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Great moments with Audio-Animatronics
Destination D23 exhibit showcases Disney’s robotics technology
My love affair with this wonderful industry began at a very young age. Some of my earliest and most cherished memories are the seaside amusement havens and other parks to which my folks took me. I was instantly and forever hooked. But my fascination got kicked up a considerable notch when I visited the New York World’s Fair in 1964. (Yup, I’m an old coot; you can stop your snickering now.) I was overwhelmed and overjoyed by its sheer scale and scope. But six-year-old me was positively flabbergasted by the four attractions the Walt Disney Company–personally overseen by Walt himself–presented at the fair.
It wasn’t just impressionable youngsters like me who were bowled over by Ford’s Magic Skyway, “it’s a small world,” General Electric’s Progressland, which featured the Carousel of Progress, and the state of Illinois’ Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Virtually everybody who experienced the attractions, which showcased Disney’s then-nascent Audio-Animatronics characters, was blown away. To witness a startlingly lifelike President Lincoln stand and address the audience and a robotic family use GE appliances through the decades was startling. Nobody had ever seen anything quite like it before.
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That’s why I was delighted to check out the exhibit, The Plausible Impossible: 60 Years of Disney Audio-Animatronics Technology, while I was covering the Destination D23 fan event a few weeks back. It included figures, show control modules, busts, and other artifacts that traced the history and evolution of the distinctive art form, which has been used extensively at Disney parks and attractions across the globe (and appropriated by others in the industry). It seemed particularly apropos that the exhibit was held in the convention center of Disney’s Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World, the gleaming 1971 hotel that is a 20th-century paean to a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.
Although the Lincoln and Carousel of Progress characters were Disney’s first human robotic figures, the technology pre-dated the New York World’s Fair. As the exhibit demonstrated, with photos, sketches, notes, and more, Walt charged his Imagineers to deconstruct an antique mechanical bird he had picked up on his travels and figure out how to develop something similar for Disneyland. Their work led to the first Audio-Animatronics figures in the Enchanted Tiki Room (All the birds sing words. And the flowers croon!), an attraction that opened in 1963 and delights visitors to this day.
The World’s Fair projects, which were documented in the exhibit, followed soon thereafter. After proving the concept and garnering widespread acclaim for the attractions, the Imagineers embarked on even more ambitious applications of the technology, including the classic Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, which debuted in 1967 and 1969, respectively.
As detailed in the exhibit, the early Animatronics used pneumatics and later incorporated hydraulics to make them move. They became known as A-1 figures. In 1989, the Imagineers debuted the first A-100 figure, the Wicked Witch of the West in The Great Movie Ride at what was then known as Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios). While they still used hydraulics, advanced technology enabled A-100 characters to have more fluid and sophisticated movement. Disney unveiled the next-generation, all-electric A-1000 figures in 2019 at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, including the remarkably expressive Hondo Ohnaka, who recruits flight crews in the queue of Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.
“They have an incredible and beautiful range of motion,” says Kelsey Williams, exhibitions lead at the Walt Disney Archives, referring to the A-1000 figures. “They are very humanlike.”
The exhibit included back-to-back A-100 and A-1000 figures on display. Examining the stripped-down robots, it was interesting to note the hydraulics tubing in the earlier figures and the many additional points of articulation in the latest Audio-Animatronics iteration.
Speaking of stripped down, developing the technology and fabricating the figures are only part of Disney’s robotics story. There were exhibit displays illustrating the important roles that costumers and other Imagineers play in infusing the characters with distinctive personalities and bringing them to life, for example.
“There’s so much behind the curtain that people don’t know,” Williams notes. “That’s why we want to show how [the Imagineers] go from sketch to show in an exhibit like this.”
Destination D23 is held every other year at Walt Disney World in Florida. In the intervening years, the much larger and wildly popular D23 Expo (think Comic-Con, but focused on everything under Disney’s vast corporate umbrella) is held in Anaheim, near the Disneyland Resort. For 2024, Disney is rebranding it D23: The Ultimate Disney Fan Event and expanding it considerably. It will take place from August 8 to 11 and will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center, the Disneyland Resort, and the Honda Center.
What are your favorite attractions that feature Audio-Animatronics? Do you remember the first time you saw AAs? What do you think the next evolution of Disney’s robotics might look like and how might they behave?