One of my favorite parts of the theme park experience is seeing the Animatronic figures. I’ve been obsessed with them ever since I was a kid. I would want any animatronic-type of toy that I could get my hands on just to try and recreate the theme park experience in my home. Luckily for me, in the ‘90s there were a lot of these at-home options, including dancing Coca-Cola cans, singing flowers, holiday Motionettes and more. The ‘90s were a wonderfully weird time.
I believe that when most people think of Audio-Animatronics, they think of large, human-sized figures seen in many classic attractions. But today I want to write about some of my favorite small Animatronic figures. I’ve always found the small figures to be even more interesting, considering all of the mechanics need to fit inside of a tiny body or be cleverly hidden.
A good place to start would be the birds in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. The Walt Disney Archives gives credit to these figures as the first Audio-Animatronic figures created by Walt Disney Imagineering in 1963. These colorful birds are still chirping their tunes away in both coasts’ Disney Parks. It’s easy to add them to this list simply because of their historic significance, but I honestly do feel that they’re still one of the best. One detail I’ve always loved about them is the fact that they “breathe.” While the birds are singing, you can see their chest plates puff out. I love that this detail was considered going all the way back to the earliest Animatronic figures. They could have very easily overlooked this and made it “good enough” with simply the beaks and heads moving. But they went that extra step on the first try.
Another small figure that I love is the Sebastian Animatronic found in the Little Mermaid dark rides, specifically the ones that have animated eyes. This wasn’t the first time that projection was used inside of an Animatronic figure, but it is the smallest example I can think of. It’s impressive to think they figured out a way to fit the necessary rear projection equipment inside of that tiny crustacean body in order for Sebastian to blink and move his pupils.
Disney recognized how guests love Animatronic figures and mixed that with another favorite of guests, interacting with characters. This concept inspired Disney’s Living Character Initiative, which introduced us to interactive characters like Lucky the Dinosaur and the Muppet Mobile Lab. The smallest figure to come out of this initiative was Chef Remy from the movie “Ratatouille.” This tiny and interactive Animatronic figure could once be found in Chefs de France in Epcot. Although I never got to experience this one in person, he’s still one of the figures that pops into mind when thinking about cool Animatronics. This little rat was carted around the restaurant hidden under a cloche until it was time for his reveal to interact with diners.
One last figure I’d like to mention is the largest of all, but is still worth noting. The Lumiere Animatronic inside of Enchanted Tales with Belle does a great job bringing a lot of motion to the very slim figure. Through the use of interior projection and some very well-hidden puppetry rods, it looks as though the character from the movie is just as wiry and animated as we’ve always known. The result is an extremely convincing animated character brought to life.
These are some of my favorite small Animatronic characters, but now I want to read about yours. Leave a comment to let me know your favorites as well as some small characters you’d like to see brought to life that haven’t been just yet.
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. DePaoli’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent Attractions Magazine.