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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
play test” stage — a short, low-profile dry run at a theme park to gather guest feedback. Disney declined to say when or where.
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.”
Operating income at Disney’s traditional television business — ESPN, ABC, Disney Channel, FX, Freeform, National Geographic and other networks — reached $2.8 billion, a 15 percent increase. Disney attributed the improved results to lower programing costs and higher fees from cable distributors (based on multiyear contracts). Costs at ABC fell primarily because of the timing of the Academy Awards, which aired later than in past years — after the quarter ended — because of the pandemic.
Profit in the quarter, the second in Disney’s fiscal year, totaled $912 million, up 95 percent from a pandemic-battered $468 million a year earlier. When one-time items are excluded, per-share profit rose 32 percent, to 79 cents from 60 cents. (Analysts had expected about 27 cents.)
Revenue was $15.6 billion, a 13 percent decline from a year earlier.
Disney estimated that the pandemic had a $1.2 billion impact on its theme park and cruise empire. As a result, the division had a loss of $403 million. Disneyland in California, two theme parks in France and the Disney Cruise Line were closed during the recent quarter. Disneyland reopened on April 30 with capacity limited to 25 percent, as mandated by California officials.
Mr. Chapek told analysts that the company’s largest tourist destination, Walt Disney World in Florida, would benefit from the relaxed mask-wearing guidance given by federal officials on Thursday.
“That is very big news for us,” he said. Vacationing “in Florida in summer with a mask on can be quite daunting.”
In terms of theme park demand for the months ahead, Mr. Chapek noted that Disney research had found that “intent to visit” by families was on a par with 2019, suggesting a bounce-back for the resorts once capacity restrictions and other measures (mandatory face coverings) are lifted or relaxed.
In another signal of a recovery, Disney said two films, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Free Guy,” starring Ryan Reynolds, would receive exclusive 45-day runs in theaters before appearing on Disney+. “Free Guy” is scheduled to arrive in cinemas on Aug. 13 and “Shang-Chi,” a Marvel spectacle, in early September.
After a year of pandemic life, many people need an escape. On Thursday, thousands in Japan found one in the fantasyland of the Mario Bros.
A theme park, Super Nintendo World, opened at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, ending months of delays and testing the proposition that people will want to gather in large numbers while the coronavirus is circulating to race in a Mario Kart or punch question mark blocks.
The authorities said they were taking steps to prevent the spread of infections. The park’s capacity is limited to 10,000 people. Guests have their temperature taken upon entering, and they must wear a mask, wash their hands frequently and maintain a distance from others.
film and sports industries combined. The new park also capitalizes on the success of the Nintendo Switch, a video game console released in 2017. About 80 million units have been sold.
“Because it’s coming straight from the imagination of Shigeru Miyamoto, it really brings the atmosphere of Super Mario Brothers into the real world,” said Robert Sephazon, a game developer based in Japan who has visited the park.
“Although it’s a bit of escapism, and it does really work,” he added, the pandemic never fully disappears, with masks and hand sanitizing to ensure that shared touch screens do not present a danger.
some have speculated that a locked door with a familiar design could be a clue that the site will expand to include a Donkey Kong world.
“I couldn’t tell which world I was in, a virtual or a real, as it’s so well created,” said Moe Ueura, a 31-year-old high school teacher from Hyogo Prefecture who attended the opening ceremony.
While fans rushed through the site on Thursday, others, both overseas and in Japan, expressed sadness that it might be some time before they, too, could escape into the world of Mario.
“I want to visit the Nintendo World when Covid is over,” wrote one person on Twitter. “But I wonder when the day will be.”
The teacups could soon be spinning again: Disneyland, which has been closed for a year, is poised to reopen this spring.
California officials announced on Friday that theme parks in the state could reopen on a limited basis as soon as April 1. Eligibility, however, will depend on coronavirus transmission statistics in individual counties.
For instance, theme parks in counties where the virus threat remains the most severe (in the purple tier under the state’s system) must remain closed. But parks in areas where the threat of infection has eased somewhat (red tier) will be allowed to reopen at 15 percent capacity. Even less threat (orange tier) will allow for 25 percent capacity.
Attendance will be limited to in-state visitors.
Disneyland is in Orange County, which is in the purple tier. But if coronavirus cases continue to decline in Southern California at the current pace, the county could fall within the orange tier by late April. The Walt Disney Company said last year that reopening a park at less than 25 percent capacity would not make economic sense. A Disney spokeswoman declined to comment on a specific reopening timeline on Friday.
rehire employees and train them on new coronavirus safety procedures. Before the pandemic, roughly 32,000 people worked at the 486-acre Disneyland Resort, which includes two separately ticketed theme parks, three Disney-owned hotels and an outdoor shopping mall. Most of the Anaheim complex has been closed for a year.
Disney had hoped to reopen its California attractions in July. But unions representing Disneyland employees criticized that timetable as too fast and pressured Gov. Gavin Newsom to withhold approval. He sided with the unions, prompting fans to attack him online. (“Open Disney, or we are taking away your hair gel.”)
In contrast, Florida allowed Disney to reopen its Orlando parks in July. The company endured withering criticism for doing so, but stringent safety procedures, including mandatory masks, resulted in a safer-than-expected environment.
“It has been a success story,” Julee Jerkovich, a United Food & Commercial Workers official, said in October. “As a union rep, I do not say that lightly.”
In addition to Disneyland, theme parks in California include Universal Studios Hollywood, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Knott’s Berry Farm and the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.