Did you ever wish the animatronic characters at Disney theme parks would take a more active and mobile part of the experience? If so, your prayers may be answered. According to a story in yesterday’s New York Times, there could be intelligent Disney robots in the not-too-distant future who can do a lot more than recite recordings of the Gettysburg Address.
In the story, Brooks Barnes is summoned to a secretive Walt Disney Imagineering warehouse in Glendale, California where he encounters one of these Disney robots: a three-foot-tall robot that is the very picture of Baby Groot from 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Not only does Barnes tell us the robot — who bears the codename “Project Kiwi” — looks exactly like Baby Groot, but it also responds to the reporter’s actions and even his inaction. He waves to Barnes when the reporter arrives, reacts sadly at Barnes’ initial stunned silence, and happily when the reporter finally speaks.
While Slash Film points out these new Disney robots are a long way from being ready for park visitors to experience, when you consider the kinds of characters owned by Disney — from Star Wars to the superheroes of Marvel and more — it’s tempting to imagine some other characters receiving the Project Kiwi treatment.
In fact, Barnes does see another project in the Glendale warehouse with tantalizing potential. Called Project Exo, he describes it as a “high-tech effort” to bring “large scale characters” to a degree of sentient, interactive life. When Barnes directly asked if the Incredible Hulk was one of the Disney robots being worked on, the Imagineers were silent. Among other things he saw being worked on, Barnes describes a “giant hand” and an Imagineer “in a contraption/costume” that included legs “the size of oil barrels” and had furry feet resembling those of the deadly Wampa from Empire Strikes Back.
Barnes says that Disney assured him that, whenever these new Disney robots wind up in the parks themselves, they won’t be replacing any of the “walk-around characters” currently played by human actors. This new technology under development will be reserved for the kinds of characters that would otherwise be extremely difficult — if not impossible — to otherwise recreate like a character as large as the Hulk or as tiny as Baby Yoda.
These new, partly sentient Disney robots are being developed, Barnes says, in response to what he calls Disney’s “long-term predicament.” Just about every adult and child visiting any Disney theme park has amazing, ever-evolving technology available in their pockets. Billionaires are riding their own private spaceships, visual technologies in video games and movies are getting more advanced every day, and Domino’s Pizza is testing delivery in driverless cars (via Forbes). In a world where you can buy drones in drug stores, rooted-in-place pirates yelling “Yo ho!” aren’t going to cut it for vacation dollars.
If you’re worried about these Disney robots going full Terminator and taking over, the good news is Guy Selga — who writes about Disney for a living — responded to the New York Times piece by reminding his Twitter followers that similar stories have come out before, and yet Disneyland has yet to be overrun by robots.