Tom’s Top 7: Audio Animatronics at Disney World
I’d describe myself as an old school Walt Disney World fan. I far prefer slow-moving dark rides to quick thrills, I love original theme park creations but am fairly ambivalent towards film IP, and I’m not particularly keen on screen-based technology.
When you combine all of that, it amounts to me enjoying long, methodical attractions with dimensional environments that tell stories unique to the Disney theme parks. In particular, I love when those attractions are populated by a range of Audio Animatronics figures (AAs). In this post, I’ll share my seven favorite AAs at Walt Disney World.
Despite being derided in pop culture as being antiquated and awkward “robots,” I think AAs are an evergreen means of entertaining guests. While the technology behind them is now over 50 years old, the advantage AAs have over screens or other flashy tech is that few guests (aside from John Stamos) are exposed to Audio Animatronics in the everyday lives.
Screen-based visual effects are all around us, with quality that constantly evolves. By contrast, AAs and the physical sets they inhabit are something you rarely encounter–at least on Disney’s level–outside of, well, Disney. But I digress–this is meant to be a list of my favorite AAs, not a manifesto on why they are superior to the technical flavor of the week.
Anyway, for an Audio Animatronics figure to make this list, it needs to have more than just fluid motion and impressive technology. This list is all about how the characters are brought to life, and are imbued with a sense of personality. In some cases, this is accomplished in fleeting encounters and without a line of dialogue. In other situations, the Audio Animatronics has twenty minutes to establish some rapport with guests.
7. Abraham Lincoln – While its Disneyland’s Lincoln who receives all of the accolades, the Magic Kingdom version from Hall of Presidents is also worthy of inclusion on this list. Actually, prior to the most recent Hall of Presidents refurbishment, I probably would’ve put Lincoln a bit higher on the list. I felt his old voice acting (by Royal Dano of Twin Peaks) was superior, and gave more emotional heft to the president’s speech.
While I don’t think this AA gives the same weight to the words he delivers as the one in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, this Lincoln figure does give life to his rousing words. George Washington projects a similar stateliness, but none of the other AAs with speaking roles in the current version are worthy of mention.
6. Figment – It’d be possible to do an entire top 7 on the best AAs of EPCOT Center. Unfortunately, Epcot is no EPCOT Center, and the surviving AAs pale in comparison to what existed in the original incarnation of the park. Original Figment paired with Dreamfinder as they piloted the Dreamcatcher would undoubtedly top such a list.
New Figment doesn’t have quite that same spark, but he still has a ton of heart. As he introduces guests to the Imagination Lab, the character shows both his inquisitive side (which endeared him to guests in the original attraction) and mischievous side (which is arguably a bit grating later in this version) before leading guests in a rendition of the attraction’s iconic song. Even in this version of the attraction, Figment still manages to put a smile on my face.
5. Olaf – Okay, so I realize I started this out with a diatribe that included me not caring as much about film IP as original theme park concepts and I also know there is no a lot of love lost for Frozen Ever After or Olaf. Still, the quality and fluidity of the Olaf AA that sings “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” while gliding across the ice is pretty impressive.
Not only that, but Olaf’s facial expressions and mannerisms quickly reinforce the personality of Olaf from Frozen and give the figure a childlike sense of wonderment, making him something of a spiritual successor to Figment…at least in term of the Audio Animatronics figure. (It almost pains me to write that, but I think this Olaf is undeniably good.)
4. Henry – Country Bear Jamboree is definitely an ensemble performance, but I think Henry is the standout figure here. He’s not the most memorable character from the show, but unlike the other bears who establish their personality through caricatured design or colorful song lyrics because he conveys a lot of personality through body language.
Whether it be his awkwardness when Teddi Barra flirts with him or his earnestness when dealing with the other bears, Henry’s movements say a lot, even when he doesn’t. Thanks to his animations, he’s just as animated as the more comical looking and behaving bears. Oh, and as an added bonus, there’s Sammy the raccoon in his hat, making Henry a bit of a twofer!
3. Progress Dad – John, the father from Carousel of Progress, is not a technically impressive AA. For the first several scenes, he just sits there with limited range of motion, and even in the finale, his movements are fairly restrained (save for when the turkey catches fire, and he hilariously flails his arms about over his head).
Yet, the John Audio Animatronics work because they compliment his dialogue, slew of dad jokes, and direct the audience’s attention appropriately throughout the scenes. In a way, John is an emcee for the technology in the homes and other characters, and his AAs fulfill that role perfectly while also providing him with plenty of lowkey, “fatherly” personality.
2. Mark Twain & Benjamin Franklin – As the dynamic duo who host the American Adventure (an attraction loaded with dazzling AA performances, including Frederick Douglass paddling down the Mississippi River, Chief Joseph delivering an impassioned plea to end his people’s suffering, Will Rogers twirling a lasso), these two are pretty much inseparable. I tried to think of ways to include one of them, but they each help tell the story of the United States.
In so doing, they offer humorous and engaging performances with a level of wit and dynamicism that it’s almost difficult to believe there are no human performers in the American Adventure. They also each perform some fairly impressive technical feats, from Benjamin Franklin walking up stairs to Mark Twain smoking his cigar to the two hosts shaking hands during the attraction’s finale. During that finale, they also provoke feelings of pride and introspection in the audience, once again demonstrating the humanity of these “robot” performers.
1. Shaman – As a so-called old school Walt Disney World fan, it was really difficult to put this AA at #1. Not only did it require passing over some truly iconic and beloved figures, but it required choosing one based upon a film I don’t really even remember. And a figure in a fairly mediocre attraction, at that.
Technical wow-factor aside, what I cannot get over when riding Na’vi River Journey is how the Shaman of Songs manages to connect with guests. As you slowly approach her, her fluid and rhythmic movements are captivating and take the attraction from a misfiring attempt at discovery and exploration to one of total enchantment. Everything else melts away, as you’re mesmerized by this Audio Animatronics figure.
Then, in some real crazy Rise of the Machines action, she makes eye contact with you. It’s at once surreal and special, and even though you know it’s an Audio Animatronics figure, it feels no different than when you make eye contact with a parade prince or princess. This all may sound really odd, but this beautiful marriage of technology and personality are why I feel compelled to put the Shaman above so many legacy Walt Disney World AAs.
Honorable Mention: Sonny Eclipse – Had I not recently written Tom’s Top 7: Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom and included Sonny Eclipse as his own line-item, he would’ve made the list here.
While his AA is not the most advanced that Imagineering has ever created, it’s pretty expressive, with plenty of arm flailing, eyebrow raising, and facial expressions. Between that and his charismatic performance, I think a case can be made that Sonny Eclipse belongs in the top 4.
You’ve probably noticed that a lot of landmark Walt Disney World attractions are not represented at all here. It may seem like a huge oversight to omit Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Spaceship Earth, and Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room from this list. Surely the Auctioneer, Hitchhiking Ghosts, Computer Engineer, and Jose are deserving of spots on this list.
Well…maybe? Probably? I debated way too hard over whether to include any or all of those, and ultimately kept coming back to the conclusion that each of those are like an early-era P.T. Anderson film–great ensemble attractions that excel because of the way the entire cast comes together. If this were a list of the top Audio Animatronics attractions, each of them would have to make the list…but it’s not.
Nevertheless, I’m betting plenty of you will disagree with my choices. If it’s any consolation, I’m fairly certain I could wake up tomorrow and make an entirely new list of different Audio Animatronics figures that would be just good as this one. There are so many excellent, emotive AAs at Walt Disney World. Just remember, these are my favorites, not a list of the objective “best” Audio Animatronics at Walt Disney World.
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Do you agree or disagree with my top 7 AAs at Walt Disney World? Which AAs would make your personal list? Any other thoughts about the Audio Animatronics of Walt Disney World? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
I don’t like the Cpt. Jack addition to PotC, but I was impressed by how realistic they were able to make it.
I love the Ursula AA but I don’t know which from your list I would replace! Do a top 10 and add Ursula, The Three Cabelleros and Hopper. 🙂
Chief Joseph has always impressed my as one of the best (especially after compliance software was applied)! And as much at I hate to admit it, Elsa is pretty impressive too (when she’s working!).
Great list! Agree with other commenters on Hopper making the list! Would love to see a global version of the list, either individual AAs again or whole attractions.
Tough to leave out Hopper in ITTBAB. A great example of modern AA.
I know I’ve said this before, but Tom, you guys NEED to go to Efteling. Symbolica, Dreamflight, Fata Morgana, Villa Volta, several of the scenes in the fairy tale forest (the talking tree, the troll king, pinocchio…) all have amazing AAs.
I’m glad to see the father from Carousel of Progress has made the cut for your article!
Being that this attraction was one of the most advanced at its inception in the 1964 New York World Fair, it’s only fitting that he would be mentioned. This attraction is one of Disney’s greatest achievements in my opinion, even if it is slightly dated at this point.
I certainly agree with your top two.
The Shaman is jaw-dropping.
And despite my wife’s objections, I always insist on the front row of American Adventure, so we can be closer to Mr. Twain and Mr. Franklin.
This is a solid list, though I’d have to include at least one from Spaceship Earth. The storyteller animatronic from the latest version stands out to me as the most impressive one. The auctioneer is also something to see, though I haven’t seen the latest version on that front.
A list without dinosaurs?!?!
The Wicked Witch of the West! (Too soon?)
That was a fun list. I’d (sadly) leave off Figment and put one from SSE on the list instead, although I’m not sure which one.
I enjoy hearing others opinions on everything Disney, but Figment and Henry don’t come to mind when I consider my favorite audio animatronics. I put PoC, the Enchanted Tiki Room, Dinosaur, and Spaceship Earth in my best of list.
You’re listing attractions with animatronics, *not* specific animatronic figures. Try re-reading the end of the article :-).
I loved this. It would be fantastic if you did one for Disneyland as well.
A few that come to mind off the top of my head are; the weasels on Roger Rabbit, the goat on top of the dynamite on BTMRR, the repair droid in the queue for Star Tours, (not sure if he is still there since it was refurbished to The Adventure Continues) the Can-Can geese on the riverboat after the drop on Splash Mountain, (personal nostalgia, those figures came from the “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom De Ay” number in America Sings, which was my favorite) Indiana Jones (especially on the rope right before the boulder comes) Monstro in Pinocchio (which was even better AND way scarier when I was a kid and he swallowed you) the crazy reveal when the Evil Queen transforms on Snow White (although the figure that opens and closes the curtain above the ride is in consideration as well for how much it adds to the ambience of the whole land) the Caterpillar in Alice (Queen of Hearts gets an honorable mention) and of course The Devil. (Who may not be the most sophisticated AA, but just the sheer shock and novelty of a Devil AA is worth something)
OMG, American Sings – I loved that attraction! It makes me so happy at the end of Splash Mountain to see some of those AAs reused.
Gotta throw some love to The Auctioneer in PotC and Hopper in ITtBaB.
This is a fun Top 7. I love the use of AAs. Similar to yourself, I am an old school Disney parks fan where I prefer dark rides and original theme creations park although I like some of the classic IPs. I dislike screen-based technologies and the overuse of modern film IPs (such as Star Wars and Frozen). Here are my Top 7: 1. Henry (Country Bears), 2. Brer Rabbit, 3. Figment, 4. Progress Dad, 5. Three Caballeros (Grand Fiesta Tour finale), 6. Jose (Tiki Birds), and 7. Pooped Pirate (Pirates of Caribbean). This pains me as a Patriotic American but Abe, Mark, and B. Franklin are dropped to honorable mention since they are too realistic in the Disney bubble.