Walt Disney Imagineers have brought guests into some of the world’s most iconic attractions through the wonders of immersive storytelling. The crowning achievement of these stories are the Audio-Animatronics that help bring these worlds to life. As we slowly make our way into a great big beautiful tomorrow, the Imagineers continue to challenge what can be accomplished with these robotic characters.
By Jake Goldberg
There is no exact prediction anyone can make about the future of themed entertainment, but we can take a look back through history and see the original characters that paved the way for the future. These are the Audio-Animatronics that you more than likely forgot about… and these are their stories:
4. Ellen DeGeneres – Ellen’s Energy Adventure, Epcot
What may be remembered as Epcot’s greatest source of air conditioning was also host to a plethora of impressive animatronic characters. The origins of this attraction date back to 1982 with the original Universe of Energy pavilion. This exhibit was lined with nearly 80,000 solar cells used as a method to power the ride vehicles. The original Universe of Energy attraction showed guests the history of energy in a traditional dark ride setting.
It wasn’t until 1996 when the ride would receive an update, and changes to the story that would throw Ellen DeGeneres into the prime focus of the attraction. The new story involved Ellen in a nightmare scenario where she has to compete with Albert Einstein in a game of “Jeopardy.” Amidst her competition, Bill Nye the Science Guy quickly comes to her rescue so he can teach her the history of energy in the universe.
Thus Disney was required to build one of their most specific animatronics to date, a fully automotive figure of daytime television talk show host warding off a dinosaur with a stick. The new rendition of the ride would exist in the park up until 2017 to make room for a new Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster. On its final ride-through, guests were forced to evacuate the show-building due to a complication. Many would later call this a fitting end to this attraction’s legacy.
After the announcement of her ride’s closure, Ellen made a plea on her show to the Imagineers requesting her robot be returned to her. She stated that the Audio-Animatronic could “host my show when I’m not feeling well,” or “host my show when I am feeling well.”
Her writing staff found this amusing and managed to trace back the location of what remained of her figure. Clearly, the years have not been kind to the robotic remains.
Editor’s Note: It is almost certain that this is not the actual Ellen animatronic itself, but rather the skin that covered it.
3. The Amazing Destini – D23 Expo 2011
Imagineers seem to be constantly challenging the capabilities of their Audio-Animatronics. It may seem hard to believe, but these machines don’t always make their debut in a Disney Park. Take, for instance, The Amazing Destini, who debuted at D23 Expo in Anaheim, Calif. in 2011.
The Amazing Destini clearly followed inspiration from the classic Zoltar animatronics often found in local amusement parks. While the traditional Zoltar figure may only dispense a quick paper fortune, Destini wouldn’t have been very amazing if he did just that. Instead, this Audio-Animatronic figure could listen and interact with guests while delivering their fortunes.
This character was an experiment to show off exactly how Audio-Animatronics would be able to interact with incoming guests. Software engineers implemented technology and sensors that could detect facial recognition to understand the guest’s emotions and properly give them an interactive experience.
While it is always Disney’s goal to make sure the guests are not aware of the technology that is incorporated into the parks, Imagineers offered a glimpse of the inner workings of Destini at D23 Expo. Through his software, Destini was capable of reading how many people are in a room, measuring someone’s height to know if he was talking to an adult or kid, and had short term memory, making him able to recognize guests if they decided to come back.
2. TerrasaurX – “Splashtacular” show at Epcot
If you managed to take a visit to Walt Disney World’s Epcot between the years of 1993 and 1994, then you might have caught a glimpse at one of the most bizarre stage shows the park ever hosted — and one of Disney’s strangest Audio-Animatronics.
“Splashtacular” was an intergalactic performance that transpired right in front of the Fountain of Nations. The story incorporated Mickey and friends celebrating their favorite colors when an evil, intergalactic sorceress storms in, and vows to steal the colors of the world to return them to her home planet.
In order to defeat Mickey and his friends, the villain summons a giant robot dinosaur to gain the upper hand. This animatronic towered over the stage and could only be defeated by Mickey using the power of pyrotechnics (in similar “Fantasmic!” fashion) to defeat the beast. The bizarre show only lasted seven months, but the story only gets weirder from there.
The terrifying TerrasaurX was later repurposed for Disneyland’s stage show “Galaxy Search.” There, the cyborg dinosaur was given a makeover and turned into a giant Elvis impersonator known as “The King” in 1996.
1. Uh-Oa the Tiki Goddess of Disaster – The Enchanted Tiki Room (Under New Management)
The Enchanted Tiki room is considered a Disney Parks staple. The show incorporates numerous musical numbers, ranging from a calm and collective melody from a choir of birds to the dynamic banging of tiki drums. It’s no wonder that many die-hard theme park fans found the new renovation “The Enchanted Tiki Room (Under New Management)” not quite up to the original attraction’s standards. The renovated attraction opened in 1998 and eventually closed in 2011 following a fire that severely damaged the Audio-Animatronics.
The story of the new attraction starts with the Enchanted Tiki Room being interrupted by Disney characters Iago and Zazu as the theater’s new owners. Uh-Oa the Tiki Goddess of Disaster is then summoned in front of the crowd after Iago attempts to “modernize” the show’s music.
Uh-Oa is angered by Iago’s constant disrespect to the gods and hastily removes him from the sacred area. The birds and Uh-Oa all celebrate with a massive musical celebration before prompting guests to leave the theater. While the fire permanently damaged some of the characters, the tiki goddess seems to still exist within the great beyond, specifically at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto and Tiki Bar.
Those who dare attempt to summon her spirit can do so by ordering the specialty drink at the famous bar in Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. There, cast members will chant the tiki goddess’ name until a downpour of rain is summoned, and the former Uh-Oa animatronic will light up at the head of the bar.
These few retired animatronics are only a select few of more than 70 years of Disney Parks history. Are there any animatronics that have left the limelight that you’d like to learn more about? Let us know in the comments below.