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Beginnings (Audio-Animatronic Technology Comes of Age)

"Our whole (past) has been in the world of making things move, from a drawing through all kinds of little props and things. Now we're making these human figures, dimensional human figures, move... making animals move, making anything move through the use of electronics. It's a dimensional thing... it's a new door... and we hope we can really do some exciting things in the future." —Walt Disney

Walt Disney describes his proposed Pirates attraction on a 1965 televised show celebrating Disneyland's tenth anniversary. Click here to listen

Walt Disney always followed his passion for pushing the technology of his time to develop means of entertainment and education. In the case of the quote above, it was to develop "Audio-Animatronics," which was Disney's title for robotics for which the main purpose was replicating the look of living figures. Pirates of the Caribbean, long one of the best-loved attractions at Disney's theme parks, was most ambitious large scale use of Audio-Animatronics, and continues to this day to be startlingly effective. As Life Magazine reported in 1967, POTC was "the costliest and most technologically sophisticated" adventure ever conceived as a permanent entertainment attraction.

The concept of a pirate adventure was first introduced to the team of talented people that Disney had gathered to work on his theme park in the late 1950s. But most of the concentrated design effort began in the mid 60s, when the effects Disney envisioned were more feasable. In fact, the first Audio-Animatronic show at Disneyland (the small-scale yet largely popular "Tiki Room") and well-received Audio-Animatronic displays at 4 shows at the World's Fair in 1964 hinted that the use of the robots would be well-suited to telling the pirate's salty tales.

Pictured above is Walt Disney, inspecting one of the life-like sculptures that would become an Audio-Animatronic character in the attraction... but these startling robotic effects didn't come easily. In 1991, Disney legend Ken Anderson (in an interview with Storyboard Magazine) recalled the process of creating the Audio-Animatronic technology in the '50s:

"Around 1950, Walt built three of these [animatronics]. He needed a soft shoe dancer, so he got Buddy Ebsen to dance. He recorded that, and then we had an animator come in and build a machine that would actually work. Walt got to thinking that we better use a better guy [so] we got Roger Broggie. We hired other people and got all sorts of people in from the outside to do things that later became very important to Disneyland. By that time, we had developed audio, and an electronic character that would move [to the] voice. Ub Iwerks actually did the first one. He had a head, a skeleton sitting on the table, and the skeleton opens his eyes and said "How do you do?" You couldn't see any wire, you couldn't see anything. The thing was talking to you. I was actually very impressed."

Of course, from that point, Audio-Animatronic technology developed much before it was ready to be implemented in Pirates. In fact, the technology finally utilized to control the lifelike movement (though this process has since changed with today's newer technology) was an extension of engineering designed to control the timing of launching rockets into space. To put it simply, pneumatic and hydraulic valves inside the character (which make the actual animation occur) were controlled by sonic impulses (up to 438 per second) on 32-track magnetic tape. This was the high-tech heart of the '60s Audio-Animatronic magic.

The development of the Audio-Animatronic characters, in all of their technological sophistication at the time, also marked a turning point for Disneyland. Prior to the installation of "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln," which was brought to Disneyland after its installation at the World's Fair, the park's technology was dedicated to imitating nature and providing special effects that would "wow" guests. In The Disney Version, author Richard Schickel comments on the Disneyland technology before Audio-Animatronics:

"The technical imitation, the piece of machinery, if you will, is 'imaginatively' put together... (all home craftsmen and backyard tinkerers purely love Disneyland for precisely this reason...) What the average, middle-class American wants and has always wanted of art and of the objects he mistakes for art, is the fake alligator which thrills but never threatens, that may be appreciated for the cleverness with which it approximates the real thing but that carries no psychological or poetic overtones... It's all over in a minute, and you carry away not some dark phantom that may rise up someday to haunt you, but an appreciation of the special-effects man's skill."

However, when Walt started to pursue the ultimate robotic achievement—simulating a human to the extent that the robot could cause an emotional response—Disneyland became something different. An early-'60s WED press release remarked on this new technology by stating that "Walt has often described Audio-Animatronics as the grand combination of all the arts. This technique includes the three-dimensional realism of fine sculpture, the vitality of a great painting, the drama and personal rapport of the theater, and the artistic versatility and consistency of the motion picture." And, in fact, the Lincoln exhibit at the World's Fair did move people to tears, proving that Audio-Animatronics had the potential Walt dreamed of. However, Schickel goes on to reflect on the technology, wondering if it is truly suited to a theme park such as Disneyland was:

"Are we really supposed to revere this... weird agglomeration of wires and plastic, transfering to it, in the process, whatever genuine emotions we may have... toward mankind in general? [We are] worshipping a machine that is no less a machine for having the aspect of a man."

An overstatement? Maybe. But when applied to the proposed Pirates attraction, a point can be made as to the efforts put forth by WED to use a new, space-age technology to create a believable, and even likable, group of salts that commit various acts of mayhem, robbery, arson... and, before the ride was altered in 1997, even sexual assualt. Nevertheless, as the years have gone by since the ride's debut, audiences have become accustomed to the technology that was so novel in the mid-'60s, and the ride has taken its place in Disneyland history as a worthy attraction of note, both due to its technological advances and in spite of them.

Meanwhile, apart from WED's robotic teams, engineers at Arrow Development were working on a transport system for the ride, following their success with attraction vehicle development that was implemented at the World's Fair.

The "Small World" ride at the World's Fair actually provided the inspiration for the boat as a means of transportation, since the attraction utilized it successfully, and the technology (propulsion by silent jets of water) did not intrude on the guest's experience. Arrow Development, which designed the Small World vehicles, was also called upon to create the ride transport system for POTC. Powered by 20,000 gallons of water flowing per minute (from a total system of 750,000 gallons), the POTC stream can take each 22-passenger boat through the complete attraction path in about 15 minutes. At left, Walt Disney (front) is pictured on a POTC test trough.

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