Like many kids, I grew up loving Sesame Street and The Muppets. At a young age, it instilled in me a love for puppetry. To this day, I’m still amazed how a lifeless piece of felt and other inanimate materials can be instantly brought to life with simple, human manipulations. When folks think of animated figures in the Disney Parks, their first thought is usually Audio-Animatronic figures. But through the years, there have been quite a few equally impressive representations of puppetry in the parks. Here are some of my favorites.
To start, let’s go back to 1992 with the opening of “Voyage of The Little Mermaid” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then named Disney-MGM Studios). This show that’s still open today (though temporarily unavailable at this time) has been around for a long time, but I must admit that I enjoy checking it out whenever I’m at Walt Disney World. This production uses the sort of puppetry that I believe most people think of when you say the word “puppet.” These puppets are soft and essentially look like stuffed animals. It’s the kind of puppet typically seen in most children’s television.
What I particularly like about this puppetry is the way they use blacklight in order to enhance the performance. During the song “Under the Sea,” what we’re essentially seeing is the way that a performance like this would be shot for television and film. The only difference is that everything seen as black onstage would be green or blue when being recorded so that the computer could later replace the bold color. The ability to hide the puppeteers simply by dressing them all in black against the black background allows for the brightly-painted and lit puppets to look like they’re actually floating and allows for some surprising reveals. It’s a very old school technique, yet still effective.
Another puppet-filled show from Walt Disney World is Finding Nemo – The Musical over at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. One of the interesting things about the puppetry used in this show is that most of the time, the full-bodied puppeteer is seen alongside the puppet. This strategy has become more and more commonplace, but when I was growing up, it was rare to see the manipulation and sort of “pull back the curtain.” There always seemed to be the fear that by showing the puppeteer, it would take away the magic for the children watching.
What I think we’ve learned is that children don’t pay much attention to the human and that the character is equally alive. I believe the case is often true for adults watching, as well. It’s hard to take your eyes off of the characters. These same “Finding Nemo” puppets and puppeteers have gone on to be seen in the Pixar Play Parade at Disney California Adventure, further proving that kids love to see characters, regardless of whether or not the mechanics are visible.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom would continue this tradition of seeing the puppeteers with the creation of the Merry Menagerie during the winter holiday celebrations in 2019. Near the entrance to the park, you could see winter animal puppets including a penguin, polar bear, fox, and more along with their puppeteer friends. Once again, there was no hiding the way the puppets were maneuvered, but that didn’t stop the joy on everyone’s faces as they passed by.
Disney has also created some sort of hybrid puppets in the past, as well. For The Lion King Celebration Parade, the term they used for their animals was “puppetronics.” These animal creations were designed and moved very much like how an Audio-Animatronic figure would, but they weren’t run by hydraulics or electrics. They were controlled by puppeteers inside of the full-sized animal figures. It was very cool to see and is still one of my favorite all-time parades.
At this point, some of you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned appearances by The Muppets in the parks. I thought it was a bit too “nail-on-the-head,” but of course I absolutely love whenever I get to see the “proper” Muppets in the park, like in “The Muppets Present…Great Moments in American History.” But sticking with the puppet hybrid theme, let’s take a look at the Muppet Mobile Lab that once performed at various Disney Parks. These figures of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker might look like the puppets we typically see onscreen, but their puppeteers are nowhere nearby.
You can find these puppeteers manipulating the characters at a separate location by using cameras hidden within the characters and vehicle. It’s a pretty cool mix of puppetry and technology, similarly to how Crush in Turtle Talk with Crush can be manipulated backstage for real-time conversation. But Crush, of course, is a digital character, unlike Bunsen and Beaker.
I love seeing puppetry in the parks and there has been no shortage of it through the years. The puppetry used in Disney Parks has come in various fashions, but the end result is always a smile on the guests’ face.
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, California. He can be heard as the voice of Disney Trivia on Alexa as well as the host of “Dizney Coast to Coast,” a Disney fan podcast. He is offering the 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.