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 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.


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Harryhenry said...

Wow, you've done a fantastic job here Foxxfur. You covered not just the ride, but the film the ride was based on, Disney's over-saturation of Stitch in the early-mid 00s, Alien Encounter, and the Disney theme park community in general. Great job! Hope you can do more of these kinds of articles in the future!

Chris F. said...

What I find even stranger, is how that SAME animatronic was used so much better over in the Aloha E Komo Mai Tiki Room overlay. It's a hilarious show....if strange, what with the Hawaii narrow-focus.

Kurt Miller said...

Stilted? I always thought they nailed the smarmyness of XS Tech in Encounter. Favorite line: "profit is simply a biproduct we've learned to live with"

mbs said...

Can't say that i agree with this (i actually like both versions of the attraction, for different reasons) but it was well written and had some interesting points.

FigmentJedi said...

Very nice summary of what I've always called the "Poochie-fication" of Stitch.

"One, Poochie needs to be louder, angrier, and have access to a time machine. Two, whenever Poochie's not on screen, all the other characters should be asking "Where's Poochie"? Three--"

Unknown said...

Kurt, I agree, that's my favorite as well. The holding room video is a pitch-perfect send-up of "industrials." The problem, I think, is that its intentionally dry tone caused viewers to tune out.

On the whole, I think Alien Encounter had some great ideas but the main show never quite gelled. It took me many viewings to understand that the alien was supposed to be flying around the room, which still made no sense giving the room's relatively small size. Then there was hearing the creature sneak up behind you, even though there was no room for him in the aisles (and even if you were in the back room, against the wall). It felt like they had a grab bag of desired effects they wanted to use and then wrote a flimsy story to connect them.

But though I liked AE, the tone never really matched the Magic Kingdom. I remember expecting Stitch to be an improvement in that regard, only to discover that the attraction cast the audience as off-the-street recruit prison guards, effectively doubling down on AE's lapses in tone and logic.

Tom said...

Hi, I think your analysis is great but you don't describe the most disturbing part of Alien Encounter to those who never saw it. Skippy the Alien, sold as you say in plush form as the mascot of the ride, was horribly mangled in a cruel fashion during the pre-show. Although Jeffrey Jones played the villain campily in the initial video - he did everything but twirl his moustache - the tone set by the industrial robot host of the inner pre-show still felt way off to me, and I've spoken with others who felt the same. The pre-show was a disaster, setting a tone of animal cruelty, not theme park style, yet terrifying, fun. To then see them selling that plush in the gift shop let you know how far off the mark the Imagineers (and George Lucas, who originally had his name all over this misfire) were on this one.

Reality Check said...

Another thing about the abrupt scrapping of Alien Encounter was that the park felt an immediate need to distance themselves from Jeffrey Jones after his arrest in 2003. They had two options, really: either just re-shoot the entire cinematic element of the show with a different actor, or replace Alien Encounter with something else entirely.

How Bowers said...

Let's not forget that Alien Encounter itself was retooled. The first version of the show ended with Chairman Clench trapped in the teleporter tube, banging on the walls and demanding to be let out.

Jessica Krinke said...

The single best Disney blog I've ever encountered. Thank you for making me feel less alone in my obsession with the workings of this company.

ErikS said...

Thanks for the awesome research! This actually sent me down the rabbit hole to find out more about George Lucas' involvement and the original development of the ride. (I'd love to see your take on the new Test Track and its similarities to Tron.)

Mark Evans-Leigh said...

Very interesting read...

Can help feel history is beginning to repeat itself with Frozen...

Griff said...

I certainly think that "Frozen-mania" is going to go the way of "Stitch-mania", nothing in the modern day can last in the cultural memory for very long given how rapid fire modern culture is, when today's little girls grow up to be tomorrows teenagers and become obsessed with whatever tomorrow's version of Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift ism Frozen will be regulated to the dustbin of Disney history, "let it go" indeed.

Melissa said...

I still miss Mission to Mars, but then again I'm older than dirt.

I love the idea of replacing both SGE and MILF with a new ride that spans the walkway either under or above ground. (The popular MILF could be moved to DHS, where it's a better fit and more non-E-ticket attractions are desperately needed).

Maybe a re-imagining of something like Adventures Thru Inner Space, using the latest technology? Or something along the lines of Journey to the Center of the Earth from Tokyo DisneySea? Or maybe even an original science or sci-fi adventure!

Unknown said...

Great article! Though I'm sensing conflict in what you've written, since on the one hand you applaud the concepts that the rides (Alien Encounter, Stitch, even Mission to Mars to a lesser extent) in the particular space have used, and yet you say that they should be taken down and replaced with "Fantasyland rides." I personally think Magic Kingdom has enough of the seated car rides, and part of what makes Tomorrowland appeal is that it either takes the concept to it bare logical extreme (People Mover), or does away with it entirely and gives us some damn good attractions (Space Mountain certainly, though Carousel of Progress has charm, and Buzz Lightyear's shoot-em-up is fun as well). Even if Stitch has to go, I think the way the attraction space is currently structured would be better retained than scrapped.

Anonymous said...

A great, great post, Foxxfur. Filled to the brim with detail, information and your singular insights about WDW. This is a prime example why your blog is one of the best out there.

Unknown said...

Great stuff, lots to think about.

I'm definitely intrigued by the concept of the older crew at corporate not quite understanding how to get something with genuine pop culture appeal to work in the modern media landscape, as well as in the theme parks. What's popular today will be old news by this time next year, and committing untold millions to shoehorning them into the parks has enormous backfire potential.

Disney used to avoid this pretty well; the classic Fantasyland rides kind of fit into the mold you describe with Swiss Family Treehouse, where you got the basics (e.g. "Peter Pan can fly and he fights pirates", "There's a scary witch in Snow White", etc.) and then have an experience in that context. More modern rides, and what a lot of us Maelstrom fans dread with the coming Frozen ride, wind up being "Book Report Rides", where you can't get anything out of it without more intimate knowledge of specific aspects of the film the attraction is based on. Great for people who want to see Jack Sparrow in 2008, or Stitch in 2005, or Frozen in 2014...not so great 5-10 years later.

Concerning Alien Encounter, I agree about its flaws, and also agree that its ambition was still noteworthy. I do remember being a kid and being somewhat taken aback by how tense and unnerving the preshow room with the mini-teleporter and the Tim Curry-voiced robot was (but I was also about 10 and had an overactive imagination that kept me from enjoying horror stuff for a long time), though I know that in the original version the robot was voiced by Phil Hartman and was decidedly lighter in tone. Must've been part of that urban legend about Eisner demanding to make it scarier.

Also, love the suggestion for putting a decent ride in the front spaces of Tomorrowland, but I wonder how much we have to consider that so much of this space has been shaped in the years around the Great Recession. For example, would Stitch have survived this long if 2008-2009 hadn't happened, and Disney felt more compelled to spend more in that timeframe? Lots to mull over.

Cory Gross said...

It's interesting to read the background controversies behind attractions that I experienced more or less tabula rasa. With my first visit to WDW having been this past September, I never got to see Alien Encounter or the ride that predated this or the ride that was replaced by that.

My honest opinion, experiencing it without historical context, is that Stitch's Great Escape wasn't THAT bad. Yes, it is a "seen it once" type of attraction, but I don't think it was the worst attraction at Magic Kingdom, let alone all of WDW. If we're talking physical discomfort, Space Mountain beats it hands down. I was more disappointed in Peter Pan's Flight and Pirates of the Caribbean, just because I have the ones in Anaheim and Paris to compare them to, respectively. It wasn't as bad as Dinosaur, which was awful, or Journey Into Your Imagination. Experiencing it for what it is, it was alright. Not the best, but not the worst either.

Steve the Pocket said...

Personally I think the best thing would be if Disney sold the equipment and the idea rights to Universal to turn into an actual Alien- or possibly even Men in Black-themed attraction, combining the original scary tone with the logistical improvements of the Stitch version. But Disney would probably sooner let one of their ideas burn than let somebody else have it, no matter how much they want to get rid of it and no matter how much money is involved.

I particularly liked the part about moving the teleportation stuff to the pre-show. I've always said that the way Valve designs their video games is similar to the way theme parks design their rides (I plan to write an article about it one of these days), and that change is very similar to the kinds of tweaks they've talked about making during development.

Tachyon Knave said...

How about a minor rework to have this take place after the events of the Lilo & Stitch movie. X-S creates a new technology to find and retrieve fugitives. Stitch gets separated from his new family and they work to get him back.

kjames427 said...

Great article!

Like everyone said, very in-depth and thoughtful article on the entire "Stitch culture" so to say. Just discovered this blog and cannot wait to read more!

KC said...

This was an incredibly well-written article to read. It not only goes over all the flaws and strengths of both ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter and Stitch's Great Escape!, but also covers a bit about why the Lilo & Stitch franchise fell from grace in the United States. Not only the over-promotion of its protagonist, but also the wrong aspects of him and the other characters.

As much as I don't like Frozen or how over-exposed it is (it's December 2016 as of this writing and of course that franchise's still doing well despite that overrated Maelstrom replacement), Disney is promoting it correctly, believe it or not. They're emphasising the love that Anna and Elsa have for each other as well as their snowman friend Olaf. They never properly did that with Stitch over here in the States in the years after the original film. Instead of focusing on Stitch's goodness and his love for his 'ohana (whether it be towards Lilo, Nani, Jumba, Pleakley or his experiment "cousins"), they focused too much on the weird, nasty, and mischievous aspects of him. Those were not the true reasons why Lilo & Stitch fans fell in love with him.

Oddly enough, Stitch Encounter/Stitch Live! over at all the non-American parks actually get the good aspects down for the most part. I've seen a YouTube video of that show once, and it is way more enjoyable than either Stitch's Great Escape! or Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor. Stitch is his funny, adorable, good-hearted self in that show. Although he makes a few jabs at some of the audience members, they're always lighthearted and never out of ill-will or malicious intent. He acts like the friend you've always wanted. Sadly, that show will never come here because of both SGE! (which has now been reduced to "seasonal" operation) and the fact that we already have two "interactive digital puppetry" shows in America. (The aforementioned Laugh Floor and Turtle Talk with Crush. Also, I will say that did enjoy Laugh Floor the first time, but after repeated showings that I've been to since then, the jokes got old and repetitive fast. My family and I actually skipped Laugh Floor and went on SGE! the last time I've visited Walt Disney World earlier this year because we've all become unflattered by Laugh Floor ever since, even though we also knew exactly what to expect from SGE!.)

Regardless, Stitch is now Japan's bitch. Ugh, that anime...

By the way, rumor has it that SGE! will be replaced by a Wreck-It Ralph virtual reality attraction, which I think is a foolish idea. Not because of the idea of a Wreck-It Ralph VR experience itself, but rather that Disney wants to do this for an attraction in the day and age where VR is becoming mainstream thanks to Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR. Why do I need to go a theme park to experience virtual reality when I can get a good experience at home? I don't want to go on an expensive vacation to enjoy VR just once (or as many times as I can got the ride). I'd rather buy a good PC (or make one myself), get a headset, and I'll be set for VR entertainment years. They'll still be expensive, but it will be a much better investment in the long run. (Also remember that Disney left the video game industry earlier this year, so don't expect them to make a home version of this possible ride to make up for it.)