When Epcot Center opened in 1982, Disney characters were famously kept out of the new park. There were the big-headed World Showcase dolls and, of course, Dreamfinder, but no Mickey and Minnie. But with its vast, open areas, Epcot Center needed something happening to enliven the sprawling plazas between the pavilions.
Someone, apparently, also through that it needed robots. Lots and lots of robots.
To begin with, there was this guy, who appeared in the Epcot Center opening television special:
We’ve previously looked at Imagineer Chris Runco’s plan from 1982 for costumed Go-Bots to wander the park; that didn’t happen, but in a pinch Disney apparently went the organic route with the “robot” IB4E in early 1984.
Apparently these shenanigans bought Disney enough time to create a real robot, allowing GYRO to debut at Epcot Center in 1985.
From the Fall 1985 issue of Disney News:
SAY HELLO TO GYRO!
What’s 4 feet 10, weighs a portly 150 lbs., has a blue body, and a golden head encasing a computerized brain that controls its electronic senses? It’s GYRO – the very latest in electronic robots. GYRO strolls about the grounds of FUTURE WORLD in Epcot Center at Walt Disney World, conversing with guests who marvel at its mobility and intelligence. When they ask how GYRO works, however, the robot is evasive. And because it talks, guests often stare into GYRO’s 12-inch screen of a face and say, “Okay, who’s in there?” The robot’s honest answer is, “Nobody.” Only micro chips and lots of electronic wizardry.
One thing that amuses me about GYRO is that he’s always wearing one of those military-style Epcot caps that they used to sell in the Centorium. In the old Epcot catalogues you could get them either with or without “scrambled eggs” on the brim; I was strangely fascinated with this terminology when I was a kid. Back in those days I thought they looked super-cool.
So how well did it play in person? See for yourself.
There’s an even longer interaction in this video, starting at the 1:35 time point.
After GYRO came GERO, the “GE Robot”.
Unlike GYRO, who wandered throughout Future World, GERO is most closely associated with Horizons and its sponsor General Electric. In the Summer of 1986, Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald wrote a story for Disney News entitled Disney’s Exotic, Robotic Cast. Fitzgerald mentions several notable Epcot robots, from Tiger in The Bird and the Robot to Jason from The Living Seas and SMRT-1 from Communicore, but his focus is on the debut of GERO. Some excerpts from the article:
Moments before showtime, the star is charged up and ready to go. He stretches his arms and neck, checks out the crowd, then revs-up his vehicle. For the next few minutes, he’ll chat with the folks, shake hands, perform a few musical numbers… even give a few lucky people a ride on the back of the scooter. His name is “GERO,” and he’s the newest, most sophisticated robot to join the Epcot Center cast.
As indicated, GERO had a large scooter, which allowed him to navigate Future World.
While GERO may be new to show-biz, robots are not. In fact, the word “robot” made its first appearance in a 1921 drama, “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” But while the play put robots center stage, the idea had been waiting in the wings for centuries… even before Aristotle’s time.
Walt Disney saw examples of those ideas in the mechanized statues called “automatons” on the towers of Europe in the 1940s. He became entranced by an automaton of a singing bird in a gilded cage. He brought the mechanical bird back to the film studio, asking his machinists to figure out how the device worked. Walt was intrigued by the idea of three dimensional animation, and convinced that it would be ideally suited to another project on the drawing boards… Disneyland.
When the Magic Kingdom opened in 1955, mechanical animals wound up as performers in Disneyland attractions. Yet Walt wanted more… and challenged his staff to push the state-of-the-art.
The space age technologies of miniaturized circuits and tape-actuated movements provided the breakthrough. Since the system combined sound and animation through electronics, Walt dubbed it “Audio-Animatronics.” In 1963, the “Enchanted Tiki Room” introduced the first Audio-Animatronics show to Disneyland guests.
Throughout the years, Disney Imagineers have continued to improve the art of Audio-Animatronics… reaching new levels of sophistication with the walking figure of Ben Franklin in the “American Adventure” at Epcot Center. But these crowd-pleasing figures are just a part of the robotic cast of Epcot Center.
One of the hottest acts in Future World is General Motors’ “BIRD & the Robot.” Though Jersey-accented “Boyd” claims to be the headliner, the real scene-stealer is “Tiger,” a shy but animated manufacturing robot. Tiger’s the kind of guy you’d expect to find building cars on assembly lines around the world.
In contrast to Tiger is a robot that’s always playing around. His name is “SMRT-1″ (pronounced Smart One) – the precocious whiz kid of Sperry’s Epcot Computer Central. While SMRT-1 may appear to be all fun and games, he’s actually a working demonstration of an emerging computer technology known as speech recognition. When guests speak by phone to SMRT-1, he really listens! Computer circuits evaluate the answers, determining whether the reply given was “yes” or “no.” Once that issue is settled, the logic department takes over… allowing SMRT-1 to astound and amuse his players.
“Jason” is the versatile submersible of “The Living Seas” pavilion, presented by United Technologies. One of the real treasures of Sea Base Alpha, Jason is well-schooled on the subject of ocean exploration with ultra-sensitive video camera “eyes” and remote-manipulated arms.
Robots are also an integral part of “Horizons,” presented by General Electric. From the wacky household servants envisioned by dreamers of yesteryear… to the hi-tech desert harvesters and manufacturing robots of the 21st century, robots will always be a part of our future.
“GERO” (short for “GE RObot”), is the newest robot to join the Horizons cast… and he’s destined to become one of Epcot’s most beloved characters. “GERO is probably the most sophisticated entertainment robot in the world,” says Dave Fink of General Electric.
Designs for GERO originated at Walt Disney Imagineering in California. Veteran animator Xavier “X” Atencio created the inspirational drawings, using classic Disney character styling and proportions. GERO emerged from the drawing board as a fun-loving, friendly teen-ager – complete with a sporty scooter with room for riders!
“The next step was to add the detailing that would give the robot a machined, hi-tech look,” says Designer Gil Keppler. At the Walt Disney Studios, artisans sculpted the robot in plaster, then shipped it to Walt Disney World where its Lexan body was fabricated, assembled, and painted in metallic silver & gold. As for the vehicle color… well, it just had to be red. After all, GERO’s a sporty guy!
A note here – Lexan, from which GERO was fabricated, is a polycarbonate thermoplastic formerly manufactured by General Electric, and it was the same material used to fabricate the Horizons ride vehicles. In this way, GERO and its sister attraction were shaped from the same material.
Also, never forget – GERO is a sporty guy!
While GERO’s outward appearance was shaping up in Florida, scientists and technicians at the General Electric Research & Development Center were busily assembling the robot’s inner workings.
Included in the 900-pound mountain of electronics are linear stepping motors, field effect transistor brakes, pulse-width modulated drives, incremental optical shaft encoder, fiber optics, laser disc player, 160 watts of biamped audio power and nine batteries – all controlled by 19 microcomputers!
Yet with all that hi-tech hardware, there was one thing GERO still didn’t have – an education. It was time to go to school. At the GE R&D Center, computer technicians spent weeks raising the robot’s IQ from zero to GERO. By graduation time, GERO had learned to shake hands, wave goodbye, drive his scooter, converse and sing songs! He was ready to meet his public.
So there you have it – Epcot Center finally had a wandering robot of its own. If Disney News thought GYRO was “portly” at 150 pounds, I wonder what they thought about 900-pound GERO!
While their memory is mostly lost to history, GYRO and GERO receive commemoration in a very unlikely place – Innoventions at Disneyland. During our 2009 visit, we were shocked to come across our Epcot friends in a series of pictures showing robots from Disney’s past. In the display were the animated robots from various Mickey and Donald cartoons, GARCO from Wonderful World of Color, robots from various attractions (including the broken “chef” robot from Horizons!) and, shockingly, GYRO and GERO. They were even captioned! We were bewildered, and wondered who was responsible for the exhibit; clearly, someone at WDI was an Epcot fan too.
Obviously, these long-ago efforts are the root of so many things we see in the current Disney parks – from talking trash cans (and water fountains) to wandering Lucky the Dinosaur and various other Living Character Initiatives. But remember, as Walt always said – it all started with a robot.