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Originally published Monday, March 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Disney re-animates theme park with no human in sight

Watch out, Mickey Mouse. The Muppets might be sneaking up on you. Walt Disney Imagineering last week debuted its latest cutting-edge creation...

Los Angeles Times

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Watch out, Mickey Mouse. The Muppets might be sneaking up on you.

Walt Disney Imagineering last week debuted its latest cutting-edge creation: free-roaming, interacting audio-animatronic Muppets capable of "seeing" and "talking" without a human puppeteer in sight.

Disney's most advanced robotic creation to date makes the costumed, mute Winnie the Poohs and Donald Ducks seem like felt-covered relics, although Disney executives are quick to reassure that the beloved autograph-signing cast isn't going anywhere.

"This is an incredibly compelling and powerful way to experience the characters," said Bruce Vaughn, vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering's research and development division.

"They are fully aware of the people in their presence and can call you by name. It is a 100 percent live experience."

The technology is vastly more sophisticated than Disney's first foray into audio-animatronics with the Tiki Room birds in 1963 and Mr. Lincoln in 1964.

In their debuts at Disney's California Adventure last week, bumbling scientist Bunsen Honeydew and his meep-meeping sidekick Beaker joked and chatted with guests.

The Muppets could see the color clothes the kids wore and the lollipops they licked — casting a slight Big Brother vibe over the proceedings. They maneuvered in a silver, egg-shaped roving laboratory outfitted with flashing lights, spinning signs, confetti cannons and smoke and water sprayers.

"That's amazing!" said Adam Young, 27, a tourist from Alberta.

As Beaker and Honeydew encouraged people to do the hokey pokey, Young scanned the park, high and low.

He twisted around, his eyes darting in search of the human manning the controls: "I'm trying to figure out who was driving it. It's crazy."

One boy walked away with this question: "Do you think there's someone down there talking, Dad?" His father shrugged.


Never wanting to divulge their secrets, Imagineers waved it off as "Disney magic" and "pixie dust." In reality, a live puppeteer who can see and hear everything reacts remotely from afar.

The Muppet Mobile Laboratory was to roam the streets of California Adventure through Sunday before heading back to the shop for more tweaking.

During last week's initial testing phase, a team of Disney techs and Dave Goelz, the original voice of Muppet characters including Dr. Honeydew and Gonzo, were behind the scenes in Anaheim.

The goal is for one person to operate the characters from as far away as the headquarters of Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design and development arm of Walt Disney Co. about 35 miles north of Anaheim.

Through its "Living Character Initiative," Disney is trying to improve interaction between characters and YouTube-watching, Nintendo Wii-playing guests.

In 2005, the company introduced Turtle Talk with Crush, a real-time animated show that allows the Finding Nemo character to chat with fans.

In 2003, Disney scientists and engineers built Lucky, a 20-foot-long dinosaur that could smile, grunt and burp. It was the first time an audio-animatronics creation was unleashed into the park, instead of tethered to an attraction. Lucky has since gone into hibernation.

Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, which were purchased along with the rest of the Muppets in 2004 from Jim Henson Co., can be removed from their roving lab and put into theater chairs on rides, or any other setting. No nearby operator is necessary.

The portable, wireless technology also enables Disney to bring to life nontraditional characters. The Muppets, for example, would have been too big in costumes.

"With prior audio-animatronics, you see the figure standing, but there's a huge infrastructure backstage and all sorts of machines," Vaughn said.

"With this, if it doesn't fit in what you see, we're not using it. ... I think what you'll ultimately see is a lot of characters that we haven't been able to deliver before."

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