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Obama stars in updated Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World

LAKE BUENA VISTA — After an eight-month rehab and a total script rewrite, Walt Disney World on Friday reopened the Hall of Presidents with an animatronic Barack Obama in the starring role.

Unveiled in the patriotic Independence Day setting of 1,000 immigrants being sworn in as U.S. citizens, Obama becomes the third consecutive sitting president to land a speaking role in the 38-year-old Magic Kingdom attraction.

Recorded in a 20-minute session videotaped at the White House, the real Obama got a another shot at taking the oath of office (this time he nailed it on the first take), then did it again when Disney producers asked that he be a bit more animated with his hands. (A White House tape of the session is posted at whitehouse.gov).

At Disney World, the mechanical Obama also delivers a short speech, Abraham Lincoln recites the full Gettysburg Address and George Washington gets his first speaking role.

Nicknamed "Robobama" by the artisans who created him under tight secrecy in a Los Angeles warehouse, Disney's presidential replica is more realistic than predecessors thanks to new technology such as a more flexible silicone skin.

His mouth wraps around more sounds like "oh" than just jawing up and down. The muscles in the chin and cheeks flex as he talks. While Disney tried to program in a few of Obama's natural shoulder gestures, some come off looking too deliberate.

"On a scale of one to 10, I'd give them a nine," said Andrea Menozzi, a 40-year-old ComAir pilot from Miami.

Disney only permits its own photographers to take closeups to preserve the dignity of the office and ensure people don't see the wires and robot underneath that looks like something from a Schwarzenegger movie.

More than 100 Disney staffers worked on the project.

"We are sticklers for detail," said Eric Jacobson, a senior vice president with Disney Imagineering. "This is as authentic and lifelike as we can make it."

Disney not only rebuilt the home of the attraction for the first time since it opened, but also digitized a new film and outfitted all 43 presidential robots with new hairpieces, costumes and skin (there have been 44 presidents, but historians count Grover Cleveland twice because of a gap between terms). Producers also made the story line less about wars and civil rights and more about the evolution of the presidency and how "anyone can become president."

The updated story line was drafted in 2006 in concert with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

"I really like the way the story now comes full circle from Lincoln and slavery to Obama and his being our first black president," said Michelle Gimenez, 31, of Orlando, a manager with Hewitt Associates. "It's very realistic, except the president did seem a bit too pale."

Disney producers said they got the skin tone right, saying stage lighting can alter perceptions and reality.

Disney didn't forget George W. Bush. The former president appears in the film rallying support with a bullhorn in the rubble of the World Trade Center. A replica of his flashy inaugural cowboy boots share lobby space with such museum-quality artifacts as Herbert Hoover's fishing reel, John Adams' coat buttons and Ronald Reagan's silver belt buckle.

Park executives declined to reveal the cost. But to get an idea, Disney spent $3 million building and programming a human-size version of Luxo Jr., the lifelike desk lamp mascot of Pixar Studios, which performs a variety of three-minute routines at nearby Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Indeed, such mechanical living characters are taking on bit parts all over the parks since Walt Disney first warmed up to what he called audio-animatronics with the talking Abe Lincoln his company created for the 1964 World's Fair in New York. A talking robotic Remy, the rat from Ratatouille, now startles diners at the Chefs de France restaurant at Epcot, popping up from a nap while hidden under the lid of a food-serving cart.

More robotic creatures are coming to deliver small surprises. "All I can say now is, stay tuned," Jacobson said.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

fast facts

Tough times for theme parks

Central Florida theme parks this summer need all the help they can get from new attractions. Fighting a recession and rising unemployment, Orlando hotels are having a tough time filling up even with room rates at a decadelong low. Parks are discounting more than ever and have layered on free concerts with second- and third-tier rock groups. Even with the popular new Manta coaster, attendance has been weak at SeaWorld, which for the first time bundled a second day at Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa into the full-price admission of a day at the Orlando marine park. Be advised: You have to buy the full-price ticket for SeaWorld, but the extra day at Busch Gardens is good for the rest of the year. Universal Studios Florida has been forced to put off opening its new headline coaster the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. Park officials have yet to reveal an opening date during a summer season that's now half gone before back-to-school and the fall travel doldrums set in. Meanwhile, Busch Gardens, which is less reliant on long-distance vacationers, reports solid attendance for the summer.

Obama stars in updated Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World 07/03/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 10, 2009 5:20pm]

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