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A Look Back at Disney's Evolving Use of Animation in Theme Parks in 2014

December 30, 2014, 5:09 PM · As the calendar tempts us to look back upon whatever happened in 2014, here's a development in theme parks that shouldn't be overlooked: Disney's evolving use of animation in theme park attractions.

Inside the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
A Disney Imagineer works with one of the new computer-animated Audio Animatronics on the Magic Kingdom's new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Photo courtesy Disney.

When fans think of animation in the Disney theme parks, we'd bet they typically think of Disney's Audio Animatronics. Walt Disney and his team worked on animatronics in the early 1960s as a "real world" form of animation that could perform in three-dimensional physical space. Disney created singing birds for Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room and a speaking Abraham Lincoln for the 1964 New York Fair. An animatronic bird even made it into Disney's feature film Mary Poppins.

Ultimately, computer generated imagery [CGI] supplanted the use of animatronics and other physical props in most commercial filmmaking. But animatronics endured within the theme parks, evolving over time to exhibit a wider range of more fluid motion, as well as more finely detailed expressions. Mr. Lincoln's changed many times over the years, as have other iconic animatronics, including the auctioneer in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Still, CGI has made its way into the parks, too. Universal has employed computer-driven animation in several wildly successful attractions, including The Amazing Adventure of Spider-Man and Transformers: The Ride 3D. Even Disney started using computer-animated version of its classic characters in the Mickey's Philharmagic show.

In 2014, Disney took another step toward bringing animatronics and CGI together by introducing several new projects that blended practical and image-based animation. In the Magic Kingdom's new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Disney's Imagineers used projections to animate the faces of the animatronic dwarfs in the gem mine. Here's a look at the process, from Disney:

And here's the finished product, from our on-ride video of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train:

Disney used some of the same techniques in its refurbishment of the Alice in Wonderland ride at Disneyland, which reopened this year with a more dynamic look than in its past versions. The word inside WDI in Glendale is that we should expect to see similar changes coming to the rest of the Fantasyland dark rides as they come up for refurbishment over the next several years. Here's a look at the newly revamped dark ride:

Finally, it didn't involve character animation, but Disney's Imagineers did some nifty new things in animating an "explosive" new climax on the "C" lift of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Disneyland, an enhancement that we hope soon will make its way to all the other Thunders around the world.

What do you think about these projects... and the future of animated effects in theme parks?

Replies (6)

December 30, 2014 at 5:56 PM · I'm a fan so far of the enhancements using animation. The Alice in Wonderland update is probably my favorite as the effects are almost seamless. It's not jarring like the Jack Sparrow animatronic vs. the original ones. Or like the Star Wars Special Edition movies.

I haven't been on the new Mine Train, but it looks phenomenal! Their faces look like they rival anything at Tokyo Disney Resort!

As for Big Thunder's C lift, it's my favorite single effect... when it's working. 2 out of 5 times, the smoke didn't work and instead we just got a projection on the facade.

And Indiana Jones was perfect when it comes to projecting the animated face of Mara. Now if only that attraction would stop breaking down so often!

December 30, 2014 at 6:43 PM · They may just be a small step to something bigger. I can't consider the current enhancements to be much of an improvement. Yet what they done to Mystic Manor is a breakthrough that needs to be added to existing rides.

I just went to the improved Knott's Calico Mine train ride. I wasn't impressed although the ride does seem better. The animatronic figures are still creepy as usual.

December 30, 2014 at 7:25 PM · Were the figures for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train done by Garner Holt Productions? I assumed that to be the case given their history with Disney but I don't remember ever hearing if they were involved officially.
December 31, 2014 at 7:40 AM · I think the animation is very well done and I am excited about the upcoming refurbishments to all the dark rides and the incorporation of this new technology.
December 31, 2014 at 1:16 PM · We loved Mine Train, the most underrated new ride of the year. I'm a big fan of AAs, and the dwarfs are some of the best I've ever seen. The mine scene is just gorgeous, as are the animated faces of the dwarfs. The difference is that their faces look like one you would see in a traditional, hand drawn animated movie, but still on a physical animatronic. It's a step forward in the art of AAs.
December 31, 2014 at 2:03 PM · I hate the digitally projected faces. They didn't work in Radiator Springs Racers and they're even worse in Seven Dwarves Mine Train. I do, however, love the improvements made to Alice in Wonderland. It now surpasses Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin as my favorite Fantasyland-style dark ride.

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