I was honored this week to be a guest on the WDW Today podcast with Matt Hochberg, Len Testa, Mike Newell and (the fabulous) Annette Owens. For Episode 592, they invited me to talk about one of the many projects I worked on as a writer at Walt Disney Imagineering; a project very few people actually got to see.
In the late-90s, Imagineering Research & Development was starting to think about new ways to use technology to present characters in the parks in a natural, realistic way. Audio-Animatronics had been around since the 1960s, and while there had been many advances over the years, they were still restricted to performing in a specific area within an attraction or show.
One of the first projects designed to break the ties of traditional Audio-Animatronics was a dolphin, created in partnership between R&D and a motion picture effects firm and designed to be puppeteered in real time in an aquatic environment.
The dolphin figure was tested in two different applications. I was fortunate enough to be the show writer assigned to the dolphin test conducted at The Living Seas at Epcot. In that scenario, we dubbed the dolphin DRU-1: The Dolphin Robotics Unit. A key element of the story was that researchers at The Living Seas were studying live dolphins to learn about their cognitive and problem-solving abilities - how dolphins think. DRU-1 allowed scientists to study dolphin propulsion and hydrodynamics - how dolphins move - with the potential goal of discovering newer, more efficient methods of propelling boats, ships or submarines. The story was based on real science and was a great fit for Epcot. Because of the story being told, DRU-1 was "dressed" to look like a robot and operated tethered to a power cord. The show was presented at Epcot over a five-day period in October 1999.
In a separate test run, the dolphin was dubbed Del (short for delphinius, Latin for dolphin) and presented in the water at Disney's Castaway Cay in the Bahamas. For that test, Del was operated in just the dolphin skin and under battery power. Guests selected to participate in the experience were told up front that Del was robotic, but once they found themselves in close contact with it in the water, they still behaved as though it were real.
While both of these tests with the robotic dolphin were incredibly well-received by Guests, ultimately it was determined that aquatic figures (at least at that time) would be impractical for a daily theme park operation. It was the beginning, though, of a new way of thinking about technology and characters in the parks. Eventually, it would lead to what has become known as the Living Character Initiative at WDI, producing such marvels as Lucky the Dinosaur, Muppet Mobile Lab, Turtle Talk with Crush and Chef Remy.
I recently learned that the Show Producer on the dolphin project, Roger Holzberg, has uploaded a fantastic video of DRU-1 (and Del) to YouTube. Take a look: