Disney park guests will be wondering if they've accidentally stepped into Westworld instead of Disney World when they find themselves rubbing elbows with "sentient" robots on their next vacation in the not-too-distant future.
A recent article in the New York Times asking if the public is ready for "Sentient Disney Robots" is making people online trembling at the mere thought.
Tactile Character interactions involving hugs and high-fives have always been a staple at Disney parks around the world.
But due to the pandemic, meeting guest favorites like Mickey, Snow White, and Rapunzel, have been relegated to standing and waving behind stanchions in socially distanced photo ops.
While the experience is less magical than before, seeing the popular characters come to life from a distance during a global health crisis is better than seeing no characters at all.
The excitement of park character sightings literally soared to new heights with a Spider-Man attraction in the new "Avengers Campus" at Disney California Adventure park—featuring the untethered Marvel superhero being catapulted 65 feet into the air and doing a somersault.
The amazing feat, however, is performed by a "stuntronic" robot, and not an employee outfitted in a red and blue spandex suit.
The robot's landing is out of guests' view and an actor wearing the Spidey suit emerges from behind a wall for a seamless switcheroo.
It's quite a breathtaking sight, but wouldn't it be even more impressive if that "stuntronic" robot physically walked over to you and signed autographs immediately after touching ground?
That is the evolutionary thought process being explored by the tech wizards over at Disney Imagineering—the developmental arm of the Walt Disney Co. where people create and develop innovative and world-renowned Disney attractions like "Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance" and the "Haunted Mansion."
New, free-roaming robots with "cameras and sensors" that allow them to "make on-the-fly choices about what to do and say" could be the future of experiencing an up-close and personal moment with a Disney character.
One such robot created by Disney already exists and is being tested in the form of baby Groot, from Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, at their Imagineering facilities in Glendale, California.
Speaking to the New York Times, Jon Snoddy, a senior Imagineering executive, said of the three-foot-tall Groot:
"This guy represents our future. It's part of how we stay relevant."
He explained how animatronics, which are animated robots seen on rides like "it's a small world" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," are evolving to impress guests.
"A new trend that is coming into our animatronics is a level of intelligence. More believable. More outrageous."
While calling the experimental robots "sentient" might be a stretch, social media users are viewing the wildly ambitious concept of free-thinking robots as being far from improbable.
Guests visiting the parks with kids are not so sure they would welcome these automated figures in their midst.
Many people referred to Westworld, based on author Michael Crichton's 1973 film of the same name that spawned the popular HBO series in which malfunctioning androids kill visitors at a hi-tech theme park.
People also mentioned The Simpsons episode where the family is terrorized by a robot uprising while visiting "Itchy and Scratchy Land."
Josh D'Amaro, the chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, said at a virtual event in April to promote "Avengers Campus" at California Adventure:
"We think a lot about relevancy. We have an obligation to our fans, to our guests, to continue to evolve, to continue to create experiences that look new and different and pull them in. To make sure the experience is fresh and relevant.
But he acknowledged all of that was "a risk."
"There is legacy here," he added.
"People like the way things are. But we're going to keep pushing, keep making it better."
While pushing the envelope is good, time will tell if "better" is this:
Have a magical day.
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