TPU reader Jordan wrote in to ask, “Hi, I’m a huge fan I read all your posts. I’d like to throw a question your way that I’ve been stewing on for quite a while. Are the days of audio-animatronics shows dead? The most recent one I can really think of is Stitch/Alien Encounter, and even that is getting on. Personally I just can’t imagine this kind of thing really being marketable anymore. What are your views?”
That’s a great question! Let’s start with some positives. Rides using animatronics are slowly on the rise. We have seen some amazing work with Disney’s Frozen Ever After at Epcot in summer 2016. In addition, the teaser video for the animatronics being created for the “Avatar” boat ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom look spectacular.
Furthermore, the future of dark rides using animatronics also looks promising. If the plans I’m hearing for the new “Star Wars” attractions are true, you can expect to see quite a few robotic likenesses of those characters in a few years. Whenever Universal decides to announce “The Secret Life of Pets” rides for their parks in the United States, you’ll also see dozens and dozens of animatronics in those new rides. Also, the new Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout at Disney’s California Adventure will feature animatronics in the queue, which can be seen in the concept art below.
Your question, Jordan, pertained to animatronic shows in particular and that (unfortunately) doesn’t look too good for now. If you look at the shows out there that have 100% animatronic casts, just about anywhere in the world, those theaters are empty. The Hall of Presidents, Country Bear Jamboree, Enchanted Tiki Room, Carousel of Progress… even on the busiest of days, you will rarely see even 50% of the seats filled in 2016.
Rewind to 1971. Did you know that the animatronic shows in the Magic Kingdom all had overflow queues to help contain the crowds? During busy summer days, you could have to wait for two shows in order to see the Hall of Presidents! Which begs the question… what happened? I don’t have any hard and fast answers, but I do have some theories.
First of all, with very small exceptions, animatronic shows are rarely updated, if ever. I know, I know… Disney purists will say that these are the backbone of any Disney theme park and historically speaking, that’s correct. However, just because you add new sound systems and put new fur, feathers or skin on the animatronics in the show, it doesn’t mean it has been updated. The content largely remains the same. Nearly all of these attractions are creeping up on 45-years-old in the Magic Kingdom in Orlando and even longer at Disneyland.
Look at it like a movie. You may have grown up with and loved “Pete’s Dragon” when it originally debuted in 1977. You may adore that film now. However, try showing that movie to anyone under 25 today and see how it holds their attention. Even if you get a fancy blu-ray copy, you’d be hard pressed to find many people less than a quarter century old that will sit through the original “Pete’s Dragon,” for better or worse.
Which brings me to my second point. An animatronic stage show isn’t enough to keep modern audience’s attention anymore. The pacing of entertainment has changed dramatically over the last twenty years. That momentum needs to be fast and engaging, otherwise we’ll pull out our cell phones and find stimulation elsewhere. An animatronic’s limited abilities are no longer considered dazzling when you’re not passing by them on a ride for a couple of seconds. You can buy robots for Halloween for your front porch extremely cheap these days. While the nuances that a more sophisticated figure can pull off are still impressive to me, they aren’t so much to a generation who can buy a robotic tiki bird on a perch at Walgreens for $10.
In my opinion, the future of animatronics lies where themed entertainment has been headed: interactive intimacy. Escape rooms (as seen above), immersive theater and premium haunted houses have become all the rage over the last few years. Audiences want to engage with environments, characters and stories that they can feel a connection to and directly interact with.
Combine robotics technology with an intimate setting where animatronics can recognize facial expressions and interact with you on a truly personal level. We are not talking about a figure that can be manipulated by an actor behind-the-scenes. A truly autonomous figure that can recognize your voice, your tone and facial expression. It could even have a conversation with you in an immersive environment and THAT would be truly mind blowing. I think it’s right around the corner from becoming reality. Your thoughts?
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