"Robobama" in the Hall of Presidents

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The Hall of Presidents at the Walt Disney World Resort's Magic Kingdom opened in 1971 and was based on an attraction that Walt Disney himself had conceived for a never-built area of Disneyland called Liberty Street where guests could see moving representations of all the presidents and hear them speak.

When the attraction opened in 1971, President Richard Nixon was in office and supposedly visited the park to take a look at his Audio-Animatronics doppelganger. Since that time, seven additional presidents have been added to the attraction bringing the total number up to 43 presidents.

President Obama was added in 2009 and, not too far in the future, a new president will be joining the illustrious group.

Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States, but there are only 43 men standing on the stage of the Hall of Presidents. That is because Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms so he is both the 22nd and 24th president.

Obama stands on stage near Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the only other two presidents programmed to speak. Washington’s speech, explaining the importance of the presidental oath of office, uses portions of a speech he actually gave during his second inaguration ceremony.

Actor David Morse, perhaps best known for his work on the television series St. Elsewhere, provides the voice of Washington. He played Washington in the 2008 Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning HBO mini-series John Adams for which he received an Emmy nomination.

Actor Royal Dano provides the voice of Abraham Lincoln. Dano was the original voice for the character at Walt Disney World from 1971 as he was for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction starting in 1964. At WDW, he was replaced from 1993-2008 by Pete Renoudet after a rehab of the attraction.

Walt Disney saw Royal Dano as Abraham Lincoln on a television program and hired him to voice the president in Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln.

In 2009 during another rehab of the attraction, the Imagineering team located outtakes and other clips of Dano's original recordings to use in the currently running version. The figure in the new version delivers the Gettysburg Address in its entirety.

Walt Disney had seen Dano perform as Lincoln on the acclaimed 1952 five part Omnibus television program written by James Agee.

While there has been some discussion over the decades among historians that Dano did not accurately capture Lincoln’s real voice, almost everyone agrees that his interpretation was “emotionally right.”

Even before the debut at the 1964-65 New York’s World Fair, Walt Disney had to go to Illinois to defend his Audio-Animatronics recreation of Lincoln that some in the state felt was going to be “ghoulish” and “grotesque.”

“He is going to speak to you," Walt said. "His voice is as close as we could get from actual descriptions of this great man. He will appear in a very dignified setting. While seated in a chair before speaking, he will drop his head in thought, a characteristic Lincoln action."

“When he is introduced he will stand – putting his hands behind his back – as though deep in thought," he said. "He will appear as life-like as I am standing before you – perhaps more so. I have more at stake in this than the state of Illinois. I am staking my reputation on this – my integrity; I am not a carnival operator.”

The first contemporary president to speak in the Hall of Presidents attraction was Bill Clinton, followed eight years later by George W. Bush.

The entire show in the 700-seat theater may not be as entertaining as some people might want but the technological achievement as well as attention to detail is astounding.

For instance, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wears polio braces under his pant legs as he did in real life even though they are never seen by the audience. Other figures wear authentic items, like wristwatches, from their actual counterparts.

The newest version of the show that premiered in 2009 is called "The Hall of Presidents: A Celebration of Liberty's Leaders," and focuses on the bond between the president and the people.

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin consulted on the project and said people who see the show should feel a greater sense of closeness to the presidents.

More than 100 people worked directly on contributing to the Obama figure which they playfully nicknamed “Robobama.” It was kept under tight secrecy in a Los Angeles warehouse. Disney's Obama replica is more realistic than presidential predecessors, thanks to new technology, such as a more flexible silicone skin.

It was officially unveiled to the public on July 4, 2009.

However, there was a lot of work to get to that debut. It takes a village to make an Audio-Animatronics president.

Disney legend Blaine Gibson sculpted every president, except Obama.

When Gibson was sculpting the bust of George W. Bush following his election in 2000, he hinted that for the next president, the job might be passed along to his protégé Valerie Edwards, a director of sculpting for Walt Disney Imagineering.

Valerie Edwards is the daughter of Disney animator George Edwards, who worked on projects like the Disney animated feature film Sleeping Beauty (1959). In his leisure he painted desert landscapes that were exhibited in art galleries. He died in 1987.

She was the sculptor responsible for the figures of Captain Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa for the rehab of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in 2006. She was mentored by Imagineer John Hench for 17 years and had a background in science, as well as art. She was laid off from Disney in 2010 after 21 years of working for Imagineering.

In 2009, Edwards commented on the challenges of sculpting Obama:

“It was a great challenge and certainly, for me, it was time to put my best foot forward. After all, Blaine is a tough act to follow.

“There are techniques and tools that I learned to embrace from him and add to my repertoire. For this kind of work, it’s not only sculpture as fine art, but sculpture as a mechanical art as well because of all the internal mechanisms built into the figures. Blaine was the guy who developed this type of sculpture, and he had –and still has – so much to share.”

To gather much of the physical information she needed to begin her Obama sculpture, Edwards looked at countless Internet photographs from the campaign that showed Obama from a variety of different angles and from all sides. She studied hundreds of photos and hours of video in order to capture ever physical attribute and nuance of the president’s look and personality.

“On the Internet, you can see so much and select what’s actually useful for detail, because what we’re creating has to be as realistic as possible."

“Naturally, there is anatomy involved but also math. Because so many parts of his face are moving mechanically, you have to be vigilant about diameters and circumferences. The calibration all had to be done through photos and scientific references for musculature.

“It’s about finding a pleasant overall look in the facial composition and paying attention to his speech patterns, the muscles that work his face and his expressions both at rest and during speaking. Once it’s done, there are a lot of progressive meetings to meet criteria of other groups that handle the figure and create the movement.

“Living up to audience expectations was daunting to say the least. Certainly this is a figure of a person everybody is acquainted with. They see him on the television and in media constantly. We had an expert anatomist look at it to make sure it was structurally sound and to guide us mechanically.

“We’re always working to find new materials and techniques that will deliver a more realistic figure. It’s a constant search for new materials and technology.

“It goes from my hands to the Audio-Animatronics programmers where myriad functions are keyed into the figure’s mechanical substructures for the mouth, eyes and every perfectly synced facial movement.

“Then artists work on the finishing facial touches and hairpiece. During the manufacturing phase, I checked on the figure to make sure the external package was not compromised.

"Well, it's a great pressure of course to completely do an accurate job of somebody that's in the media so often. I can watch the different speeches and I can watch his cadence as he speaks, I can watch his muscles as they move, I can see how his face changes as he speaks to see if there's any dominance in muscle.”

President Obama recorded a recitation of the oath of office and a short speech on March 4, 2009 in the White House Map Room — the same room where he retook the actual oath after a minor flub on Inauguration Day — to accommodate the WDW attraction theater’s new updated sound system.

The Obama figure in the Hall of Presidents is more realistic than others because of advances in technology, like silicone skin.

The speech was written by Obama’s speechwriter, Jon Favreau (not the director of the Iron Man movies) and is repeated multiple times every day in the attraction:

"The American dream is as old as our founding, but as timeless as our hopes. It is born every day in the heart of every child, who wakes up in a land of limitless possibilities, in a country where ‘We the people’ means all the people. We may come from different places and believe in different things, but what makes us Americans is a shared spirit.

“A spirit of courage and determination, of honor and generosity. It is a spirit grounded in the generations that have gone before us, but open to the unimaginable discoveries and possibilities on the horizon that lies ahead.

“Let us enjoy it, cherish it, defend it, and pass it on to our children as the bright and beautiful blessing it is. This enduring American Dream"

The sound quality wasn’t optimum for the recording in the room, so White House staff placed upholstered screens around the room to achieve good acoustic quality.

“That speech took a village,” said Pamela Fisher, the senior Disney show writer and director on the project. “Mr. Obama had seen renderings of the final Audio-Animatronics and told me that we had made him better-looking than he was. It is quite an experience to arrive in the White House and actually be present when the president records his speech for the Hall of Presidents.”

Fisher and Kathy Rogers, Imagineering senior show producer, both flew to Washington, D.C. to guide the president through the recording. Afterward, they were both given a private tour of the White House.

Fisher had also traveled to the White House on Disney’s behalf in 2001 to capture the voice of Mr. Bush.

After Bush had finished his “take,” she said, he stiffened his arms and “started acting like he was an Animatronics figure. He’s got a sense of humor.”

Recorded in a 20-minute session videotaped at the White House, the real Obama got another shot at taking the oath of office (nailing it correctly on the first take), then did it again when Disney producers asked that he be a bit more animated with his hands.

The Audio-Animatronics figure of President Barack Obama incorporated new ways to integrate an array of subtle movements and facial expressions (thanks to a more flexible silicone skin) into the figure. The figure was similar in advanced technology to the Captain Jack Sparrow figure installed in The Pirates of the Caribbean attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

“The new President Obama figure is the most dynamic figure Disney has ever created. We're very proud of the technological advances that allow this to make him come to life so realistically," Imagineering Senior Vice President Eric Jacobson said. "We are sticklers for detail. This is as authentic and lifelike as we can make it."

As a result, the Audio-Animatronics Obama purses its lips to pronounce its “b’s” and “p’s” in a way that was described as “frighteningly evocative of the real one,” and raises its hands, open-palmed, while shrugging its shoulders, in a way that can only be described as “Obamaesque”.

His mouth wraps around more sounds like "oh" than just jawing up and down. The muscles in the chin and cheeks flex as he talks.

Even with all the publicity surrounding the new figure, the Disney Company refused to reveal how much it cost to build.

However, as a rough comparison, around the same time, Disney spent $3 million building and programming a human-size version of Luxo Jr., the lifelike desk lamp mascot of Pixar Studios, to perform a variety of three-minute routines at Disney Hollywood Studios.

Imagineers also worked closely with White House staff to get the proper measurements and to create realistic clothing and accessories worn by the figure in the show, right down to a lapel pin and watch. Even the president’s wedding ring, with its braided design, was recreated to painstaking accuracy.

Disney was diligent about working with White House staffers to make sure his wardrobe, hair and mannerisms were portrayed as accurately as possible.

"He's very tailored and very well-dressed all the time so that's what we were trying to achieve, and I think we did," said Janice Jones, a costumer at Walt Disney World.

The figure was built in California and then shipped and installed in Florida. Disney Imagineer John Cutry was primarily responsible for programming him.

The Hall of Presidents was closed between October 31, 2008, and July 1, 2009, to undergo an extensive renovation to upgrade its audio and visual effects and systems before the installation of the Obama figure.

In addition, the entire show was rewritten and re-recorded to tell the moving story of the bond between the presidents and “We, the People,” focusing on the chief executives who have guided America through trying, turbulent times. The attraction was official renamed: “The Hall of Presidents: A Celebration of Liberty’s Leaders."

“Young children watch this, and you want them to feel a sense of identification with the president,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian, who was recruited by Disney in 2006 to write a Hollywood-style treatment about the presidents, which became the basis for a 20-minute documentary made for the exhibit. “This makes the president someone not so far removed from them.”

"These presidents are human beings with their own need to withstand adversity, sometimes to conquer fear," Goodwin continued. "Yet the other side of it is that mystery of leadership. The best ones are able to give confidence and hope to the American people themselves."

Pam Fisher, who worked closely with Kearns Goodwin to develop the story, described the new version as “a very human story – one that we hope strikes a chord with all guests.”

“The magic of the show is actually being able to see all of the presidents throughout history on this stage together," said Imagineer Eric Jacobson "We have to use all our magic to bring that together to make that happen. Other surprises are on the way. All I can say now is, stay tuned.”

Some of the animated presidents were sent to wardrobe for a change of costume," he said. "Because of the repetitive movements of the figures, the clothing gets stressed from the inside – especially around elbows and knees – and wears out over time. Some of the presidents also received new wigs and beards as well.

Lighting experts were able to illuminate the show with energy-efficient LED lighting that enhances the color and texture of the show. An all-new audio system offers crisp, digital sound.

Previously presented in 70mm film, the movie now is projected in high-definition video.

Imagineers digitized many of the huge scenic paintings of historic America made for the original movie by Disney legends, including Herb Ryman and Sam McKim. In addition, the team combed through the National Archives, Library of Congress, museums and private collections to acquire more than 130 new images ultimately woven into the show.

The 25 minute show covers over 225 years of United States history and captures Walt Disney’s original vision of offering to guests a cavalcade glimpse at their American heritage.

In 2012, Disney began outsourcing all of its Audio-Animatronics work to Garner Holt Productions, because of a combination of retiring Disney technicians, layoffs after major projects, and the increasing financial cost of continuing Disney internal manufacturing.

In that year the majority of all the MAPO, Airway, and Tujunga tooling, molds, and historically developed unique Disney Audio-Animatronics were transferred to Garner Holt Productions in San Bernardino, California, who had been doing work for various clients since 1977 and Disney since 1997.

So, Obama is the last president sculpted and built by Disney.



  1. By nickjandrews

    These animatronics are pretty incredible, with the facial expressions and everything. They are technical marvels. From the stories on the Obama one, I heard they had some issues during testing. As soon as they installed the face on it, no matter what they programed it to say it would somehow change the facts into lies. Very bizarre but much like the real one. Eerily accurate.

  2. By stan4d_steph

    Quote Originally Posted by nickjandrews View Post
    These animatronics are pretty incredible, with the facial expressions and everything. They are technical marvels. From the stories on the Obama one, I heard they had some issues during testing. As soon as they installed the face on it, no matter what they programed it to say it would somehow change the facts into lies. Very bizarre but much like the real one. Eerily accurate.

    Totally inappropriate.

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