August 27, 2003


These days it’s pretty rare to see any actual innovation come out of the Walt Disney Company. The new DisneySea park in Tokyo is one exception, and that’s only because Disney didn’t foot the bill for that one. They were only hired to build it. But the stateside parks are in decline. They never build anything new, and when they do, it’s always a pale imitation of something that’s come before. I think most of this is because Michael Eisner is more concerned about staying safe, keeping costs down, and growing his bonuses than actually moving the company forward. Disney is an aging dinosaur that’s going to become extinct if it doesn’t get some fresh blood.

How fitting, then, that the single innovation they’ve come up with recently is also a dinosaur. An actual dinosaur, or at least a robotic simulation of one. For forty years now, Disney has been at the forefront of using robots for entertainment. But their audio animatronics have always been bolted firmly to the ground, on display from their pedestals. Not anymore. Now they can walk among us. Last week they unveiled their latest generation of audio animatronic, an eight-foot-tall, free roaming dinosaur named Lucky. Lucky can be found walking around California Adventure with his wrangler. And I actually mean walking. Most free roaming robots you’ve seen before have been on wheels, and roll themselves all over the place. Lucky has two feet, and he uses them just like a real person (or dinosaur) would. They solved the tricky problem of balance by giving him a flower cart to lean on. So while other bipedal robots like the Honda Asimo have to step around very carefully so they don’t tip over, Lucky is able to have an actual stride like a real creature would. His head bobs, his tail swings back and forth. He has speakers in his feet that make it sound like the ground is trembling when he steps. And the design is as flawless as any other Disney animatronic. While most other robots look like robots (Asimo, for example, looks like Gary Coleman in a moon suit), Lucky looks like a dinosaur. A slightly cartoonish dinosaur, perhaps, but realistic nevertheless.

It’s things like this that make me realize there is still talent buried deep in Disney. It’s just being crushed by the penny pinchers. When you compare DisneySea with California Adventure, and you remember that they were built by the same people, you realize that the only problem is at the top. And when you see a dinosaur like Lucky walking down the street, you can only imagine what they could build if the budgets weren’t squeezed so tight.

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