The Real History of Animatronics
The history of animatronics begins with clock makers. Many years ago advanced mechanical clocks were built in Europe which featured animated characters. Characters moved or were hidden/displayed in time with the clock and with the sounds of the clock. So like modern animatronics, character movement was set to a specific time code and sound was introduced to attract attention. Clock makers used the characters to tell a story. Many of these clocks are very large and were built in the town center. Some clocks, such as the Prague Astronomical Clock still survive today. This clock was built in 1410, but animated figures were added to the clock in the 1600s.
In the 1700's German clock makers created a more affordable form of animatronics that were purchased for homes. These were cuckoo clocks. The design of cuckoo clocks included at least one mechanical character, such as a bird, which performed a show or popped out upon specific set times.
The modern era of animatronics was started by Walt Disney. Disney saw animatronics as a novelty that would attract visitors to his World's Fair displays and later his movies and theme parks. He also recognized that the figures could replace actors and actresses in repetitive shows, giving audiences consistent shows that were always on schedule. As was typical with Walt Disney, he pushed the limits of technology at the time in order to achieve his vision. The first animatronic figure he created was the 9" tall "dancing man" figure that used older rotating cam technology to create the movement of the figure. It was very primitive by today's Disney standards, but it got the ball rolling. Disney and his team of WED imagineers soon developed the Enchanted Tiki birds for the attraction at Disneyland (1963) and the first human animatronic figure in the form of Abraham Lincoln for the 1964 World's Fair.
Figures have also been featured in movies since the 1960's. The first was an animatronic bird in Mary Poppins. Later, directors and artists such as Steven Speilberg and Jim Henson included animatronic figures in their films. These characters including Jaws, E.T., and Jabba the Hut captured the imagination of audiences.
Although the Enchanted Tiki Room's original concept was a restaurant with performing birds, the concept never materialized. Other restaurants that did feature animatronic figures, however, were later developed. The Chuck E Cheese family entertainment center, featuring Chuck and his band, was popular in the 1980s. Also in the 1980s, Showbiz Pizza with the Rock-afire Explosion animatronic band, which was like a very modern Country Jamboree band, was very popular. Later, the Rainforest Cafe and T-Rex attracted guests, in part, with animatronic figures. These restaurants showed that guests enjoyed entertainment during their meal, even if the actors where mechanical.
Today the most advanced animatronics are still at Disney Parks now located throughout the world. The Walt Disney World in Florida, with 4 amusement parks and more animatronic figures located at Downtown Disney, has the most animatronic figures available for viewing by guests. Disney's most advanced figures, like the Roy Rogers figure that can lasso a rope in EPCOT, are more lifelike than figures created at any other time. Movement and control of the animatronic figures is amazing. The next generation of Disney animatronics looks to be figures that are more interactive with the audience. Figures like Mr. Potato Head at the Toy Story Mania attraction look to capture the imagination of the audience in a new way.
For more on the history of animatronics find a copy of these reference materials:
It's Kind of a Cute Story - by the legendary Disney imagineer Rolly Crump. Stories of many of the original animatronics in Disney Parks.
The Rock-afire Explosion (DVD documentary) - The story behind the Rock-Afire animatronic band.