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Looking Back to 2009: Disney debuts "Robobama" at Hall of Presidents

After a long delay, the Donald Trump audio-animatronic has made his debut at Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents. Some have said the new robot looks like Jon Voight. Some have said he looks like a Chucky doll. One conspiracy theory is that the Disney Imagineers, assuming a Clinton victory, got a jump-start building a Hillary robot and, in order to save money, morphed the robot into President Trump.

Wonder what the reaction was to President Obama’s audio-animatronic? Read our coverage from 2009.

A robotic Donald Trump has been added to the Hall of Presidents at Disney World in Orlando. Photo from YouTube video.

The following story appeared in the pages of the St. PetersburgTimes on July 4, 2009. What follows is the text of the original story, interspersed with photos of Walt Disney’s “The Hall of Presidents” from the Times files.

'ROBOBAMA' MAKES DISNEY DEBUT

By Mark Albright, Times staff writer

In 2009 an audio-animatronic President Barack Obama was added to The Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World. Courtesy of Walt Disney.

LAKE BUENA VISTA - After an eight-month rehab and a total script rewrite, Walt Disney World on Friday reopened the Hall of Presidents with an animatronic Barack Obama in the starring role.

Two years before opening in 1971, Walt Disney Productions said "Liberty Square will recreate America's past at the time of our nation's founding. Here, shops and stores will portray the way of life in colonial days, and housed in a replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall (center) will be "One Nation Under God," an inspiring dramatization about the American Constitution and the 37 Presidents who have led our nation. In the finale, the chief executives will appear together in the "Hall of Presidents" presentation, utilizing the patented Disney "Audio-Animatronics" process of three-dimensional entertainment." Courtesy of Walt Disney.
The Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in late 2017. Animatronic Donald Trump has made his debut there. (Dewayne Bevil/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Unveiled in the patriotic Independence Day setting of 1,000 immigrants being sworn in as U.S. citizens, Obama becomes the third consecutive sitting president to land a speaking role in the 38-year-old Magic Kingdom attraction.

Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln rises from his chair to address audience in this dramatic scene from The Hall of Presidents’ attraction in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in 1973. Courtesy of Walt Disney.

Recorded in a 20-minute session videotaped at the White House, the real Obama got a another shot at taking the oath of office (this time he nailed it on the first take), then did it again when Disney producers asked that he be a bit more animated with his hands. (A White House tape of the session is posted at whitehouse.gov).

At Disney World, the mechanical Obama also delivers a short speech, Abraham Lincoln recites the full Gettysburg Address and George Washington gets his first speaking role.

Abraham Lincoln at The Hall of Presidents in 1984. Courtesy of Walt Disney.

Nicknamed “Robobama” by the artisans who created him under tight secrecy in a Los Angeles warehouse, Disney’s presidential replica is more realistic than predecessors thanks to new technology such as a more flexible silicone skin.

His mouth wraps around more sounds like “oh” than just jawing up and down. The muscles in the chin and cheeks flex as he talks. While Disney tried to program in a few of Obama’s natural shoulder gestures, some come off looking too deliberate.

“On a scale of one to 10, I’d give them a nine,” said Andrea Menozzi, a 40-year-old ComAir pilot from Miami.

In 1974 the first step in adding a new President to Walt Disney World's Hall of Presidents is this clay bust of president Gerald ford sculpted by Disney artist Blaine Gibson at WED Enterprises in California. Courtesy of Walt Disney.

Disney only permits its own photographers to take closeups to preserve the dignity of the office and ensure people don’t see the wires and robot underneath that looks like something from a Schwarzenegger movie.

More than 100 Disney staffers worked on the project.

“We are sticklers for detail,” said Eric Jacobson, a senior vice president with Disney Imagineering. “This is as authentic and lifelike as we can make it.”

Veteran Disney sculptor Blaine Gibson came out of retirement to sculpt the figure of President George W. Bush for The Hall of Presidents in 2001. Courtesy of Walt Disney.

Disney not only rebuilt the home of the attraction for the first time since it opened, but also digitized a new film and outfitted all 43 presidential robots with new hairpieces, costumes and skin (there have been 44 presidents, but historians count Grover Cleveland twice because of a gap between terms). Producers also made the story line less about wars and civil rights and more about the evolution of the presidency and how “anyone can become president.”

The updated story line was drafted in 2006 in concert with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

“I really like the way the story now comes full circle from Lincoln and slavery to Obama and his being our first black president,” said Michelle Gimenez, 31, of Orlando, a manager with Hewitt Associates. “It’s very realistic, except the president did seem a bit too pale.”

On the left, cosmetologist Mary Barnett styles the wig on a likeness of President Reagan designed for The Hall of Presidents exhibit at Walt Disney World in 1981. On the right, Walt Disney Imagineering Animator John Cutry programs an Audio-Animatronics figure of President Barack Obama for the Hall of Presidents at Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in 2009. Photos courtesy of Walt Disney.

Disney producers said they got the skin tone right, saying stage lighting can alter perceptions and reality.

Disney didn’t forget George W. Bush. The former president appears in the film rallying support with a bullhorn in the rubble of the World Trade Center. A replica of his flashy inaugural cowboy boots share lobby space with such museum-quality artifacts as Herbert Hoover’s fishing reel, John Adams’ coat buttons and Ronald Reagan’s silver belt buckle.

Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.

With the Pledge of Allegiance, third graders from Lost Lake Elementary School in Lake County, Florida celebrated Presidents Day Monday in a ceremony held in front of The Hall of Presidents at the Magic Kingdom in 2002. The festivities also commemorated the formal dedication of the George W. Bush Audio-Animatronics figure. Courtesy Walt Disney.

Jeremy King

Twitter: https://twitter.com/TBTimesArchive e-mail: [email protected]

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Looking Back to 2009: Disney debuts "Robobama" at Hall of Presidents