Audio Animatronics: Inside Out

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By Sparky LD     Dinosaurs battle, graveyard bones rattle, the Wicked Witch shouts and an evil grasshopper spouts. On the lighter side, wise-cracking birds, singing Country Bears, time-traveling robots and a growing lineup of diverse characters comes to life at Walt Disney World Resort via the “magic” of Audio-Animatronics technology. Humor, fantasy and drama are enacted daily throughout Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios by more than 1,600 “performers” related to one another by the thread of “life” achieved through Audio-Animatronics technology. The technology electronically combines and synchronizes voices, music, sound effects, character movements and other show elements. As a result, characters such as the original graveyard ghouls in The Haunted Mansion at Magic Kingdom or the imposing Hopper in “It’s Tough to be a Bug” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom can wow guests with their lifelike movements.

     Audio-Animatronics development began almost 50 years ago, spurred by Walt Disney’s desire to give life-like movement to the three-dimensional figures that would be the stars of new Disneyland attractions — just as he had given life to the cartoon characters in his films. The challenge to animate the theme park figures fell to WED Enterprises (now known as Walt Disney Imagineering), the Disney creative design, development and engineering subsidiary. On staff were many of the famed Disney animators, rich in their understanding of the basic elements of re-creating movement. But technology to achieve pre-programmed movement in three-dimensional figures was in a primitive state. The earliest experiments utilized simple mechanical devices — cams and levers — to animate miniature scale model human figures such as Dancing Man, a 9-inch-tall tap-dancing vaudevillian, who was programmed to mimic the dance steps of Buddy Ebsen. Cams were tedious to cut, and the movement they could induce was limited to the diameter of the cams — clearly an inadequate approach to animate life-size figures with life-like movements and sounds. Disney’s Imagineers combined the cam-and-lever principle with an electronic-hydraulic-pneumatic approach to achieve more versatility in the moving animals of two early Disneyland attractions, Nature’s Wonderland and Jungle Cruise. But the actions remained simple. Abandoning cams and levers, Imagineers — with help from studio sound experts and electricians — devised a system to control the actions by means of magnetic recording tape and solenoid coils. Signals recorded on the tape trigger solenoid coils inside the figures, producing action. This first “pure” form of Audio-Animatronics technology was introduced in the summer of 1963 with the opening of The Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland.

     Programming life-like movements in animal characters proved easier than in human figures. To record the sequence of signals that would animate the human figures during playback, Wathel Rogers, “the father of Audio-Animatronics technology,” was rigged-up with a harness-like device. As he moved, the various actions were recorded as a series of distinctive signals. The programming was painstaking. For instance, a figure of Abraham Lincoln created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair incorporated 57 moves, including 22 different head movements, all of which had to be acted out in correct sequence by the wired-up animator. In 1969, Imagineers turned to the rapidly developing technology of computers as an ally. A variety of movements are first recorded onto a computer data disk, a process known as the Digital Animation Control System (DACS). Animators then manipulate figure movements using a console of buttons and knobs, enabling them to quickly insert, delete or adjust actions.

      The finished show is controlled by DACS Playback, which simultaneously relays data and cues to speakers, lights, special effects and Audio-Animatronics figures. As technology progressed into the 1980s, so did the control system. Today, a control system composed of multiple DACS controls the Audio-Animatronics figures for both Epcot and Magic Kingdom from a single remote location. Sophisticated computers have enabled Audio-Animatronics animators to achieve greater subtleties in body language and expression — even a pioneering walking movement by Ben Franklin during a scene of The American Adventure at Epcot. Franklin’s head tilts and nods, his body twists, individual fingers of his hand move, his torso moves forward and to the side, his mouth “pinches” right and left — some 40 separate movements in that scene alone. “To accomplish this, we had to push our abilities to the limit,” Wathel Rogers observed during the show’s premier in October 1982. “When the process was finished, we had the most complex Audio-Animatronics figure ever built.” That is, until Imagineers developed Audio-Animatronics A-100 technology in the late 1980s. These state-of-the-art figures incorporate compliance technology, which enables their movements and gestures to be even more fluid and realistic. However, programming remains as painstaking as ever. It generally takes about eight hours to animate one second of movement.

     The first Audio-Animatronics A-100 figure was the Wicked Witch of Oz, who debuted in The Great Movie Ride at Disney-MGM Studios in 1989. The newest A-100 figures include the terrifying carnotaurs in the DINOSAUR attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The most complex A-100 figure to date is Hopper, a nine-foot, four-armed grasshopper with 68 functions who appears in “It’s Tough to be a Bug,” also at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Other A-100 figures are George W. Bush and Abraham Lincoln in The Hall of Presidents at Magic Kingdom.

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About the author

Tom Corless

Tom has been regularly visiting the Walt Disney World® Resort from the time he was 4 months old. While he has made countless visits in the last 28 years, he did not become a truly active member in the Disney fan community until the summer of 2007, when he decided to launch the WDW News Today website and podcast. Tom has since become an Orlando-local and is a published author on Walt Disney World.