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How a Toon Elevator helped Mickey Mouse learn how to talk

Jim Hill

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How a Toon Elevator helped Mickey Mouse learn how to talk

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By now, you’ve no doubt seen those online videos that made many a theme park fan go gaga. Where a few lucky Guests – as they were making a stop at Mickey’s House at Disneyland earlier this week – suddenly found themselves face-to-face with a NextGen walkaround character. A Mickey Mouse who not only addressed these people by name, but whose mouth moved & eyes blinked as he chatted with their children and then posed for pictures.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Given the sensation that this footage has caused (with many people talking about how they’d be heading to Anaheim ASAP. So that their child could then get some face time with this amazing new talking version of Mickey), Disneyland’s PR team was quick to get the word out that this particular Mouse wouldn’t be back in the Parks anytime soon. More to the point, that what these lucky Guests got to take part in earlier this week was just a playtest.

“And what exactly is a playtest?,” you ask. Well, according to “Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making MORE Magic Real,” a terrific new coffee table book that will hit store shelves on May 18th

… Playtesting comes near the end of [our] development process. We invite each other, and members of the target audience, to play with our ideas. (Many an Imagineer’s child cherishes fond memories of being escorted in the WDI Model Shop for this very purpose.) In exchange for giving us constructive criticism, kids and adults get a sneak preview at an idea that may be months away from premiering at a Disney theme park.

Bethann Brody and her son, Luke, playtest the proposed ride system for Luigi's Flying Tires
Bethann Brody and her son, Luke, playtest the proposed
ride system for Luigi’s Flying Tires. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Lately there’s been a lot of stuff on the Web about the Imagineers doing playtests in the Parks. Witness those articles earlier this week about that game that had been temporarily installed in the queue area of WDW’s Haunted Mansion. Where Magic Kingdom visitors were invited to lean in close and – by listening to various ghosts whisper – see if they could determine where Jacob Dread had hidden the family fortune.

Likewise late last year, WDI did serve in-park tests for a queue-less waiting system. Where Guests who were waiting to do a meet-n-greet with Tigger & Pooh and/or ride Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster with Aerosmith killed time by playing games, rather than by just standing there & waiting in line.

But all of this out-in-the-open stuff is kind of a departure for WDI. As the above excerpt from "A Behind the Dreams Look at Making MORE Magic Real” indicated, the Imagineers typically try to keep things under wraps for as long as they can. Take -- for example – how WDI did its playtesting for Disneyland’s Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. Before the Company would commit to spending the $70 million necessary to upgrade & improve this long-dormant Tomorrowland attraction, the Suits wanted some proof that the public would actually enjoy seeing the characters from Pixar’s Summer 2003 blockbuster in a brand-new setting.

Joohn Mauvezin works on the animation for Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
John Mauvezin works on the animation for Finding Nemo Submarine
Voyage. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

So the Imagineers built a mock-up of the interior of an old Disneyland Submarine. Then – in September of 2004 – they put a listing up on Craigslist.org that invited kids 4-16 to come take part in a test of “ … a fun, new interactive Disney experience.” Those who met WDI’s recruiting criteria were then invited to come on by 1401 Flower Street to take part in this playtest. And afterwards, they were hit with a barrage of questions about did work -- more importantly, did not work -- with Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.

Mind you, sometimes building a full-sized mock-up isn’t really an option. So the Imagineers then have to improvise. As another great excerpt from the new  “Walt Disney Imagineering” coffee table book explains:

Ray Spencer's concept drawing for Soarin' Over California
Ray Spencer’s concept drawing for Soarin’ Over California.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

To test the initial concept for Soarin’ Over California, the simulator cabin from the original Star Tours ride was repurposed. Ride engineers removed everything except the floor of the cabin, installed seats on the open edge, programmed the hydraulic lifts to mimic the motion of the Soarin’ ride system that would coincide with a simple video shot from a helicopter, and invited Imagineers to fly. “It convinced me,” remembers Ride Mechanical Engineering senior technical director Mark Sumner. “I could see how everybody picked their feet up when we rode over water.”

Of course, not every playtest of a proposed new attraction involves the dismantling of a multi-million-dollar simulator. To see if Jim Shull’s concept for Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree

Jim Schull's concept for Mater's Junkyard Jamboree
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

… was actually feasible, the Imagineers first built a prototype of the ride vehicle for this proposed Cars Land attraction. They then used a real tractor to drag Jim around the WDI parking lot aboard that prototype to see if the attraction that Mr. Schull had dreamed up was actually any fun to ride.

Imagineers using a real tractor to drag people around the WDI parking lot to simulate a possible Cars Land attraction
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

By the way, one of the other things that “Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making MORE Magic Real” reveals is that this talking Mickey Mouse walkaround character wasn’t the first time that WDI tried to do something like this. Back in 2000, the Imagineers became obsessed with the idea of giving Guests very personal experience with their favorite characters.

Which is why – for a WDI open house – the R & D team …

A scene from a test of a computer generated Mickey in a magical elevator
Photo by Kevin Rice. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

… created Mickey’s Toon Elevator, a physical environment surrounded by computer screens (there was even a screen in the floor). Visitors would interact with Mickey in a magical elevator. The set was mounted on a motion base; there were wind effects; and the cartoon world zoomed by past the open “windows” of the elevator. The most important piece, though, was the real-time interactivity with Mickey. Whoever walked into the elevator had a personalized, unique encounter with the world’s most recognizable mouse – live and on-screen. That day, the Living Character Initiative was born. The charge: get characters and Guests together in the most natural ways possible. Make it intimate, make it amazing and make it fun!

Based on the public's hugely positive reaction to this new talking version of the Mickey walkaround character, it would appear that the Imagineers have actually achieved their goal. Which was to “ … Make it intimate, make it amazing and make it fun!”

The cover of "Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making MORE Magic Real"
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

To learn more about what else WDI possibly has in the works (In yesterday's "Mickey Mouse: ‘Testing … One, Two, Three … Testing” posting on the Disney Parks Blog, Imagineering's Head of Advanced Development Scott Trowbridge was quoted as saying: “We’re always looking for innovative ways to let guests interact with our beloved characters ... And we have many more surprises up our sleeves”) I urge you to pick up a copy of "Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real.” Which officially goes on sale May 18th.

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  • Cool! I've been looking forward to this book hitting the streets.  Any chance we'll get a review from you when the book's officially released, Jim?

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