When you think of robots in theme parks, it probably either conjures up an image of a friendly in-ride animatronic, or the evil T-70s featured in Terminator 2: 3D at Universal Studios Florida. But no matter which of these images springs to mind first, there’s one facet of theme parks that you probably never imagined would involve robots: character meet and greets. However, according to a new patent filing, that could all be changing very soon. 

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Disney has filed a new patent application that describes  “a robot that will move and physically interact like an animated character” that would be constructed with a soft body that would be “designed for reducing collision impacts during human interaction.” 

Image: Disney

The patent goes into some detail about how these characters would be created with pliable chambers that would fill with fluid or air to create a cushiony body. The robot would also be equipped with a pressure sensor and could adjust the amount of air or water inside its various cavities to respond to a child’s hug, or even a collision.

While the patent mentions that a number of prototypes are currently being designed with this soft and adaptive body, these types of robots probably won’t be seen in the parks any time in the near future, simply because Disney will likely want to do some extensive testing to ensure that these robots can interact with adults and children of all sizes without accidentally causing any kind of injury.

However, while these soft-body robots may be several years away from being used in Disney’s theme parks, the idea of robots standing in for characters isn’t actually a new one….

 It all started with a talking trash can


Push with some friends.
Image: Lucky 6.9, Wikipedia

More than two decades ago, Disney introduced a truly unique character experience: Push The Talking Trash Can! While this character wasn't fully automated, it was the resort's first foray into non-human character experiences, and was a definite hit among guests, who still mourn the loss of this character, reportedly due to a licensing issue. However, even though Push hasn't been seen around Tomorrowland for several years now, this character left quite the legacy, and paved the way for other new kinds of character experiences

Image: Mike Bonnett Jr., Flickr (license)

Fast forward about a decade after Push: The Talking Trash Can made its big debut at the Magic Kingdom, and Disney began testing a “Living Character Initiative” which was an effort to bring new, more "realistic" characters to Disney parks around the world. And the first character experience to come from this new effort was the Muppet Mobile Lab, which featured advanced animatronics as well as an interactive element, which worked together in harmony to entertain guests in a seamless way that felt natural. And in recent weeks, this concept has been refined even further... 


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