Walt Disney’s “audio-animatronics” was inspired by an antique singing bird in a cage the legendary animator and producer acquired at a New Orleans antiques shop while on vacation in the 1950s. Forever the innovator, Disney saw potential in the diminutive bird whistling, flapping its wings and turning its head. He brought the singing bird back to Disney Studios, where he tasked his Imagineering team with exploring the antique’s inner workings and incorporating the technology to create three dimensional animated figures.
The team devised a system truly ahead of its time. The first trials were to recreate a singing bird of their own. The sound of a bird chirping was recorded and, when played, would activate a mechanism within the figure that would open and close the beak. When the sound was shut off, the mechanism would shut off as well, ensuring that sound and movement functioned seamlessly as one. This breakthrough lead to the opening of Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room in 1962, which was filled with vibrant animatronic tiki drummers, singing birds and blooming flowers. It was as if one of his famed cartoons had jumped from the big screen and become reality.
According to Disney archivist Dave Smith, Disney soon set his sights upon creating a life-sized human figure. When officials with the 1964 New York World’s Fair approached Disney about creating some attractions for the event, the animation pioneer jumped at the opportunity to put his audio-animatronics on the global stage. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln featured President Abraham Lincoln, Disney’s first human audio-animatronics figure. In the exhibit, the President stood from his armchair and recited excerpts from his most famous speeches. Other famed Fair exhibits including It’s A Small World, Ford Motors Magic Skyway and General Electric’s Carousel of Progress were all created by Disney with his audio-animatronics.
Today, Disney’s invention serves as the bases for the breathtaking, imaginative and spell-binding attractions seen throughout the company’s parks around the world. Without his encounter with that tiny bird decades ago in our beloved Crescent City, the “magic” of Disney’s Magic Kingdoms may never have existed.