Imagineering is at its best when creating attractions with elaborate environments and dimensional show scenes inhabited by Audio Animatronics figures. Most of my favorite rides at Walt Disney World are slow-moving boat or dark rides exactly like that, and this top 10 list covers my favorite AAs in attractions at Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.
As far as technology goes, Audio Animatronics are both brand-new and decades old. In fact, the company’s fascination with Audio Animatronics began with Walt Disney himself, who stumbled upon an antique mechanical singing bird in a shop while on vacation in New Orleans. He was intrigued by this 3D animated figure, which eventually led to Imagineers developing an Abraham Lincoln Audio Animatronics figure that would go on to be used during the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair.
Around that same time, Disney began developing animated figures of birds, flowers, and tiki gods that populated the Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. That opened the floodgates, and Audio-Animatronics would go on to be an integral part of many of the attractions at the Disney parks, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, America Sings, Country Bear Jamboree, and Hall of Presidents. Then came the original EPCOT Center and a new golden age of Audio Animatronics, with seemingly every attraction having dozens of advanced AAs!
Audio Animatronics since have had their ups and downs. To be sure, many attractions from the 1990s up until today have featured AAs. But derision as creepy “robots” coupled with the rise of other technologies displacing them–not to mention the maintenance costs–has led to Audio Animatronics falling out of favor. At least, as compared to their heyday from the 1960s to 1980s.
As an old school EPCOT Center and Walt Disney World fan, I’m a huge proponent of Audio Animatronics. Most of my all-time favorite attractions to this day feature AAs. Not only that, but I strongly believe that Audio Animatronics are evergreen. While the underlying technology is now over 60 years old, the advantage AAs have over screens or other flashy tech is that few guests see Audio Animatronics in the everyday lives.
Screens are all around us, and their quality constantly evolves. The huge theaters in Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure or Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway look clear and contemporary today, but what about ~5 years from now when the Apple Vision Pro augmented reality headsets have come down in price and are ubiquitous? Will some of those rides be as laughably dated as the script in the Carousel of Progress finale?
Audio Animatronics and the scenes they inhabit are something you rarely encounter–at least done on the caliber of Walt Disney World–outside of a handful of theme parks. These scenes will continue to wow generations of audiences because they’re something that cannot be reproduced on the supercomputers we all carry around in our pockets. But I digress–this is meant to be a list of my favorite AAs, not a manifesto on why they are superior to the technical flavor of the week.
For an Audio Animatronics figure to make this list, it needs to have more than just fluid motion and impressive technology. This list is all about how the characters are brought to life and are imbued with a sense of personality. The best technology fades into the background, allowing you to suspend disbelief–and that’s true of Audio Animatronics, too.
In some cases, this is accomplished in fleeting encounters and without a line of dialogue. In other situations, the Audio Animatronics has twenty minutes to build rapport with guests. You end up caring about the character, the mission, or their fate, as the case may be. At may seem like some dystopian Westworld style stuff, but you sorta forget that they’re a robot and instead connect with the Audio Animatronics’ (artificial) humanity.
Or something like that. Anyway, on with the list of the 10 best Audio Animatronics at Walt Disney World…
T10. Hopper – We don’t see It’s Tough to Be a Bug! at Animal Kingdom as often as we probably should, but whenever we do, I find myself marveling at the Hopper Audio Animatronics figure. Pretty much single-handedly, Hopper elevates this from a simple 3D movie into something more. (I love MuppetVision and even prefer PhilharMagic to this, but Hopper is far better and more compelling than the AAs in those shows–underscoring that this is a list of Audio Animatronics, and not attractions.)
In any case, It’s Tough to Be a Bug is going extinct in the very near future in favor of a Zootopia show inside the Tree of Life. So unless Hopper packs his bags and moves to Zootopia, I’m guessing he’ll be evicted with the rest of the bugs by the end of 2024. As such, I’m putting Hopper tied for tenth rather than leaving him off the list entirely or placing him further up.
T10. Lightning McQueen – Okay, hear me out. Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy is not a great attraction. In fact, it doesn’t even crack the top 50 on our List Ranking All 91 Attractions at Walt Disney World. If you haven’t done anything on this list, it’s probably Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy. Honestly, we wouldn’t be surprised if fewer than half of you have experience it.
In any case, to whatever extent this show is enjoyable (and frankly…it sorta is!), it’s because of the impressive Lightning McQueen Audio Animatronics car. The personality of that vehicle, plus the way he interacts and jokes around with the other characters from the Cars universe are next-level.
The Lightning McQueen AA itself is pretty impressive–better than the ones in Radiator Springs Racers, thanks to a greater range of motion and an ability to dynamically engage with guests. This Lightning McQueen feels like the real character, and that plus a strong arsenal of dad jokes blows kids away and even entertains parents. Racing Academy is only-okay, but the Lightning McQueen AA is A-grade.
T10. Ursula – Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid is pretty far from perfect. Most of the Audio Animatronics (if they can even be called that) are a bit lifeless, some scenes fail to engage, and the style does it no favors. Despite that, we firmly believe it’s among the Most Underrated Rides at Walt Disney World.
One of the big reasons for that is the show-stopping Ursula scene. Coming immediately after the merriment of “Under the Sea,” guests go deeper (I guess?) under the sea into the sea witch’s lair, where we’re greeted by Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula’s pets/hench-eels. The clamshells pass into the mouth of an enormous beast’s skeleton and see Ursula singing “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” She stands at her crystal ball, surrounded by her collection of lost souls, and engages in the most life-like and dynamic motion of anything on the entire attraction.
It’s tough to separate out Ursula, the Audio Animatronics figure on the ride, and Ursula the villain in a movie I’ve seen dozens of times. Unlike Hondo (see above), I come into this with a lot of prior knowledge and love for the character. Nevertheless, this feels like a scene from a totally different ride–one that’s much better and more engaging. The moody scenery is part of that, but the Ursula AA has serious wow-factor.
9. Abraham Lincoln – Disneyland’s Lincoln is more historically significant and revered, but the Magic Kingdom version from Hall of Presidents is also worthy of inclusion on this list. In a show featuring every president, Lincoln has the most presence; his words have the most poignance.
Prior to the Hall of Presidents refurbishment a few years ago, I probably would’ve put Lincoln a bit higher on the list. His old voice acting (by Royal Dano of Twin Peaks) was superior, and gave more emotional heft to the president’s speech. I’ve gotten used to the new voice, and it’s still pretty good. Plus, I have no clue what Lincoln actually sounded like.
While I don’t think this AA gives the same weight to the words he delivers as the one in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, this Lincoln figure does give life to his rousing words. George Washington projects a similar stateliness, but none of the other AAs with speaking roles in the current version are worthy of mention.
I can see why people back at the 1964 World’s Fair freaked out when Lincoln came to life on stage, fearing ole Honest Abe had come back from the dead. (Seriously.) Lincoln only hunts vampires—he isn’t one of the undead himself.
8. Figment – EPCOT Center of the 1980s until mid-1990s probably had more Audio Animatronics per capita than anywhere on earth. I’m not joking when I say pretty much every ride had dozens. Which was part of the “problem,” as the park had a serious “imbalance” of lengthy dark rides…and little else.
Unfortunately, Epcot is no EPCOT Center, and the surviving AAs pale in comparison to what existed in the original incarnation of the park. Original Figment paired with Dreamfinder as they piloted the Dreamcatcher would top such a list.
New Figment doesn’t have quite that same spark, but he still has a ton of heart. As he introduces guests to the Imagination Lab, the character shows both his inquisitive side (which endeared him to guests in the original attraction) and mischievous side (which is arguably a bit grating later in this version) before leading guests in a rendition of the attraction’s iconic song. Figment still manages to put a smile on my face.
7. Mark Twain & Benjamin Franklin – As the dynamic duo who host the American Adventure, these two are pretty much inseparable. They each help tell the story of the United States, and do so with humor and humanity that elevates the American Adventure above a history book lesson and grants it emotional weight.
These two deliver engaging performances with a level of wit and dynamicism that it’s almost difficult to believe there are no human performers in the American Adventure. They also each perform some fairly impressive technical feats, from Benjamin Franklin walking up stairs to Mark Twain smoking his cigar to the two hosts shaking hands during the attraction’s finale. During that finale, they also provoke feelings of pride and introspection in the audience, once again demonstrating the humanity of these “robot” performers.
American Adventure is arguably deserving of several more honorable mentions: Frederick Douglass paddling down the Mississippi River, Chief Joseph delivering an impassioned plea to end his people’s suffering, Will Rogers twirling a lasso, and others.
6. Hondo Ohnaka – I’ll be honest: few things make me eyes glaze over faster than a Star Wars fan saying, “you need to see Clone Wars to fully appreciate…” I am sorry, and I mean this as no offense, but I am not watching 7 seasons of a Star Wars cartoon rendered by a Playstation 3. My favorite critics could say it’s on par with The Wire or Breaking Bad, and I still wouldn’t be persuaded.
So my initial instinct was that it was a missed opportunity to have a Chewbacca Audio Animatronics in the pre-show to Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. And I still think that would’ve been the more crowd-pleasing choice that would’ve resonated with average guests and more casual Star Wars enthusiasts, like me, who did not see a show that originally aired on Cartoon Network.
But I’ve grown to love Hondo Ohnaka of Ohnaka Transport Solutions, a smuggling operation that ‘borrows’ the Millennium Falcon. He’s got a wry sense of humor and is a lovable scoundrel, and the Audio Animatronics of Hondo in the pre-show is truly impressive. By the end of Smugglers Run, I’m not left wanting more of the UPS delivery mission, but I am further invested in the character and learning more about his (mis)adventures in space piracy.
5. Olaf & Sven – Frozen Ever After’s AAs are polarizing, with some fans being cold on the projected faces on Anna and Elsa. Now that the modernized versions have debuted in Hong Kong Disneyland, those complaints are heating up.
But the package deal of Olaf and Sven the Reindeer could thaw even the most frozen of hearts. The reindeer offers goofy comedic relief, while the quality and fluidity of the Olaf AA that sings “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” while gliding across the ice is pretty impressive.
Not only that, but Olaf’s facial expressions and mannerisms quickly reinforce the personality of Olaf from Frozen and give the figure a childlike sense of wonderment, making him something of a spiritual successor to Figment…at least in term of the Audio Animatronics figure. (What can I say—I like Olaf.)
4. Henry – Country Bear Jamboree is an ensemble performance, but Henry is the standout figure in the show. He’s not the most memorable character from the show—that honor goes to Big Al, arguably deserving of his own separate spot—but unlike the other bears who establish their personality through caricatured design or colorful song lyrics because he conveys a lot of personality through body language.
Whether it be his awkwardness when Teddi Barra flirts with him or his earnestness when dealing with the other bears, Henry’s movements say a lot, even when he doesn’t. Thanks to his animations, he’s just as animated as the more comical looking and behaving bears.
Oh, and as an added bonus, there’s Sammy the raccoon in his hat, making Henry a bit of a twofer! Here’s hoping Henry still has the same presence and personality in Country Bear Musical Jamboree.
3. Progress Dad – John, the father from Carousel of Progress, is not a technically impressive AA. For the first several scenes, he just sits there with limited range of motion, and even in the finale, his movements are fairly restrained (save for when the turkey catches fire, and he hilariously flails his arms about over his head).
Yet, the John Audio Animatronics work because they compliment his dialogue, slew of dad jokes, and direct the audience’s attention appropriately throughout the scenes. In a way, John is an emcee for the technology in the homes and other characters. The character’s AAs through the decades fulfill that role perfectly while also providing him with plenty of lowkey, “fatherly” personality.
2. Lieutenant Bek – You are the “main character” of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, living out your own ‘Star Wars’ story, and Lieutenant Bek is Robin to your Batman–or perhaps the Obi-Wan Kenobi to your Luke Skywalker. While other, more beloved or infamous characters all make cameos on the ride, Lieutenant Bek is the only one present for every phase of the multi-stage experience.
I can already anticipate some Walt Disney World fans quibbling with this choice, arguing it should’ve been Kylo Ren. And to be sure, those Audio Animatronics, especially in the climactic scene, are impressive. Ren is a menacing figure throughout the ride, but for me, he never rises to the same level of villain as during the films. (Remember, this list is about how the AAs come to life, not just their technical impressiveness.)
For me, Lieutenant Bek’s presence on board the Resistance Intersystem Transport Ship piloted by Nien Nunb is one of the coolest parts of the attraction. The ability of guests to get so close to the Audio Animatronics and be immersed in the subsequent dogfight is really cool and has me on the edge of my seat (while standing) every time. If that doesn’t convince you that Lieutenant Bek is the real star of the show (well, second to you), there’s the emotional moment at the end when you’re holding your breath while waiting to learn his fate. Perhaps we’re biased, though, as we’ve praised Lieutenant Bek as the True Hero of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
1. Shaman of Songs – As an old school Walt Disney World fan, it was difficult to put the Shaman of Songs from Na’vi River Journey at #1. It required passing over truly iconic and beloved figures, and choosing one based upon a film I don’t really even remember. And a figure in an attraction that’s otherwise only okay.
Technical wow-factor aside, what I cannot get over when riding Na’vi River Journey is how the Shaman of Songs manages to connect with guests. As you slowly approach her, her fluid and rhythmic movements are captivating and take the attraction from a misfiring attempt at discovery and exploration to one of total enchantment. Everything else melts away, as you’re entranced by this Audio Animatronics figure. The Shaman is connecting on an emotional and almost primal level.
Then, in some real crazy Rise of the Machines action, she makes eye contact with you. It’s at once surreal and special, and even though you know it’s an Audio Animatronics figure, it feels no different than when you make eye contact with a parade prince or princess. Even though the Shaman doesn’t have a tremendous amount of character development or benefit from storytelling the way other AAs above do, there’s something about her that just “clicks” with guests and also elevates Na’vi River Journey into a solid attraction. This all may sound really odd, but this beautiful marriage of technology and personality are why I feel compelled to put the Shaman above so many legacy Walt Disney World AAs.
Honorable Mention: Sonny Eclipse – Mr. Eclipse is from the planet Zork (Yew Nork, specifically) and he plays the Astro Organ, with back-up vocals from his amazing Space Angels. He performs a twenty-some minute loop of music that is infused with dad jokes that is really entertaining, during which time there’s also a ton of character development. Sonny Eclipse like a cross between Uncle Joey and someone from the Max Rebo Band, which is a good combo.
While his AA is not the most advanced that Imagineering has ever created, it’s pretty expressive, with plenty of arm flailing, eyebrow raising, and facial expressions. Between that and his charismatic performance, there’s a reason why tons of guests have fallen in love with Sonny Eclipse, and there are immediate fears whenever his stage is raised up for a refurbishment. Thanks to his charm and personability, it’s easy to see why this alien lounge lizard is so beloved.
Our very first Walt Disney World obsession as a couple was Sonny Eclipse. During our annual summer visits, we spent many a late night in the booths at Cosmic Ray’s watching Sonny perform his full sets, and at home we’d “relive” those moments by playing his full show at home.
Despite Cosmic Ray’s being busier than ever, our love for Sonny Eclipse endures. His backstory is cleverly told via his songs and his set has a hybrid comedy/musical quality reminiscent of Country Bear Jamboree. Thanks to his mix of humor, personality, catchy songs, and look, Sonny Eclipse ranked in the top 5 on our list of Top 10 (Original) Disney Parks Characters. Honestly, if this weren’t specifically a list of Audio Animatronics in attractions, Sonny Eclipse would be top 5 here, too.
That wraps up our list of the best Audio Animatronics at Walt Disney World. At this point, you might be scratching your head, wondering why several iconic Walt Disney World attractions are not represented at all. It may seem like a huge oversight to omit Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Spaceship Earth, and Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room from this list. Surely the Auctioneer, Hitchhiking Ghosts, Computer Engineer, and Jose are deserving of spots on this list.
Perhaps on a longer list. For this, I came to the conclusion that each of those are like an early-era P.T. Anderson film–great attractions that excel because of the way the ensemble cast of characters comes together. If this were a list of the top Audio Animatronics attractions, each of them would have to make the list. But it’s not. We’ve already done several ‘best of’ attractions list, and I wanted this to be distinct from those. There’s no way on earth Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy is ranking on a top list of anything (aside from maybe ‘cars’ rides, where it could edge out Tomorrowland Speedway but not the Omnibus), but that AA is absolutely deserving of recognition.
Nevertheless, I’m betting plenty of you will disagree with my choices. If it’s any consolation, I’m fairly certain I could wake up tomorrow and make an entirely new list of different Audio Animatronics figures that would be just good as this one. There are so many excellent, emotive AAs at Walt Disney World. Just remember, these is my top 10 list based on which Audio Animatronics resonate and impress my the most, not a scientifically arrived-upon list of the most technologically marvelous Audio Animatronics at Walt Disney World.
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Do you agree or disagree with my top 10 Audio-Animatronics at Walt Disney World? Think it’s absurd to have nothing from two of the biggest classics–Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion–even if they’re ensemble attractions with no singular standout? Which AAs would make your personal list of favorites? Any other thoughts about the Audio Animatronics of Walt Disney World? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!