One of the biggest appeals of Walt Disney World, for me, has always been the audio animatronics. In the 80’s, there was something so thrilling about seeing all these two-dimensional characters from animated movies come to life as three-dimensional sculptures. i would have been happy if they were just that: still statues that i could ogle. i’ve seen plenty of amazing statues of video game characters at different conventions that have drawn crowds. But the amazing thing about Disney World was that the characters would actually move. They were cartoons come to life. And as someone who would later train in animation and have a career in video games, cartoons come to life were, and continue to be, extremely compelling to me.

i’m not sure if it’s because i’m old and jaded, or for other reasons that i’ll posit in a moment, but i came away a lot less enchanted by the audio animatronic aspects of Walt Disney World on this trip. i could still appreciate the craftsmanship in the sculpting of all the characters, but i found their movement was extremely lacking. The Nine Old Men achieved the illusion of life relatively quickly across Snow White, Pinnochio, Dumbo, and Bambi, but robotic movement has hardly kept pace.

Oil … me

i remember on my last visit, being so taken by the motion of the Muppets in the Muppets 3D attraction that i actually asked a cast member whether Waldorf and Statler were live-puppeteered, or robotic. “Robotic,” he said, and explained how the Muppeteers’ performances were motion captured and recreated by the mechanical Muppets. This time out, though, i couldn’t imagine how i had been taken in. The characters looked really robotic. How naive could i have been at sixteen, i wondered? Wouldn’t janky robot movement have looked janky back in the mid-90’s?

Photo by Instructables. Link goes to a laughably unhelpful how-to guide.

Photo by Instructables. Link goes to a laughably unhelpful how-to guide.

In fact, the only animatronics that impressed me this go-round were the critters in the newest attractions. Scuttle, the talking albatross who teaches Ariel the improper use of both a fork and the English language, was very very well done. He entertains guests as they moo through the line-up for the Little Mermaid: You’ll Have More Fun Watching the Movie ride. The robotic character who impressed me the most was Lumiere from Belle’s Enchanted Aw Heck Who Are We kidding Just Go Watch the Movie experience. Lumiere’s arms are bowed in rounded arcs, but the motion on his “arms” is absolutely smooth and fluid. It blew my mind.

Photo by Guide2WDW.

Photo by Guide2WDW.

i began to wonder whether the age of the robots had anything to do with it? When i first saw Waldorf and Statler, the Muppets 3D attraction was only about five or six years old. Both the Beauty and the Beast and the Little Mermaid attractions are newish. Are the animatronic characters a whole lot better, or are they just a whole lot newer? Will Lumiere look like he’s doing the robot in Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo a decade from now?

Projection Crapping

As impressive as Lumiere was, i have to say that i was let down by the new trend of projection-mapping animatronic characters’ faces. It looked better on Lumiere than it did on the dwarfs on the mine train ride, but it just feels like … not like cheating, exactly, but more like giving up.

The problem is that you can TELL it's light, and the sense of a tangible character goes out the window.

The problem is that you can TELL it’s light, and the sense of a tangible character goes out the window.

The Uncanny Gutter

Rides that were the absolute pits for animatronics included It’s a Small World, The Seas with Finding Nemo, and Peter Pan’s Flight, with its inexplicable 75-minute line-up all day long. The Pan characters were essentially mannequins that would occasionally incline their heads, which is about as exciting as a really well-done department store window at Christmas. The animals in the Jungle Cruise were extremely dull, and i wonder about their fate given Animal Kingdom. Why, aside from nostalgia, would you want to gawk at rubber animals when there are perfectly real rubber animals in the next park over? The lovable rapists from Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t fare much better than Peter Pan and friends, but the ride is so much more atmospheric (especially with the creepy skeletons right off the first scene) that they get a pass.

Yarr! This shit be awesome.

Yarr! This shit be awesome.

My other theory about why i didn’t really go for the animatronics this time around (and why i suspect my kids didn’t either) is that 3D movies have scratched that itch, and with far better movement and personality. We’ve already seen cartoons come to touchable “life” through computer-generated animation, so it’s less exciting now to see a volumetric Captain Hook raising his robotic eyebrows every once in a while.

YOU Create Something

All that being said, i admit that i spent a little bit of time on my phone researching animatronics. Like animation, i figured that technology must have progressed to a point where Joe Public (AKA me), with enough interest and discretionary income, could at a minimum pull off the kind of robotic wizardry that Disney managed with the Carousel of Progress, which debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Sixty-four! i mean, Wal Mart should be selling Home Carousel of Progress Animatronics kits by this point, half a century later.

Smug bastard Walt Disney sez "U can't touch this."

Smug bastard Walt Disney sez “U can’t touch this.”

What i found, without looking too far into it, was a handful of “haunters” who spend an unsettling amount of time decorating their backyards with ghosts for one night of the year. Their animatronics and pneumatics tutorials add up to “here’s how you make a thing go up. If you spend a lot of extra time and money, you can make the thing go down, too. Hopefully you’ve taken a three year college program in electronics.”

What even IS this? This doesn't look like a talking animal robot.

What even IS this? This doesn’t look like a talking animal robot.

i hope i can find some more promising resources, because i would love to pull off a fraction of the kind of stuff that goes on at Disney World in my own home town. i’ve always wondered why not just smaller attractions like local museums, but even big competitors to Disney World like other theme parks, don’t have nearly the high quality of animatronic characters that Disney World does. The very best you’ll get are those hideous so-called musicians at Chuck E. Cheese who inspired an unnerving documentary and a series of horrific iPhone games. You don’t even see Peter Pan’s Flight-quality characters anywhere. Maybe there’s no desire on the part of attraction owners, or maybe animatronics just require such a huge money truck to be backed up to the project that it’s out of reach for mere mortals? i don’t know the answers to these questions, but i’m willing to spend some time learning them and reporting back later.

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