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Kid-friendly Westworld? Disney leveling up park animatronics with new breed of free-roaming robots

By Benjamin Bullard
Baby Groot

No, Disney’s goal isn’t to put theme park guests at the verge of a Westworld-style dystopia where the android hosts run amok… but then again, in the beginning, that was probably never the idea with Westworld, either.

In a behind-the-scenes peek at the new generation of robotic theme park creations that Disney Imagineers are cooking up, The New York Times reports the Mouse House is deep in development on “sentient Disney robots,” autonomous next-level creations that take guest interaction a big step beyond Disney’s decades-old animatronics tech (where the machinery stays firmly bolted to the floor). These ‘bots don’t just follow a script, either — equipped with sensors and cameras, they reportedly can move freely and respond to guests’ gestures in real time.

It’s a major move, the report states, to bring Disney parks up to date with all the more recent Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar goings-on on both the big and small screens. Once they’ve been perfected (and it looks like Disney’s making fast progress on that front), the idea is to deploy them as interactive features at Walt Disney World, Disneyland and beyond — all so that a new generation of moviegoers raised on Baby Groot and BB-8 can connect with cutting-edge characters they know and love.

Getting an up-close introduction with Disney’s in-development prototype of a pint-sized robot Groot (previewed earlier this year under the codename Project KIWI), NYT’s Brooks Barnes found the 3D version of Marvel’s tree hero as convincing as his big-screen counterpart: “He was about three feet tall and ambled toward me with wide eyes, as if he had discovered a mysterious new life form. He looked me up and down and introduced himself.”

Jeez, we can only imagine what it must’ve said. The diminutive demo model is based on robot underpinnings meant for a wide variety of in-park uses: “Disney does not want a one-off. It wants a technology platform for a new class of animatronics,” the report states.

Lest we get ahead of ourselves with foreboding visions of Delos-like androids that look and act (and double-cross) just like people, Disney’s plan apparently doesn’t call for its new breed of robots to replace human icons like Cinderella and Elsa. Rather, it’s to complement the parks’ human greeters, bringing to life screen creations like Groot, Baby Yoda, and perhaps even Hulk himself (Disney’s reportedly developing a separate robot platform that’s scaled to match the size of more monstrous creatures like Hulk and the Hoth-dwelling Wampa from The Empire Strikes Back.)

Hey, if Boston Dynamics can do it, why not Disney? Updating its parks’ beloved but aging animatronic tech, long a signature feature of attractions from the Country Bear Jamboree to the Hall of Presidents to Pirates of the Caribbean, is reportedly a priority at Disney, whose roster of fan-favorite characters has grown immensely with new films and series based on later IP pickups from Lucasfilm and Marvel. They’ve even tapped cutting-edge talent from the robo-engineering world to get there: “One of Disney’s senior roboticists, Scott LaValley, came from Boston Dynamics,” the report notes.

When they first arrive in parks, Disney’s robots reportedly won’t be turned loose just anywhere. Instead, they’ll be strategically placed within attractions where their appearance makes the most sense (and, perhaps, where they can’t stray too far). There’s no firm timeline for the robo-rollout, with Disney’s focus firmly fixed on nailing the look and feel of each and every character.

For park guests, “all of this technology must disappear, which takes a crazy amount of engineering,” Disney Imagineering executive Leslie Evans explained to the Times. “We don’t want anyone thinking, ‘That’s the most sophisticated robot I have ever encountered.’ It has to be: ‘Look! It’s Groot!’”