It was one of Walt Disney's dreams to create attractions that featured all sorts of fantastic creatures without having to find employees who could fit into little tiny bird suits and such. The inspiration for these mechanical figures came when Disney and purchased a pair of mechanical birds in Asia. He gave one of the birds to his wife, and brought the other to one of his Imagineers to be vivisected. Disney believed that if his people could figure out how the bird worked, he could file for the rights to the process and use it to create all manner of animated creatures.
Audioanimatronics is the name Disney used to label his proprietary, patented, trademarked, and copyrighted method of making lifelike mechanical figures. Audioanimatronic (or, more simply, animatronic) figures can be seen, for example, in the Tiki Room, Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, and the town of Stepford, Connecticut.
The word "audioanimatronics" is a combination of three roots: "audio" because the figures are noisy, "animal" because they look like animals, and "tronics" because they are high-tech, just like the movie Tron. True, there are animatronic plants (i.e. in the Tiki Room), and the reference to Tron dates the term a bit, but it has stuck.
The first animatronic figure was a simple working man, created from reference footage of Buddy Ebson operating heavy machinery (see photo). It was only about a foot high -- much shorter than the real-life Buddy Ebson -- and not horribly convincing, but it was an important first step. The stage on which the working man performed was not much larger than the figure itself, but the machinery required to operate it was enormous, filling a 30-by-30 foot basement beneath the stage. The machinery required for the second animatronic figure (used in "Great Moments with Mini Lincoln") took nearly twice that much space.
The technology for animatronics was originally based on grooved disks which rotated to move cams, gears, sticks, and levers. Each of these hand-cut disks was cut by hand to rigid specifications, using the trial-and-error method of hand-cutting.
The second generation of animatronics introduced the use of computers and instructions stored of magnetic tape. Computers gave instructions to robotic bellows which blew air through tiny tubes into the animatronic figure and activated various switches, cams, levers, and gears. The biggest drawbacks of this system were that an air burst from a nuclear device would create a magnetic field that could render the computer inoperable, and that they whole system would fail if it ran out of air.
The third generation of animatronics came about with the invention of laser disks and whatever you call those little chips that replaced vacuum tubes. Miniaturized circuits, connected to compact computers by wires, could now be placed directly within the animatronic figures to operate miniaturized doodads, whatnots, cams, and thingies. This focus on smaller components had an enormous side benefit -- it freed up space. The computer required to run the Tiki Room once resided within an enormous room in the Matterhorn, but the entire attraction can now be controlled from a common laptop computer (with disturbing results if a technician forgets to disconnect the laptop from the animatronic birds before surfing the Internet for porn).
Further generations of audioanimatronics are simply refinements to the high-tech third generation. For example, the improved Abraham Lincoln figure no longer randomly folds himself in half, and the new pirate captain will automatically shut himself down if he's about to cut off his own arm. Imagineers have recently been testing the first completely autonomous animatronic figure -- a life-size adult apatosauris that is capable of walking untethered, interacting with guests, and crushing cars. This fabulous animatronic dinosaur is named Lucky because, as one Imagineer put it, "We're lucky it hasn't killed anyone yet."
Research continues on ways to improve animatronic figures. It is hoped that in the near future animatronic plants throughout the park will bloom on cue, figures will be able to help security keep an eye on the attraction they're in, and the customer service staff at City Hall will be audioanimatronically replaced.
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