Following yesterday’s naturalization ceremony at the Magic Kingdom, we had a chance to talk to senior show producer at Walt Disney Imagineering Kathy Rogers about the recent updates to the Hall of Presidents attraction.
Here is our interview:
Q: What was your role in the Hall of Presidents update?
A: I’m responsible for coordinating the creative team and making sure that division is executed into the attraction.
Q: How long ago did you start working on the refurbishment?
A: We started in the fall of 2006, because we knew at that time that we would be electing a new president and so Pam Fisher, who is our senior show writer, started to write and put a script together and she started to work with [Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian] Doris Kearns Goodwin in 2007 to really capture what are the key story elements that we thought would be important in it. The really strong one is the bond between the president and the people; we the people have elected these individuals to be our leaders and how they have led our country.
Q: At the time, you obviously didn’t know who was going to be the next president. Did you alter the show at all depending on who was elected?
A: No, it was not altered. It was written and it would have been the same show no matter who would have been elected at the time.
Q: What was the number one thing you wanted to approach in bettering the previous version of the Hall of Presidents?
A: I think it was to develop that connection between the people and the president and make those presidents more human, more real to people – that these are real individuals to get voted in to be our leaders and to connect with them as real people.
Q: Why did you decide to add a speaking role for George Washington?
A: It’s really important to have that connection from our first president. He set some very strong precedents in terms of stepping down – being elected into the role and then coming back and being a common person – and really connecting that first president with the current president.
Q: What improvements have you made in the attraction technologically?
A: Like we have done on Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion, we’ve had the opportunity to come in and you can see the digital projection, which is incredible -the clarity of the images now-, digital audio, digital lighting control, LED lighting, we added a new show control to the animated figures on stage, we have new rigging, new screens. We did a little bit of everything.
Q: Are the animatronics for Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Barack Obama completely new?
A: Barack Obama is a brand new figure. George Washington – because we added a mouth to him, he got a new head animation but George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are pretty much the same figures that have been performing here since 1971.
Q: Is the Obama animatronic the most advanced that you’ve created so far?
A: It is the most advanced figure that we’ve build so far. We had new material technology. You can see in the skin, we have a lot more flexibility, some new functions in the head. Also, show control allows us to really have some very deliberate functions and movement to really bring that realism to it.
Q: In seeing the show, I noticed a lot of individual hand motions. Was a lot of care put into programming those?
A: Not only the hands but his whole body position and his facial expressions – really trying to capture those kinds of iconic motions of Barack Obama and George Washington.
Q: I remember reading last year that Disney would no longer be manufacturing some of the animatronics. Is that the case for the Hall of Presidents?
A: No, Barack Obama and George Washington were completed, built, and animated here at Walt Disney Imagineering.
Q: So Imagineering Research and Development put all the new technology into them?
A: It’s not an R&D technology. It is existing technology that we use throughout all of our parks. This is the first time that all of the new technologies have been put in one figure.
Q: Are there any plans for President Obama to come see the show?
A: We did offer that invite to him when we went to the White House in March and had him record, but unfortunately he said it’s kind of difficult for him to come into places with large crowds so we hope that within the next four to eight years he has an opportunity to bring his family and his kids here to see it.
Q: Are you still making any changes to the show?
A: We’re pretty much done. You know, little teeny tweaks but I’m the only one that’s going to notice those.
For a great behind-the-scenes look at the Hall of Presidents update, including more from Kathy Rogers, check out this Disney-supplied video:
Below are a few Disney-supplied pictures from the Hall of Presidents. You can find more, including a few of our own (like the one of George Washington above), in our photo gallery.