Walt Disney Imagineering and Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro took the stage at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Texas to share a sneak peek of new technology WDI has been developing, and showcase how they use storytelling and technology to create magic for our guests.
Josh talked about how Disney Parks tells stories through tools, immersive environments, sensory-provoking food and music, visual effects, and interactions with Disney characters. He then invited several Imagineers onstage with him to showcase the innovation that goes into Disney storytelling.
One highlight was a brand-new prototype robot we showcased publicly for the first time. This Judy Hopps bunny robot (as we’ve taken to call it) pushes the boundaries of what characters can do in Disney experiences and marks the next step forward for Imagineer’s robotic advancements. It can make dynamic maneuvers, including falling down and getting back up, as well as a somersault.
Imagineers also shared a behind-the-scenes look at another blue-sky concept that lets fans have a real-time conversation with pixie-sized Tinker Bell.
Using special technology, Tinker Bell can interact with you like never before. This is the latest innovation that brings Disney characters, both big and small, to life in new ways.
The Hulk also greeted the SXSW audience during the presentation. Debuting for the first time last year at D23 Expo before heading to Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure, this exoskeleton allows performers to bring super-sized characters to life. Disney also announced that Quantum Suit Hulk will soon be making appearances in Avengers Campus at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris.
(I don’t think we ever did an article or even a snippet, but this Hulk is a miss for us. I get that Hulk’s skin is probably difficult or impossible to do, but putting him in the Quantum Suit just doesn’t work. On top of that, there’s also no emotion and his movements are cumbersome and labored. For us, it falls flat, not feeling ready for prime time. An otherwise non-verbal and furry alien creature in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge might’ve been the better option for this first in-park test.)
Josh also showed off other cool toys that Imagineering has developed, including the lightsaber that’s now used at Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. He discussed ways that Walt Disney Imagineering continues to wow, and keeps moving forward to innovate and push creative boundaries.
Before we turn to commentary, here’s video of the impressive Judy Hopps bunny robot in action:
When it comes to commentary, I’ll start by getting the negative out of the way. I love that Imagineering is being given the budget to experiment with new character types, but it’s difficult for me to watch this and not immediately think of the characters we have not seen at Walt Disney World or Disneyland.
Encanto came out at Christmas 2021. It’s currently Spring 2023. The movie has been a smash hit for well over a year, and it’s still not possible to meet Mirabel or any other character from the movie in Magic Kingdom. This is a huge misstep and, like Bruno, we don’t talk about it enough.
Turning Red is also now just over one year old, and the first character meet & greet from this film just debuted at Shanghai Disneyland. While the Red Panda Mei is now appearing in China, she still has not shown up at Walt Disney World or Disneyland.
In case you haven’t seen Turning Red (not that anyone cares, but it’s my favorite Disney or Pixar movie since Coco–I like it even more than Encanto), there is literally a meet and greet with Red Panda Mei in the movie. It’s such an obvious idea that it’s embarrassing it has taken Disney so long to roll out the character. A Red Panda Mei meet & greet would pay for itself in the merchandise and plush sales it would help push. I’m not even kidding.
Last week, the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda finally debuted in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World. This was met with a lot of praise in the community, especially as it’s almost an open secret that bringing the duo to Florida was a herculean task. I guess the thinking is thus that positive reinforcement is appropriate–perhaps Disney will see it and be more inclined to bring characters to the parks ~3 years after their stories debut.
I can understand that to an extent, and might share that perspective if the circumstances were unique. But for all of the talk about synergy, Disney has gotten really bad about promoting popular characters from its streaming shows and movies at Walt Disney World on tight turnaround times. They used to develop and debut whole parades faster than they manage to stick a single character into a cavalcade.
In my view, this is a bureaucratic failure. There should be a small and nimble team dedicated to these synergy efforts with the ability to move quickly and authority to bring these characters to the parks in meaningful ways, even if that means overruling park management. This is even more important now as viewership has become fragmented and IP needs a little more help to enter the cultural zeitgeist.
Disney should place a renewed emphasis on a day-and-date model, but for its shows/movies and promotional pushes in the parks. There is no good reason Mirabel or Red Panda Mei didn’t have a meet & greet in Magic Kingdom last year. Only excuses.
With that out of the way, it’s also important to acknowledge that this is not the fault of Walt Disney Imagineering. They aren’t the ones responsible for getting meet & greet characters into the parks, nor is WDI preventing characters from appearing. This complaint is more coincidental than anything, seeing the resources devoted to one set of characters but denied to another. (Even in the case of meet & greets, it’s less about resources and more about resolve. There simply isn’t the appetite to get it done quickly…or at all…along with too many active impediments.)
Turning to the positive, it’s starting to feel like we’re seeing signs of life at Walt Disney Imagineering. That might sound like an odd thing to say with TRON Lightcycle Run about to debut, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind less than a year old, and recent strong additions just having debuted at Disneyland.
However, most of the core creative work on those projects happened years ago. More recently, there have been furloughs and layoffs, plus Lake Nona relocation, which is effectively a layoff. By most accounts, morale has been bad at WDI in the last few years.
Then earlier this week came the surprise news that Bruce Vaughn was being brought back to co-head Walt Disney Imagineering. Our commentary expressed a bit of cautious optimism, but mostly a wait and see mentality. Since then, I’ve heard from people with more knowledge of the situation, and that definitely understates the internal mood and sense of optimism.
Suffice to say, there’s much more reason for excitement than what I expressed. Vaughn’s return is good news at worst, and potentially great news. (Just like the meet & greet discussion, that’s mostly unrelated to this, but I figured it was worth circling back to that topic for an update.)
Now there’s this Walt Disney Imagineering presentation at South by Southwest.
This SXSW presentation was the kind of thing that makes me proud to be a Disney fan. The creativity of Imagineering is endlessly inspiring, and this type of innovation is proof positive that they’re good stewards of Walt Disney’s legacy. Seeing the Imagineers flex their creative muscles is awesome.
That WDI is on the bleeding edge of these developments is, in and of itself, pretty cool. And the fact is that someday, we will see this technology at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. It may be adapted or modified significantly as past robotics have been as compared to their R&D counterparts, but it’ll still be mind-blowing. As I keep saying, I’m optimistic about the next generation of additions–stuff like this is a big reason why!
It’s easy to be cynical about how or when this will (or won’t) come to fruition in the parks due to budgetary or (guest) behavioral limitations. That’s a fair point, especially as we have seen a lot of research and design projects over the years that haven’t really gone anywhere.
However, it’s impossible to say how past play tests have yielded tech and other results and been integrated into other guest-facing projects that may seem, at least on the surface, totally unrelated to the teased R&D.
Now let’s talk about the Judy Hopps bunny robot’s real world applications. The fan buzz is about this becoming a meet & greets. Some have gone as far as to declare that this is the future of character appearances and will replace human performers. I am highly skeptical of that.
Although I don’t doubt that’s possible at some point in my lifetime (for what it’s worth, I plan on living another 147 years), I doubt it’ll occur anytime soon. This technology is still in its infancy, and I cannot even begin to comprehend the cost of the Judy Hopps bunny robot on stage at SXSW. My guess is that it’s probably several years, if not a decade or more, of character performer salary. Not to mention maintenance and operating expenses! This isn’t the future until it’s cheaper, and that’s going to be a while.
As undeniably impressive as the Judy Hopps bunny robot is, Imagineering has been working on things like the Living Character Initiative for over a decade, and many of the in-park appearances have been short-lived. There’s probably a reason (or many) for that.
Moreover, we’ve seen play-test videos of droids intended for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The abuse those more robust creations took from kids made it seem unlikely anything like this could ever make autonomous in-park appearances. So while I absolutely believe the Judy Hopps bunny robot has a future in the parks, that idealistic vision for the “entirety of the park being a live transportive experience” is going to run into the hard realities of both costs and guest behavior.
For me at least, the magic also wears off with over-exposure. Despite being really impressed with the exoskeleton technology in videos and on-stage, the Hulk meet & greet fell flat. Part of the blame falls on me, as I stood there and watched it interact (badly) with guests for almost a full set. Less time spent seeing the Hulk would’ve undoubtedly resulted in a more favorable impression of it.
All of this is probably why, when I first saw the video of the Judy Hopps bunny robot, my mind did not go to character meet and greets. It went to attractions–and their Audio Animatronics. Fans of Walt Disney World and Disneyland frequently lament the proliferation of screen-centric attractions, but Imagineering has been advancing Audio Animatronics considerably in the last several years.
It’s just happening off the domestic parks fan’s radar in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. The Audio Animatronics in the Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast at Tokyo Disneyland are impressive–like animated characters come to life. If video of the Elsa AA for Frozen Ever After at Hong Kong Disneyland is any indication, that’ll be even better, and a huge iterative leap forward from the EPCOT version of the same.
This Judy Hopps bunny robot strikes me as an even bigger leap forward, taking the emotion and fluidity of these newer Audio Animatronics, but with even greater sense of range and free-flowing capabilities. My prediction is that creations like the Judy Hopps bunny robot are the future of in-ride Audio Animatronics.
Just as trackless ride vehicles have gained popularity in recent years for their dynamism and immersiveness, so too will this. It’s more engaging, emotive, and believable. It’s also easier to justify the cost for one in a single attraction where it’s out of guest reach. (Another possibility for this particular robot rabbit is in an Zootopia land show out of guest reach.)
I’m old enough to remember when the Brer Rabbit in Splash Mountain was the most expensive and innovative Audios Animatronics figure ever created by Imagineering. When it first debuted, that was mind-blowing and felt real. (It probably also helped that I was a small child!) By the time Splash Mountain closed, it was cute but quaint. Now, it feels like Imagineering has come full circle with “advanced bunny robot technology” with this Judy Hopps. Ending one robot rabbit era, and beginning another.
Ultimately, the fruits of this will be on full display during the upcoming development cycle at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Imagineering seems to have exited the awkward transitional phase of Audio Animatronics (projected faces) with the technology finally catching up to their ambitions. I’m very eager to see how this comes to fruition, whether that be on a Zootopia dark ride or something different entirely.
What do you think of the Judy Hopps bunny robot or the pixie-sized Tinker Bell? Impressed or underwhelmed by the Quantum Suit Hulk? What about Disney’s slow rollout of character meet & greets from recent Disney+ shows and movies? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!