People have told stories ever since there were stories to tell, and — over many, many generations — have found a lot of different ways of telling them. Once constrained to drawings and oral traditions, advancements in technology now allow stories to unfold through cameras, consoles, screens as well as audio devices. But, there’s another, more immersive way to tell — and to be told — a story.
Theme park attractions allow people to step into the worlds of their favorite books, engage in time travel, or partake in otherworldly adventures. When creatively conceptualized and considerately constructed, theme park attractions are also pragmatic works of art, and animatronics are a big part of the art form. Created to help people engage with their surroundings, animatronics are crucial to the overall experience.
As it turns out, animatronics have a history that’s a story in and of itself, and it unofficially begins in 13th century Europe. Villard De Honnecourt (1225 — 1250) was a French architect who is best known for his sketchbook containing notes and observations related to masonry and engineering, which included “sections on technical procedures, mechanical devices, suggestions for making human and animal figures, and notes on the buildings and monuments he had seen.“
In Androids and Intelligent Networks in Early Modern Literature and Culture (2013) Kevin LaGrandeur writes:
“In those notes and sketches, which he probably worked on between 1220 and 1240, there is a drawing of a mechanism labeled with the inscription: ‘how to make an angel keep pointing his finger toward the sun.’ There is no way the angel could follow the sun unless some kind of time-keeping device moved it and, in fact, the machinery depicted by Villard is clearly related to clockworks. It has a central wheel or gear suspended horizontally between two poles and connected to a vertical shaft, upon which the angel would turn as the hours progressed.”
Always ahead of his time, Leonardo da Vinci (1452 — 1519) created the first mechanical lion in the 15th century, and by the 17th century, European clockmakers were using moving characters to animate their creations — which were usually massive and often located in the town square, like the Prague Astronomical Clock.
Home-friendly “cuckoo clocks,” which featured at least one mechanical character that popped out at specified intervals creating the signature sound, appeared shortly thereafter. Although the origins of cuckoo clocks are still widely debated, historians believed that they emerged out of Germany’s Black Forest region during the first half of the 18th century.
“The ‘coo coo’ sound is derived from a system of bellows pushing air through two wooden whistles to recreate the distinctive two-note call of the common cuckoo,” explains Jimmy Stamp in Smithsonian Magazine. “The gears of these traditional cuckoo clocks are regulated by a pendulum and system of two or three weights, traditionally shaped like pinecones, that steadily drop over a period of one day or eight days, depending on the model of the clock.”
Animatronics technology remained fairly unchanged until 1961, when, Walt Disney (1901— 1966) ushered in the modern era of animatronics with a nine-inch-tall Dancing Man figurine. It was clumsy and stiff, but it did what it was meant to do. Realizing the potential of what he created, he went on to trademarked the term “audio-animatronics” the that same year.
In 1963, The Enchanted Tiki Room opened in Disneyland, where “tropical birds, Tiki gods and colorful flowers come to life in a swinging South Seas musical extravaganza.” Tape recorders inside the birds send electronic impulses to built-in air cylinders, which make the birds move and, when the air is forced through vibrating reeds, sing and talk. Of course, the bird’s movements aren’t perfectly life-like, but it was an astounding achievement nonetheless.
“The groundbreaking technology allowed animators to synchronize movement, audio and visual effects, paving the way for other classic attractions, like It’s A Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion.” Inspired, Disney set his sight on building state-of-the-art figures for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, including one of the first human animatronics. Though it was a little stiff, it was widely regarded as very, very impressive.
According to Nigel Rothfels in Representing Animals (2002):
“The Lincoln figure relied on analog and digital signals to control hydraulic and pneumatic valves producing movement and sound. After multiple phases of redesign involving engineers, precision machinists, sound designers, and figure makers, Lincoln could make fifteen facial expressions, lift his tongue while speaking, rise from his chair, and raise each eyebrow separately, all while delivering excerpts from his famous speeches.”
After creating a lot of buzz at the World’s Fair, the animatronic figure was placed in Disneyland’s 1965 attraction, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. But Lincoln was not the only animatronic to make waves at the World's Fair. For the UNICEF pavilion, Disney also premiered an attraction featuring singing children representing various countries. When the Fair was over, the pieces were dismantled and sent to Disneyland, where they were reintroduced in the classic 1966 ride, It’s a Small World.
Soon, animatronics started popping up all over Disneyland, and continue to do so. Today’s animatronic technologies are incredibly sophisticated, and the Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, which opened in 2019, is a premier example. Hondo Ohnaka, the primary character in the attraction, ”is one of Disney’s most advanced A-1000 animatronics, with electric motors capable of 50 functions, and his movements are eerily fluid.”
Disneyland, however, wasn’t the only theme park to feature animatronics. One honorable mention is the Timber Mountain Log Ride, which opened in Knotts Betty Farm in 1969; it features plenty of animatronic animals and lumberjacks that were updated as recently as 2013. Of course, there are plenty of other examples as well.
Today, though, Disney’s largest competitor in terms of theme park attractions and animatronics specifically is Universal Studios, which opened in 1964. Since 1996, Universal’s Islands of Adventure offered Jurassic Park: The Ride that features plenty of animatronic dinosaurs. The attraction was also unveiled at Universal Studios Hollywood, but was recently transformed into Jurassic World: The Ride; it opened earlier this year with cooler and more realistic animatronics.
In 2004, the company paid tribute to The Mummy franchise and opened Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride, where the animatronic mummy Imhotep actually jumps out of a sarcophagus. And, in 2014, the highly anticipated Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts finally premiered, giving diehard fans a chance to step into the magical world of their favorite wizard. While on their adventure, guests have a chance to see hard-working goblins writing scrolls and serving menacing looks.
There world is full of incredible animatronics, both old and new. And if the last sixty years are anything to go on, we can expect the technologies behind these incredible attractions to continue blending the line between fiction and reality. From a simple attraction with moving birds to diverse theme park attractions with interactive shows and lifelike animatronics, the art of storytelling is expanding in ways that were previously hard to imagine.
“Despite this emphasis on ‘realism,’” writes Craig Svonkin in Disneyland and Culture: Essays on the Parks and Their Influence (2010), “it was the audience’s awareness that the Audio-Animatronics figures were not real. . . that created [their] ideological power.”
Note* Images sourced from the public domain.