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The Muppet Mobile Laboratory to begin rolling through DCA in early 2007

Jim Hill

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The Muppet Mobile Laboratory to begin rolling through DCA in early 2007

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Why do Mary Poppins, Alice and this handful of tourists all have their noses pressed up against the window of the Toy Soldier? (You know? That toy shop at the U.K pavilion in Epcot?)

Photo by Jeff Lange

Because these folks are eyeballing a toy soldier.

Photo by Jeff Lange

Ah, but this is not just any toy soldier. This toy soldier played a very vital role in the now-completed "play test" for the "Kim Possible" interactive game. He'd converse directly with those WDW guests who were taking part in the program, giving them vital information as to how they could successfully complete their mission.

And -- no -- we're not talking about some AA figure that spewed a pre-recorded spiel here, people. This toy soldier would talk directly to you. And answer whatever questions you threw his way (No wonder Alice & Mary Poppins found this tiny man in uniform so fascinating).

Photos by Jeff Lange

Oh, sure. Epcot Center has already had a number of robotic figures that interacted with the public. Smart 1 (above left) & Tom Morrow (above right) come immediately to mind ...

Photo by Jeff Lange

But with the 2002 debut of Disneyland's "Stitch's Picture Phone" show, the bar was suddenly raised. WDI was no longer satisfied with obviously mechanical creatures doing pre-programmed things. What the Imagineers tried to achieve with this Innoventions attraction was create the illusion that Stitch was alive, doing seemingly spontaneous things just because the guests were actually interacting with him.

Copyright 2003 Disney Enterprises

The next phase of WDI's "Living Character Initiative" came in August of 2003. When Lucky the Dinosaur first began wandering around the Hollywood Pictures Backlot section of Disney's California Adventure. This fully autonomous walking audio-animatronic figure just blew DCA guests away. During Lucky's initial test phase, hundreds of Disney enthusiasts literally sat in the hot sun for hours, hoping for the chance to see this break-through technology in action.

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises

Thank goodness Phase Three of WDI's "Living Character Initiative" took place indoors with the November 2004 debut of "Turtle Talk with Crush." This 10-minute-long show allowed 100 EPCOT visitors at a time to get up-close-and-personal with the 153-year-old surfer dude sea turtle from "Finding Nemo."

This Living Seas pavilion presentation proved to be so popular with the theme-park-going public Imagineering quickly cloned "Turtle Talk with Crush" and set that show up as an additional attraction at DCA's "Disney Animation" exhibit in July of 2005.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises LLC

Disney's California Adventure got its second "Living Character Initiative" figure back in January with the opening of that theme park's "Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue" dark ride. Which features an Audio-Animatronic version of Roz that interacts with DCA visitors in real time.

Copyright 2006 Hong Kong Disneyland

This past July, Hong Kong Disneyland also got in on the fun with the opening of its "Stitch Encounter" attraction. Which -- truth be told -- is basically Disneyland's "Stitch's Picture Phone" on steroids.

"So what's next for WDI's 'Living Character Initiative' program?," you ask. "This truly break-through program that so seamlessly blends entertainment and technology?" Well, the Imagineers will really upping the ante in January of 2007 when the Magic Kingdom's new "Laugh Floor Comedy Club" opens.

Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises

This is the first time that WDI will attempt to use this technology to entertain a large audience. 400 guests per show will be seated in the old CircleVision 380 theater watching Mike Wazowski and two other creatures from the "Monsters, Inc." world perform stand-up. Will this intimate technology still wow people in such a large venue? I guess we'll know come February 2007.

But -- me personally -- if I had to pick the one "Living Characters Initiative" project that I'm most looking forward to, it would have to be the one that begins field-testing at Disney's California Adventure in early 2007. The one which will "bring to life" two characters that have been making Muppet fans laugh since September of 1976.

Copyright 2004 The Muppet Holding Company LLC

Yep, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant, Beaker -- who were voted 2004's "Scientists of the Year" by the British Association's Festival of Science -- will soon become "Living Characters." Thanks to the wizards at WDI.

Copyright 1991 The Walt Disney Company

Of course, Muppet fans already know that the Imagineers have a real soft spot when it comes to Bunsen & Beaker. I mean, look at this pair's prominent appearance in that 3D masterwork, "Jim Henson's MuppetVision 3D."

Copyright 1991 The Walt Disney Company

Or -- better yet -- the starring roles that the guys from WDI wanted to give the good doctor and his able assistant in Disney-MGM's proposed-but-never-built "Great Muppet Movie Ride." Where Bunsen & Beaker were supposed to have appeared in an elaborate parody of that classic Universal horror film, "Frankenstein."

Photo by Nancy Stadler

And let's not forget the prominent part that these two played in the grand opening of DCA's version of "MuppetVision 3D." As then-Disneyland-president Cynthia Harris, then-Jim-Henson-Company-CEO Charlie Rivkin and Kermit the Frog looked on in amusement back inFebruary of 2001, Bunsen & Beaker used Muppet Labs technology to try & turn this attraction on ...

Photo by Nancy Stadler

... with the usual results.

"So how exactly will Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker be 'brought to life' ?," you ask. Well, by making use of the same remote-control-puppeteering techology that the Imagineers used with that toy soldier in Epcot's "Kim Possible" game. Starting in January of 2007, the good doctor and his assistant will begin rolling through DCA's Hollywood Pictures Backlot section aboard the Muppet Mobile Laboratory. Where Bunsen & Beaker will then attempt to recruit Disneyland Resort guests to come take part in their experiments.

The way I hear it, the semi-improvisational show that the Imagineers have already written for these two classic Muppet characters is wildly funny but still in the true Henson spirit. More to the point, that the illusion here will be uncanny. It will seem as if there's a really-for-real Muppet right in front of you asking questions, directly interacting with you. Only the Muppet Mobile Laboratory unit will be so small, so oddly shaped, that there's just no way that a full-sized human being could ever be inside of that vehicle puppeteering those characters.

Now Disney World-based Muppet fans shouldn't despair. For I hear that -- should the Muppet Mobile Laboratory tests at DCA go well -- the Imagineers are looking to pull a Crush. As in: Quickly clone this "Living Character Initiative" attraction and then send it off to Orlando.

Mind you, this isn't all of the Muppet-related news that's been coming out of the Walt Disney Company lately. But I'm going to save those stories for another day.

Copyright 2001 Disney Enterprises

Anyway ... So what do you folks think? Now that I've described this attraction, are you now looking forward to getting up-close-and-personal with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beeker when the Muppet Mobile Laboratory rolls through DCA starting early next year?

Your thoughts?

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  • Cool beans.

    Those crazy guys in Glendale are great.  I love how innovative they can be.  I wonder if Lasseter's addition to the company has stoked their creativity?
  • I love the idea.  E-Tickets are not what makes a visit to Disney park great.  It's the hundreds of little experiences that you just happen upon.  Roving shows of a high quality (i.e. the improv troop at MGM, the Dapper Dans, etc.) really make a visit special beyond the $100M ride spectaculars (and the MML sounds really fun).  If Disney can do this with new technology and clever storytelling, I think the news is great.  There hasn't been enough of this in recent years.  
  • It looks really cool to see all these great inventions. But I only see these on the net, because the American Disneyparks get all these gems. I really hope that Paris will have them soon too.

    And about the Muppets. It's good to hear something about them again. I was beginning to worry that Iger would let them slip into the darkness after all the big plans were being called off. I hope to read the stories real soon! ;-)
  • Nice article, Jim.

    But you know...while Crush and Lucky are truly awesome, I don't think the Muppets rendered in that manner will nearly as effective. First of all, kids don't basically know who the Muppets (beyond Sesame Street) are. Nor do they care. Why should they, when there are better things, like Spongebob Squarepants, out there? Second, most kids AND adults don't go to Disney World to see Muppets. They want to see Mickey, Goofy, etc. Third...man, the Muppets are PUPPETS. Everyone knows this. The Muppets are already "living characters" in a sense, like all puppets are, as opposed to animated characters. There is no way they're going to seem as awesome and impressive as Crush or Lucky. Whereas with those two characters, it seems like you're really talking to a real live sea turtle or a dinosaur, and they're responding, with the Muppets...I'm afraid that it's going to come off as just another puppet show, nothing more. Puppets that interact with an audience is nothing new. Personally, I wish the Imagineers would spend the Muppet money on something more worthwhile. Purchasing the Muppets was, IMO, the crown jewel of Eisner's incompetence during his tenure at Disney. Iger really ought to sell them off or write them off as a loss.
  • What interests me is how these things will work in the next decade or two. You might start seeing more AA walk-arounds like Lucky, representing completely on-model versions of Disney characters. Did any of you see the robot tour guide on CNN a few weeks ago? Aside from her iPod skin tone, she looked real.
  • "...Lucky are truly awesome, I don't think the Muppets rendered in that manner will nearly as effective. First of all, kids don't basically know who the Muppets (beyond Sesame Street) are."

    no one knew who lucky the dinosaur was...but he was still very popular.

    i'm not saying you're wrong, i just disagree with your statements.  i think a lot of people will want to see the muppets.  i'm glad disney is finally doing something with them.

    muppet 3d seems to still be popular...though i think it needs a big upgrade...but, kids still seem to enjoy it.  

    maybe disney will think about having a tv series of the muppets again, to get interest going among kids...who knows?
  • I disagree with gigglesock. True, my children have no idea who the Muppets are, but I'll tell you, there's something universal about the humor of seeing Beaker getting the bad end of Honeydew's experiments that they will absolutely get.

    And saying "puppets that interact with an audience is nothing new" is a little like saying 2D Animation has been done to death. There's always a way to take a medium to a new level, regardless of it's age, and this is it. Meanwhile, aren't we always saying here that it's not about the medium - it's about the story?
  • I definately think this is the step in the right direction. People know who the Muppets are. I think more than some people know who the playhouse Disney characters are. You have people who are parents now who were raised on the Muppets and with the DVD's there children know who the Muppets are. Turtle Talk is a great thing and even though there are scripted parts it is diff. everytime depending on the audience. I think this will be a pretty amazing use of the tech. and the imagineers have always felt that the muppets provide one of the most realistic looking ways to use the AA technology. I am looking forward to it. Now lets bring on more Muppet stuff.
  • Wouldn't it be easier (and cheaper) to just let the dressed-up characters who roam the various parks talk :)
  • peoplemover said:
    "i'm not saying you're wrong, i just disagree with your statements.  i think a lot of people will want to see the muppets.  i'm glad disney is finally doing something with them.
    muppet 3d seems to still be popular...though i think it needs a big upgrade...but, kids still seem to enjoy it."
    Muppets 3D has a special place with Muppet fans for being in the right 1989-90 place at the right time, and giving us the last farewell appearance of the "real" Muppets, before we got those cheesy unfunny replacements:
    Jim Henson still playing Kermit, Frank Oz still playing Piggy, Richard Hunt still alive and Jerry Juhl still scripting...If the "big breakup" of the surviving group was during "Muppets From Space", MuppetVision was the Concert on the Rooftop.  :)

    That said, I'm not sure why Bunsen & Beaker are getting their own attraction--
    They're funny and all, but seems like it was a fifth backup choice, like any more recognizable characters would've been too unconvincing to imitate...And assuming this's going to be a side attraction to MV3D, and not its own building.
    (And yes, seems like they'll be having a little too MUCH Crush-on-the-brain for the next couple years of attraction ideas...)
  • PingBack from http://brokehoedown.wordpress.com/2006/09/21/disney-imagineers-developing-beaker-living-character/
  • Thanks Jim.  I think that Bunsen and Beaker are a timeless team, and you don't have to know anything about the history or particularly care about them to have their schtic work.  A great choice to reintroduce the muppets!  Can't wait to see it next year.
  • sweet innocent gigglesock,,, here, let me remove the pile of tomatoes heaped on top of you.

    This is not your basic creative decision that makes sense - it is a spreadsheet decision - what's easiest, what's cheapest. The Muppet characters are easy to make a 3-d animatronic figure out of since they are already 3-d puppets, so this will be straight-forward to build and believable once finished. It would be cool to have Chip and Dale riding around on an apple cart, or the moose from Brother Bear out in front of the kiddie trail, but they might not look right, and would cost a whole lot more to design.

    Disney has to exploit the purchase of the Muppets - we've got these characters lying around not getting any younger. We need to get people into Calif Adventure. Older boomers remember the Muppets, and maybe they'll hang around afterwards and spend some money in one of the restaurants. Calif Adventure isn't hip or edgy afterall so let's try for the boomer market, which unfortunately likes DLand better. This isn't a move designed to get kids into Calif Adventure.

    I don't know much, but using characters from the upcoming Ratatouille would introduce the characters, plus have a tie-in up and running when the movie is released, instead of 5 years later. If everyone hates the amount of Pixar stuff - even though Pixar is the main studio inventing memorable characters today - have your "Enchanted" woman talking to two animated friends - synergy to the max.
  • I was nodding along with everything that Jim was saying, until the part about Roz.  I'm normally a World visitor, so I'll admit that I was only able to ride Monsters Inc once this past summer, but I thought she was just a regular audioanimatronic.  Did I miss something really cool?
  • All I have to say is that if there is no Gorilla detector (at least as a sight gag) with them in the mobile labs there will be no justice in this world.  This is a great idea and I cannot wait to see this.  It will be awesome if it works out they way everyone is hoping.
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