Hail to the Hall's Newest Chief
The New York Times had an article today on the addition of Barack Obama to the Hall of Presidents attraction at Walt Disney World this July:
LOS ANGELES — Barack Obama was standing on a riser inside a warehouse here, delivering an inspirational speech about the blessings of freedom, when his left index finger began to twitch uncontrollably, unnerving his aides.
The nation’s 44th president was in obvious distress. At least it looked like him. But with silicone skin and a tangled nest of wires for veins, this Obama was a 21st-century reproduction.
More specifically, it was an audio-animatronic representation of the president, as imagined by the Walt Disney Company, and assembled with the direct involvement of the White House staff — and of Mr. Obama himself. The president supplied not just his measurements, but he also recorded that speech (which was initially drafted by a Disney writer) — and yet another recitation of the oath of office, this one in Disney high-definition sound.
In that Hollywood building here, the life-size, three-dimensional figure was being put through its final tune-up, its chin rising and hands gesturing in response to technicians, in preparation for shipment to the Hall of Presidents exhibit at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
Disney officials declined to say how much it cost to build an Obama. They have cloaked the project with a blanket of secrecy befitting the Secret Service, permitting this reporter to be the only journalist thus far to view the figure up close but allowing only a Disney photographer to take its picture.
Mr. Obama has seen renderings of the figure, telling a Disney employee, Pamela Fisher, “that we had made him better-looking than he was.”
Mr. Obama is not the first president to send his voice, or inseam, to Disney World; George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were also given speaking roles in the exhibit during their terms and assisted Disney’s “imagineers” in the creation of their likenesses. But the Obama figure is assuredly the most lifelike of them all.
The public is to get its first glimpse of “Robobama,” as it is known among some handlers, on July 4. The unveiling will be in a Disney World theater, alongside animatronic figures of every other president. As in the past, the program will end with each president nodding or turning toward the audience during a roll call, as if Mount Rushmore had suddenly come alive.
“Young children watch this, and you want them to feel a sense of identification with the president,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian, who was recruited by Disney two years ago to write a Hollywood-style treatment about the presidents, which became the basis for a 20-minute documentary made for the exhibit. “This makes the president someone not so far removed from them.”
The exhibit opened in the early 1970s under the direct supervision of Walt Disney and has resulted in countless middle school term papers about the presidents. It has been closed since Election Day as it receives the biggest face-lift in its history.
The company has much riding on the exhibit, with visitors’ spending at Disney World having dipped sharply in the midst of the economic downturn.
The exhibit will open with the new film, narrated by the actor Morgan Freeman. At a certain point, the Abraham Lincoln figure will rise and speak to the audience, as it always has, but now it will deliver the Gettysburg Address in its entirety.
“And this is the first time George Washington will have a speaking role,” said Kathy Rogers, a senior show producer for Walt Disney Imagineering, the unit that oversees the creative side of the theme parks.
But the emotional high point is intended to be the introduction of the Obama figure, who will yet again be heard taking the oath.
Mr. Obama recorded this version on March 4 in the White House Map Room — the same room where he retook the oath after a minor flub on Inauguration Day — to accommodate the Disney World theater’s new sound system. At that time, Mr. Obama also read aloud a short speech to be delivered by the figure, one that ultimately passed through the computer of Jon Favreau, a presidential speechwriter.
“That speech took a village,” said Ms. Fisher, the senior Disney writer on the project who along with Ms. Rogers traveled to Washington in March to guide the president through his role.
The Obama figure’s closest forefather is not Lincoln but a modern-day Capt. Jack Sparrow. Assisted by Johnny Depp, who played the captain in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, Disney recently installed an animatronic version of the Sparrow character in the Orlando theme park.
The Obama figure is the result of attention to minute details by Disney sculptors, animators, engineers and even anatomists who pored over presidential photographs and video of him and then drew on the latest advances in robotic technology.
Thus the audio-animatronic Obama purses its lips to pronounce its b’s and p’s in a way frighteningly evocative of the real one, and raises its hands, open-palmed, while shrugging its shoulders, in a way that can only be described as Obamaesque. Even the president’s wedding ring, with its braided design, has been recreated.
After their work was done with the president, Ms. Fisher and Ms. Rogers said they were given a special tour of the White House.
For Ms. Fisher, there was a sense of déjà vu. She had traveled to the White House on Disney’s behalf in 2001 to capture the voice of Mr. Bush. After he had finished his “take,” she said, he stiffened his arms and “started acting like he was an animatronic figure.”
“He’s got a sense of humor,” she added.
John Cutry, right, testing a life-size President Obama ahead of the reopening of a Disney World exhibit.