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Free-roaming robots are set to hit Disney parks

Disney robots // Illustration by Kate Walker

Free-roaming robots are set to hit Disney parks


Future. Disney’s secretive development division, Imagineering, is working on two different animatronic projects that could revolutionize how guests interact with park characters. Dubbed Project Kiwi and Project Exo, the projects hope to bring Disney’s smallest and largest characters to life using robotics and AI, which may transform waiting in line, or even walking around the park, into an experience.

Mickey Machine
Disney Imagineering has declassified two game-changing robotic projects that could remake the Magic Kingdom.

  • Project Kiwi: a prototype for a “small-scale, free-roaming robotic actor” that uses built-in cameras and sensors to make choices about what to do, say, or emote in real-time.
    • A working Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy is already completed.
    • The project is moving on to the “play test” phase — a “short, dry-run” at an undisclosed park to start collecting guest reactions.
  • Project Exo: a “full-body exoskeleton” that allows cast members to portray large characters like the Hulk, whose suits would otherwise weigh over 40lbs.
    • To avoid crushing cast members, the exoskeleton redistributes weight through the suit and to the ground.

Even with the new robots, Disney stresses that it doesn’t plan to replace human cast members who portray characters like Mickey Mouse or Cinderella. The robots are only meant to fill in for characters that are too small or large for a human costume.

Everything’s an experience
Animatronics have been a key part of Disney parks since their introduction back in the 1960s. Currently, Disney has about 6,000 animatronics throughout its parks worldwide… with the vast majority of them in need of an upgrade.

Disney is already making moves to turn its parks from a “locked-down” passive experience to something more immersive. This June, Disney introduced “WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure” at Disneyland in Anaheim that includes a “stuntronic” — a robot Spidey that performs aerial tricks outdoors.

Chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Josh D’Amaro sums up Disney’s vision for the future: “we have an obligation to our fans, to our guests, to continue to evolve, to continue to create experiences that look new and different and pull them in. To make sure the experience is fresh and relevant.”