Magic Kingdom revamps alien attraction

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Chris Sanders knows Stitch better than anyone.

Sanders, a veteran artist whose credits range from the Saturday morning cartoon Muppet Babies to big-screen masterpieces such as Beauty and the Beast, dreamed up the alien creature, wrote the story for Lilo & Stitch and co-directed the Disney feature.

And like Walt Disney was with Mickey Mouse, Sanders is Stitch's voice, playing the part in a small-screen sequel and Disney Channel series.

Still, Sanders was surprised when he finally met Stitch in the real world.

Sanders pictured the alien as roughly waist high, but when he saw a model created for a Stitch attraction opening next month at the Magic Kingdom, "I was shocked."

"You always think of him as two dimensional," but once the cartoon became a mechanical figure, "he has this volume that you don't consider," the artist said.

"It's not just his height. It's his immense head," Sanders said.

"Most of him is a mouth."

Standing 39 inches tall, the robotic Stitch will star in Stitch's Great Escape. Stitch's official opening is Nov. 16, but Disney will open the ride for testing several times over the next few weeks.

Disney usually doesn't give a character a permanent attraction so soon after its debut. Lilo & Stitch, made at Disney's now-defunct Orlando animation facility, earned $145.8 million in theaters in summer 2002.

But Stitch has "established himself in a very short time as a classic Disney character," said Rick Rothschild, executive show director and senior vice president at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Disney Corporate Brand Management, which oversees the use of Disney characters across the company, says Stitch is one of the most popular Disney characters of the last decade with children ages 3 to 11. And unlike the Disney Princesses, for example, Stitch is popular with girls and boys.

Sanders said it took him a while to understand the character's appeal.

'He's the naughty one'

Over the past couple of years, he's come to realize that Stitch "occupies a part of the Disney universe that had been vacant up to that point."

In a universe of do-gooders such as Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear, "he's the naughty one," Sanders said.

In fact, one of the ideas Sanders said he tried to get across in his original story was the idea of a villain who becomes a hero.

That's an idea that's carried over to the attraction.

Stitch's Great Escape is set at the beginning of the movie, when the mischievous Stitch, officially known as Experiment 626, has been captured by the Galactic Federation and transported to a prisoner processing center.

Not to spoil anything, but Stitch escapes. In the attraction, sound effects and physical effects built into the seats will make it seem as if the alien is running loose inside the darkened room.

Stitch's popularity was plain on Friday, when one tourist after another asked park workers whether they could take a peak inside even though a large sign out front said it wasn't open.

Robert Walsh, a 12-year-old Scottish tourist, explained why loves Stitch.

"He's crazy," Robert said.

Robert's father, Kerry, said he's also a fan because, while Stitch is funny and impish, "deep inside, he's quite good."

But although the decision to create a Stitch attraction was based largely on the character's popularity, the company also considered the cost.

Stitch's Great Escape is really a reworking of the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, which opened in 1995 and closed last October.

Stitch has a nearly identical story line -- an alien gets loose and seems to clamber through the audience -- and will use many of the same sets and special effects as the earlier attraction.

Sanders said he doesn't mind the recycling.

"The thing I liked about this was that they were going to keep the spirit of the former attraction alive and have that kind of Halloween fun, but I liked the idea that it was going to be open to a broader audience," he said.

Some parts of the show, in fact, are identical.

Lucky, a big-eyed alien prisoner who appears in Stitch's Great Escape, also had a part in the Alien Encounter.

One reason for that was that Lucky fit in nicely with Stitch's story: In Disney's universe, the cute alien escaped the clutches of the earlier show's monster only to wind up a prisoner of the Galactic Federation.

But another reason for keeping Lucky is that the robotic figure was already there.

Retrofit saves money

Disney, which is rebounding from a nearly three-year slump in travel, is adding attractions at each of its Orlando parks, but it has said it will spend less going forward than it did a few years ago, when it was building parks in Orlando and Anaheim, Calif.

Disney isn't saying how much money it's spending on Stitch's Great Escape, but it isn't paying anywhere near the $100 million the company is thought to have spent on the spaceship ride Mission: Space at Epcot, said Dennis Speigel, a theme-park consultant based in Cincinnati.

"When you can go in and retrofit a building, you don't have to build all of that expensive infrastructure," he said.

Retrofitting an existing attraction also means Disney can open Stitch a year sooner than it would have if the company had needed to build everything from scratch, Rothschild said.

Disney began contemplating the idea of a Stitch attraction while the original movie was in production at the company's former animation facility at Disney-MGM Studios, he said.

But it didn't move forward until the film was released and it was clear audiences liked the character, Rothschild said.

Sanders, the artist, said he hasn't seen the attraction but likes the sketches and models he's seen and is excited the alien has landed an attraction at the Magic Kingdom.

Before the original movie came out, Sanders said, he told co-workers, "Isn't it weird, in the coming years, when anyone does a lineup of Disney characters, our characters will be in there?"

Todd Pack can be reached at tpack@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5407.

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