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by Ken Pellman (archives)
December 11, 2000
This month Ken looks at the history of Disney's Audio-Animatronics and how its use has dwindled in recent years.

Suspended Animation?
Disney's Declining Reliance on Audio-Animatronics

Okay, in the first issue of Kenversations™, I finished by saying that, while much of Disney's world was uncertain in 1994, animation was thriving, and that I'd talk more about that in this issue. Well, that'll just have to wait. I won't be able to finish that piece correctly until after we all see how The Emperor's New Groove does artistically and financially.

But I do want to talk more about animation. Specifically, Audio-Animatronics.

One reason Walt Disney liked animation was that he liked control. Audio-Animatronics gave him control of the immersive theatrical experiences that he envisioned for Disneyland. Walt understood that they'd be able to do things that actors just couldn't do, especially not repetitively.

Animation Goes to the Birds and Beyond
Disneyland opened in 1955 with some animated characters, such as some of the animals in the Jungle Cruise, but it wasn't until 1963 that Walt unveiled Audio-Animatronics (AA), a programmable three-dimensional form of animation. He first used the technology to make birds, plants, and more talk and sing in The Enchanted Tiki Room. People had never seen anything quite like it. The birds could perform the same show over and over again every twenty minutes, delivering the same show to audience after audience.

It was just the beginning, though. The next few years would see the technology put to much use.

Disney had a big presence at the 1964 New York World's Fair, having a controlling hand in several exhibits. It was there that Disney applied AA technology to human characters. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln hinged on the performance of a single figure as the center of attention, a popular President no less. The likeness of the President had to be good enough to keep the attention of the audience as it delivered a monologue. The Carousel of Progress also relied heavily on AA figures, but the attraction was a showcase for household technology as well.

Being the control freak that he was (and exercising good business sense), Walt Disney brought the attractions to Disneyland. The Carousel of Progress was placed in Tomorrowland, right next to Mission to Mars, which would feature AA figures in "Mission Control".

The biggest showcase of AA was right around the corner. For years, Disney had been working on ideas for a pirate-themed adventure. With AA technology and a good ride system developed (It's a Small World's high-capacity boats, also featured at the fair and also brought to Disneyland), the time was finally right.

Continuing After Walt
Walt Disney passed away before Pirates of the Caribbean was completed, so he never got to see just how revered it became among Disneyland guests. Dozens and dozens of AA pirates, with some AA animals thrown in for good measure, help put on an elaborate musical show as boatloads of guests drift through their midst. Even today, it is a standard by which top theme park attractions are judged.

A couple years later, the long-awaited Haunted Mansion welcomed the living, the real ghosts being supplemented by a heavy dose of AA ghosts.

Before Walt died, he saw concepts Disney Legend Marc Davis was working on for another show that would rely almost totally on AA technology to entertain - The Country Bear Jamboree. The attraction opened at Walt Disney World and was then replicated with twice the capacity at Disneyland. It features cartoon-like bears and other animals putting on a music-filled show. Nearly thirty years later, the AA figures are still very effective, a tribute to their design, engineering, manufacturing, programming, and maintenance. The Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World expanded on the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln concept, featuring an AA likeness of each U.S. President.

The Carousel of Progress was replaced in 1974 with America Sings, which used the same presentation format and featured scores upon scores of AA figures to survey American musical history.

It wouldn't be until EPCOT Center opened in 1982 that there would be new attractions that featured heavy use of AA figures. The Spaceship Earth, which dramatically chronicled communications advancement through the ages, and World of Motion, which humorously followed the story of transportation, made liberal use of AA, as did the American Adventure, and amazing multimedia show about crucial moments in American history. The Universe of Energy and Journey Into Imagination both used AA, but to a lesser extent. Horizons, which examined various notions about the future, was another attraction that was heavy on the use of AA.

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