Some of the animatronics at Disney’s parks have been doing their herky-jerky thing since the Nixon administration. The company knows that nostalgia won’t cut it with today’s children.
By Brooks Barnes
GLENDALE, Calif. — I was en route to meet Groot.
Not an imitation Groot conjured with video or those clunky virtual reality goggles. The Walt Disney Company’s secretive research and development division, Imagineering, had promised a walking, talking, emoting Groot, as if the arboreal “Avengers” character had jumped off the screen and was living among us.
But first I had to find him. GPS had guided me to a warehouse on a dead-end street in Glendale, a Los Angeles suburb. The place seemed deserted. As soon as I parked, however, a man warily appeared from behind a jacaranda tree. Yes, I had an appointment. No, I was not hiding any recording devices. He made a phone call, and I was escorted into the warehouse through an unmarked door behind a dumpster.
In the back near a black curtain a little wrinkled hand waved hello.
It was Groot.
He was about three feet tall and ambled toward me with wide eyes, as if he had discovered a mysterious new life form. He looked me up and down and introduced himself.
When I remained silent, his demeanor changed. His shoulders slumped, and he seemed to look at me with puppy dog eyes. “Don’t be sad,” I blurted out. He grinned and broke into a little dance before balancing on one foot with outstretched arms.
I wanted to hug him. And take him home.
“A new trend that is coming into our animatronics is a level of intelligence,” said Jon Snoddy, a senior Imagineering executive. “More believable. More outrageous.”
He looked at Groot adoringly. “This guy represents our future,” he said. “It’s part of how we stay relevant.”
It’s not 1963 anymore
Robots have been part of Disney’s special theme park sauce since the 1960s, when Walt Disney introduced “audio-animatronics,” his word for mechanical figures with choreographed movements. There were endlessly harmonizing Small World dolls, marauding Caribbean pirates (“yo-ho!”), Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. The technology was a runaway hit, mesmerizing generations of children and helping to turn Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida into cultural touchstones and colossal businesses.
Disney’s 14 theme parks around the world attracted 156 million visitors in 2019, and the Disney Parks, Experiences and Products division generated $26 billion in revenue. The coronavirus pandemic severely disrupted operations for a year, but the masses have returned. The wait to get on the swaying Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Disney World on a recent day was two hours and 10 minutes — Delta variant, be darned.
Still, Disney has a long-term predicament. The quickening pace of daily living, advances in personal technology and the rapidly changing media landscape are reshaping what visitors want from a theme park. Disney knows it has to devise a new generation of spectacular attractions rooted in technology if it wants to continue to vacuum up family vacation dollars.
There are animatronics at Disney World that have been doing the same herky-jerky thing on loop since Richard Nixon was president. In the meantime, the world’s children have become technophiles, raised on apps (three million in the Google store), the Roblox online gaming universe and augmented reality Snapchat filters. Cars are driving themselves, and SpaceX rockets are autonomously landing on drone ships.
How are the rudimentary animatronic birds in Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room supposed to compete? They dazzled in 1963. Today, some people fall asleep.
“We think a lot about relevancy,” Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, said in April during a virtual event to promote the opening of an interactive Spider-Man ride and immersive “land” dedicated to Marvel’s Avengers. “We have an obligation to our fans, to our guests, to continue to evolve, to continue to create experiences that look new and different and pull them in. To make sure the experience is fresh and relevant.
“And all of that is risk,” Mr. D’Amaro acknowledged. “There is legacy here. People like the way things are. But we’re going to keep pushing, keep making it better.”
From inspiration to ‘epic flail’
The development of new-and-improved animatronic figures has long been a big part of Disney’s playbook. When it opened in 1982, Epcot dropped jaws with a hydraulic Ben Franklin that appeared to walk up stairs. In 1989, Disney took the technology further, unveiling a Wicked Witch of the West that flailed its arms and shifted its body with remarkable speed and precision.
More recently, Disney has introduced robot characters that seem to talk to guests (Mr. Potato Head, 2008). Others move with such elegance that some visitors mistake them for video projections (an “Avatar” shaman, 2017).
Disney attractions have always required the suspension of disbelief: Those are real flying galleons in Peter Pan’s Flight, not plastic ride vehicles on a rail. But advances in movie imagery — computer-generated animation, the blending of live-action footage with elaborate digital effects — have put pressure on Disney to make its robots more convincing.
“You know how Elsa moves,” said Kathryn Yancey, an Imagineering show mechanical engineer, referring to the “Frozen” princess. “Kids have watched the movie over and over, maybe even in the car that morning. So our animatronic Elsa also has to be fast and lyrical. She can’t be lumbering.”
In early June, Disney’s animatronic technology took a sonic leap forward. The Disneyland Resort’s newest ride, WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, features a “stuntronic” robot (outfitted in Spidey spandex) that performs elaborate aerial tricks, just like a stunt person. A catapult hurls the untethered machine 65 feet into the air, where it completes various feats (somersaults in one pass, an “epic flail” in another) while autonomously adjusting its trajectory to land in a hidden net.
“It’s thrilling because it can be hard to tell whether it’s a robot or a person — the stuntronic Spider-Man, it’s that good,” Wade Heath said as he joined the line to re-ride WEB Slingers in early August. Mr. Heath, 32, a recruiter for Pinkerton, the security company, described himself as “a major Disney nerd” who has, at times, been surprised that the company’s parks have not evolved faster.
“The older animatronics have a wonderful degree of nostalgia,” he said. “But I was maybe 10 or 11 when I stopped believing they are real. For kids today, the cutoff is probably even younger.”
The Spider-Man robot — 95 pounds of microprocessors, 3-D printed plastic, gyroscopes, accelerometers, aluminum and other materials — took more than three years to develop. Disney declined to discuss the cost of the stuntronics endeavor, but the company easily invested millions of dollars. Now that the technology has been perfected, Disney plans to roll it out at other parks. WEB Slingers, for instance, has been greenlighted for Disneyland Paris.
Pumping money into stuntronics required a leap of faith, said Bob Weis, who leads Disney’s 1,000-plus member Imagineering division. In the beginning, it was just an expensive research project with no clear outcome.
“It’s not easy to prove return on investment for never-considered-possible inventions,” Mr. Weis said. “Our longstanding history of creating experiences that completely wow guests — for them to suspend disbelief and live in that moment — has paved the way for acceptance of this inherent risk.”
But budgets are not endless. “We have to be discerning because, as you can imagine, we have plenty of amazing ideas, capabilities and stories,” Mr. Weis added.
Code name: Project Kiwi
Lots of people have absolute faith in Disney as a corporate citizen. Others view Disney as a villainous empire that dreams up ways to manipulate young minds for profit.
You can almost feel the second contingent recoiling. Now Disney wants to integrate artificial intelligence into its attractions? How long before Disney replaces the humans who portray characters in its parks with machines? Today, impressive robot stuntman; tomorrow, creepy robot Cinderella signing autographs outside the castle.
One of Disney’s senior roboticists, Scott LaValley, came from Boston Dynamics, where he contributed to an early version of Atlas, a running and jumping machine that inspires “how did they do that” amazement — followed by dystopian dread.
Disney said it had no plans to replace human performers. Winnie the Pooh, Cruella de Vil, Peter Pan, Princess Jasmine and other beloved “walk-around characters” will continue to be played by people wearing costumes. Rather, Disney’s newest robotics initiative is about extreme Marvel and “Star Wars” characters — huge ones like the Incredible Hulk, tiny ones like Baby Yoda and swinging ones like Spider-Man — that are challenging to bring to life in a realistic way, especially outdoors.
About 6,000 animatronics are in use at Disney parks worldwide, and almost all are bolted to the floor inside ride buildings. It’s part of the magic trick: By controlling the lighting and sight angles, Disney can make its animatronics seem more alive. For a long time, however, Disney has been enamored with robotics as an opportunity to make the walkways between rides more thrilling.
“We want to create incredible experiences outside of a show box,” said Leslie Evans, a senior Imagineering executive, referring to ride buildings. “To me, that’s going to be next level. These aren’t just parks. They are inhabited places.”
It’s part of an evolution. Disney parks traditionally offered passive experiences — sit back in your swiveling Doom Buggy and enjoy those Haunted Mansion ghosts. New attractions have been increasingly about role play. Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, unveiled in 2019, asks groups of riders to work together to steer the ship. The ride’s queuing area features an impressive Hondo Ohnaka animatronic. (He’s a miscreant from the “Clone Wars” animated series.)
In 2003, Disney tested a free-roving animatronic dinosaur named Lucky; he pulled a flower cart, which concealed a puppeteer. In 2007, the company experimented with wireless animatronic Muppets that rode around in a remote-controlled vehicle and chatted with guests. (A technician operated the rig from afar.) Lucky and the Muppet Mobile Lab have since been retired.
The development of Groot — code-named Project Kiwi — is the latest example. He is a prototype for a small-scale, free-roaming robotic actor that can take on the role of any similarly sized Disney character. In other words, Disney does not want a one-off. It wants a technology platform for a new class of animatronics.
Cameras and sensors will give these robots the ability to make on-the-fly choices about what to do and say. Custom software allows animators and engineers to design behaviors (happy, sad, sneaky) and convey emotion.
“And all of this technology must disappear, which takes a crazy amount of engineering,” Ms. Evans said. “We don’t want anyone thinking, ‘That’s the most sophisticated robot I have ever encountered.’ It has to be: ‘Look! It’s Groot!’”
Project Kiwi will next advance to the “play test” stage — a short, low-profile dry run at a theme park to gather guest feedback. Disney declined to say when or where.
‘Natural and believable’
In another area of the Glendale warehouse, behind more black curtains, another team of Imagineers was working on the opposite challenge: Project Exo, a high-tech effort to enable interactions between theme park visitors and large-scale characters.
“As in the Incredible Hulk?” I asked, noticing a giant hand (albeit not a green one) with fingers that could move and grasp with humanlike precision.
Since that information appeared to be classified, I scanned the space for more clues. A whiteboard had terms like “ankle twist” and “weight balance” written on it. (“Yes, please” was scribbled next to both of those.) A young Imagineer, Jonathan Becker, was standing on what looked like futuristic stilts. Nearby, his colleague Richard-Alexandre Peloquin was also towering in the air, except his lower body was ensconced in a contraption/costume that gave him legs the size of oil barrels and feet that resembled those of a Wampa, a furry “Star Wars” ice beast.
Asya Cara Peña, a ride development engineer, piped up with a rudimentary explanation. They were developing a full-body exoskeleton that could be applied to a wide variety of oversize characters — and that counteracted the force of gravity. Because of safety concerns, not to mention endurance, the weight of such hulking costumes (more than 40 pounds) could not rest entirely or even mostly on a puppeteer’s shoulders. Instead, it needed to be redirected to the ground.
“But it also needs to look natural and believable,” Ms. Peña said. “And it has to be something that different performers of different body types with different gaits can slip into with identical results.”
Just then, Mr. Becker began to sway unsteadily. “Whoa! Be careful!” Ms. Peña shouted, rushing to help him sit down on an elevated chair.
“We still have a long way to go,” Mr. Becker said a bit sheepishly. “The challenge is to not just have a big idea, but to get it all the way to the park.”
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