“The illusion was alarming. The tall, lonely man sits in a chair much as in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. But this is no cold stone figure; this Lincoln is man-size and so realistic it seems made of flesh and blood.”
That’s what National Geographic wrote in 1963, after seeing the animatronic Abraham Lincoln at a new theme park called Disneyland. This technological wonder was the product of Disney’s unique approach to art and engineering, which it called “Imagineering.” Decades later, I visited the Hall of Presidents to see him myself. To me, though, a child of the ’80s raised on hulking robotic promises of Voltron and Megazords, Lincoln resembled a very disappointing Chuck E. Cheese.
I didn’t quite get what made Lincoln so exciting until now, as Disney has shared details of its latest animatronic creation: a life-sized Spider-Man that will literally be fired into the air to flip, twirl, and contort through the skies at Disney California Adventure park this summer.
The attraction is part of a new Avengers expansion, which will, for better and worse, have the same aesthetic of a mid-aughts mall that the movies have. It’s here that a robotic Spider-Man will fly over the heads of guests. It’s not a hologram. It’s not an iPhone app. It’s a real-life figure soaring across the world.
Disney hasn’t shared full images or video of what this will look like in context, but you can get a glimpse of early testing in this clip from The Imagineering Story, a show about Disney’s innovation process on Disney Plus.
It demonstrates how the world’s most graceful crash-test dummy adopts perfect, Spider-Man poses while hurling through the air—an effect so convincing that even though the glorified art mannequin isn’t wearing a costume, I instantly associate it with the superhero. The robot lands softly on a large net (a net that will assuredly be hidden by Disney magic inside the park). To steal the words of National Geographic: “This is no cold stone figure . . . [but] so realistic it seems made of flesh and blood.”
In fact, the new Spider-Man is what the company dubs a “stuntronic“—a 90-pound robot that uses onboard sensors to make real-time acrobatic decisions while 60 feet in the air. I’m curious for even more details about how it works, and how Disney gets the poses just right. Can the acrobatics dynamically respond to a sudden gust of wind? Is a custom Spider-Man AI used to manage branded postures that could also keep the figure in balance? Is there a Westworld bloodbath of Spider-Man parts that have crashed and burned on a Disney backlot? I want to know! Disney declined to share all of the (gory?) details.
Maybe Disney will tell more of the story one day, or maybe it’ll remain part of the secret sauce of the company. But on the heels of Disney’s new Star Wars expansion, Galaxy’s Edge, which launched in 2019—a place that features a life-sized Millennium Falcon, along with the opportunity to build your own glowing lightsaber and drink the blue “Bantha” milk from the movies—it’s clear that Disney will continue to double down on unique, physical experiences that you can only have at its parks. It’s also clear that Imagineering is as relevant in 2020 as it was in 1960.