Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room and the Invention of Audio-Animatronics

Posted by Staff on Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

Walt Disney in The Enchanted Tiki Room As is the case with many technologies now common at amusement parks, Audio-Animatronics (a Disney trademark) is the handiwork of that illustrious group of imaginative engineers, Walt Disney Imagineering. Although your first encounter with a singing and dancing animal might’ve been at an entertainment venue such as Chuck E. Cheese’s or Showbiz Pizza Place, it was Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room that first introduced the world to robotic crooners. The first generation of Audio-Animatronics might look a little stiff and awkward compared with today’s advanced animatronics (the Crane Dance at Resorts World Sentosa for example), but to the Disneyland visitors of 1963, they were nothing less than enchanting. So much so, that when Juan, the talking bird that invited guests into the Tiki Room, first appeared on the scene, he caused major congestion in the area as curious onlookers tried to catch a glimpse of him.

Dancing Man Prototype by Walt Disney Imagineering

The “Dancing Man” prototype

Work on Disney’s Audio-Animatronics began well before Disneyland ever opened. It was Walt Disney’s desire to move on from animating pictures to animating three-dimensional figures that kick-started the project in the early 1950s. The earliest moving figure created by the Imagineering department (then called WED Enterprises) was a nine-inch tap dancer called the “Dancing Man.” This tiny dancer’s movements were controlled by cables and metal cams that were external to the figure. However, due to high maintenance costs and Disney turning his focus towards designing Disneyland, the project was shelved. When Disneyland first opened in 1955 simple animatronics could be found along the Jungle Cruise, but the Imagineers were still hard at work on the technology that would bring the colorful cast of the Enchanted Tiki Room to life.

Enchanted Tiki Room Control System

The magnetic tapes used to control the Audio-Animatronics

The “audio” prefix in “Audio-Animatronics” doesn’t refer to the fact that the figures can speak and sing, but rather to the technology that gives them movement. All of the over 150 birds, flowers, masks, drummers, and totem poles that sing and dance in the Enchanted Tiki Room are controlled by tones recorded onto a magnetic tape: a control system first developed by NASA. When these tones are played from the tape they vibrate a metal reed, which then closes an electronic circuit and sends voltage to the moving part. The pulse of electricity triggered by the tone is used to open a pneumatic valve that allows air to actuate the movement. While this ingenious system worked well with the small creatures in the Enchanted Tiki Room, it did have its limitations. To start with, the pneumatic pressure used to move limbs and beaks was not powerful enough to move anything much larger, such as the limbs of a human sized figure. Secondly, the tone system was completely digital, or “on-and-off” only, so there could be no variation in movement: eyes could only be in the open or closed position and a wing could either be at rest or moved to one other location. Nevertheless, once the soundtrack was synched up with the Audio-Animatronics’ movements, the show was mesmerizing.

The Enchanted Tiki Room, Disneyland

The show itself was originally planned as a restaurant where diners would be serenaded by Audio-Animatronic birds. Instead of a restaurant, the attraction was turned into a feature show, with all the residents performing tunes such as “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room,” “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing,” and the grand finale, “The Hawaiin War Chant.” Everything in the show – the types of birds and flowers, the décor, and the songs – captured Southern California’s fascination with exotic Polynesia and the rise of the Tiki Bar. The voices featured were those of long time Disney voice actors and performers such as Wally Boag, Fulton Burley, Ernie Newton, and Thurl Ravenscot (most famous for the Frosted Flakes catch-phrase “They’re grrreat”).

Over the years, the Disney Audio-Animatronics technology has evolved so that an entire room of computers reading magnetic tapes is no longer necessary. Footage of that computer room, as well as scenes from the original show, can be seen in the above video. Current technology allows for much more realistic movements and better sound, but the look and format of the show remains the same. The unchanged look and theatrics just goes to show that while technology gets old, a good story, charming characters, and creative production never will.

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