singular focus on The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Those two rides felt at the time like the last things I had left of my favorite thing in the world, and it was not my Disneyland trip in 2003 and move to Florida in 2003 that I began to find new things, both in Florida and California, to love.

2014 and, to some degree 2013, has been the worst year for theme park fans since the late 90s.

For the longest time it felt like we were clawing out of the abyss late Eisner left us floundering in. In 2006, 2007, and 2008 show quality throughout Walt Disney World began to rapidly improve. Unique,
Al Huffman / DisneyFans.Com
clever details began to return to obscure corners of the park. Its a Small World was beautifully refreshed. The Hall of Presidents was renovated instead of removed and greatly enhanced. The Haunted Mansion got a top-to-bottom polish. Mickey's Toontown Fair was demolished. Space Mountain was improved. The Enchanted Tiki Room was restored. The Orange Bird returned. And everywhere, clever and interesting additions made all of the parks feel less like the budget cartoon clearinghouses they resembled by the end of the "100 Years of Magic" promotion and more like the way they were meant to be.

The irony is that 2014 saw the opening of two terrific new dark rides - The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Walt Disney World and Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts at Universal. By any metric, including that of this bitter old fan, this was a cause for celebration - it had been nearly 15 years since we got so much good stuff in one year in Orlando.

Problem was, the news overall was more bad than good.

Generally speaking, I'm not a rabble rousing theme park writer in the Al Lutz vein. I prefer to expend my energies writing about things I love instead of hate. Starting in 2009 and running through 2011, I began a series a "Year-End Report Cards" precisely to weigh the lasting value of additions and changes to the parks. I missed 2012, and could not bring myself to write one for 2013, when the major changes were a disastrous cut-down of Country Bear Jamboree and the endless scandal of MyMagic+'s amazingly "colorful" roll out. 2014 isn't going to happen either. If you're reading this I know you know enough reasons why.

There's times when being a blog writer you know that a response, some response, is demanded more than a simple good or bad review, yet you're helpless to affect it. What can be said of 2014's myriad scandals besides a long sigh of resignation? A blog post can be a useful tool to disseminate a viewpoint wider than, say, a forum post can, but when Disney's actively going in and ripping out stuff you genuinely care so deeply about that words cannot express your emotions, what good can a blog post - and one on a niche, niche audience site such as this - truly do? What else is there to offer besides head shaking?

Where do you define the limits of your fandom? As an adult, there's been no delayed reaction from the worst of my feelings about the past few years. After all, in 1998 Disney was merely trashing the passions a child who loved green sea serpents and believed in purple dragons and loved rides about airplanes where mannequins lurked in the background. As an adult I spend a large amount of money each year to maintain access to a place I have a lot of emotional investment in. It's an investment that embraces the whole of the place, from its start in the late 60s all the way into the foreseeable future. It's a more complex investment than I once had. Walt Disney World is now more than just Figment to me, it's a huge network of things like swan boats and utilidors and Jack Wagner background music that it was not when I was a child. It's thousands of dollars of research material, millions of words on this site, and nearly ten years of my working life.


Now, no two fans will ever be alike.

My fandom is a product of Disney, specifically the Disney of the late 80s and early 90s. This was by no means a perfect time. Eisner was ascendant, Frank Wells would shortly die, and things I loved as a child, like Dreamflight, were already suspect replacements of what was there originally. But I am a product of Disney of that era, and this was an era when Disney was still a company hungry for validation. They had not yet absorbed ABC and ESPN, to say nothing of Go.com, Video.com, Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. They told me to hold them to the absolute highest standard, and you know what? They came through to me. Consistently. I came of age when one animated classic after another poured out of Burbank, when EPCOT Center was still fairly new, then Disney-MGM Studios changed more in a year than it has in the past decade.

I saw old WDW at the very end of the time when it existed, and I saw it repeatedly. I was in the position to be confused when 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea closed, to mourn the removal of Main Street's beautiful Flower Market, to be crushed by the closure of Journey Into Imagination and many other of my favorite rides.

I was, in short, extremely lucky to be able to travel to WDW every other year for about a decade. I saw it a lot. I probably should've wanted to go somewhere else, but I didn't. I saw it enough to get bored of it, but I didn't. My appreciation deepened. Then the late 90s hit.

If you consider how much changed at Walt Disney World between 1989 and 1999, and then how little has changed between 1999 and now, is it any wonder that the gap between the old school fans and those who began visiting in, say, 2002 is so monumental? It's inevitable. It's sad, but it's what's happened.

This is why it kills me to see the old school fans and the new fans going at it with hammer and tongs over and over and over again on the internet. I'm a product of a company which is now almost totally unrecognizable, and my Walt Disney World is long gone. But I'm nothing but an earlier version of those new school fans who go out of their way to find new reasons to insult and dismiss me.

It's not that I hate current Walt Disney World, but it's no longer my Walt Disney World, and human emotions all being equal I'm going to by definition feel conflicted about it. These criticism don't come out of some desire to "take Disney down a peg" or piss all over your 2013 vacation. I'm upset because I'm genuinely, emotionally, deeply dismayed by these things. I don't require agreement, but empathy would be nice.

I didn't set out here to complain; I want to teach. But the deadening impact of the walls raised between individuals on the internet creates, I fear, fans who see other fans of such a different Disney culture and Disney background that they assume there can be no overlap between them. But I'm a fan too, and I love my stuff just as much as other, newer fans. I just like different stuff. There's no crime in that.

Which is why I've tried a new approach here. Instead of taking the scholarly, remote approach most Disney fans take when trying to discuss these things, I'm going to make it totally, grossly, entirely personal. If you've read this blog enough you probably know my positions, but I feel some take little  time to consider why they are that way. I didn't tumble out of the womb disappointed in a stale state of Future World. It took a long time for that love to curdle into disappointment, and finally apathy. I can't pretend to tell the whole story here, but I'll try to give some insight not into what the passing of these things means not to Disney, but to me.

I did not have a "crisis of faith" in 2014 because my experiences in the 90s told me to expect the worst to begin with. But I'm also too entrenched now to entirely stop caring. Yes, it's harder and harder for me to enjoy a lot of stuff I once did, but it's not as if I don't enjoy myself as fully as possible when I do commit to go there. But unlike when I was a vacationer, that commitment now comes bound in with an ideology. I'm enough of a fan to keep caring and too much of a fan to accept lousy choices.

One reason 2014 hit me hard is because each of the three major disasters has struck a different pillar by which I hold the Disney theme parks to be superior popular art, the thing that makes them better than a Six Flags. That's different for each visitor but for me much of the appeal of the places comes down to three poles: excellent design, historical legacy, and conceptual integrity. That's how I define my fandom.


It's Just Stairs

My first and largest disappointment this year was the design disaster, New Orleans Square.

Now, to be abundantly clear, New Orleans Square is sacred territory for this writer. You are reading this site right now as a direct result of that area. By 2003, my mind was opening to the idea that there was more to these theme parks than I was aware of thanks to writing my Mike Lee and others, but New Orleans Square at Disneyland twisted my head off and put it back on my body differently. It was a life altering event.

Besides the staggering greatness of the West Coast Pirates of the Caribbean and the intimate, quirky original Haunted Mansion, New Orleans Square was epochal. The intimate courtyards had not yet became crowded with sales items and The Disney Gallery was where I bought my first issue of The E Ticket and began to take Disney History very seriously. New Orleans Square was quiet, understated, and perfect. Upon the closure of the Court of Angels in 2013, irritated brand loyalists came out of the woodwork and claimed that the feature was worthless because they themselves had never gone back there, which was of course precisely the point.

Loud tourists, crazed Fastpassers and people whose entire kitchen is Mickey Mouse themed blew past the area daily because to them there was nothing especially "Disney" about an intimate courtyard. What upset aesthetes like me is that, conversely, there was nothing more Disney than the Court of Angels -- Walt Disney, that is. Walt built things because he liked them and trusted his instincts enough to trust that the public would too, and more often than not he was right. The Court of Angels was the symbol of the entire Disney way of doing things, the thing that made Disneyland different than a boardwalk. It was there because it was nice, and simply being nice was more than enough.

The courtyard closed in 2013 to make way for an expanded Club 33 lobby, but that wasn't the worst of it. Club 33, an ageing private club that was probably no longer a secret worth keeping, had changed numerous times since it opened following Walt's passing but had remained strictly faithful to the interior decor of the original WED team and, presumably, Walt's own wishes.

All of this would change with laudable aims of improving the floor plan, access and food of the club. Now, I've never been to Club 33 and certainly now will never want to because the main appeal of the place to me was just that it was so traditional, but really what upset me is not that Club 33 as we knew it was stripped out and replaced with something that looks a lot like a cruise ship interior, it's what these changes meant to the exterior of the buildings which contained the club.

Left: 1966 (Daveland) / Right: 2014 (Andy Castro)

Frankly, it's hard not to see what they did and wonder if they could've produced a poorer effort. Gigantic windows ruin Walt's carefully crafted forced perspective. New features are placed in ways which destroy sightlines and symmetry. As Herb Ryman once appropriately put it, "Bad taste costs no less."

Top: 1966 (Daveland) / Bottom: 2014 (Andy Castro)

This came at the tail end of eight years of compromise and homogenization. I never got to Disneyland in time to see weird little things like The One-Of-A-Kind Shop or Le Gourmet,  but the sort of thinking that slaps Jack Skellington on a sign and calls it a day has totally taken over. In 2006, the beautiful Royal Courtyard, my favorite, became overflow Pirate merchandise. At that time, a tarp was strung up over the courtyard, blocking views of the architecture above and the doors into the courtyard from the street were locked, forcing traffic to proceed directly from one shop to the next. All of this effectively removed the Royal Courtyard.

Court of Angels in the 1980 Annual Report
Then, in 2008, the disastrous Dream Suite project turned The Disney Gallery into a private hotel room. Besides awkwardly dislocating the Fantasmic Dessert Party and removing two more quiet getaways inside New Orleans Square - the front balcony and the central courtyard - this forced The Disney Gallery into an awkward compromise space on Main Street. Since then, the number of unique Disney offerings in that store has shrunk and shrunk while the exhibit space has slowly crawled inwards to just a corner. This was effectively the death of the Disney Gallery. What was once a much beloved merchandise location has become off-limits to guests and the highly profitable merchandise programs it initiated have fallen on their own sword.

Court of Angels was the last to remain standing, but the end was foretold. Periodically converted to sell merchandise, it finally went the way of its peers. In Bob Iger's New Orleans Square, intimacy and charm only came after merchandise and dining sales.

This is the fate of the last area overseen by Walt Disney, the design pinnacle of Disneyland. This was the best area of the defining theme park of the world.

2014 was the year I lost faith in Disneyland. Walt's park had been through rough stewardship in previous times, and of course nothing is ever perfect, but when they say you can never go home again things like New Orleans Square's through trashing is what they mean. My favorite and the defining area of any modern theme park had finally, at last, been compromised. The quiet courtyards and intimate details, but more than that, the staggering scope of the accomplishment represented by that north-south stretch of riverfront property from Pirates of the Caribbean to the Haunted Mansion is something I can only relive in memories.

And now I must find a new favorite theme park area. Somehow.



It's Just Waterfalls

The second disaster was admittedly less significant but struck me through the heart just as strongly, and that was the removal of the Polynesian Village's lobby waterfall centerpiece.

Now, I was at the Polynesian just last week and many of the upgrades I've been seeing around the hotel have been excellent and badly needed. Beautiful volcanic rockwork has sprung up where previously suspect wallpaper and drywall was the norm. The cartoonish volcano pool is being rethought, and even the old name "Polynesian Village" has been restored. Everything about the project seem to be an effort to update but retain the Polynesian's funky retro charm.

And, it must be said, it's not like the Polynesian hasn't successfully reinvented itself before. In the 70s it was a paradise of turquoise and sea-green tiles, wicker chairs, and goofily "modern" design touches, more Vegas than the hotel many know. In the 90s it was turned into the orange-and-earth tones garden it remained until this year. So it's not like the Polynesian has ever been just one thing, unchanging. It's a modern and wildly popular hotel and it has been and will be continued to be upgraded because that's what hotels are.

Davelandweb.Com

I'm saying all this as a preface because I have been attacked and probably will be again for being a stodgy traditionalist who would have all of Walt Disney World unchanged, which is presumptuous guff. But I do believe that we can retain the best elements of the past and combine them with needed refreshments and upgrades to produce a product which is both always relevant and timeless.

The Polynesian waterfalls were the heart of the resort. They were the signature central moment of the resort, as important to its impact as entering Wilderness Lodge through that tiny antechamber and stepping into the golden glow of that lobby. The hiss of the automatic doors and entering a space both interior and exterior, the sound of the rushing water over the rocks, and the dapple Florida sunlight on the interior garden was the defining, unique statement of that hotel.

In the years following its opening indoor/outdoor gardens with waterfalls became a feature of many a hotel around the country, so, yes, it's not that the Polynesian by 2014 was unprecedented and unique. Yet that same logic would have us demolishing Pirates of the Caribbean because it spread the popularity of pirate-themed rides throughout the world. The Polynesian waterfalls were amongst the first and best example of this particular lobby scheme. They were not too tall to become annoying, and the lobby was not too large to lose its sense of vintage intimacy. Entering the Polynesian was like being embraced by the arms of the tropics.

This to me was the legacy item that was destroyed. Yes, it may yet be conceivable to have an attractive Polynesian Village without the falls but there is no getting around the fact that a large chunk of Walt Disney World history has gone off to the trash heap.

I've heard various reports about how "the falls could not be saved" and differing estimates about mold, and asbestos, but this one was all about money, and the proof in the pudding is that the beautiful original waterfalls have been rebuilt as a teeny tiny little mole hill of a waterfall complex. Interior running water is interior running water. Why would Walt Disney World risk the apparent mold infestation we're told the falls were demolished to get rid of? I've used the Polynesian as a general base of operations and hangout since I moved to Florida in 2003, and I can tell you from personal experience that starting in 2006, the waterfall itself would be off about 25% of the time. I've seen Disney turn off, gut, and refurbish those falls and the ones outside three or four times in ten years. It was self-evident that the waterfall system was badly in need of a solution.

Which is why the falls should not have been demolished, but totally rebuilt. They didn't even need to keep that exact particular waterfall arrangement from 1971, but the garden and the falls in some arrangement should have been retained, because that lobby is the signature element of the resort, and removing it is no less significant than if, say, the monorail was rerouted to go around the Contemporary or if the Grand Floridian's lobby were filled in with DVC units. I can hear the internet now: "You don't understand, the Grand Floridian lobby could not be saved! People forget that Disney is a business."

There's that money claim again, and guess what? It's still the core of my objection. When I look at that little pile of pebbles in the center of the Polynesian I see not a dramatic, modern reimagining but a cheap, lousy replacement. I refuse to accept that the same creative team that restored the original name and typeface to the hotel would also have considered removing the signature visual element of the place to be an attractive option. And since the decision was creatively compromised and certainly wasn't operationally justifiable, that leaves us the last option: budget.

The modern reality of Walt Disney World is that the resort continues to report record profits and attendance year after year, but they cannot be bothered to throw enough money at one of their signature hotels to get a job done properly. What percentage of a stock point would rebuilding the waterfalls actually effect? How many rooms need to be filled for a reconstruction to pay for itself?

And we're not talking about just any hotel here - we're talking about the hotel that's asking, at its cheapest, around $500 a room a night, and more often around $800.

To take this number out of the squirrelly, complex, fluctuating-discount-ridden monetary minefield of Walt Disney World and put it in real world terms, I looked up 25 top hotels in the country, and overall found that their average asking price topped out around $300 a night. For the price of one night in the funky Polynesian I could stay two nights at the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue in New York. Prices for Four Seasons hotels in places like Atlanta and Colorado came nearer to the Walt Disney World price range, but the only the mega hotels in the tourist section of Hawaii matched or exceeded the sticker value Disney places on their hotels. And for your money you're not getting a Waldorf-Astoria, you're getting a Disney hotel where the restaurants serve chicken tenders and the lobby is filled with shrieking children.

So let's forget for a moment about Disney, or Disney history, or Walt Disney World, or DVC, about all this nonsense political stuff we get caught up in as Disney nerds. We're talking about a hotel that is pricing itself amongst and often above the finest hotels in the country that still couldn't justify properly and respectfully replacing its signature visual element. This is an embarrassment.

It's Just a Boat Ride

Yeah, you all knew this was coming because we're still smarting from it. It must be said: I never outright loved Maelstrom. I actually liked the Spirit of Norway film at the end more than anything in the ride. But I'm not everybody. I know those younger than I who missed out on World of Motion or Journey into Imagination or Horizons who wept the day its closure was announced.

At this point in most other articles about Frozen in Norway go on to describe the pros and cons of Frozen, its popularity, the decision, the fan reaction, but you know what? I don't have to. You've all read those before, and besides, most authors want to reframe their argument to be specifically about Frozen ("The kids love it!") or specifically about Maelstrom ("EPCOT Center!"), but that's all just a distraction from the core of the apple here, which is that Epcot, thematically, is a joke. The Frozenification of Maelstrom was just the drop that caused the vase to overflow and it's been coming for twenty years now. Epcot is the conceptual integrity disaster of the year, and in a way it's the biggest one, because this isn't just one area of a park or a hotel but it's an entire theme park.

hintofspy

We're talking about a park here which closed and gutted all of its wonderfully designed family favorite attractions. Honestly, most of them were around for mere blips on its lifetime and so never quite hit that multi-generational quota that graduates attractions from being merely good to being classics. There's nothing to compare it to because no Disney theme park in history has ever so thoroughly massacred its own core content. Imagine if Magic Kingdom, tomorrow, demolished Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Big Thunder Mountain, Haunted Mansion, It's a Small World, and Space Mountain. That's what happened to EPCOT.

Those of us who loved EPCOT kept going out of either obligation or grim determination that somehow, someday, things would get better. We began to spend more time in World Showcase and things which were once kinda lousy attractions in a park that also had Horizons, like the O Canada film, became treasured heirlooms. We began to skip through Future World and believe that World Showcase was Epcot still. It became a hiding place. From far enough away Test Track does indeed still look like World of Motion. And we were kidding ourselves.

The removal of Maelstrom is not significant on its own so much as it's the final nail in the coffin. People are finally starting to deal with their denial and the locus of the problem is Maelstrom but it's not the be all and end all. Listen: there's nothing inherently sacrosanct about, say, Magic Journeys. It's not like World of Motion was a perfect, unsurpassed achievement. What we were kidding ourselves about, and what Disney screwed the pooch on spectacularly, is that Epcot was in any way relevant and meaningful anymore, that it had become anything but a random collection of stuff.

Myself, I stopped attending. The same author who wrote "An EPCOT Generation Manifesto" cannot be bothered to enter the park anymore because I cannot see the point. There's very little there for me to enjoy. I can count it on one hand: Living with the Land, Captain EO, Impressions de France, American Adventure and Spaceship Earth.

Of those, only Impressions de France has dated gracefully. Living with the Land is passing out information about agriculture that's twenty years behind the times in a pavilion so ludicrously out of date you can't even find a discussion of the word "organic" anywhere in it. A trip to your local Whole Foods is more informative. Captain EO is... Captain EO. American Adventure is an earnest but patchy show and Spaceship Earth is a similar mix of dreadful and sublime.

I'm done kidding myself. For the foreseeable future, at least, Epcot is not going to get better, not while it's still outperforming half of the parks at Walt Disney World, not while it still runs food festivals that jam the park and destroy the atmosphere, not while it makes a mint each day selling alcohol from outdoor kiosks to temporarily morally liberated tourists. Visiting Epcot, to me, is like visiting somebody you admired once who hasn't done a thing in twenty years and reeks of expensive tequila.

ChrystinaNoel.com
It's not going to get better from here on out, now that the average Future World visitor is so bored of its hodgepodge of 90s culture and digital wackiness that all they can bring themselves to do is Test Track or Soarin, and then treat the beautifully crafted World Showcase like the swim-up bar at a pool. EPCOT Center was the most wholly ambitious of the parks because it dared to speak at the level above audiences, to challenge them - in the friendly, low-risk arena of a theme park - to think of themselves and indeed human potential in new ways. Today, for most tourists, it's nothing but a fancy bar district.

I will say this: I do not believe that Epcot is beyond help, but it is beyond my ability to foresee it. Disney has no more interest in addressing audiences intelligently than they do of demanding better from themselves. My experience is that people act as intelligently as you treat them, but almost everything at Epcot is keyed to the most facile understanding of its audience. People see outdated data presented condescendingly and blow it off, then the referees on the sidelines shriek triumphantly: "You see? Nobody goes on vacation to learn!". Meanwhile, very far away, museums and cultural exhibits enjoy a new renaissance.

The tragedy of it is that we are living in the most literate, most informed American society ever, thanks to the rise of the internet and the democratization of knowledge, and Epcot has refused to keep up. It's not even trying. The classroom is empty and there's no office hours because it's off water skiing with Guy Fieri. It's slacking, and Disney has no reason to wake the sleeping babe. A walk through Epcot is like seeing the Rosetta stone handed to an infant. She shakes it, she breaks it, then she asks for an Elsa dress - everyone must have one.


Never Been Better

I still get a lot out of Disney theme parks, which is why I still go. They recharge me creatively, improve my attitude, and surround me with beautiful sights. There's value in that, but the gulf between the experience of being there and the experience of expressing an opinion of being there online could not be greater.

I emerged on the other side of 2014 feeling like a cartoon character after a bomb goes off and everyone's all covered in soot. Having been through the worst of the 90s, I was still not prepared for things to get quite so bad. The Disney Internet, meanwhile, has been at peak toxicity for over a year running. The amount of screaming is very high and the amount of useful discourse is very very low. If you can't go online to mourn with your fellow fans without being abused and attacked, where is there to go? The shrieking in certain quarters, meanwhile, has become so loud and fevered to resemble either desperation or censure. Some Walt Disney World fans it seems would rather shout you down that understand you, as if all fans are created equal or as if likes and dislikes aren't some intensely personal particular reaction.

This essay is intended as a memorial. Perhaps in the future I'll look back and feel much differently but this essay is about how I feel exactly at this moment. 2014 was a singular year, and although I am not defeated - contrary to one common lazy response intended to shut down dissent, I no more wish to stop going to Disney theme parks than they do - I am burned out.

It's not as if there have not been positive rumblings on the horizon. Disney-MGM, in particular, may finally attempt to live up to its potential, and the overall maintenance quality and aesthetic quality of everything - no matter how old or how suspect - has been very high. Yet my heart is heavy. It seems the mere fact of trying to be a fan these days is more Under New Management and less It's A Small World.

I'm burned out because this year has reminded me of the reason I had to quit Disney as a Cast Member to begin with: for all the money, all the time, all of the energy expended on showing your love to a place and a product, Disney does not love me back. These words are just a scream into the abyss among millions, and the internet is an echo chamber.

In 2015 let us try to be sympathetic to our fellow fans. I don't like the Sorcerer's Hat at the end of the street at MGM but I sympathize with those who will mourn it's removal, because they have never known the park without it. And while I do trust that, much like when the Wand over Spaceship Earth came down, some will eventually grow to like the restored view, I still think back. I still think back to that child who loved Delta Dreamflight and was hurt to learn that those who loved If You Had Wings hated it.

Listen, there's no moral relativism when it comes to liking or disliking weird, stupid shit. There's rides I love that will never be a post on Passport to Dreams because I think they're indefensible - Revenge of the Mummy, for example. That does not affect why I love them. As I grow older I'm more comfortable with that. But those of us who grew up with World of Motion should maybe stop feeling superior to those who grew up with Test Tack, as if our childhoods were objectively superior to theirs. They have their reasons, and I have mine.

Disneyland did Frozen right (Andy Castro)

In 2015 let's all try expecting the good but stop ignoring the bad. The fact is that Magic Kingdom is in terrific shape, help is on the way for MGM, Animal Kingdom will shortly be far more complete than it ever was, Disneyland is doing fine overall, California Adventure is still a mixed bag, and both economic and cultural forces are aligned against Epcot for the moment. Perhaps her day may come again, perhaps it may not.

Those are my realistic suggestions. My unrealistic suggestion is that in 2015 let us expect more from Disney. Those people who fill up social media with bile are right: Disney is a business, not a fairy in a garden or an invisible bridge across a chasm. I shouldn't need to #HaveFaith as they make poor decision after poor decision.

I don't work that way. I don't think I owe Disney a thing. I'm their customer, not their servant. I'm paying to help keep the lights on. Okay, maybe just one light in the grand scheme of things, but what of it? Do I need to keep a running spreadsheet of my Disney expenses to be worthy of their interest? This is a premium product and there is no shame in expecting a premium result.

I want to see good projects being led by talented people that expand Walt Disney World without closing other parts of it.

WDW Shutterbug
I want to see tasteful refurbishments to troubled attractions that add substantially to the emotional and physical value of the attraction without having to use legacy elements as "bargaining chips". This isn't a pawn shop, it's a multi-billion-dollar business. Disney is only constrained by the money they're willing to spend here.

Moreover, I want a reason to believe again. It's been a long time since I expected anything good to come rolling out of Burbank. Based on what I see on Twitter and elsewhere, we are all ready for a change. Disney has finally fallen victim to the malaise that's stricken Hollywood since the late 90s: a total lack of conviction. Nobody inside the company seems to be making anything they believe in anymore. Some things slip through the cracks here and there, but I want to see passion projects, not spreadsheet low-risk investments. Disney controls the most remarkable creative staff in the industry and they set them to work toiling out things like Cars Land: beautifully done, emotionally hollow. Is it any wonder so many Imagineers are jumping ship to Universal Creative?

I haven't got a reason to have faith anymore. And me, and many others, I think, could really use one right about now.

Passport to Dreams Old & New Year End Essays
Report Cards: 2009 | 2010 | 2011
Notes on a Time That Was Not Happy (2014)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World



I'm pleased to announce the availability of the shiny, new-and-improved Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World. Today marks the end of a 3.5 year journey for me, although I may time and again post updated tracks as new resources become available.


"Another Musical Souvenir" consists of 20 MP3 files of more than 6 hours total Walt Disney World atmosphere tracks. Also included is a gorgeous, lavishly illustrated 28 page booklet that will guide you through the tracks, plus an additional 40 pages of "Expanded Notes" and annotations for those who want to know how it all came together.

Download:

If you've ever wanted to step back in time and visit the Walt Disney World of its earliest years, Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World is your time machine. Each track is a flowing, aural landscape which revives the music and sounds of the Vacation Kingdom of the past.

 Inside you can sit in the Central Plaza as swan boats drift by, explore the original Magic Kingdom Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, ride a Skyway bucket over Fantasyland, revisit the RCA Space Mountain, listen to Michael Iceberg play his iceberg machine and ride a monorail to the Polynesian Village for drinks.

 This second version of the original A Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World expands on the original, including more than twice the amount of material. Finally the full scope of the project may be heard, and the intended structure restored. Best of all this project comes with six "Bonus Tracks" which offer many more opportunities to include beloved Magic Kingdom music beyond the late-70s scope of the project.

This is a memory meant to be shared, and I hope that "Another Musical Souvenir" both brings back fond memories and inspires others to learn more about the terrific history and legacy of Walt Disney World.


Monday, December 01, 2014

Announcing: "Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World"

Back in summer 2011, I came across a single file that would more or less determine my hobbies for the next three and a half years. It was a decent quality source copy of the original soundtrack to "If You Had Wings", long thought destroyed. I was enervated. I sat down and, using live recordings and videos of the attraction, worked up a "flow-through" of the ride, capturing the atmosphere and din of the attraction but using source recordings. When it was done I stretched back, relaxed, and thought: "now to do the rest of the park!". I laughed. But I did it.

This hobby has sent me raiding record stores on both coasts, sticking microphones on sticks into highly suspicious places in theme parks, driving across states, begging and pleading, and constantly editing, re-editing, and re-editing. The release of A Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World turned out to merely be the start of an even more concerted effort to create Part 2, but I'm pleased to say that after all of the crazy adventures I've had, the end is (almost) in sight. But this wasn't merely a v.2.0 of my first project, no, this turned into another thing entirely. It's Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World.

There's a story from the annals of film history that's been rolling through my head since somewhere around early 2012. The story goes that on the set of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance", Griffith instructed his camera man Billy Bitzer that for a hugely complicated shot he wanted to crane down from a wide angle to an extreme closeup and - this was the rub - he wanted the entire set to be in focus the whole time. Bitzer replied that this was impossible. Griffith replied: "That's why we're going to do it."

It's a mad quest to want to recreate a flowing audio tour of an entire theme park, but it's even crazier to want to recreate that park as it sounded thirty-five years ago. That was my goal. I wanted to rebuild, using testimony, memory, and research, the sound of the Magic Kingdom as it was well before I was even born. I wanted to hear music unheard since before Ronald Reagan was in office and sounds from attractions long long gone.

I don't know if it's crazier that I tried to do it or successfully did it. And it's coming to you soon.


It maybe doesn't look all that different than the original project, but it is. Nearly every track is significantly longer, more accurate, and presented in vastly upgraded quality. While the original Souvenir clocked in around 2 1/2 hours, the main body of this version is over 4 hours long - and there are 2 additional hours of "Bonus Tracks".

Let's announce some specifics:

Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World
Track List:
   1) Overture
   2) Main Street, U.S.A.
   3) Adventureland
   4) Jungle Cruise
   5) Caribbean Plaza
   6) Liberty Square
   7) Mike Fink Keelboats
   8) Frontierland
   9) Fantasyland
   10) Tomorrowland, Part 1
   11) Tomorrowland, Part 2
   12) If You Had Wings
   13) Magic Kingdom by Starlight
   14) An Evening in the Vacation Kingdom

Bonus Tracks:
   1) Big Thunder Mt. Railroad
   2) The Jungle Cruise (1991)
   3) Liberty Square (1993)
   4) New Tomorrowland (1983)
   5) Main Street, U.S.A. (Christmas)
   6) Magic Kingdom by Starlight (Christmas)

Many things have changed, but many have stayed the same. Avid listeners of my previous version will notice many differences, but none so stark as the "Evening in the Vacation Kingdom",  the crown jewel of the collection. This track finally realizes my original intention to recreate a full night spent in the Contemporary and Polynesian Village sipping cocktails in bars and lounges, hearing nearly forgotten resort area music, and enjoying vintage music acts of Walt Disney World's past.

Other tracks have been fully rebuilt. Main Street, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland, in particular, are almost wholly new and much improved.

You'll notice those "Bonus" tracks. They're intended to allow listeners to customize the experience seamlessly by replacing tracks in their playlist. Except for the Christmas tracks, each of the other Bonus tracks brings the main sequence of music tracks out of the late 70s and forward in time - bringing with them music tracks which will perhaps be more familiar to most listeners.  In this way I was able to offer a wider selection of music without compromising the historical integrity of the main project.

"Bonus" implies an item of secondary importance, but don't be fooled - my Bonus tracks here constitute some of my proudest work on the project. The highlight is definitely the 1983 Space Mountain soundtrack by George Wilkins of Horizons fame, which has finally been restored with all of its cues in the correct order. This will be the first time since 1993 that Wilkins' accomplishment here will be heard in full.

It's all very exciting and I'm very excited to be sharing it with you. So please keep an eye out for Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World - the next best thing to actually being there.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Stitch's Great Escape: Ten Years

“What we do here is to throw a challenge at you – not a real menace, but a pseudo-menace, a theatricalized menace – and we allow you to win.” - John Hench

Good Morning! If you're reading this on November 16, 2014, then I have news for you: Stitch's Great Escape is now a decade old. This means that Stitch's Great Escape has outlived Delta Dreamflight, the Magic Kingdom Swan Boats, most celebrity marriages, the profitable life span of most feature films, World War II, the original run of Star Wars films and the entire recording career of the Beatles.

I think it's probably safe to say that there may be no single attraction more frequently cited as "The Worst at Walt Disney World" than Stitch, especially now that the original Tiki Room show has been restored and those of us whom are historically minded don't have Under New Management to push around anymore. A similarly low rated show at Disney's Hollywood Studios - The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow - has come and gone in a less than two year run, which despite being only a few minutes long and standing right next to the most popular attraction in the park was widely detested by nearly every audience that saw it.

As for Stitch, it doesn't take much looking to find people with things to say about it:
"For my money, the worst attraction at MK and top 3 worst in "The World". It's boring, pointless and not worth your time. If I were in charge, this is an attraction that would be gone!" WDWinfo

"Unofficial Guide readers usually rate Stitch’s Great Escape! at the bottom of all Walt Disney World attractions. This comment from a New South Wales, Australia, reader is typical: "My comments on Stitch’s Great Escape! are . . . It STUNK. It was the worst ride at Walt Disney World." TouringPlans.Com

 "With these somewhat intense special effects, this attraction leaves many little ones crying in terror, which is why it's consistently the lowest-rated attraction in the world on ThemeParkInsider.com. But among those who appreciate irreverent mayhem, Stitch has its fans." Theme Park Insider
And two that I think are a bit closer to the core of the apple:
"The reports of chili being burped in your face is true. You are trapped and your shoulders are pressed down in total darkness. HORRIBLE! One hint is that if you DO decide to waste 20 minutes of your life on this crap, sit up really high and make yourself "big" when the shoulder harness comes down. Once it adjusts, sit normally in your seat. Do this or you will have shoulder pain the rest of your trip. And good lord don't take your kids to this! It's too scary and uncomfortable." Yelp

"Stupid. Not a ride. I repeat: not a ride." Foursquare
How did we get to this point? In 2004, Stitch was at the height of his popularity. Stitch merchandise was flying off shelves all across the country - Disney thought he was unstoppable. Stitch's Great Escape marked the quickest turnaround ever between a feature film's success and a major attraction added to a theme park - the only comparable example is Peter Pan's Flight, in the 1950s. We're talking about a character who was a runaway success, poised on the razor's edge of being a genuine phenomenon.

But Stitch's Great Escape was, in many ways, the end, not the beginning. A sea change was underway. The character Disney once thought was the twenty-first century Mickey Mouse fizzled out. And so, on the anniversary of Stitch's most public blunder, it's time to tell his story again, and maybe,  just maybe, discover something new about Walt Disney World's most reviled attraction.

Something You Ate, Sir?

Tomorrowland has always had kind of a weird problem around its entrance. While planning the Magic Kingdom in the 1960s, Disney projected a much different mix of people to arrive at the place than who finally showed up. Disney, for their part, under-estimated the mix of young to old visitors. This is why Magic Kingdom opened with six theater shows and no thrill rides. The need for something thrilling was so acute that Disney marketed the relatively tame Pirates of the Caribbean as a "thrill ride" for 1974.

And so Tomorrowland always had these two gigantic theater shows right at the entrance that weren't ever super popular. Whatever alchemy of location and surrounding attractions is worth, generally you can see about the same number of people wandering into these buildings today as you could in any of the previous tenancies. Disneyland always had a combination of a theater and ride at the entrance to their Tomorrowland, and now has two popular, high-capacity rides on either side, so over there this problem is less apparent. In Florida, the dual shows hide behind a stretch of architecture that maybe a lot of visitors don't even know have experiences inside them.

The original theaters shows in that space, Circle-Vision 360 and Mission to Mars were, depending on your point of view, either laughably dated or pleasantly low key, but in all but the busiest of days were not exactly living up to their capacity potential. Each of the various replacement attractions in these spaces have sought to increase the popularity of these large capacity theaters without totally stripping the interior spaces. Circle-Vision was reworked into the terrific Timekeeper but, much like Circle-Vision, Timekeeper never fully found an audience. Across the way, retained from Mission to Mars were a few simple rooms - a layout essentially unchanged from 1967 - but Imagineering attempted to re-engineer the same basic experience into a teen-friendly thriller: Alien Encounter.


Now, I honestly believe that the Alien Encounter team went into the attraction with the best of intentions. Laughs and scares had traditionally sat besides each other in Disney product, in things like The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and the Haunted Mansion. I think the Alien Encounter team wanted to create something like the Disney equivalent of Evil Dead 2 - a crazy, funny, scary roller coaster ride of an experience where laughs turn into screams and back again. The title of the thing even clues us in that maybe it isn't supposed to be taken too seriously - "ExtraTERRORestrial" looks like something that should be on a B-Movie poster in the lobby of the Sci-Fi Dine In.

Of course, things like that are only as scary as you want them to be, and the audience, primed for terror, screamed on cue but mostly just waited through the other material, never thinking about the patent absurdity of the whole thing. On the other hand, the reason why Evil Dead 2 and Dead-Alive can bridge that gap between scary and funny is by going so absurdly far over the top that the fright becomes abstracted and silly. Stick someone with a needle in a movie and the audience squirms; blow them apart in a micowave and you're more likely to get a laugh. Alien Encounter, straightjacketed inside a "hard PG" rating, went about as far as they could, but I often wonder how many audiences really ever responded the way they were supposed to. Even today, most people report that the experience was more terrifying than clever. Bolstered by an urban legend about Eisner demanding that the attraction be closed to make it scarier, audience expectations and Imagineering intentions were playing a losing game from the start.

Disney under Eisner through the 1990s was looking for ways to grow an audience that would stick around after the grade school years - to find ways to turn teenagers and adults into lifelong Disney fans instead of relegating the company to a product  that must be discarded upon the onset of puberty. Through things like The Lion King and Duck Tales, they succeeded, and Alien Encounter, along with Test Track at Epcot, are among the company's more successful teen-oriented theme park installations in this field.

Thoroughly, ostentatiously not for kids, some of the rage heard in the subsequent shuttering of Alien Encounter may also be traced to the betrayal of this group in the favor of a "kid's show". Alien Encounter was, after all, meant for them.

The new Alien Encounter layout replaced Mission to Mars' dual screens in the center of a theater in the round with a teleportation tube in which, thanks to simple stage magic, a crazed alien creature appeared and then appeared to break out of the tube into the theater, an event conveniently staged during a blackout. After roaming around the theater, licking random spectators, drooling, then killing an employee, the alien decides to climb back into the broken tube where a power surge causes it, much like a Gremlin in a microwave, to explode. The show was essentially a "darker", nastier cousin of the "audience abuse" subgenre of Disney 3D films like Honey, I Shrunk the Audience and It's Tough To Be A Bug.

Reviewing the whole thing on YouTube in preparation for this article, I was surprised at both how short and how patently goofy the whole experience was. The logic of the events was flaky, the dialogue stilted and a general sense of being a rather silly TV episode predominated. In retrospect, at the time it was running I was a bit too hard on Alien Encounter. I hated it. I thought it was tacky and tasteless and the whole experience was a mess. But the mold that Alien Encounter popped out of was broken. We will never again see its ilk in these parts. Audiences, for their part, either loved it or hated it. The removal of Alien Encounter in 2003 was as pre-destined a thing as can be imagined, it was literally too weird to live. If you are upset about the removal of Maelstrom in Epcot in favor of Frozen, then you will know this story well: a unique, deeply strange thing goes away, due to be replaced with the Disney Flavor of the Day. And in 2003, that flavor was Stitch.

Keep Circulating the Tapes

Although time has been kind to Lilo and Stitch in retrospect, such that it now appears to be the finest accomplishment of the last wave of traditional Disney animation, at the time there was no real indication that it would become the defining classic of Disney's last gasp of traditional animation. When we talk about what's retroactively called the "Second Golden Age", the key thing to understand is that the Disney animated films were comparatively cheap. The Lion King, for all of the money it has directly and indirectly raked in for Disney in the last twenty years, cost a measly $45 million dollars against a payout of over $750 million. Lion King's nearest competitor for the 1994 box office crown, Forrest Gump, cost $55 million and the third placing film, True Lies, cost over $100 million. In terms of cost versus return, Lion King was an amazing value.

What happened in the years following the success of Lion King is that the price of these animated films began to balloon, while their returns did not grow in step. So while the $448 million return on Tarzan is impressive, it cost $130 million to make, or, it only made a little over 3 times its production cost, instead of 17. So if you're a movie executive just looking at the numbers, then Tarzan was less of a good investment than Lion King.

The model began to break down considerably in 2000. Disney had historically successfully launched their animated movies at the start of the Summer months - kids were now out of school and could celebrate by seeing the newest Disney product. What happened in 2000 was Disney had three very different films all flooding the marketplace at three entirely different times. In the Winter, Fantasia 2000 had a modestly successful run in high end markets and IMAX screens. The traditional Disney Summer spot was taken up by Dinosaur, which, astonishingly enough today, made $350 million, and in December, Emperor's New Groove was in and out of theaters so quickly it built up a reputation that few had the chance to act on.

In short, Disney split the traditional "Whole Family" audience their films catered to into distinct groups with films to appeal to each - parents and serious animation fans, children, and "hip" teens, and the market became disastrously over-saturated. Compared to results like these, Lilo & Stitch was a small movie. In 2002, it was paired with Treasure Planet, which earned less than half of what Stitch did, and didn't even make back its production budget.

In fact, if you look at all of the traditional hand-drawn films Disney released between 2000 (Fantasia 2000) and 2009 (Princess and the Frog), Lilo and Stitch outgrossed them all. What it didn't come anywhere near to replicating was the contemporary success of the Pixar films. Movies like Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo were costing measly $70 or $80 million and were often earning in excess of $500 million. So while we can say that Lilo & Stitch was the most successful hand-drawn animated film of the last decade, to any executive its success was still not successful enough.

What can be said is that it came and went fairly quietly. I remember seeing Lilo & Stitch in a fairy sparsely attended theater in June 2002. It seemed that more people knew the iconic teaser trailers than had seen the film, but what mattered was, those who had seen the film liked it a lot and told their friends. Something underground began to grow.


And then in November 2002 Treasure Planet bombed hard. In order to make up the lost profits, Walt Disney Home Entertainment pulled a lavish 2-disc Lilo and Stitch DVD out of production and dumped a skeletal version on store shelves on December 3, 2002 - six days after Treasure Planet was released. That DVD release moved millions of copies and was probably the thing that graduated Lilo & Stitch from a weird little movie to a cult item..

By Christmas 2002, DVD had gained wide enough acceptance that the prices on both the discs themselves and the players had dropped well into the realm of affordability for young people with disposable income - ie, high school and college kids. For the first time in history, young people could go out and buy a first-release movie on a home media format for about $20.

Bolstered by things like director's cuts and audio commentaries, fans of popular cinema became experts overnight. Lord of the Rings went from widespead success to cultural phenomenon on the strength of DVDs. Cultish box office failures like Fight Club, Donnie Darko and Office Space  became runaway successes. And Lilo and Stitch was a DVD in heavy circulation, passed between friends in high schools. Like Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003, a decent commercial success became a cultural juggernaut, and this was one not limited just to children. Adults, kids, teens, men and women were buying up Stitch toys, Stitch plush, and Stitch shirts - a cross-generational, cross-market success. It was a marketing director's fondest dream. And, like Frozen, Disney was not prepared for it.

You have to remember than this was going down in 2002 and 2003. The internet was rapidly populating, but was nowhere near the levels its at today. Movie Studios were still ossified in hidebound tradition - there was no concept of "Viral" marketing and the technology was not yet in place to count things like internet hits on videos that could be shared in controlled ways. Lilo and Stitch was a physical media phenomenon. For fairly little money you could go out and buy the movie your friends had told you about, or they could give it to you and then you could go out and buy it and keep the cycle spinning. The drumbeat was increasing right under Disney's noses. The old guard, in retrospect, over reacted. They ran predictions that, if things continued the way they were, Stitch would overtake Mickey Mouse in popularity.

It's hard to convey exactly how inconceivably meteoric Stitch's rise seemed on the ground in the early 2000s unless you were there. Especially at Walt Disney World, he was there, everywhere, overnight. The Stitch walk-around character was mobbed from park opening to park close. Stitch and Buzz Lightyear set up shop outside the closed Timekeeper attraction in Tomorrowland, and Stitch's line usually rivaled Buzz's. It was common to walk past any Walt Disney World store and see a Cast Member holding a Stitch plush and standing outside as a way to tempt you in. Disney manufactured a Stitch glove and sold it alongside the iconic Mickey glove souvenir, and, for a time, it was more common to see Stitch. You were either in the Stitch cult, or you were not.

You're the Top - But Not For Long

Just as in the case of Frozen and indeed any other thing that rises to intense popularity unexpectedly, some people, of course, immediately took exception to the invasion of the little blue guy. In October 2003, Disney was still playing catch-up with Stitch mania, and Stitch was still permanently stationed outside Timekeeper. The entire Merchant of Venus store, positioned at the exit of Alien Encounter and once the domain of things like "Moon Rocks" and Skippy the Alien plush, was given over entirely to Stitch.

Disney deployed a press release - "Mischief Abounds in Stitch's Great Escape" - on October 10, 2003, a Friday. Inside, they announced that Alien Encounter would close "later this month". It closed on October 13, giving Alien Encounter fans only a weekend to see their show one last time. This, as it turned out, was the thing that codified the anti-Stitch group into a consistent rhetoric. Not only was Stitch not a nice character, and his movie overrated, and he was everywhere, but he had closed a certain new classic... Alien Encounter. Two unrelated camps of fans rallied around one cause and a consistent message: Stitch had to go.

Alarms should have been raised at once by that press release, by the way. In his film, Stitch grows from a relentless, rather nasty egomaniac into a functioning member of a family by learning compassion and the meaning of sacrifice, but for quite a long time the audience is left unsure if Stitch is the hero or villain of the film. Despite the cross-market appeal of the character, audiences are conditioned by the film not to trust Stitch in his six-legged "alien" form, and his opening rampage through a space station is not the reason audiences bonded with him. It wasn't the reason they bought Stitch plush. Despite the massive cross-market appeal, a rare and beautiful thing in any fictional character, marketing zeroed in on Stitch's popularity with Disney's most coveted market: boys between 5 and 12.

Starting in the late 90s , Disney had been actively courting this most elusive of markets, with male-oriented adventure stories like Tarzan and Treasure Planet, but they failed to dominate the pre-hormonal male set in the same way Disney dominated the female set. Disney wanted a young boys' version of a princess dress: something every boy had to have. Maybe it would be a blue alien.

In 2004, ahead of the opening of the attraction, plush toys began to make way for full-body Stitch "flight suit" costumes, ray guns, and bottled containers of "Stitch Boogers". Stitch began to appear on merchandise with a tough look on his face accompanied by the slogan "I'll Give You A Stitch or Two". Those not already turned off by the character's ubiquity and invasion of a Magic Kingdom cult favorite began to cry fowl, too. This was not the character they loved.

Now, it's not as if Disney could not dig themselves out of this situation. In the years following its closure, praising Alien Encounter has become accepted dogma in Disney circles, but the fact remains that it was never a super popular show. Anyone seeking to demonstrate in 2003 that the closure of it would remain a sore spot eleven years later was going to be up against an uphill battle of numerous guest complaints and sparsely attended theaters. Most days of the year one of the two theaters was decommissioned, effectively halving the attraction's capacity. It made little difference, usually you simply had to wait for the holding pen to clear into the first pre-show room to be allowed out of the line. The show was drawing less than half its potential.

I'm not pointing this out to slam Alien, but simply to demonstrate that Disney didn't have much to lose here. Had they successfully renovated Alien Encounter into a show that really connected with audiences, they'd have a real technologically sophisticated hit experience in a spot that's never housed a Magic Kingdom favorite.

I joined the crowds in late October 2004 to see the new attraction. I walked away confused by the experience but impressed but the particulars, but I was basically alone. Audiences hated it. Or, more specifically, they didn't really respond to it. Theaters were deadly silent during laugh moments and failed to respond to the climax. The nervous shuffling of audiences in Alien Encounter became the awkward silence of a comedian bombing terribly onstage. Without the suspense narrative of Alien Encounter, without anything funny to make the experience worthwhile, the show's worst moments became its salient characteristics. Those seat restraints which nobody seemed to complain about in Alien Encounter suddenly became an uncomfortable horror. What was worse, Stitch both spit and burped on you - a disgusting smell which now permeates the building. And, you know, that Stitch was mean and the show wasn't funny. And it wasn't Alien Encounter. Word began to spread rapidly that the show was a dog, and the anti-Stitch/pro-Alien group redoubled their efforts, crowing that they had, after all, told us so.

What Disney did then horrified a lot of people, even those who had not yet taken sides in Stitch's Great Debate. They had Stitch desecrate the very symbol of Walt Disney World - Cinderella Castle.


They also set up a clever, although very strange, promotional display outside World of Disney at Downtown Disney - a Magic Kingdom van, apparently hijacked by Stitch, was "crashed" into a tree at the entrance - a photo opportunity it seems confused than enticed more guests.


Wanted posters appeared all over Magic Kingdom - find Experiment 626.

Perhaps most appallingly for many casual visitors, even the monorail spiels had been updated to hype Stitch. He was heard "driving" the monorail, and announced "Welcome to Stitch Kingdom!" upon arrival in the Magic Kingdom monorail station. And, in what has to be the single most bizarre promotional idea ever actually enacted in Walt Disney World, area music in bathrooms in Adventureland and Tomorrowland was turned off, and replaced with an intermittent vocal soundscape of Stitch opening various bathroom stall doors searching for Lilo. A giant inflatable Stitch balloon at the Transportation and Ticket Center blocked views of Cinderella Castle. There was no escaping the little guy.

Concurrently, the 2006 Walt Disney World merchandise began to appear. This product line had been a tradition at Walt Disney World since 1997, featuring Disney's "Fab Five" of core characters: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto. This basic graphic had traditionally appeared on shirts, bags, blankets - anything you can imagine. In 2005, Walt Disney World added Stitch.


And he wasn't just in the group - he was front and center. Disney stores already overstocked with Stitch plush, Stitch hats, Stitch costumes, Stitch hands, and Stitch pins now had Stitch on what felt like over half of the store.

Perhaps surprisingly, this was the final straw for many. The year 2006-branded merchandise moved fewer units than the 2005 or 2007 units. What seemed, in 2006, to be an all-encompassing Stitch invasion turned out to be.... the end. Now everyone was talking about another new Disney hero who had become a favorite on DVD. Everyone who got off Pirates of the Caribbean had one question: that was great, but where was Captain Jack Sparrow?

That boys market was rapidly shifting towards all things Captain Jack. In mid 2005, an official sequel to Lilo and Stitch appeared in stores. Despite being far nearer to the tone of the original film, Lilo and Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch failed to evoke the barest ripple of interest. A sticker on the front of DVD promised an endorsement by Lilo and Stitch's original creators, but even fans of what Stitch was instead of what he became failed to show up. The official Lilo and Stitch chronology, continued in a syndicated TV show, came to an end inauspiciously with Leroy and Stitch in 2006, while Captain Jack Sparrow's big screen adventures continue to this day. Disney had mismanaged the Stitch character right into the ground.

Ten Years On: Stitch's Great Escape

The numbers coming out of Stitch's Great Escape from the start were far below expectations. Audiences simply didn't know what to make of the thing. They weren't certain if anything they saw or heard was funny or interesting, and even fans of Stitch were pressed for anything positive to say. And the experience - with fog, lights, loud sounds, and darkness - was still too much for small children. The rising chorus of shrieking children began as soon as the power in the theater failed and continued pretty much until the end of the experience.

And so, starting in January 2005, Imagineering began to go back  into the attraction and mess around with it. In this era, I was in Magic Kingdom a lot and after wandering into Stitch one night and seeing that the show was being tinkered with, I began to see it about once a week for several months. Every 10 days or so, something, even something small, would be different. Alien Encounter had about 3.5 minutes of darkness, and while Stitch brought it down to about a minute, this still wasn't enough. The first change - which is still there to this day - was to bring the Stitch figure back up onto the teleportation platform just before power is restored, moving around rapidly. This didn't seem to have much affect on the scariness quotient of the show, but it did add to the surreal atmosphere.

Next up: the cannon sequence got a new special effect. When Gantu switches on the "Emergency Power", a projected sequence of rotating lights in the ceiling were activated. As the cannons blasted their way around the theater, Stitch could be seen in shadow form projected on the walls by the rotating lights, hanging off scaffolds and scurrying around. This effect was pretty convincing but itself only lasted a few months before being removed.

By far the most bizarre change was only installed for a few short weeks. Imagineering had messed with the sound scape during the blackout before, but perhaps deciding that their intended audience was too scared of the experience, they added two voices to the binaural soundscape of two young boys seated "behind" you. These two entirely synthetic "virtual" kids yammered through the entire show reassuringly, as soon as "Experiment 626" arrived in the theater: "Stitch!" "It's Stitch!"

This is frankly most bizarre in that it seemed to work. Children in audiences I saw these shows with were much less panicky than those who saw it before or after this addition. The two helpful kids continued to narrate Stitch's every move during the show, reaching an absurd climax as Stitch bounced around the ceiling: "What's he doing?" "He's going to hotwire the teleporter!". If we follow the logic of the attraction at this juncture, Stitch hotwires the teleporter by sticking together two wires that the laser cannons blast free, but since this hadn't happened yet, at least one of these two kids had apparently already seen the show at this point. Talk about a spoiler! After a few weeks, the kids went away too, never to be heard again.

The final significant change was a new ending. Originally, Stitch was seen attacking an Astro Orbiter car full of delighted guests in a poorly animated clip that lasted perhaps six seconds. The extended joke that's there now of Stitch barging into Cinderella's bedroom replaced it. In order to compensate for the longer Cinderella Castle gag, a beat or two of Gantu and the two Galactic Federation technicians at a loss for words was removed from the very end of the show. The castle joke is a better joke, but now the show ends on an even more weirdly noncommital shrug. Audiences feel much the same way.

The damage was done. Improving the show here and there still failed to take into account why audiences didn't like it, which had less to do with the show itself and more to do with what it was to begin with.


Casual visitors and Stitch fans hated it because of what it wasn't - a showcase for a character they learned to love during a redemption arc. Alien Encounter fans hated it because of what it represented - the infintalization of something expressly intended for teens and adults. There was no way Stitch's Great Escape could satisfy both camps, but it failed to satisfy anyone. By remaining beholden to the Alien Encounter show format, Stitch's Great Escape betrayed the audience it was after from the start.

"Infantilization" pretty much hits the nail on the head with everything that's wrong with Stitch's Great Escape. I've seen the show many, many times with audiences of all stripes, and I saw it several times again in preparation for this article, and the moments where it loses audiences are moments when it plays down to them. There's a moment in the first pre-show video where the Grand Councilwoman announces:
"The universe is filled with a wonderful integration of alien societies. However, as in all societies, there are the nice... and the naughty!"
This line invariably sucks the air out the room. Adults, who are probably operating on hazily positive associations with the film, start wondering if they're in for something regrettably juvenile. It's a tension the show never fully resolves. Fairly funny, strange jokes in keeping with the tone of the Lilo & Stitch film sit cheek to jowl with jokes that seem to have been smuggled in from The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. The moment which codifies this perception is the infamous chili-dog belch. For most, it's the moment the show loses them forever. In-theater, you can actually feel the audience's attention draining away following that moment.

Not Made Up!
This is a shame, because for all of the show's juvenile obsession with belching, drooling, spitting, and slobber, it isn't a cheap or poorly done effort. On a strictly technical level, Stitch repeats and improves on most of what Alien Encounter did. There's those two Stitch figures - ten years later, still amongst the best audio-animatronic characters in the United States. If most of Alien played out in darkness (it did), Stitch pushes more heavily in the direction of a show governed by animated figures. The dual laser cannons are as impressive as they are faintly scary, adding a bit of a threat to an already intense experience.

Stitch here and there also clarifies and improves the logic of Alien Encounter. The 1994 WDI team never quite cracked how, exactly, the alien got into the theater. George Lucas apparently suggested that they solve this problem by making the X-S Tech even more obviously evil than they were by revealing that the alien was loosed on the theater intentionally, an idea what seems to have survived over from the plot of Aliens and the movie series which provided the original extraterrestrial life form which inspired Alien Encounter.

As it is, what they ended up with was a teleportation demonstration which is set up, cancelled at the last second, then a second one which is botched, followed by a third successful teleportation of the wrong life form. I doubt that many audience understood any of this. Stitch levels the playing field by initiating a single teleportation in the pre-show room and carrying it into the main show, building up a great deal of excitement along the way.

And, about those shoulder restraints. When you put a word like "TERROR" and "THRILL" on the sign of your attraction and place placards up everywhere warning of an intense experience, audiences are more likely to think of something like the over-the-shoulder restraints from Alien Encounter as part of the scary experience. When you carry over the same technology into something explicitly marketed as more lightweight and whimsical, the discomfort introduced by the restraints becomes more of a problem. It's interesting and telling that audiences only began to complain about the restraints after the show became Stitch's Great Escape.

And then there's the Alien Encounter main show, where a gigantic piece of technology has no auxillary power source. It's pretty implicit in Alien Encounter that Spinlok and Dr. Femus are totally incompetent boobs ("People of earth! Do not worry! As long as those beams are on, the alien can not fly out!"), and Stitch gets even more mileage out of its goofy, grossly inadequate technicians by pairing them with and letting them bounce off the officious Gantu, who - finally, after years of failure by XS Tech - has the presence of mind to activate Emergency Power.

"Chairman Clench doesn't believe in emergency power."

Having spent all that trouble getting the alien into the theater, Alien Encounter couldn't come up with a good way of getting him out again. Streamlining the Alien Encounter show's bones into a prison escape story smoothes all this out, even if it troublingly casts the audience in the role of employees of the antagonists! Alien Encounter was a strong experience book ended by the flimsiest of rationales: blowing up the alien was a funny, appropriately crazy way to end the show, but it never escaped the shadow of its own obvious desperation. And, like the crazy series of accidents that got the alien into the theater to begin with, it was over so quickly many audiences missed it totally.

I don't say all of this to imply that Stitch's Great Escape is in any way faultless or even really all that good, just to suggest that it isn't as bad as it's made out to be. Similarly, the roundly lionized Alien Encounter had more problems than is commonly admitted. But both are bound together in the fact that neither show did justice to its concept.


Today's Emergency is Over

The financial 'afterlife' of films in the theme parks is a very strange thing. Most studio and theatrical films are ephemeral things, and the explosion of the home market has not changed this. Movies like Die Hard are really freaks of nature, evergreen moneymakers. Disney films are traditionally very strong on the secondary market, but when they get into the theme parks they begin to meld and morph into sometimes bizarrely different things.

Take something like the Swiss Family Treehouse, which more people visit in a month than have seen the movie in the past ten years. And yet, it still works and is fully comprehensible to any viewer. This is because the only thing you need to know about the film to enjoy the attraction is right there on the sign - shipwrecked family builds a house. That's it. The attraction allows you to go into the house, and the attraction-tree never really resembled the film-tree in a serious way. The form of the attraction is harmonized with the tie-in film property in a way that has universal, not specific, appeal.

Where Stitch's Great Escape, and all of these movie tie-in attractions in general go wrong, is that they are bound to weirdly specific moments in the narrative of the films to have their effect. Nearly every moment in the attraction is referencing some moment in the film. If you know nothing about Lilo & Stitch besides that it exists, then Stitch's Great Escape is the worst advertisement for it imaginable. It conveys nothing of the tone of the film or the love the character inspires in audiences. Actually, you'd probably correctly infer from the attraction that Stitch is a malicious bastard.

That's probably the real reason Stitch's Great Escape fails to interest audiences, it isn't because of those restraints or that it isn't a ride; that's just shorthand people use to skirt around the real issue, which is that there's no payoff for going to see it. It's a lot of sound and fury for no good reason at all. At least, one could reason if she wished, Alien Encounter was trying to be scary. Stitch's Great Escape has no reason to exist, no onus, besides itself.


This puts us theme park fans in a lousy spot. Defending Stitch's Great Escape, as I've tried to do to some extent in this article, means defending a juvenile source text that doesn't even work for the people it's designed to appeal to. Defending Alien Encounter means casting your lot with a flawed, mean spirited, badly paced show which its own creators wrote into a corner. That's a rigged game if I've ever heard of one.

Sitting across from Stitch at Magic Kingdom is a show I, personally, find even more objectionable - the randomly-placed Monsters Inc Laugh Floor. Yet Monsters has cultivated an audience because it actually delivers on exactly what it promises on the sign: Monsters and family-friendly jokes. If that's what you're in the market for, then that's a good show. Stitch delivers a weird mess of conflicting tones and ideas in a loud, uncomfortable, weirdly unpleasant way. If you do enjoy it, it will be because it's a mess of non sequitur chaos.


What Disney really needs to do isn't to restore Alien Encounter, it's to finally admit defeat in this particular space and tear the whole kit and kaboodle out. After ten years of chili dog stench permeating the entire building, I doubt most of the original walls and interior are salvageable now anyway. It's time to tear it all out and build a ride in there. With the walls removed, there's about as much space in there as in Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, or enough for a well-designed Fantasyland ride. If they really want to fix the entire entrance area of Tomorrowland, they'll tear out the Monsters Inc show too. Through an underground hallway or open-air bridge that connects both, these two show spaces connected have the potential for a first-rate ride through.

As for Stitch, perhaps his day will one day come again. If Stitch's Great Escape marked a point of no return for the character, then ten years on people are starting to once again forget how annoyed they were with him back in the early naughts. Lilo and Stitch's directorial team, driven out of Disney thanks to interference from John Lassetter, have gone on to produce Dreamworks' most critically acclaimed film series, How To Train Your Dragon. Chris Sanders is now an animation autuer, and his films have recognized influences and style. At Disney, Lilo and Stitch was weird outsider art, but it's one that now rests easily inside a larger narrative - not of Disney, but of Sanders.

In 2009, Disney finally issued the lavish Lilo & Stitch DVD they had been putting off for years, and the excellence of the extra material on that disc has deepened appreciation of the special accomplishment Lilo & Stitch represents. In another ten years hopefully it will be remembered as a masterpiece instead of a marketing cautionary tale.

The political infighting Stitch's Great Escape inspired in the Disney community has only increased in the years following its debut. Positions have calcified into doctrines: old school "Foamer" fans against new-school "Dusters". Twenty years of active loyalty building on Eisner's part has turned Disney less into an interest and more into an identity, a life choice. The new stripe of Disney fans root for Disney in the same way sports fans root for the home team, and a slight against Disney is a slight against them personally. Stitch's Great Escape widened the gap precipitously, and "Stitchgate" remains one of the defining moments in the developing community.

And yet despite all opposition the attraction has soldiered on, unloved. It's outlived Alien Encounter but I doubt it will outlive its own troubled legacy. Rarely popular enough to justify a line, Stitch's Great Escape isn't just the lowest rated attraction in the park, but it's the single attraction where the ratings of the entire Magic Kingdom overall turn downward - those who see it rate everything lower than those who don't. Disney usually sweeps things like this under the rug. It's an anormality that it's lasted this long.

So what are we talking about here? An aesthetically orphaned film? A botched secondary market? An unloved attraction? A divisive political issue? No matter which way you cut it, Stitch's Great Escape is a singularity. We will never see anything like it again.

And so while it may be too much to ask theme park fans to enjoy Stitch's Great Escape entirely on the level of content, perhaps it's not too much to suggest that its bizarre, manic tone is not without unique pleasures. Despite its obvious flailings and failings, Stitch's Great Escape whips up a heady blend of unnmotivated insanity and weirdness.

In a Disney World where everything is increasingly safe and homogenized, Stitch's Great Escape is a way-out outlier: too lonely to live, yet too weird to die.