Are You Ready for Sentient Disney Robots?

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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.

When I remained silent, his demeanor changed. His shoulders slumped, and he seemed to look at me with puppy dog eyes. “Don’t be sad,” I blurted out. He grinned and broke into a little dance before balancing on one foot with outstretched arms.

Still, Disney has a long-term predicament. The quickening pace of daily living, advances in personal technology and the rapidly changing media landscape are reshaping what visitors want from a theme park. Disney knows it has to devise a new generation of spectacular attractions rooted in technology if it wants to continue to vacuum up family vacation dollars.

There are animatronics at Disney World that have been doing the same herky-jerky thing on loop since Richard Nixon was president. In the meantime, the world’s children have become technophiles, raised on apps (three million in the Google store), the 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.”

In another area of the Glendale warehouse, behind more black curtains, another team of Imagineers was working on the opposite challenge: Project Exo, a high-tech effort to enable interactions between theme park visitors and large-scale characters.

“As in the Incredible Hulk?” I asked, noticing a giant hand (albeit not a green one) with fingers that could move and grasp with humanlike precision.

Crickets.

Since that information appeared to be classified, I scanned the space for more clues. A whiteboard had terms like “ankle twist” and “weight balance” written on it. (“Yes, please” was scribbled next to both of those.) A young Imagineer, Jonathan Becker, was standing on what looked like futuristic stilts. Nearby, his colleague 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.”



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