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Robama!

Imagineer John Cutry programs animatronic Barack Obama (web)Imagineer John Cutry programs the new animatronic of President Barack Obama (Disney)

Sometimes it seems like there’s no news, and then all of a sudden… the deluge.

The New York Times has provided the first official confirmation of the long-rumored changes to Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents. The attraction, which has been closed for refurbishment since last October, will re-open on the 4th of July with an entirely new show and the addition of an animatronic Barack Obama.

Details in a moment, but first I have to say that I’m incredibly excited about this in the most nerdy way possible. The Hall of Presidents has long fascinated me, and grown into one of my favorites over the years. For obvious personal reasons, I haven’t been able to properly enjoy it for the last eight years. Even before the recent troubles, though, there was the ill-conceived refocusing of the attraction’s narrative in 1993 that muddled the theme of the show and added an awful narration by Maya Angelou.

Thankfully, all that seems to be in the past as an entirely new show has been created with a narration by actor Morgan Freeman. Even more exciting is the fact that the new presentation is based on a treatment by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the bestselling Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. I’m quite the fan of Goodwin, and the fact that her work on the project began two years ago shows that this won’t be a fly-by-night upgrade.

The article mentions that the theater will receive a new sound system, which is a blessing, and that Abraham Lincoln will now recite the entire Gettysburg Address. This is indeed news, and should make for an excellent and relevant presentation. The Times also mentions something that we reported last year; for the first time in the Hall of Presidents (or any Disney attraction), George Washington will have a speaking role. Not only is this much deserved, but think of the impact – all of you who are life-long Disney fans, think of Abraham Lincoln. I guarantee that you have a voice in your head and a notion, at least, of his personality. Then think of Washington. Despite his incredibly prominent and crucial role in American history, he’s far less vivid (in my head, at least). I chalk this up, in part, to Lincoln’s constant presence in Disney parks since 1964. I’ve seen Lincoln speak. It will be fascinating to see him joined by Washington.

Then, of course, there’s President Obama. On March 4th, Obama was joined in the White House Map Room by Imagineering writer Pamela Fisher and senior show producer Kathy Rogers. He then recorded a short speech that had been drafted by Disney’s writers and polished by White House speechwriter Jon Favreau. Mr. Obama also recorded a re-enactment of the presidential oath of office, which will apparently be part of the new show. The article mentions that the new figure created for Obama is Disney’s most detailed yet; they have made some incredible strides in animatronic technology in recent years, so it should be fascinating to see in action.

There’s something about the atmosphere that the original Imagineers created in Liberty Square that I find incredibly appealing. Perhaps it’s because the land features a theme that WDI has not attempted since; the American Adventure pavilion at EPCOT Center is less an exercise in placemaking than an architectural brainteaser to cloak the massive war wagon that drives the show inside. It’s why I long for Disney’s America – the attraction lineup for that park is fairly unexciting, but the theming would have been exquisite.

In any case, we’ll get to see how it all comes together this Fourth of July. The involvement of Doris Kearns Goodwin gives me hope that the new film will be both classy and coherent, and hopefully will provide a perspective on the role these 44 men (although I’m on to you, Chester A. Arthur) have played in the history of our nation.

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8 comments to Robama!

  • I talked to a friend of mine in passing who is kinda in charge of the labor aspect of the refurbishment. He reports that Barack is in, and that the figure can opens its mouth so wide that they had to put in teeth and a tounge. Some of the figures at Pirates have teeth, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this.

    Very exciting news about the writing of the attraction as well. I know I’m supposed to be a cynical WDW historian but I have a lot of faith in WDI to hit this one out of the ballpark.

  • Johnny D

    Forget Air Force One, the greatest perk of being POTUS is having a robot duplicate of yourself in Disney World!

  • tim fedel

    If this guy is going to speak – now I won’t be able to visit this attraction for the next 4 years or God forbid 8 years!

  • Marcel

    Well Tim. Fair is fair. I wasn’t able to visit the attraction the LAST 8 years!

  • philphoggs

    Perhaps in fantasy land there can be an O and W, where guest control the animatronics and hold their own debates… a kinda rock em sock em robots but on a larger scale!

  • tim fedel

    They should just focus on Lincoln and Washington and let the entire country enjoy the show at the same time instead of it being politicized. The use of a contemporary president is bound to annoy 50% of the nation. That is why they didn’t settle on a host for the 20th century at the American Adventure. You need to let history judge the character first.

  • Wow, I have a long weekend away from the internet and things get hopping!

    Foxx: That’s very interesting, and kind of creepy. Robo tongue. I can’t wait to see this figure… they’ve really stepped it up with the AA tech lately (even though they’re few and far between!)

    Tim: Hehe as Marcel says, fair is fair! I’ve had eight years of HoP angst already. While obviously we disagree politically, I do think you’re right that WDI should avoid current presidents and let history do its work before they hand out speaking parts. When you put a president in there speaking at the start of their term, you open yourself up to them doing any number of things that would reflect poorly on the attraction. What level of scandal would a president have to reach before Disney yanked them from the show? What if Nixon had a speaking part when WDW opened in 1971?

    And yet, I’m excited about this change. Before the candidates were decided last year, I had hoped that WDI would leave the new president out of the show no matter who won. But after the election and inauguration was over, I’ve come to think that WDI has an opportunity with Obama to draw a lot of guests into the Hall that had never seen the show before. People, especially young people, seem to be a lot more interested in politics and history due to Obama, and I hope that interest will bring some big numbers to the Hall. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a heck of a speaker.

    You’re right, though, that it will still annoy a percentage of guests – even if his approval ratings remain high (of course, I’m optimistic that he’ll do a good job so that skews my projections a bit). I’m sure WDI wrestled with the decision, and it’s hard to balance the sentiments of our hyper-partisan world with the historic opportunity that Obama’s presidency presents.

    Philip: Now you’re talking.

    Last but DEFINITELY not least, I’d like to thank everyone for keeping the tone light! Politics can get awfully nasty these days, so thanks to all for being polite even in disagreement.

  • Tim: I agree completely, not only for political reasons (which I’ll try to remain calm about) but for the day-in-day out divisiveness that it brings. The political climate in America is way too divided anymore for anything politically-related on vacation – with the exception that if the conversation is so far removed from today’s reality, as you said. Of course some people to the left may say things like…

    “WDI has an opportunity with Obama to draw a lot of guests into the Hall that had never seen the show before. People, especially young people, seem to be a lot more interested in politics and history due to Obama, and I hope that interest will bring some big numbers to the Hall. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a heck of a speaker” :)

    …but that’s only some of the kids in America – all the others are still indifferent to politics and history or were for the other side anyway. Remember how hyped the “youth” were about McCain in 2000?

    It’s all transitory and irrelevant in the long run, I suppose, and Disney has best interests at heart, esp with this being a historic election and all. I just hope they can bring to light Obamas “historic” policies – you know, what the presidency is really supposed to be about, not some vague monologues and ill-defined regurgitation of the definition of “Hope”.

    On the political end of things, if he does have a tongue, as Foxxy says, I really don’t care to see it wag. Also, if kids really wanted hope to be president one day, they should’ve been paying attention the last 8 years – if you do coke, are more interested in video games than books, can’t speak well, and were a straight-C student, there’s still hope for you.

    Michael: There was a typo in your response. “It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a heck of a autocue reciter.”

    Overall, though, this is good news for WDI – can’t wait to see the next stage of animatronics!

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