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.”
HOUSTON — When OPEC barred oil exports to the United States in 1973, creating long gasoline lines, President Richard Nixon pledged an effort that would combine the spirit of the Apollo program and the determination of the Manhattan Project.
“By the end of this decade, we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy sources,” he said in a televised address.
His timing was off — it took more than 40 years — but the country has come pretty close to energy independence in recent years thanks to a surge in domestic shale oil and natural gas production and the harnessing of solar and wind energy.
That independence, however, is fragile. Last week, cars lined up at gas stations across much of the Southeast after the Colonial Pipeline was paralyzed by a cyberattack by a criminal group seeking a ransom. The electric grid is also coming under greater stress because of climate change. In the last year, a heat wave in California and a deep freeze in Texas forced rolling blackouts as demand for power outstripped supply.
panic buying rarely seen in decades produced shortages, and prices at the pump rose as much as 20 cents a gallon for regular gasoline in some states in a few days, according to AAA.
Mr. Yergin said that drivers who lined up at pumps to fill gas cans and even plastic bags made the situation worse. The impulse to hoard harkened back to the oil shocks of the 1970s and appeared to touch a chord in the national psyche.
“People remembered gas lines even though they weren’t born yet,” Mr. Yergin said.
Colonial Pipeline, a private company, resumed full operations over the weekend, but it will take at least several more days before many gas stations are restocked.
Energy companies will come under greater pressure from governments and investors to bulk up their defenses against cyberattacks, but those and other vulnerabilities will not be easily overcome, especially after years of underinvestment.
Upgrading the energy system will not be easy. Dozens of competing companies that operate a vast web of oil and gas wells and pumping stations, transmission lines and power plants will need coaxing to make their operations more resilient to weather and criminal attacks. Considerable funding will have to come from business and government, as well as research to keep ahead of the cybercriminals. President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan devotes $100 billion to the transmission grid.
The quest for energy independence has never been a straight line, and there have been many unfortunate twists. Reliance on Middle East oil was a major consideration in military action and diplomatic strategy, including alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia with disturbing human rights records. A half-century ago, the country shifted from burning heating oil to relying more heavily on coal, which contributed to climate change.
But the search for energy independence also led to innovation. Fracking — the hydraulic fracturing of shale oil and natural gas deposits — not only slashed energy imports but also made the United States a major exporter. Suddenly oil and gas were not a national security vulnerability but a tool to further American interests.
nearly half of the transportation fuel needs of the region.
When hurricanes hit, and refineries on the Gulf shut down, gasoline and diesel prices tend to rise along the East Coast. Normally, that is not a huge problem because companies store lots of fuel close to where it is used and trucks and barges can usually make up the difference. This time, however, uncertainty about how long it would take to restore supplies made the Colonial Pipeline’s shutdown much more disruptive.
The ransomware attack was the work of DarkSide, an extortionist ring that has been responsible for scores of attacks on companies in several countries. But it is hardly the only group that infiltrates computer systems to extort money. Others go by names like REvil, Maze and LockBit.
“The technology moves so quickly, you solve one or two or twenty possible vulnerabilities in your computer systems and the hackers find a different way to get in.” said Drue Pearce, a former deputy administrator of the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
The criminal groups represent a threat to industries beyond energy. But experts say energy is of particular concern because it is essential to a functioning economy. The peril is no less complex than reducing the United States’ reliance on foreign oil, said Bill Richardson, a former energy secretary.
“This is a new threat that we are not prepared for,” he said.
When Henry Kissinger secretly traveled to Beijing in 1971 to negotiate the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and China, he came bearing multiple requests — about the Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the Soviet Union and more. Kissinger’s Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, had only one focus: Taiwan.
The U.S. needed to recognize the government in Beijing, not Taipei, as the only legitimate China, and the United Nations needed to expel Taiwan, Zhou said. Kissinger agreed to those terms, and President Richard Nixon triumphantly visited China the next year.
Still, the U.S. did not abandon Taiwan. Even as it refused to recognize Taiwan, it continued selling arms to its government and implicitly warned Beijing not to invade. The policy is known as “strategic ambiguity,” and it has endured since the 1970s.
Now some U.S. officials and foreign-policy experts worry that it has become outdated, as my colleague Michael Crowley explains. They think that President Biden may need to choose between making a more formal commitment to Taiwan’s defense or tempting China to invade.
released a statement saying, “Similar exercises will be conducted on a regular basis in the future.” Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic has suggested that a Chinese invasion “could happen at any moment” and that Biden should be prepared.
A military conflict still seems unlikely. Then again, military conflicts often seem unlikely until the moment they begin.
‘A window of opportunity’
China’s current leaders view Taiwanese reunification much as Zhou did in 1971: urgent and vital. “Fast forward half a century, and the same issue — Taiwan — remains Beijing’s No. 1 priority,” as Niall Ferguson of Stanford University writes in a Bloomberg Opinion piece. To Beijing, Taiwan continues to be a source of embarrassment, the island where the losers in the country’s civil war fled in 1949 and whose government is propped up by foreign powers.
Just as important, though, is what has changed in recent decades. China has transformed itself from a poor country that endured the chaos of civil war, famine and the Cultural Revolution during the 20th century into one of the world’s leading powers. It has become the only serious rival to the U.S., economically and militarily.
severe human rights violations. It has crushed dissent in Hong Kong over the past year. Taiwan remains the only part of greater China that’s outside of Beijing’s grip.
“Xi seems to see the U.S. as weakened and distracted,” Michael Crowley told me, “but also focusing more and more on the China threat — leading to concern that he may see a window of opportunity that moves him to action in the near future.”
What’s both tough and effective?
Biden and his foreign-policy team have decided to take a fairly tough approach to China. They do not believe Donald Trump’s specific policies, like his tariffs, were effective, but Biden’s team has accepted Trump’s view that Barack Obama and his predecessors were too soft on China, mistakenly hoping it would become friendlier as it became richer.
Even within this hawkish framework, though, the most effective approach to Taiwan is not obvious. Some Americans — including Robert Gates, a former defense secretary; Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican; Barney Frank, a Democratic former House member; and Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations — argue that while “strategic ambiguity” worked when China was weak, it no longer does. Today, they say, the U.S. must provide clarity, to prevent a thriving, affluent democracy of 24 million people from being overrun.
Other experts argue that a formal change in U.S. policy would be so confrontational as to force Beijing to choose between humiliation and war. “For Taiwan, strategic ambiguity remains a relatively successful policy,” Lu Yeh-chung of National Cheng-chi University in Taipei told The Times. Advocates for the status quo say that China’s leaders understand that an invasion of Taiwan could bring global condemnation, tough economic sanctions and a needless risk to China’s continuing rise.
Michael Crowley’s news analysis or Niall Ferguson’s history-laden Bloomberg essay.
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The Amazon Union Vote
A partial vote count suggested that Amazon would probably defeat the most serious organized-labor drive in the company’s history.
So far, only about 30 percent of voting workers at an Alabama warehouse have supported joining a national retail union. About half of the ballots have yet to be counted.
business is booming for interior decorators: “We work for the one-half of the one-half of the 1 percent.”
Lives Lived: After a failed documentary project, Sharon Matola found herself in Belize looking after a jaguar, two macaws and 18 other half-tamed animals. The zoo she established there became a popular attraction, and Matola an outspoken advocate for animals. She died at 66.
Tokyo Olympics are set to begin in July, with the Paralympics scheduled to start in August. Years of planning — and billions in television dollars — mean Olympic organizers are keen to hold the event without postponing again.
But polling in Japan has trended strongly against the Games, as Motoko Rich and Hikari Hida report in The Times. Thousands of athletes and other participants will be heading to Tokyo, and less than 1 percent of Japan’s population has been vaccinated, CNBC reports. The country’s experience of the pandemic has been comparatively mild, with the level of infections and deaths far below that of the United States or Europe. But that’s not guaranteed to continue.
Though organizers have said that vaccinations will not be mandatory, the International Olympic Committee will supply vaccines for any competitors who need them. Some countries, like India and Hungary, are prioritizing Olympic athletes for vaccinations at home. Organizers are also barring spectators from overseas, and cheering is forbidden at the Olympic torch relay, which kicked off in Fukushima Prefecture last month.
One thing that is staying the same: The Games will still be called Tokyo 2020, reflected in heaps of T-shirts, mugs, signage and other branded merchandise.
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slice of Florida lime pie.
People in their 20s and 30s are turning to Botox. Why?
What to Watch
“Shiva Baby,” a tense comedy about a young woman at the shiva of a family friend, mixes “big laughs with gut-wrenching discomfort,” Jason Bailey writes in a review.
The news about the state of the pandemic in the U.S. has been largely positive in the past few months. The vaccines are highly effective, and millions of people are receiving doses each day. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen sharply from their January peaks.
But infections are rising again. The U.S. has averaged 65,000 new cases a day over the past week — a 19 percent increase from two weeks ago. That puts the country close to last summer’s peak, though still far below January levels.
aren’t surprised. “For literally a month and a half, we’ve all been predicting that the second half of March is when B.1.1.7 would become the dominant variant in the United States,” says Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health. “And sure enough, here we are.”
The increase is not distributed equally. “New York and New Jersey have been bad and are not getting better, and Michigan’s cases are rising at an explosive rate,” Mitch Smith, a Times reporter covering the pandemic, said.
Hospitalizations are also rising rapidly in Michigan, with Jackson, Detroit and Flint among the metro areas experiencing the highest rates of new cases in the country.
The outlook is more encouraging in much of the West and South, though cases have started to tick up in Florida, where officials in Miami Beach instituted a curfew this month to prevent crowds of spring breakers from gathering.
while warning that “reckless behavior” could lead to more infections.
The solution, Jha believes, is honesty. “There’s been this debate throughout the whole pandemic: Should we be more optimistic or should we be more pessimistic? My personal strategy has been to just be honest with people,” he says. “Be honest with people and give it to them straight. I think most people can handle it.”
In other virus news:
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the second day of Derek Chauvin’s trial, six people who were at the scene last year as Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck testified. The teenager who recorded the video at the center of the case said she sometimes lay awake at night, “apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more.” (Here are the takeaways from Day 2.)
Two Capitol Police officers are suing Donald Trump, claiming he is responsible for the physical and emotional injuries they suffered during the Jan 6. riot.
These photos show the conditions in an overcrowded border facility in Donna, Texas, that is housing more than 4,000 migrants.
A January airstrike by the French Army targeting militants killed 19 civilians in Mali, a U.N. report found. The attack intensified calls for about 5,000 French troops stationed there to leave.
G. Gordon Liddy, who concocted the bungled burglary that led to the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon, died. He was 90.
The N.F.L. will add a 17th regular-season game, the first expansion of the league’s schedule since 1978.
The Final Four is set for the N.C.A.A. basketball tournaments, after No. 1 seeds in each bracket — Gonzaga for the men and Stanford and South Carolina for the women — won last night.
Under the Sea: “There’s no bottom, no walls, just this space that goes to infinity. And one thing you realize is there are a lot of sea monsters there, but they’re tiny.”
Lives Lived: Alvin Sykes converted to Buddhism in his 20s and led a monk’s life in the name of social justice. Though he was not a lawyer, he devoted himself to prying open long-dormant murder cases from the civil rights era, including that of Emmett Till. Sykes died at 64.
That outrage is by design, as The Times’s music critic Jon Caramanica writes. “What ‘Montero’ has caused — or rather, what Lil Nas X has engineered — is a good old-fashioned moral panic,” he writes. “The song, the video, the shoes — they are bait.”
Lil Nas X found major fame in 2019 with his viral hit “Old Town Road.” But what has kept him relevant is the skill set he developed before that, as an ardent Nicki Minaj fan on social media. That experience made him a master at steering online conversations, a talent that translates well to pop stardom.
“He is a grade-A internet manipulator and, provided all the tools and resources typically reserved for long-established pop superstars, he is perfectly suited to dominate the moment,” Caramanica writes. “‘Montero’ may or may not top the Billboard Hot 100 next week, but it will be unrivaled in conversations started.” — Sanam Yar
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: ___ chowder (four letters).
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P.S. President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election 53 years ago today, the last time a U.S. president has done so. The Times covered the news with a front-page banner headline.
G Gordon Liddy, a mastermind of the Watergate burglary and a radio talkshow host after emerging from prison, died on Tuesday at age 90.
His son, Thomas Liddy, confirmed the death but did reveal the cause, other than to say it was not related to Covid-19.
Liddy, a former FBI agent and army veteran, was convicted of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping for his role in the Watergate burglary, which led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. He spent four years and four months in prison, including more than 100 days in solitary confinement.
“I’d do it again for my president,” he said years later.
Liddy was outspoken and controversial, both as a political operative under Nixon and as a radio personality. Liddy recommended assassinating political enemies, bombing a left-leaning thinktank and kidnapping war protesters. His White House colleagues ignored such suggestions.
One of his ventures – the break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate building in June 1972 – was approved. The burglary went awry, which led to an investigation, a cover-up and Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Liddy also was convicted of conspiracy in the September 1971 burglary of the defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Ellsberg leaked the secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers.
After his release, Liddy – with his piercing dark eyes, bushy moustache and shaved head – became a popular, provocative and controversial radio talkshow host. He also worked as a security consultant, writer and actor.
On air, he offered tips on how to kill federal firearms agents, rode around with car tags saying “H20GATE” (Watergate) and scorned people who cooperated with prosecutors.
Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, George Gordon Battle Liddy was a frail boy who grew up in a neighborhood populated mostly by German Americans. From friends and a maid who was a German national, Liddy developed a curiosity about Adolf Hitler and was inspired by listening to Hitler’s radio speeches in the 1930s.
“If an entire nation could be changed, lifted out of weakness to extraordinary strength, so could one person,” Liddy wrote in Will, his autobiography.
Liddy decided it was critical to face his fears and overcome them. At age 11, he roasted a rat and ate it to overcome his fear of rats. “From now on, rats could fear me as they feared cats,” he wrote.
After serving a stint in the army, Liddy graduated from law school at Fordham University and then joined the FBI. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress from New York in 1968 and helped organize Nixon’s presidential campaign in the state.
When Nixon took office, Liddy was named a special assistant serving under the treasury secretary David M Kennedy. Liddy later moved to the White House, then to Nixon’s re-election campaign, where his official title was general counsel.
Liddy was head of a team of Republican operatives known as “the plumbers”, whose mission was to find leakers of information embarrassing to the Nixon administration. Among Liddy’s specialties were gathering political intelligence and organizing activities to disrupt or discredit Nixon’s Democratic opponents.
While recruiting a woman to help carry out one of his schemes, Liddy tried to convince her that no one could force him to reveal her identity or anything else against his will. To convince her, Liddy held his hand over a flaming cigarette lighter. His hand was badly burned. The woman turned down the job.
Liddy became known for such offbeat suggestions as kidnapping war protest organizers and taking them to Mexico during the Republican national convention; assassinating the investigative journalist Jack Anderson; and firebombing the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning thinktank in Washington where classified documents leaked by Ellsberg were being stored.
Liddy and his fellow operative Howard Hunt, along with the five arrested at Watergate, were indicted on federal charges three months after the June 1972 break-in. Hunt and his recruits pleaded guilty in January 1973, and James McCord and Liddy were found guilty. Nixon resigned on 9 August 1974.
After the failed break-in attempt, Liddy recalled telling the White House counsel John Dean: “If someone wants to shoot me, just tell me what corner to stand on, and I’ll be there, OK?” Dean reportedly responded, “I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet, Gordon.”
Liddy claimed in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes that Nixon was “insufficiently ruthless” and should have destroyed tape recordings of his conversations with top aides.
Liddy learned to market his reputation as a fearless, if sometimes overzealous, advocate of conservative causes. Liddy’s syndicated radio talkshow, broadcast from Virginia-based WJFK, was long one of the most popular in the country. He wrote bestselling books, acted in TV shows including Miami Vice, was a frequent guest lecturer on college campuses, started a private eye franchise and worked as a security consultant. For a time, he teamed on the lecture circuit with an unlikely partner, the 1960s LSD guru Timothy Leary.
Liddy always took pride in his role in Watergate. He once said: “I am proud of the fact that I am the guy who did not talk.”