Audio-Animatronics: 101 ~ By Dianna Standen
There are thousands of them at Walt Disney World and about 10,000 of them around the world. They range from Ursula as the largest, to as small as a bird, from as advanced as Abe Lincoln to as simple as a ball bouncing. This article will look at the history of Audio-Animatronics (AA), to the basics of current AA, to the latest and greatest, and where they are headed.
First, lets get some terms straight. Audio-Animatronics is any object moved by artificial means with an audio track synchronized to it. The term was first used commercially in 1961; it was trademarked in 1964, and finally registered in 1967. You can tell how advanced an AA is by the number, AA- 1 is the most basic and AA-100 is the most advanced. Autonomatronics are creatures that can interact back with guests. Animatrons are AAs used by companies other than Disney.
AAs were created by Lee Adams an electrician at the Burbank Studios; it was based on a mechanical bird Walt Disney picked up while traveling. Many people do not consider it AA because there was no sound attached. The first human was not technically AA either; the little man was only 9” tall. The first large scale AA project, which happens to still be in use today, is the Enchanted Tiki Room.
Now we get really technical, so if you skip this paragraph I won’t be offended. To all the people who are more educated in this area, please forgive my simplistic explication. The original AAs were run by a tone was sounded that vibrated a metal reed that would close a circuit that triggered a relay that sent a pulse of electricity to a pneumatic valve that moved the body part. I will give you a minute to read that again, it took me reading it 3 or 4 times to completely understand the process.
Okay now the technological part is over, lets get back to the fun stuff. Most AAs skin is made of silicone rubber; we see this also in medical supplies, computers, automobiles, plumbing, and more. Other materials can be used, such as velvet or spandex, but the bonus is that silicone rubber can stretch but retain its shape, over and over again. The skin is held on by a zipper, providing easy removal and replacement. The colors are added with standard paint and makeup; this does need to be touched up on occasion. And all human AAs have real human hair that does have to be styled to keep its shape.
On to the latest and greatest of today. To give you an example of how far we have come, the AA-1 can only wave its hand, not point or grasp. The AA-100 has 100s of moves. The first AA-100 was the Wicked Witch in the Great Movie Ride attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Other AA-100s include Stitch in Stitch’s Great Escape in the Magic Kingdom, the largest being the Yeti in Expedition Everest, the most elaborate being Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story Midway Mania, and the newest being Ursula from the Voyage of the Little Mermaid in the Magic Kingdom. She is a whopping 7 ½’ tall and 12’ wide.
Autonomatronics are the future of AA, these include Wall-e, Push, Wes Palm, the Mobile Muppet Lab and Lucky. Lucky, Wall-e, Push, Wes Palm, and the Mobile Muppet Lab are free roaming AAs that can interact with guests, by using video and audio sensors. Otto and Crush are another new kid of AA. They are characters on a screen that react to people that is capable of seeing, hearing, sensing a person’s presence, having a conversation, and even sensing and reacting to guests’ emotions.