One of my favorite things about theme park rides are the Audio-Animatronics. They come in all shapes and sizes, but they often make a huge impact, as it’s something that physically exists in the world of the ride.
No matter how good a fully-projected attraction is, it just doesn’t create the same feeling for me as seeing Audio-Animatronics and physical set pieces that are so much more tangible. The first Audio-Animatronics created for a Disney Park were the tiki birds in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, but the technology has grown tremendously since the birds first began singing in 1963. Today, I’m going to share with you some of my favorite animatronic figures in the parks.
One of my first memories of truly being blown away by an Audio-Animatronic was The Wicked Witch in The Great Movie Ride at the then-named Disney-MGM Studios. I can remember during the early days of that attraction, people (including myself) thinking that she was a live performer and not a robotic figure.
Disney helped pull this off in several ways. First, throughout the attraction there had been live actors portraying several roles, so the idea of a live actor being part of the ride’s “The Wizard of Oz” scene wasn’t unbelievable. Second, the way that they timed The Wicked Witch’s dialogue with the live tour guide made for a convincing conversation. Finally, it was simply a very good animatronic with some of the most fluid movements audiences had ever seen up to that point. Walt Disney Imagineering had come a long way since Walt’s first human-sized Audio-Animatronic, President Abraham Lincoln.
Speaking of Lincoln, the most recent iteration of the former president seen in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland’s Opera House is equally impressive. One of the things I enjoy most is when you see a robotic figure do something that you don’t expect. When we first see Abraham Lincoln, he is sitting in a chair. Just the “simple” move of having him stand up from that seat makes him more believable. The same can be said for many figures seen in The American Adventure at Epcot. Certain figures in that attraction look like they’re climbing stairs and shaking hands, all adding to their believability.
Before I move on from human figures, let’s take a moment to focus on the Jack Sparrow additions in Pirates of the Caribbean. This character, portrayed by actor Johnny Depp in the movies, is seen three times throughout the attraction. The first time we see him, he’s hiding from pirates who are searching for him. He can be seen from a bit of a distance with dim lighting focused on him.
This first appearance is done with perfection. It is an extraordinarily believable portrayal of the character. There isn’t a ton of movement, but it’s convincing for someone who is trying to stay hidden and unnoticed. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, they have a lot of control related to the way we see the figures. As the attraction goes on and you see the other figures in closer proximity, it’s not as convincing as this first appearance. This is a good thing to keep in mind when you’re in a theater setting, where you get to choose where to sit. If you want the most convincing version of the figure, perhaps avoid the first few rows. If you want to examine the technology, go right ahead and sit as close as you can.
Now let’s move on to animated characters. When it comes to bringing an animated character to life, lifelike isn’t necessarily what Imagineering is going for. The designers and programmers have more liberty to do things with the characters that are oversized and based less on convincing real-life movements. What the audience wants to see are their favorite characters with the same squash-and-stretch movements seen on the big screen. Disney has mastered this in numerous cases.
The Ursula Audio-Animatronic, found in “The Little Mermaid” dark rides at Disney California Adventure and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, is a sight to be seen. Not only does the figure have a fantastic and convincing stretch to her skin, but you also see her very-close in proximity with the illusion remaining intact.
When the animated seven dwarfs with rear-projected faces premiered in Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, there was a lot of buzz surrounding these figures. They are admittedly beautiful, but I feel like a lot of people had forgotten about the fact that this projected face, as part of an Audio-Animatronic figure, could be seen for years prior with the Buzz Lightyear animatronics in his arcade shooter-based rides. Using a projected face on the figures allows for more animated expressions and figures that are much closer to looking like what we’ve seen in the movies.
This mix of projection and physical figures is done spectacularly with a lot of the characters from the “Cars” movies. Whether it’s in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure or Lighting McQueen’s Racing Academy at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the projected eyes and mouths on the physical car body creates a real-life figure that looks like it drove right out of the screen.
Now let’s take a moment to recognize perhaps my favorite kind of animatronics: The ones that look exactly like what we see on the screen. These figures are the same size as seen in media, as well as made from the same materials used in the movie or television projects. A character like C-3PO in Star Tours is exactly like we’ve seen him in all of the “Star Wars” films. Even Statler and Waldorf sitting in their regular box seats in the theater for Muppet*Vision 3D is just like we’ve seen them since the ‘70s (and now on Disney+).
There are so many wonderful Audio-Animatronic figures in the Disney Parks that I certainly can’t list all of the worthy mentions here, but that doesn’t mean that Disney are the only folks in the industry creating fantastic theme park robotics.
When it comes to larger-than-life animatronic figures, Universal Studios has created some impressive ones. When Jurassic Park – The Ride opened at Universal Studios Hollywood in 1996, one of the greatest thrills was seeing the life-size T-Rex during the finale. Given the timing of the figure’s reveal and the lighting, she really does look a lot like what we see in the movie at pretty close proximity.
Universal Orlando Resort once had some awesome full-bodied King Kong animatronics in the original Kongfrontation attraction. Years later, an even grander Kong animatronic can be seen in Skull Island: Reign of Kong at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The facial movements and emotion of the current figure is beautiful. The creators of this particular figure seem so proud of it (as they should be) that your ride vehicle actually slows down for an up close and personal look.
Overall, well-done Audio-Animatronics continuously create unforgettable theme park moments. The technology and scale (sometimes getting bigger and sometimes getting smaller) are constantly being perfected.
What are some of your favorite animatronic figures in a theme or amusement park? Leave a comment and let me know. I’d particularly love to hear about any exceptional animatronics at a park other than Disney or Universal.
If you have any theme park topics you would like to hear my opinion on, let me know in the comments. You might just see it pop up in a future DePaoli on DeParks.
Jeff DePaoli is a producer and voiceover artist living in Los Angeles. He can be heard as the voice of Disney Trivia on Alexa as well as the host of “Dizney Coast to Coast,” the ultimate, unofficial Disney fan podcast. Get your FREE gifts of “America’s Hidden Mickeys,” “On the Rohde Again,” “Theme Park Comfort Kit” and more at DizneyCoastToCoast.com.