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The Calico Mine Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm was overhauled recently with new figures from Garner Holt Productions

Knott’s, in July 1955. The park premiered with three traditional dark rides, filled mostly with simple motorised and pneumatic figures built by the Disney Studio and featuring some adapted off-the-shelf gags from various external suppliers. The park’s Jungle Cruise attraction was home to dozens of motorised, cam-driven mechanical animals. While clever in design, the animated figures could still perform only cyclical, brief routines, limited by the diameter of their cam cylinders or rotation of their motors. Within the first decade of the park’s opening, Walt’s continuing frustration with dimensional animation’s limitations inspired him to drive the creation of programmable figures with an infinite range and length of performances. Early experiments included a human figure called Confucius, slated to entertain guests in a Main Street restaurant, and simple animals that made their debut – along with the term “Audio-Animatronics” – in Disneyland’s Mine Train thru Nature’s Wonderland in 1960. The new technology represented a fundamental design change from old motorised figures. Along with cam cylinders and electric motors linked to reciprocating motion came pneumatic and hydraulic linear actuators, one to each axis of motion, providing a more robust and lifelike performance when combined with “space- age” control equipment facilitating the controlled programming of individual functions. An almost infinite combination of motion became available.

Disney dives in Walt Disney foresaw the use of his new technology in all sorts of attractions. For him, animatronics were virtuoso performers suitable to any show, and they were developed aggressively at Disneyland and, famously, the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair. From the modern perspective, animatronics are so intimately linked with themed attractions that they seem to have always been part of the designer’s arsenal of effects. Particularly for Disney – which in its 11 parks around the world uses more than 5,000 individual figures – animatronics are an intrinsic part of themed attractions. Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) developed its unique technology in- house for decades, creating and patenting thousands of improvements on the old-fashioned Tiki birds and Mr Lincoln via new methods in mechanism, skins and programmable control production.


In the early 1980s, former Disney employees founded a number of animatronics production houses including AVG, Sequoia, Ride & Show and others – meant not to compete with Disney but to supply a hungry themed entertainment industry. In the subsequent decades, these companies created figures for Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm, Paramount Parks and hundreds of smaller parks and attractions. They continued to drive improvements in animatronic technologies, particularly in the miniaturisation of computer show controllers. By nurturing a market for animatronics, Disney and other theme park leaders frequently spend tens of millions of dollars on animation for their blockbuster attractions. Animated figures and effects are still a part of headliner attractions created around the world and are a major player in many of the world’s greatest theme park rides and shows.

An industry continues Today, Disney builds significantly fewer figures than it did at its production height in the late 1970s through to the end of the 1990s. WDI’s capabilities are directed mostly to research and development work rather than large scale production these days. A number of companies continue to supply theme parks, retail and dining venues, and museums with animatronics, including Garner Holt Productions, Sally Corp, Advanced Animations, LifeFormations and others, each with its own strengths and budget-meeting capabilities.

Separated by centuries and incredible leaps in technology, the animatronics in today’s theme parks can trace a rich heritage. But, like all things, even animated figures look to their past for inspiration. The Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, which opened in 1963, featured four singing macaws and is regarded as an all time Disney classic, yet when Walt Disney was first dreaming of the technology that would one day become Audio- Animatronics, he was inspired by an 18th Century automaton of a singing bird in a gilded cage he purchased in New Orleans. What vintage exhibits of yesterday could inspire the

animatronics of tomorrow?

In tribute to Disneyland’s classic Enchanted Tiki Room, Garner Holt donated this replica Barker Bird to the Walt Disney Family Musuem in 2014

Bill Butler is the creative design director of Garner Holt Productions ( Founded by Garner Holt in San Bernardino, California, the company has produced more animatronics than any other organisation outside Disney and continues to serve as a major supplier of animatronics to the theme park giant

A simple motorised figure from a vintage Ghost Train at Gröna Lund, Sweden

Along with cam

cylinders and electric motors came pneumatic and hydraulic linear actuators, providing a more robust and lifelike performance. An almost infinite combination of motion became available

Bill Butler on Audio- Animatronics

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