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Tech Thursday: Greater Moments with Mr. Lincoln

Tech Thursday: Greater Moments with Mr. Lincoln

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In a world buffeted by gargantuan amounts of electronic information delivered in bits of three to 30 seconds, what could be more retro than sitting in a theater for 15 minutes and watching what is essentially a gussied up slide show and listening to a robot talk?

An animatronic Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland
Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer. Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

The DNA of Walt Disney is intermingled very deeply in only one Disney park: Disneyland in Anaheim, California. It was, and will always remain, the only Disney park which Walt built and whose growth he oversaw for over a decade. Even after his death, attractions in which he had varying degrees of input, such as The Haunted Mansion, Adventures Thru Inner Space, and Space Mountain, continued his posthumous influence for many years.

Walt Disney points to a large map of Disneyland during one of his television programs
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

And in Walt’s park it’s vital that certain things remain — both shops and attractions—because they carry an important part of the soul of the park within them. In Disneyland, bobsleds still careen around the one and only Matterhorn; the birds and flowers in The Enchanted Tiki Room still sing and tell the same jokes they did in 1963; there is still a Magic Shop on Main Street and the Main Street Cinema is always showing the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons; and in Town Square the greatest president in the history of our country still stirs the hearts of people in a theme park.

Walt Disney talks to Jose the singing bird in Disneyland's Tiki Room show
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

And while Walt also stated that Disneyland was a living thing, always growing and changing, he never intended for Disneyland to turn into an unkempt clump of roller coasters, cement, and a Main Street turned into a strip mall. It requires more than just wonderful theming and attractions for Disneyland to retain its unique quality — it requires depth; everything needs to be firmly anchored in some sort of reality, and there needs to be a variety of realities. History, some connection with the real life’s blood of our country, must remain in Disneyland in order for it stay Walt’s park.

The Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln sign over the Main Street Theater in Disneyland
Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer. Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

In the case of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, that reality is vital to any understanding of the history of the United States. Without Lincoln, there’s a good chance we would have no union today. What would our country have become without our sixteenth president? Walt was inspired by the story of Lincoln from any early age, something which the Imagineers who have recreated Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln thankfully highlight in the best video pre-show they’ve ever put together. Here, Lincoln, Walt Disney, Royal Dano (the actor), Blaine Gibson (the sculptor), Paul Frees (the narrator), and the team that created the original show for the New York World’s Fair in 1965-65 are celebrated for their work in bringing to life perhaps the most important figure in our nation’s past. Photographs of Lincoln, clips from both Disney’s TV show, and of Royal Dano portraying Lincoln in a long-unseen TV show, all bring together in the best possible way everything that was great about the original show.

A sitting animatronic Abraham Lincoln gets an adjustment by Disney cast members
Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer. Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

The new show is a production in which Imagineering Senior Vice President Tony Baxter, and Imagineers Scott Trowbridge and Josh Shipley, have done virtually every single thing right. The 500-seat theater has been returned to its original beauty and intimacy with the removal of the foo-faw which marred the most recent version of the show in which a labored overlay about a young soldier getting a haircut before meeting Lincoln, which you heard through headphones, and with props staged around the room, has all been stripped away. The focus is squarely on the horror of the Civil War, the wrenching tragedy of a country tearing itself apart, and most importantly on the struggle of Abraham Lincoln — who humbly considered it his divine destiny — to prevent the destruction of the United States of America.

The animatronic version of Abraham Lincoln in Disneyworld gets a little help straightening his bow tie
Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer. Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

The narration by Paul Frees, famous for his many voices in the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, is brought back in both the pre-show and stage show. Previously unused portions of Frees’ audio track have been added. The original vocal performance of Lincoln by actor Royal Dano, famous for previously portraying the president on both stage and television, has been spruced up. If the tracks sound slightly different, with new intonations and clarity, it’s because they are from a different recording session than was used in all previous shows. The Imagineers had over two hours of Dano’s recordings to select from.

An animatronic Abraham Lincoln gestures with an extended arm
Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer. Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Growing up in Queens, New York, I made quite a few trips to the World’s Fair between the ages of 6 and 8. I remember It’s a Small World, Ford’s Magic Skyway with Walt’s narration and the dinosaurs (thankfully preserved as the Primeval World seen while traveling on the Disneyland Railroad), the Carousel of Progress, but of all those things it was seeing Abraham Lincoln stand up and speak that remains most firmly in my mind. Here was a miracle of technology supported by the importance of history. Technology has improved, and in the new show history is brought into sharper focus because of it. The body of the new Audio-Animatronic figure of Lincoln is not the most advanced Disney uses; Mr. Lincoln’s gestures and body language are somewhat limited and a bit stiff, but the face is something else entirely. Something new, and the illusion of life has never been embodied as robustly as it is in the countenance of the new Audio-Animatronic figure. Drawing audible gasps from the crowd, its life-like quality transcends anything ever done before in this area. Writing on the official Disney Blog, Heather Hust Rivera explains, “The previous Lincoln head and face had seven functions, and the new and improved head and face has a total of 20 functions. Lincoln can now purse his lips, smile, grimace and form an ‘O’ with his lips.” Click on this link and you’ll find some excellent video clips in which the Imagineers explain and demonstrate elements of the new figure.

Captain Jack Sparrow peaks out from a dress form in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Complex and seemingly genuine human emotion is not something we’ve seen before from Audio-Animatronic robots in a Disney park. “Emotion,” yes—but on a superficial level. There’s certainly emotion in the Captain Jack Sparrow figures in Pirates of the Caribbean, but it’s simplistic: Captain Jack being curious and sneaky. This is entirely different from the moodiness and grief convincingly portrayed by the new Audio-Animatronic figure of Lincoln. It’s not just that the new head, which is electronic rather than hydraulic, has a mouth which can pronounce vowels. The movement of the mouth during speech is indeed amazing. But the variety of expressions that cross the face render the words we’ve heard numerous times before with a greater sense of emotion and reality—an urgency in Lincoln about getting the job finished before his time is up.

An animatronic Abraham Lincoln is silhouetted against the Lincoln Memorial
Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer. Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

This is Abraham Lincoln as we’ve never seen or heard him before. His presence in the small theater is palpable. Your presence in the theater is required on your very next visit to Disneyland.

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