Home » 10 Times Disney’s Animatronics Malfunctioned, Froze, and Caught on Fire

10 Times Disney’s Animatronics Malfunctioned, Froze, and Caught on Fire

Like all Disney Parks fans, we love Audio-Animatronics.

That’s why we created a must-read list of the 25 Best Audio-Animatronics on Earth, celebrating the essential role that Disney’s greatest invention plays in the parks today. Make no mistake – these complex, dynamic, sensational figures have been cutting-edge since their debut in 1963. And like all technological marvels, they don’t always work the way they’re supposed to…

For Imagineering fans, the only thing more amazing than watching one of Disney’s Animatronic marvels work is catching one when it doesn’t. Thanks to the age of the Internet, fans’ cameras are ready at every moment to capture the slightest crack in Disney’s shell of immersive show. That’s why we’re able to curate this countdown of 10 misfiring, malfunctioning Audio-Animatronics across Disney Parks, offering a fascinating glimpse into Disney’s rare failures and flubs… 

10. Falling potato parts

Image: Sasaki Time

Attraction: Toy Story Mania
Location: Disney California Adventure and Disney’s Hollywood Studios

A few months ago, we took a tour through 10 Animatronics Outside of Disney Rides and specifically highlighted Mr. Potato Head – a clever “carnival barker” that stands outside of Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney California Adventure (and in the queue of the ride in Orlando and Tokyo). Among Mr. Potato Head’s impressive Animatronic abilities are telling jokes, singing, and vaudevillian acts, but the figure can also be “live puppeted” by a Cast Member, allowing Mr. Potato Head to call out to queuing guests, ask and answer questions, and carry on conversations.

Video evidence: A real show-stopping feature of the figure is its ability to reach up, grab his own ear, remove it from its head, and then put it back like a real Mr. Potato Head toy. Naturally, that complex process requires quite a bit of precision, and quite a few videos have captured Mr. Potato Head missing the mark on reinserting the ear. The bamboozled Animatronic then lazily drops the ear on the ground and stalls until a Cast Member can save the day by setting out a step ladder and manually re-inserting the ear. It’s a fun (and surprisingly frequent) way for fans to see an Animatronic malfunction in a predictable and easy-to-fix way.

9. Photosensitive pirates

Image: Disney

Attraction: Pirates of the Caribbean
 Magic Kingdom

Though West Coast Disney fans are quick to deride Magic Kingdom’s shorter Pirates of the Caribbean as a pale knock-off of the Disneyland original, Florida’s Pirates is still one of the most popular dark rides at Walt Disney World. With over 100 Audio Animatronics (including pirates, villagers, and animals), the ride is stocked with impressive musical marauders. From time to time, figures are removed for rehabilitation and refurbishment, but in general the piratical cast is impressively cared for.

Video evidence: That’s what made it so unusual when riders captured a pirate in what appeared to be the midst of an epileptic seizure, violently shaking as he carried out his programming. It was certainly an unusual sight to behold in the otherwise iconic flaming dungeons near the “dog with a key” scene, and perhaps evidence of the real harm of flash photography. 

8. Frozen Frozen figures

Attraction: Frozen Ever After

Epcot fans weren’t too happy when the Lost Legend: Maelstrom was officially sunk in favor of Disney’s behemoth animated feature, Frozen. Admittedly an odd cartoon fit for the otherwise cultural World Showcase, the replacement attraction is nonetheless spectacular enough to earn its own in-depth feature in our series of world-class attractions – Modern Marvels: Frozen Ever After.

One of the rides most celebrated aspects must be its cast of Audio-Animatronic characters – lifelike enough to make guests believe the real Elsa and Anna had indeed stepped directly out of the film and into three dimensions! Brought to life via interior-projected faces, these ultra-fluid figures are capable of incredible movement and realism… 

Video evidence: Which, of course, also makes them subject to serious downtime. Countless videos across YouTube show various figures throughout the ride slumped or lifelessfrozen in place, or with their faces “off” or (worse) out-of-sync. In fact, Disney has seemingly had trouble keeping the reluctant E-Ticket consistently presentable, leading to some record-breaking downtime.

But when the ride emergency stops, designers cleverly built in a B-Mode for these expressive Animatronics. For example, when the ride’s Norwegian Viking ships stall out inside Elsa’s ice palace during the ride’s climactic musical encounter with Elsa, the queen’s audio track is replaced with an instrumental, her face reverts to a simple smile, and she knowingly waves to riders waiting patiently below her ice balcony – an adorable solution for when the signature figure freezes.

7. Paused paws

Image: Disney

Attraction: Splash Mountain

When Splash Mountain opened at Disneyland in 1989, almost all of its 103 Audio-Animatronics figures were already 15 years old. They’d simply been relocated from the closed “America Sings” show in Tomorrowland’s Carousel Theater, dressed in new clothes, and reprogrammed to sing along to Song of the South tunes like “How Do You Do?”, “Everybody’s Got a Laughing Place,” and of course, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” And for being nearly 50 years old today, the figures work surprisingly well most of the time. 

However, it’s probably true that the ride hasn’t been functioning at 100% since… well… 1989. Part of that is allegedly be a side-effect of California’s strict Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limiting access to the ride’s many figures and lighting rigs without adequate fall protection and access scaffolds, which can only be installed during extended annual downtime. While Splash Mountain may sparkle for a few weeks after those refurbishments, lights and Animatronics tend to begin to flicker out soon after. That’s why Disneyland’s ride in particular is often noted for how dark and cavernous it can feel.

Video Evidence: While some of the ride’s more complex figures are infamous for their downtime (even disappearing for months at a time), on some occasions – like in the video above – the entire show comes to a screeching halt, creating… well… a pretty awkward experience for riders. Naturally, a full show stop like this would trigger the ride’s closure until a system reset, but cycling the logs through the frozen ride is still the best way to get guests through.

6. John dabs

Image: Disney

Attraction: Carousel of Progress
Magic Kingdom

Magic Kingdom’s Modern Marvel: Carousel of Progress has always had a special place in the hearts of Disney World fans. Maybe it’s because Walt proclaimed the attraction his personal favorite and said it should never stop operating. Maybe it’s because Carousel of Progress is said to be the longest running stage show, with the most performances, in the history of American theater. That should be no surprise given that there are essentially four showings of the 21-minute presentation occurring simulanteously from morning to night from roughly 1964 to today. And given that, it’s understandable that once in a while, the show would suffer from an mechanical mishap or two.

One common cause of many of the show’s issues tends to be guests who decide – midway through – they’d like to step out. The only problem is that Carousel of Progress is technically a ride, so deciding to stand up and walk out halfway through to head for an exit is something like deciding to step off the Great Movie Ride during one of its show stops – obviously, a no-no. When sensors are tripped, the Carousel refuses to rotate, meaning guests must sit through the same scene again (and potentially again), causing even more guests to decide to leave, as frenzied Cast Members try to convince guests that they must remain seated for the duration of the show.

Video evidence: But when one of Carousel’s animatronics does fail to perform, it can be an awkward moment for all involved. Especially when it’s John – the father of the family and the narrator of each scene – who refuses to cooperate. In one particularly memorable malfunction from 2013, guests huddling inside the Carousel Theater for shelter from Tropical Storm Andrea were presented with a particularly muddled showing with malfunctioning audio, missed show cues, and John hilariously “inventing” the popular 2010s dance move the “Dab” way back in the 1920s. 

5. Ursula loses her head

Image: Disney

Attraction: Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid
Location: Magic Kingdom

Imagineering fans have plenty of opinions about the two Little Mermaid dark rides operating at Disney California Adventure and Magic Kingdom. Subject to numerous revisions since their respective openings in 2011 and 2012, the rides have been criticized for their style (initially lit by incandescent light, then refurbished to the more traditional blacklight style) and their substance (“book report” rides carrying guests through a 3-minute summary of the story they already know, and as mere “spectactors” rather than being part of the tale). But one of their chief criticisms must be the ride’s awkward Audio-Animatronics. Particularly, Ariel – who Imagineers just can’t seem to translate well to three dimensions without entering uncomfortable “Uncanny Valley” territory (i.e. don’t zoom into this official Disney photo after dark).

The one unanimously celebrated element of the attraction has to be the Audio-Animatronics figure of Ursula, the Sea Witch. Over 7-feet tall and 12-feet wide, Ursula is one of the most imposing, surreal figures Disney’s ever engineered. Capable of tremendous “squash” and “stretch,” the figure can bounce, sing, and emote just like the octopode, blue-eyeshadowed diva. Until…

Video evidence: On Sunday, January 28 2018, Ursula proved we should never underestimate the importance of body language when her head… well… fell off. The peculiar circumstances surrounding the situation will probably never been entirely understood, but as her head hung from her torso (still singing and emoting, we should note), guests on the ride were understandably horrified. Naturally, the ride was quickly closed and reopened soon after with calmer heads prevailing. As if the situation weren’t astounding enough, it happened the same day as another unexpected Animatronic beheading…

4. The Auctioneer’s accident

Image: Julian (@HOPAJUL), Twitter

Attraction: Pirates of the Caribbean
Location: Disneyland Paris

Often cited as the most beautiful Disneyland-style park on Earth, Disneyland Paris is often described as somehow combining the charm, intimacy, and coziness of Disneyland with the scale and grandeur of Magic Kingdom. But one thing it’s unfortunately not known for is its upkeep. From its disastrous 1992 opening that created a ripple effect of Disney cancelling and closing projects across the world to the opening of a parasitic second park – the Declassified Disaster: Walt Disney Studios – the French resort just can’t seem to catch a break, and has been in a perpetual state of catch-up for nearly 30 years.

So it’s not unusual for Paris’ special effects to falter. What’s highly unusual is that the very same day that Ursula lost her head, the Auctioneer figure in Paris’ Pirates of the Caribbean suffered a surprisingly similar beheading. Like Ursula, the figure continued through its programming despite its head hanging from wires.

3. “Murphy’s” flaw

Image: Disney

Disney’s Fantasmic! is one of the most astounding, electrifying nighttime spectaculars in the history of theme parks; a 25-minute, abstract, multi-sensory battle between good and evil culiminating in an epic showdown faceoff with Mickey and a 45 foot-tall,18,000-pound, fire-breathing Animatronic of Maleficent in her imposing dragon form. That Animatronic – a Disneyland exclusive – made her thunderous debut in 2009 after months and months of delay.

Even once she was officially on the scene, though, the Maleficent figure couldn’t seem to keep it together. The figure earned the nickname “Murphy” from fans as a tribute to Murphy’s Law: “whatever can go wrong will go wrong.” For the better part of a year, “Murphy” appeared only sporadically. When she did emerge, she was frequently frozen, failed to breathe fire, or forgot to launch the fireworks embedded in her snout. That’s why, in our must-read look at 13 Abandoned, Broken, and Cancelled Special Effects, “Murphy” ranked high on our list.

Video evidence: That said, the Animatronics figure’s problems came to a head in August 2010 when, during a performace, the dragon literally fell face-first. The 18,000 pound Audio-Animatronic was so stuck, it remained in its precarious position into the next day until it was literally dismantled in front of guests to get it out of sight. Today, “Muphy” is much more reliable. But the massive Audio-Animatronic’s failure right in front of guests is an unforgettable moment for those who witnessed it.

2. The Disco Yeti

Image: Disney

Of course, you knew our list would need to include the (in)famous Yeti. We explored the full fiction and fact of this abominable Himalyan guardian in an epic standalone feature on the ride, Modern Marvels: Expedition Everest – a must-read for Disney World fans. The Audio-Animatronic Yeti hidden deep in the underbelly of the mountainous E-Ticket is of particular interest to Disney fans, because it’s a rare example of an effect left broken in plain sight.

It’s not just that the entire story of Everest revolves around the creature… The Yeti was a cornerstone of the E-Ticket thrill ride’s marketing campaign! The face-to-maw encounter with the Yeti was sold as the ride’s highlight; a technological marvel in and of itself; a bone-chilling interaction wherein the mechanical Yeti would swing out from its perch and swipe down toward passing vehicles in a harrowing near-miss. And before the ride’s first anniversary, it broke.

Video evidence: As the story goes, a fatal flaw in the structure of the dynamic figure forced Disney to freeze it in place. Allegedly positioned in such a way as to be inoperable without an extended refurbishment (unlikely in a park with very few rides), the Yeti was re-positioned into its “B-Mode,” locked into place with its paw out toward riders. Disney’s short term solution – to blow fans on the furry figure and flash strobes to imply movement – has earned the mocking name “Disco Yeti” from fans, becoming an inside joke on message boards.

The above video (filmed by our friends at SoCal Attractions 360) uses a special low-light camera, picking up more detail than the human eye would. Imagineers continually promise that they’ll fix the Yeti eventually, and in the meantime the simple lighting trick is enough to disguise the massively broken effect from most day guests.

1. Maleficent smoulders

Attraction: Festival of Fantasy Parade
Location: Magic Kingdom

Disney Parks are renowned the world over for their elaborate parades, but Magic Kingdom’s Festival of Fantasy takes it to a new level. The parade’s seven main units are each spectacular, but no float earned the respect of fans quite like the 26-foot-tall, 35-foot-long centerpiece of the Sleeping Beauty portion of the parade: a steampunk-stylized, retro-mechanical Maleficent marching down Main Street. The bramble-throated Animatronic periodically raises its head and blasts flames from its mouth in a choreographed, show-stopping feature.

Video evidence: On May 11, 2018, something went wrong. During the parade’s normal run, the Maleficent figure caught fire, with its head melting into a grey, burned-out husk right in the middle of Liberty Square – made all the more frightening since Cast Members armed with extinguishers weren’t sure if the dragon would continue to blow fire as its neck lowered to street level from the damage. Insiders suggest that the compressed gas used to light the dragon’s flame-thrower effect inadvertantly pooled in the hollow horns atop the figure’s head, causing the surprising fire. 

Following the accident, the similar dragon in Disneyland Paris’ Disney Stars on Parade was temporarily extinguished (until holes could be bored into its horns to prevent the same mistake). Back in Florida, a temporary princess float took Maleficent’s place.

It took nine months for the dragon to be reborn, but Maleficent eventually made her grand return at end of January 2019. Disney celebrated the return with a playful acknowledgement on the Disney Parks Blog, casting the dragon as the cover model on “Villains Weekly” magazine. Still, they only coyly hinted at the float’s fiery demise, mentioning “ the Maleficent dragon will be sporting a refreshed look, enhanced with new features designed to keep her in check while on show.”

Animatronics oops

For over 50 years, Audio-Animatronics have been at the heart of what makes Disney Parks so different. But with increasing technological power comes a proportionate increase in what can go wrong… Gone are the days of simple electro-mechanical figures. Today’s Animatronics have about as many moving parts as a real human body; and just as many ways to malfunction. What’s more, camera-ready fans are on-hand to capture faltering figures and spread them across discussion boards and social media before the park even closes for the day.

If you’re fascinated with Audio-Animatronics like we are, be sure to check out our definitive Countdown: 25 Best Audio-Animatronics on Earth. And if you get a sense of schadenfreude watching Disney’s rare mistakes, make the jump to our list of 13 Abandoned, Broken, and Cancelled Special Effects. Then, share your memories of malfunctioning Animatronics in the comments below!