In an era of screens, special effects, and projection mapping, there may still be nothing more sensational for theme park fans than an encounter with a good, old-fashioned animatronic. Since the technology's debut in 1963, Audio-Animatronics have become industry-standard storytelling tools, bringing to life everything from pirates to princesses; dinosaurs to dragons. That's why our must-read Countdown: 25 Best Animatronics on Earth feature is one of the most-read here at Theme Park Tourist, celebrating the most astounding animatronic encounters on E-Ticket attractions the world over.
But for those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground, a number of well-known animatronic figures are scattered across theme park paths, simply there to expand the worlds of "yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy" and present one-of-a-kind encounters outside of the parks' rides and attractions.
Today, we'll take a look at some of the animatronic figures you can find at Disney and Universal Parks without being on a ride... or even stepping into a ride queue. Some are fabled, can't-miss classics, while others are so hidden, you may not have known they existed! For each entry, we'll include the link to a video showcasing the figure in action.
1. The Barker Birds
Location: Adventureland at Disneyland
Video: "Better come see this thing!"
When fans discuss Walt Disney's classic favorites, the Modern Marvel: The Enchanted Tiki Room is an essential. Opened in 1963, the attraction and the accompanying Tahitian Terrace dinner theater debuted right at the height of the "Tiki Craze" (aligning with Hawaii's entrance into the U.S.) and Americans' fascination with all things Polynesian. Of course, the Enchanted Tiki Room served as the debut of Disney's patented Audio-Animatronics figures. (In fact, we still rate its avian cast among the world's best.) So groundbreaking was the very concept that Walt and his designers figured that guests wouldn't understand exactly what awaited inside.
Enter Juan (cousin to the show's emcee José, we're told), a macaw positioned atop the ride's marquee with the simple job of acting as a carnival barker, excitedly spieiling to attract guests to the show. Juan would chirp, whistle, and – of course – speak, giving guests a glimpse of the wonders that would await inside. But the seemingly intelligent talking bird was so novel, he became an attraction in his own right, and guests were known to gather around and gawk at the figure with such intensity, they often cut-off the pathway leading into Adventureland! Eventually, that necessitated Juan's removal entirely.
Nearly sixty years later, another Audio-Animatronic bird found its way to Adventureland... In 2018, Disney smartly repurposed the long-underutilized remains of the Tahitian Terrance dinner theater into the retro-nostalgic Tropical Hideaway. Nestled into the Tiki Room's thatch-roofed courtyard and overlooking the rivers of the Jungle Cruise, the "Instagrammable" courtyard is filled with details that expand the Tiki Room's mythos, connect to Adventureland's larger narrative, and simultaneously pull in nods to Disney's mysterious, cross-continental secret society, S.E.A. – the Society of Explorers and Adventurers.
No doubt the Tropical Hideaway is a spot mostly designed for Disneyland's Annual Passholders to "Dole Whip and chill," acting as a crowd-holding sponge to clear up pathways ahead of the launch of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.
But a welcome detail for the fan-service food court? An Audio-Animatronic Rosita (a white cockatoo whose absense from the show's "bird-mobile" has been noted since 1963) is at the river's edge with jokes and puns to entertain guests while they dine on Dole Whips, bao buns, and sweet pineapple lumpia spring rolls. Even sweeter, the crate that supports her perch also holds a barker's hat and cane... call-backs to Juan himself and Rosita's newfound career as a barker. And she's not the only one...
2. Mr. Potato Head
Location: Pixar Pier at Disney California Adventure
Video: "Hurry, hurry, hurry!"
As you amble along the stately Victorian boardwalk of Disney California Adventure's Pixar Pier, you're meant to feel as if you've been transported back to the heyday of the Golden State's elegant, seaside pleasure parks of strung Edison bulbs, whimsical domes, and ragtime music (somewhat incomprehensibly overlaid with Pixar's decidedly-modern and non-Californian-boardwalk-set films... it's a long story... more on that when we return to the Pier later on...)
Naturally, any celebration of the state's century-old amusement piers would include classic midway games like "Break the Plate," "Ring the Bottle," and "Shoot the Duck." It's wonderfully clever that those games exist here, and that as you stroll along the boardwalk, the real ones blend seamlessly into Toy Story Midway Mania, an E-Ticket family ride with clever Toy-Story-styled digital midway games.
Rather than the toy-sized facade given to the ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios, California Adventure's version is wrapped in an appropriately-Victorian white boardwalk ballroom exterior. And fitting real seaside amusement parks, it has a "barker" spieling about the excitement awaiting inside.
Mr. Potato Head here isn't just queue line entertainment as in Florida or Japan; he's a "barker," sincerely meant to attract guests with his "Hurry, hurry hurry!" excitement. At times, Mr. Potato Head is even "live puppeted," able to call out to specific guests surrounding him and interact one-on-one with boardwalk visitors. That's what a carnival barker is supposed to be like, so leaving Mr. Potato Head out in the open for any and all guests makes him a memorable moment in a day at Disneyland.
3. The Snake
Location: Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort might've single-handedly shifted theme park design to its new, totally-immersive, film-focused, "land" based strategy. And yet, for all the enormous, industry-changing precedents it set, some of its biggest successes are the smallest details. Fans went wild over the opportunity to purchase interactive "wands" able to cast spells throughout the land, activating special effects in shop windows and beyond, but the personal-sized encounters go even further.
If you venture down the alleyway beside Diagon Alley's Magical Menagerie shop, you'll find a snake on display in the window, who will follow you as you move. Listen long enough and the slithering serpent may even speak Parseltongue (the language of serpents, first heard in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone when Harry unknowingly communicates with a Brazilian boa at the zoo)... and should you happen to be a Parselmouth yourself, you may even hear the snake's words in English instead. Its just yet another tucked-away magical encounter that'll leave Potter fans with the distinct feeling that this massive world is really built on individual encounters.