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The 25 Most Incredible Theme Park Animatronics On Earth

6. Lightning McQueen

Image: Disney

Debut: Lightning McQueen's Racing Academy (2019)
Location: Disney's Hollywood Studios
Video: "Put your wheels together..."

Ever since Disney announced that Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge was due to join the relatively small Disney's Hollywood Studios, Imagineers have been in an all-out sprint to add capacity to the park. (After all, Galaxy's Edge's two rides are two of 38 in Disneyland, but two of only 9 rides at Hollywood Studios...!) As if the construction of the "Sunset Showcase" flex space at the end of Sunset Blvd. didn't seem odd enough, its subsequent filling with mere dance parties and meet-and-greets felt like a strange waste of the large theater.

In spring 2019, we found out its more permanent purpose in the lead up to Galaxy's Edge: Lightning McQueen's Racing Academy. The attraction (while still impermanent) finally feels like a real use of the space, with wraparound screens giving guests an idea of the "training" McQueen goes through to prep for a race. While spectacularly colorful, fun, and high-energy, the real star is McQueen himself. And while his appearances on Radiator Springs Racers are impressive as you drive by, this Lightning is under the spotlight for the duration of the show, meaning he needs to hold up to intense scrutiny... and boy does he!

More than ever before, the figure appears truly alive, moving forward, backward, and side-to-side, tipping forward and back, and revving with fluidity you'd only ever expect on the screen. With lifelike eyes and mouth, and cleverly-animated wheels (appearing to fully rotate in perfect sync with his movements), this Lightning McQueen earned a sincere 'Ka-chow!'

5. Kong

Image: Universal

Debut: Skull Island: Reign of Kong (2016)
Location: Universal's Islands of Adventure
Video: "This cannot be good..."

For decades, King Kong terrorized guests at both Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Florida, albeit in different ways. In Hollywood, the towering great ape was merely a small (but starring) part of the hour-long, world-famous behind-the-scenes Studio Tram Tour, ravaging a New York set and rattling the passing tram. The wild animatronic – 30 feet tall and full of fury – was easily one of the most stunning figures on Earth when he debuted in 1986. When Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990, the creature encounters of Hollywood's Studio Tour were split into standalone attraction, yielding the Lost Legend: Kongfrontation. After barely a decade in action, Kongfrontation folded to Universal's rapid growth, and Revenge of the Mummy took its spot.

In a sort of mea culpa, Universal heralded the return of the king with 2016's Skull Island: Reign of Kong. Whereas Kongfrontation set the ape lose in our world, Reign of Kong flipped the script, trapping us among the unearthly horrors of Skull Island – much more fitting for the fantasy and literature-inspired Islands of Adventure park it inhabits. 

After far too long dabbling in entirely screen-based rides, Reign of Kong turned out to be... well... only mostly screens. After a 360-degree projection tunnel experience wherein Kong turns out to be our savior from Skull Island's horrors, the ride's grand finale is a much-needed face-to-face encounter with the ape – albeit, as an exhausted, heaving protector that lacks the gravitas of Kongfrontation's meeting. Still, the Kong figure is technically brilliant and absolutely mesmerizing. It just also happens to be undeniable evidence that the raging, red-eyed, maddened beast of old is simply the preferred way to see him. 

4. Citizens of Arendelle

Image: Disney

Debut: Frozen Ever After (2016)
Location: Epcot (exclusive) 
Video: "I'm free!"

Many in the Disney Parks fan community were horrified when Disney announced that the Lost Legend: Maelstrom – a classic and storied dark ride through the myths and legends of Norway – would disappear forever in favor of a ride based on Disney's runaway smash hit Frozen. After experiencing the ride, most Imagineering fans probably maintain the same view they had to begin with: that Frozen probably could've been better represented by a built-from-scratch mega E-Ticket in Fantasyland, that it does feel off in World Showcase, and parents probably will be red with rage when they find that their three hour wait leads to a four minute ride that ends just as it feels like it's getting started. Luckily, the criticisms end there.

Itself a Modern Marvel, Frozen Ever After is fascinating, largely thanks to its cast of Audio Animatronics figures that are, without a doubt, the most lifelike human figures on Earth. The fluidity of their motion is accentuated by projection technology that makes them expressive, astounding, and (put simply) alive. For the first time (in for)ever, these figures might actually be mistaken for the real characters sprung from the screen; the figures are two-dimensional animation translated perfectly to three dimensions – something Disney has simply not been able to master in the recent past.

From the very first sight of Olaf, riders will be mesmerized. You might expect Elsa in her obligatory "Let It Go" scene to be the most impressive of the lot, and you'd be right. But literally every animatronic in the ride is amazing. Seriously, it's that impressive. Frozen Ever After may always ruffle feathers in the Disney Parks fan community, but at least now its legacy will also be tied to fantastic innovation, too.

3. Hondo Ohnaka

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

Attraction: Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run (2019)
Location: Disneyland Park and Disney's Hollywood Studios
Video: Making of...

Chances are, you could rattle off a list of a dozen or more Star Wars characters without even having seen the films. Would Hondo Ohnaka make the list? Probably not... But of course, the Star Wars universe is populated by hundreds upon hundreds of characters supported by in-depth backstories of their own, and Weequay space pirate Hondo Ohnaka is no different. To date, the character's only "canon" appearances have been in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels – each an animated series. But Hondo's about to pulled into the larger mythos in a big way...

In spring 2019, Disney announced that Hondo would play a major role in the new Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run attraction in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. Apparently cutting a deal with Chewbacca to get us behind the famous ship's control panel, it's only fitting that Hondo becomes our host while we wait for the attraction aboard the Falcon's bridge. Cleverly aged since his appearance in the cartoon (which was set in the prequel trilogy... quite a long time ago by the sequel trilogy timeline of the land), Hondo is brought to life as an A-1000 figure (Disney's most advanced). 

Even though it may seem odd that Disney opted to put their most impressive Audio Animatronics technology into a Star Wars character most people won't have heard of, we have a feeling that Hondo will become a de facto mascot of Smuggler's Run. And of course, it'll be absolutely hypnotic to be so close to such an advanced figure, even if he's just delivering safety instructions.

2. Lava Monster

Image: Disney

Debut: Journey to the Center of the Earth (2001)
Location: Tokyo DisneySea (exclusive)
Video: A subterranean attack...

Proving that film franchise tie-ins are hardly necessary for stellar rides, Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo DisneySea is an unimaginable attraction from beginning to end. Riders board earth-moving carts with diamond-tipped drills on the front and begin a descent deep into the earth through scenes inspired by the Jules Verne novel of the same name. However, when an earthquake cuts off the intended route, the cars are forced to divert into a previously undiscovered molten chamber. We recounted the entire treacherous trip in its own feature, Modern Marvels: Journey to the Center of the Earth, but here's the highlight...

The ride passes through the treacherous and hilly terrain of the Earth’s core where enormous basketball-sized eggs drip with goo… Whatever laid these eggs must be pretty big, right? Suddenly, a massive spider-like leg begins slamming on the cavern wall through a hazy membrane… We’ve invaded a nest. As fire bellows, the car turns the corner where a flaming molten pool awaits. And inside that pool is the most advanced Audio-Animatronic Disney has ever created – a molten millipede with spider fangs and glowing eyes with cooled, jagged rock forming an earthen crown on top of its head.

This Lava Monster – presumably the mother of the eggs we disturbed – turns 90 degrees. Upon seeing us, her eyes narrow in anger as it hisses. The creature rears back, its legs and fangs gnashing as it snarls and screeches. Then, it lunges forward at the car, triggering an acceleration that blasts riders through the darkness, then up and out of the park’s 190-foot-tall volcano icon. The encounter with the Lava Monster lasts only a few seconds, but the incredible range of motion and expression of this subterranean creature makes it easily Disney’s most impressive, and the absolute highlight of one of the greatest rides at one of the world’s greatest parks. And to consider that it resets to perform the action again ever 10 seconds or so? Color us impressed.

1. Shaman of Songs

Image: Disney

Debut: Na'vi River Journey (2017)
Location: Disney's Animal Kingdom (exclusive)
Video: "Oel Ngati Kameie"

Just as Universal put the finishing touches on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Disney announced – completely coincidentally, of course – that they, too, had picked up the international worldwide rights to build highly-immersive, cinematic lands based on a pop culture phenomenon... in fact, their licensing of James Cameron's AVATAR gave them exclusive access to the highest grossing film ever! ... Never mind that AVATAR quickly disappeared from the pop culture lexicon without leaving so much as a character or quote in its wake. Fans rallied hard against the knee-jerk decision to build a permanent, full land based on the PG-13 20th Century Fox action movie at Disney's Animal Kingdom...

And they (that is, we) were wrong. Pandora – The World of AVATAR is one of Disney's crowning Imagineering achievements, transporting guests to the bioluminescent jungles of the alien moon Pandora. Brilliantly, the land and its rides were severed from the films, taking place generations later with no need to remember the unremarkable characters or the largely-forgotten plot details.

While the breathtaking Flight of Passage simulator is by far the land's anchoring E-Ticket (and perhaps one of the best products of the simulator age in the entire world), it was the Na'vi River Journey that most intrigued fans... after all, when's the last time Disney built a meandering, peaceful, boat-based dark ride? While Na'vi River Journey could stand to double its length, it houses by far the world's most impressive Audio-Animatronic... The Shaman of Songs resides in a grotto at the ride's end, conducting the interconnected flora and fauna of the harmonious jungles of Mo'ara in a spiritual song that's as inspiring as it is entrancing. The Shaman herself is absolute art, and Imagineering fans could literally watch the figure for hours in speechless wonder.

Conclusion

The 21st century has shown that animatronics are not make-or-break when it comes to an attraction’s success. Transformers: The Ride is an incredible, action-filled thrill ride without a single animatronic, and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem doesn’t need a robotic Gru to be captivating, heartwarming, and fun.

Even still, there’s something powerful about seeing a character come to life in the old-fashioned, glasses-free kind of 3D. Sure, Spider-Man leaping onto the hood of your SCOOP virtually is stunning and awe-inspiring, but folks are still just as captivated by the hairy leg of that pirate of the Caribbean, aren’t they? That sort of visceral, “real” experience is important, and even if new genres leave animatronics out, we don’t ever expect them to disappear completely. Have you seen all of the figures on our list? Which took your breath away? 

Image: Disney

Figures retired or bumped from this list:
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There are 5 comments.

Where is the Dragon who is under Sleeping Beauty castle in Paris? I think that is impressive, too. Maybe not as Imothep or the Dwarfs, but still great

What about the Dragon in Harry Potter and the forbidden journey ?!!!

There was a robot in the pre show to Walt Disney World magic Kingdom Alien Encounter (now closed) that was simply incredible! It's movements and expressions were so real.

The cowboy (forget who its supposed to be...) in the American Adventure at Epcot is very cool. I love every time when he spins his lasso. Mr. Potato Head at Toy Midway Mania at Hollywood Studios has issues sometimes... we watched him take his ear out, miss putting it back it, so he kind of just dropped it on the floor. And that 'disco Yeti' is fooling no one. Fix it!!!

I so miss the days of the 'real' Yeti at Animal Kingdom. Nowhere near the same now.

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