Disneyland and the Industrial Age: Audio-Animatronics and the Future of Work

Disneyland and the Industrial Age: Audio-Animatronics and the Future of Work

Buzz Lightyear is the epitome of the tireless robotic entertainment worker. A great example of Disneyland and the Industrial Age.


Disneyland and the Industrial Age

Below is a bit of a wandering thought piece after returning from a recent trip to Disneyland. If you don’t make it through the text, here are the key points:

  • Disneyland was built with a clear industrial age bias by using audio-animatronics to create long-running, consistent experiences
  • The choice to use robotics rather than human labor created a bifurcated workforce of transactional employees/brand ambassadors and highly skilled labor, including Imagineers.
  • This choice to eliminate middle-tier entertainment talent created the ability to manage cost reductions and efficiencies while maintaining the overall experience.
  • The choice of using audio-animatronics also means, with the exception of maintenance and energy, the largest cost for a new attraction is at its front end, which Disney has proven can be amortized over decades of service.
  • The Disney model, consciously or unconsciously, is being adopted by many firms, who are not only moving toward robots, but toward outsourcing, which also creates a bifurcated workforce that consists of highly specialized direct employees, and “non-core competency” outsource workers.
  • The lack of integration across workforce communications channels may lead to reduced innovation and lower customer brand affiliation because the people they connect with don’t necessarily represent the voice or the ears of the company.
  • The use of automation may be a major factor in the shrinking middle class of America and Europe.
  • These applications of industrial age thinking may be reducing the ability to innovate because they are disrupting the channels required to hear weak signals of change, and eliminating the risk-taking nature of management that is needed to permit individual workers to take risks that will generate new value.

Disneyland and the Industrial Age: A Deeper Analysis

As I was riding down the dark caverns of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, it struck me that Disneyland was an apt metaphor for the industrial age view of work. Although thousands of cast members and their supporting managers work at Disneyland every day, for the most part, they do not provide the tireless, repetitive, consistent, and often fascinating entrainment at Disney’s theme parks. The task of enduring performance is given over to animatronics, digital recordings, and a host of other special effects that populate Disneyland’s entertainment factory. Yes, people greet guests at the gates, sell food, process souvenir sales and operate the rides, but people visit Disney for its rides, and inside those rides are audio-animatronic characters that represent the essence of the industrial age. Those characters are wrapped in highly designed experiences, where the overall feel may appear complex, but the individual mechanisms are built for highly repetitive, endless hours of operation. Audio-animatronics, unlike more recently build adaptive robotics, do one thing, but they do that one thing very well.

Henry Ford and Walt Disney were acquaintances. Disney visited Ford’s own attraction, Greenfield Village, in April of 1940 where the Greenfield Village Journal reported: “Walt Disney, creator of the world-famous movie character, Mickey Mouse, visited the Village and Museum today. He showed great interest in everything mechanical, examining engines and old autos closely.”

I do not know if it was a direct relationship between Ford and Disney that created his vision for Disneyland’s mode of operation, or if that influence, along with a confluence of other interests, including his love for railroads and his deep personal research into American leisure time activities contributed, but however Disney arrived at it, he presaged the future of American work that is just now moving from the utopian vision of reduced work hours because of automation, to the troubling reality of a reduced standard of living as a result of automation. As Disney still knows and demonstrates through its expansion plans, it is easy to replicate the mechanical part of the Disney experience, because the mechanical and electrical components can be replicated and placed anywhere, and with enough power and a small crew of maintainers, the ride experience will work well for decades. Disney has created a factory for parks, and parks that offer entertainment with the near consistency of an automated production line.

Disney has created a factory for parks, and parks that offer entertainment with the near consistency of an automated production line.

Although Disney is a media empire that generates a huge amount of knowledge work in its other assets (like ESPN and ABC), its amusement parks offer a bifurcated labor model that looks increasingly like the American manufacturing and technology sector. Disneyland shifts labor costs from the operational side of the business to the knowledge side of the business. The park “entertainment factories” are populated with highly skilled maintenance crews and relatively lower-skilled, lower-wage employees interacting with guests and cleaning up after them. But as one retail cast member wielding a lightsaber said to me yesterday, “I’m good. I get to play with toys all day. How can that be bad.” This is a necessary part of the repeatable experience that is the “happiest place on earth” because despite any labor issues with the real working people in the parks, the rides remain will always remain an inviolable part of the experience. If real human actors were involved, they would be subject to human issues of sickness and boredom at repetition, idiosyncratic differences between cast members — and of course, any character requiring a costume would appear inconsistent, perhaps even unreal in their own way, compared to Disney’s audio-animatronic creations. Not only could Disneyland not afford to pay people to crew the rides, but the experience would also be so different, success would prove highly unlikely. Early in the development of Disneyland, several attractions featured working actors, or in some cases, native Americans. All of those are gone save the people on the parades, and increasingly, the parades are “peopled” with audio-animatronics as they are with costumed cast members.


Disney has created a good, profitable formula, one that relies on constant investment in knowledge and design (or risk a return to the days when the parks, and creativity in general, were second class investments for Disney) along with the industrial age mindset of cutting costs and automating wherever possible.

I want to balance this analysis by saying that the people who work at Disneyland seem to really enjoy it, despite many of them sounding like auto-animatronics figures as they admonish seemingly non-English speaking guests to cease their flash photography in the carefully lit interiors of their rides. The bifurcated workforce, however, appears to make movement between the operations side, and the Imagineering side a rather steep path to access, with the exception of younger cast members who go on to specialized training in the arts or engineering at various colleges or universities.

Although most businesses aren’t as entertaining as Disneyland, they are increasingly moving to the same model of customer-self-service (in the case of Disneyland that means absorbing the experience), containing costs, while testing the limits of price elasticity, and automation. Airlines ask people to check themselves in and print their own boarding passes. Online retailers automate order taking, cross-selling, and package tracking, in many cases, returns. They too have a bifurcated model, where warehouse workers stuff boxes with goods sold on the Internet while their engineers create better online experiences for customers in their information technology departments.

Although most businesses aren’t as entertaining as Disneyland, they are increasingly moving to the same model of customer-self-service (in the case of Disneyland that means absorbing the experience), containing costs, while testing the limits of price elasticity, and automation.

For the most part, Disneyland did not displace actors with its automation, but rather made the craft irrelevant, which is the ultimate expression of automation. Disneyland also created innovative forms of entertainment that allow animals and imagined beings to perform in ways that would not be possible without the technology, and it protected countless generations of real animals from the indignity of performance. I also saw the next evolution at the Toy Story Mania, where knowledge work starts to trump the industrial age, with a rather simple set of tracks and vehicles carried into video games. Although the real estate and the hardware may still be a major expense, in a ride like this, the software becomes not only the controller of the action but part of the action itself. And as this first example suggests, the immersion into the software displays makes detailing of the rest of the ride less relevant. Toy Story Mania makes me imagine a ride designed by Stanley Kubrick: white backdrops with a few well-placed props to draw attention.

When it comes to the future of work, it is hard to look at this bifurcated model and find great hope for middle class expansion. Over the course of time, automation will make it easier for fewer people to do more work, leaving for many, the mundane and the passingly-human-centric as jobs they can attain.

When it comes to the future of work, it is hard to look at this bifurcated model and find great hope for middle-class expansion. Over the course of time, automation will make it easier for fewer people to do more work, leaving for many, the mundane, and the passingly-human-centric as jobs they can attain. Disneyland offers very few places where its cast members truly develop human relationships—they act rather as brand ambassadors who reinforce expectations—they don’t create expectations. For most entertainment companies, I see the Disneyland model as the prevalent and preferred model because it keeps costs low and manages expectations consistently. Being short of surprise can also mean being short on innovation. It will be interesting to see if companies who adopt this bifurcated model of work, without the wealth of other influences available at Disney to spur innovation, will find creating the next thing so much the more difficult. My sense is that they will find it hard to innovate, as many technology companies are proving with second-rate versions of smartphones and tablets. Even Disney has taken to replicating its proven formula for theme parks around the world rather than reinventing itself and taking risks—this strategy is also very industrial age.

I look forward to my next visit to Disneyland. Next time I’ll just go along for the ride and enjoy the experience.

Other Disneyland observation

(Note: With California Adventure now open and Radiator Springs doing booming business, Disney may well have finally found the sweet spot for its former parking lot turned entertainment complex. The comments, though, still hold true as pertinent strategic and tactical advice for future Disney refurbishments and refinements.)

Disney’s California Adventure was, from the start, an attempt to create a “second gate” in Southern California that would entice people to spend more time at the Disney property. Its original design was underfunded and rushed, and it never really took off. So now Disney is proudly, at is preview center, touting that it is reimaging the park while people are still visiting it. Let me tell you, that is not a good experience. There is noise, traffic flow disruptions, and inconsistencies (I entered one gate, left from another. I could see the gate I entered earlier in the day but was forced to walk around the outside of the closed park to get out through an even further exist — all for unexplained reasons). I don’t want to visit a theme park being constructed while I am trying to have fun unless the engineering is part of the experience, and the preview center didn’t do that for me. Open up holes in the fence and let me look in. Tell me what I am seeing. Bring me into it. Don’t just put up a big wall around the future Radiator Springs and make me walk around it, or show me models — and disrupt my paths through the park. If I’m going to be inconvenienced, give me something in exchange, like an “I helped build Radiator Springs” pin. Let me drive a nail or move a board, even if it isn’t really going to be there when you finish.

And don’t tack on inconsistencies like Tron bits in Hollywood Pictures Backlot. They are out of place and disruptive. If you want people to party, do a reveal at night and a transformation. In the daytime, these elements are just confusing and distracting.

Right now, even with the World of Color show at the end of the day, California Adventure feels less than half-baked. I have great hopes for Radiator Springs when it is complete, and I hope the design goes back to the hub-and-spoke model to manage traffic.

Until they finish construction, I think Disney should open up the California Adventure gate for free as a show of good faith to the faithful.

All photos copyright 2014 by Daniel W. Rasmus

For the latest on Disneyland visit them on the web.

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Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.


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    comments user


    Nice interpretation of Disney. It’s interesting to see how the original corporate sponsorship and gee-whiz audio-animatronics have become dated, while other attractions have scrambled to keep up by not being outdated by the time they are opened. The cutting edge moves so fast nowadays there’s almost no time for physical construction to keep up.
    If you ever get the chance to do the “Disney Behind the Scenes” tour offered in Orlando, take it (if you haven’t)….it is an eye-opener!

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