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 helptell 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.
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.
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!