Katie Rice | Orlando Sentinel
A robotic rabbit wearing a helmet and roller skates tumbled out of a crate and got to its feet alone, extending its arms to balance itself on a stage at Disney’s panel at the South by Southwest conference this month.
The robot, apparently modeled after the character Judy Hopps from Disney’s 2016 animated film “Zootopia,” then skated across the stage into a somersault and returned to its feet in a triumphant pose, arms raised, as the audience cheered. A nearby Imagineer, Morgan Pope, steadied the robot as it leaned forward and lifted it onto his shoulders to laughter.
Though the robot did not speak, its childlike actions charmed the audience, which was exactly Disney’s goal. The panel “Creating Happiness: The Art & Science of Disney Parks Storytelling” showcased the company’s work to inspire human delight using innovative technologies and fan-favorite characters within Disney’s theme parks.
“This is our latest effort in making robots that we think can have an emotional connection with our guests,” Pope, a research scientist on Disney’s creative team, said during the event. “We are using high-performance materials and taking advantage of mechanical scaling effects, so she’s dynamic and tough.”
Engineers also used motion-capture technology, recording human movement and programming it into the robot, to make its gestures even more realistic, Pope said.
Theme park experts say advanced robotics technologies help bring popular film and TV characters to life in increasingly convincing ways, something visitors look for when they go to Disney.
“It’s an evolution of what Walt set out to do with the original park, and that’s about entertaining the guests, engaging them into the experience and guaranteeing that emotional moment … something that’s going to grab them by the heart,” said Joe Lanzisero, an Imagineering veteran and current executive vice president and chief art director of themed entertainment company Zeitgeist Design + Production.
But when and how the type of “dynamic robot” shown at South by Southwest could arrive at Walt Disney World is not yet clear.
Disney rollerblading robot close up at SXSW pic.twitter.com/kSc3QEWzuZ
— Ben Goggin (@BenjaminGoggin) March 11, 2023
Disney Parks chairman Josh D’Amaro said the rabbit robot is “much, much earlier in its development process” than another gadget demonstrated during the panel, a projection of a live actress playing “Peter Pan” fairy Tinkerbell that appeared small enough to fit in a prop lantern.
Disney’s theme park plans for “Zootopia” could lend a clue. Shanghai Disneyland’s “Zootopia” area is under construction and expected to open soon.
In September, D’Amaro presented long-range plans suggesting Disney is considering adding a similar land to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, but that project would be years away.
Even so, theme park analyst Dennis Speigel said he expects the dynamic robot technology will roam among guests at Disney’s parks within the next five years.
“To get it to the point where Josh [D’Amaro] could introduce that with his Imagineers was a big step,” said Speigel, CEO of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati.
Lanzisero and Ryan Harmon, Zeitgeist’s president and chief creative officer, estimated the robots could arrive within anywhere from six months to a couple of years, depending on how Disney decides to debut them in the theme parks.
The robot shown at South by Southwest was “all dark gray,” without any facial features or fur, Harmon said. Disney will need time to give it more character and figure out things like battery life and how it can safely roll out the technology in a busy setting.
That type of robotic model could easily be reskinned to fit other characters too, Harmon said.
“They were showing the movement of the robotics, but the actual soul being put into that body was not there yet,” said Harmon, a former Imagineer who has also worked at Universal Creative and other entertainment design firms worldwide.
During his time at Hong Kong Disneyland, Lanzisero worked with freestanding animatronics like Lucky the Dinosaur, a walking robot with the ability to give autographs, and the Muppet Mobile Lab, a spaceship-like cart hauling Muppets characters Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker. The former was operated by a puppeteer and the latter was remote-controlled.
Robots like the one shown at South by Southwest could easily cost millions of dollars between materials and years of research in Disney’s research and development labs, he and Harmon said.
“Each one of them is kind of an evolution from the previous,” Lanzisero said.
Disney invented “audio-animatronics” in the 1960s, roosting singing tropical birds in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland in 1963 and rising an Abraham Lincoln lookalike out of his chair to deliver a medley of the former president’s speeches at the 1964 World’s Fair.
Half a century later, a lifelike, singing “Shaman of Songs” began beckoning to riders aboard Animal Kingdom’s Na’vi River Journey boat ride in 2017. In 2021, a “stunt-double animatronic” or “stuntronic” Spider-Man catapulted into Disney California Adventure’s Avengers Campus with the ability to hurtle 65 feet into the air, flip and land into a net untethered.
However, the majority of Disney’s recent advanced robots have not been released to mingle with theme park visitors the way analysts believe this new tech will.
In what could be a pilot program for future roaming robots, a human actor portraying “Star Wars” universe character The Mandalorian and carrying animatronic alien infant Grogu started wandering Disneyland and Disney World in recent months, drawing large crowds.
Speigel predicts theme parks will eventually use robots to do everything from flipping burgers at quick-service restaurants to performing risky feats in stunt shows. He thinks the tech will likely be used to supplement, not replace, human workers.
He still recalls the wonder he felt seeing Disney’s Abraham Lincoln animatronic at the 1964 World’s Fair. Now, robots are becoming such a big part of everyday life, from medicine to household cleaning, that their large-scale theme park arrival is inevitable, he said.
“They will become a major part of the show, and it’ll be hard to tell who’s a robot and who’s human in the future,” he said.
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