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.
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 ...
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."
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 ...
... 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?