Audio-Animatronics at Walt Disney World


By Lou Mongello
This article first appeared in the March 27, 2007 issue of All Ears® Newsletter

Several months ago, I was inspired by something I saw on television speaking about the new 7 Wonders of the "modern" world. It got me to thinking of what the 7 Wonders of Walt Disney World might be. While many things came to mind, I also wanted to enlist the help and opinion of others, so I asked for comments and suggestions from readers and listeners to my podcast. These "wonders" could be anything from technological marvels, to attractions, to engineering feats, something intangible, or even something that just makes Walt Disney World truly special and "magical" for us all.

Among the many responses I received were some that were overwhelmingly popular, including Spaceship Earth, which was the first to make the list. But I want to talk a little bit about the second of those wonders, as it is one that has a long and storied history at Walt Disney World, and goes back to Walt himself.

"Wonder"ing what I'm referring to? Well, this is something that is truly a Wonder not just because of the technological innovations and advancements it has had through the years, but because of what an essential and integral part of Walt Disney World they are. They are not merely fixtures or props, but have become living characters who we have grown to know and love, and in some cases, revere. Whether it be the simple children in it's a small world, the Red Head and Auctioneer in Pirates of the Caribbean, "Big Al", (dare I say) Stitch, or the dad from Carousel of Progress, they are all what help make WDW such a truly magical place. What began as a vision of Walt Disney and really a novelty with the early Tiki Birds, has evolved incredibly to what we have today - lifelike Capt. Jack Sparrows, a free-roving Lucky the Dinosaur and the Mobile Muppet Labs. Yes, I'm talking about Audio-Animatronics.

It was one of Walt Disney's early dreams to create attractions that featured characters that didn't have to be "human" Cast Members dressed up in costumes. (Remember, AA figures don't take breaks, call out sick, need to be fed, join Unions, etc.) In fact, when talking about Disneyland, he knew exactly what his vision would be, and his foresight and dreams of where he wanted Animatronics to go seems to finally have come true: "I want to have a Chinese restaurant at the Park. Out in the lobby will be an old Chinese fellow like Confucius--not an actor, but a figure made out of plastic. Now the customers will ask him questions, and he'll reply with words of wisdom. We'll have an operator in back of the figure answering the questions and making the lips move."

A Brief History


According to legend, Disney was inspired to create these figures came after purchasing a pair of mechanical birds in Asia. After giving one of the birds to his wife, he took the other to his Imagineers to be taken apart, studied, and of course, improved upon. (I should also note here that another legend tells that it was mechanical bird in a New Orleans antique shop in 1949 that sparked Walt Disney's imagination to create these figures). In fact, I seem to recall as part of the 100 Years of Magic celebration, seeing that bird (or a good facsimile of it) on display.

Of course, Walt turned to his trusted animators for guidance, and instantly transformed the peopled at Walt Disney Imagineering (formerly known as WED Enterprises) into the team that would bring his dream to life.

So they came up with the idea of the Dancing Man, a small, 9-inch figure which could be animated to help design the full-size figures. If you've been to "Walt Disney - One Man's Dream" at the Disney-MGM Studios and stopped to look around, you know what I'm talking about. If not, stop what you're doing, head on down and visit that wonderful exhibit (and if you could being me back some popcorn from Main Street, USA that would be treat! Thanks!)

To help create the Dancing Man, Walt contacted Buddy Ebsen, (yes, the very same Jed Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies) who was actually an accomplished vaudeville performer and originally cast as Tin man from Wiz of Oz. Walt wanted him to not only be the model for the figure, but to perform his signature vaudeville dancing for the cameras and Imagineers.

The films of Buddy dancing allowed the animators, machinists, and engineers to view the movements frame by frame in an attempt to animate their mechanical figure much the same way. Roger Broggie stated: "We would study the film of Buddy Ebsen tap dancing against the grid. We looked at it frame by frame to see what goes on when you tap dance. We discovered that nothing was ever repeated in the dance. Frame by frame, no matter how many times we shot Buddy Ebsen dancing, he never repeated his technique. So we went ahead and built the figure, and it did dance."

The technology that was used to finally animate the Dancing Man in three dimensions was VERY primitive, and used a system of cams and levers, which were time consuming to cut and did not provide very lifelike movement. This system was later with a hydraulic and pneumatic system to try and create simple motion, (think about the opening and closing of the mouths on the animals on the Jungle Cruise).

The next generation used an analog system to control the actions by means of magnetic recording tape and solenoid coils. These coils are basically wires looped around a magnetic cylinder or core which produce a magnetic field when electricity is passed through it. ( Just in case it comes up during dinner conversation.). Signals recorded on the tape trigger solenoid coils inside the figures, producing an on/off action. Again, the movements were relatively crude, but a vast improvement on its predecessor. This technology was first used in Disneyland, when the Enchanted Tiki Room opened on June 23, 1963, much to the joy and amazement of its Guests.

However, taking this to the nest level - humans - was much more difficult than expected, and required the talents of a variety of different skill sets.

The 1964 World's Fair Abraham Lincoln would be the first (and most important) test of this new technology, and actually began in Disney's animation department, where legend Marc Davis sketched the movements that they wanted the figure to make. These drawings were then sculpted by modelers such as Blaine Gibson, for correct 3D proportions and movements. Finally, the engineers were charged with the design, construction, and operation of the mechanical structure.

Programming the movements of these figures could be accomplished in one of two (tedious) ways - by using a transducer (kind of like a joystick), and programming each movement one by one, or with the use of a control harness. Imagineer Wathel Rogers, "the father of Audio-Animatronics," created this harness, which would record his movements and actions. But this wasn't a piece of cake, either! For example, the 1964 World's Fair Abraham Lincoln had 57 moves, as well as 22 completely different head movements, all of which had to be acted out in perfect sequence by animator/actor. Needless to say, not only could the actor not move other than what was directed, but was often subjected to the harness for hours at a time.

The next step in the evolution of AA figures came in the late 1960's, when Imagineers turned to computers (think room-size behemoths - not your living room PC). They were able to now record the movements on a disc, and playback and control them using the Digital Animation Control System (DACS). They could now also program the figures using a control board of levers and knobs, instead of the dreaded harness, as well as easily add, edit and delete movements. (Again, be sure to visit Walt Disney One Man's Dream at the Disney-MGM Studios to see an example of this). This system, still in use today, could also control an attraction's audio, lighting, special effects, etc., and synchronize all essential elements.

Of course, Disney Imagineers continued to outdo themselves with the introduction in 1982 of the "walking" Ben Franklin in The American Adventure in Epcot's World Showcase. Pay close attention to how his head nods and tilts, his body moves, mouth twitches and he appears to walk up stairs. At the time, he was the most complex Audio-Animatronics figure ever built. Still very impressive if you ask me.

In the late 1980's, Imagineers created the "A-100" figures, and used something they called "compliance technology", allowing movements and gestures to be more fluid and realistic. Of course, this advancement comes at a price, as it generally takes about eight hours to animate one second of movement!!!

Here's a trivia question for you! Do you know what the very first A-100 figure was? I'll get you, my pretty! That's right! It's the Wicked Witch, who debuted in The Great Movie Ride at Disney-MGM Studios in 1989. Some other A-100 figures include: the Carnotaur in the DINOSAUR attraction at Disney's Animal Kingdom, Bill Clinton and George Bush in Hall of Presidents, S.I.R. in The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter (now redressed as the Sergeant in the Galactic Alliance of Stitch's Great Escape… Tim Curry, where art thou?), the Timekeeper (R.I.P.), and the most complex of all - Hopper, the nine-foot tall, four-armed grasshopper from "It's Tough to be a Bug," at Disney's Animal Kingdom. While almost ancillary to the main 3D film, he (it?) is still imposing and outstanding.

AUDIO-ANIMATRONICS FIGURES TODAY AT WALT DISNEY WORLD


Audio-Animatronic figures have evolved tremendously and, relatively speaking, Lincoln is quite basic compared to what we have today. We went from the very basic movements of the mouths and wings of the Enchanted Tiki Room birds to full human body movement, including fingertips (check out Stitch in his Great Escape!) and mouths. In fact, one of the newest and most extraordinary AA figures was born with the changes to the classic attraction, "Pirates of the Caribbean." I doubt anyone could argue with the lifelike realism (and uncanny resemblance to Johnny Depp) that the figures hold.

Today, the monstrous Yeti takes it to even another level - literally. In fact, the force behind the yeti's fast, sweeping movements has a potential thrust, in all of its hydraulic cylinders combined, of slightly over 259,000 pounds force - which is actually more instantaneous power than a 747-400 jet airliner!! He has 19 different axes of motion, but because of his size and speed, couldn't be balanced on just his two legs. This required a steel boom running from his back to the framework of the mountain to be constructed. I'll try not to get too geeky (too late) and talk about the mechanics and engineering behind our lovable, furry friend, but suffice it to say that at 25-ft tall and 20,000 pounds, I'd not only like him to block for Eli Manning, but would hate to meet up with him in a dark alley (do they have dark alleys in the Himalayas?). Anyway…

Here's another fun fact - Did You Know that throughout the entire Walt Disney World Resort, there are close to 2000 Audio-Animatronics figures, with around 1100 in the Magic Kingdom alone!

THE FUTURE OF AUDIO-ANIMATRONICS


Today, through its "Living Character Initiative", Disney is trying to improve the interaction between their characters and Guests. In 2003, Disney introduced the world to Lucky, a 20-foot-long, smiling, grunting, and (most importantly) free-roving dinosaur. Not part of an attraction, Lucky could walk and meet and greet Guests, much as he did in 2005 at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Since that time, characters like Roz in the Disney's California Adventure attraction "Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue!" actually seem to interact with Guests, through the use of pre-recorded messages. Also at DCA, the "Muppet Mobile Labs" was recently introduced, where Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker are free-roaming, interacting Audio-Animatronic Muppets, who can actually talk and see Guests, with no controlling Imagineer visible to Guests. In fact, this "roving laboratory" (which looks like its sits atop a Segway human transporter), can be controlled from as far away as an office in Imagineering - about 35 miles north of Disneyland!

In the very near future, Walt's dream of what he had hoped Confucius might be may actually come to fruition. The 6-foot tall Mr. Potato Head which will welcome Guests into the upcoming Toy Story Mania attraction at the Disney-MGM Studios will be the next step in technology. He will be able to interact with Guests (think Turtle Talk with Crush), and even remove some of his body parts (think "Toy Story"… or your kids' playroom floor!)

Clearly, Audio-Animatronics have stood the test of time at Walt Disney World. From classic attractions such as the Country Bear Jamboree, Peter Pan's Flight, the Mickey Mouse Revue, and our beloved Carousel of Progress, to the marvelous American Adventure, robots in the Star Tours queue, and our pal the Yeti, AA figures are truly a marvel and wonder - not only for their technological significance, but their ability to elicit smiles, laughter, maybe a chill or two, and fond memories of our time at Walt Disney World. They are not just parts of attractions, but often the essence of what we love about them (Lou hugs his Benjamin Franklin plush).

I hope you enjoyed this little trip back in time to look behind the magic just a little bit. With these articles, I want to help enhance your experiences at Walt Disney World by pointing out some of the little details, hidden treasures, and magical elements that we all so often may overlook.

Thanks, and I'll see you next time!!

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Lou Mongello is the author of the Walt Disney World Trivia Book and owner of DisneyWorldTrivia.com. You can purchase Lou's book through our AllEarsNet.com bookstore: http://allears.net/store.htm

Meet the Author: http://allears.net/ae/issue322.htm