Walt Disney World in Orlando, hunkering down for the economic storm, is in the rare position of not having any major attractions under construction. Instead, its big summer draw, opened July 3, is the addition of President Barack Obama to the climax of its seminal Hall of Presidents attraction at the Magic Kingdom.
In Orlando, Universal and SeaWorld are both promoting summer visits by cutting the ribbon on new multimillion-dollar megacoasters. But Disney's one newsworthy capital project mostly happened by default. The company always updates the show, a solemn and patriotic tableau of robotic versions of every American president, whenever a new man takes office, so it has known since 2004, when Bush won his second term, that this upgrade was coming. It just didn't know who until November.
The Obamabot was officially unveiled, after a few days of sneak peeks, following a ceremony during which some 1,000 new citizens were sworn in. As is the tradition, Obama recorded his own monologue (in the White House Map Room). Near the end of the 20-minute show, he correctly recites the oath of office that Chief Justice John Roberts famously bungled on Inauguration Day.
The new version of the attraction, closed for its overhaul since Election Day, is narrated by actor Morgan Freeman. It was shaped by Lincoln scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin, includes the word "damn," and in a nod to conservatives, allows George W. Bush to chime in. Interestingly, George Washington is voiced by David Morse, the same man who played him in HBO's popular John Adams series.
The so-called Disney Imagineers have integrated mechanical perfections in the operation and balance controls of the Ro-bama -- you can see him gently shift his weight while he listens to others speak, the way living people do, and many of his gestures recall him. But it's mostly a new version of an old favorite, and not a slam-bang, sell-some-tickets blockbuster (Expedition Everest, Mission: Space) that was the Mouse's hallmark throughout the '90s.
If the addition doesn't wow you, it's perhaps less a symptom of Disney's diminished assets than it is of our increased expectations.
When Disney unveiled its first "Audio-Animatronic" figure, Abraham Lincoln, at the World's Fair in 1964, Walt Disney's godlike ability to simulate the spark of life became the trademark of his final years. Lincoln is still in the show, rising from a seated position and delivering the Gettysburg Address. But nowadays, lifelike robotics have become passé, boring children (and history-challenged parents) who'd rather hit the Haunted Mansion around the corner.
Does the new Obama figure look like Barack? Maybe more like George W. Bush with a crew cut, or like New York Gov. David Paterson after a close shave. But even though Disney's in lean times and the Hall of Presidents isn't the sexiest theme park attraction in the country, you'd have to be pretty cynical not to recognize such technology as a pretty remarkable feat, even now.
Especially now. Now that we're starting to appreciate again the resources it takes to build something daring and new, maybe we can also take less for granted and rediscover the effortless virtuosity behind old things that were once looked upon as hopelessly quaint.
"And as our journeys continue," says Freeman in introduction to the 44 presidential figures, "what once seemed revolutionary now seems profoundly simple." It can work the other way, too.
The Ro-bama isn't a roller coaster, but if you think about what it took to make him, it's still a thrill.