One of the most amazing things that Imagineering and Walt Disney ever created was the idea of audio-animatronic figures in attractions and rides at Disney Parks, and the idea began with two bags of wind-up toys in a hotel in Europe.
In mid-1949, Walt and his wife Lillian and their two daughters Diane and Sharon took a family vacation to Europe. The family visited France, Switzerland, and Ireland, among other countries. One day, after Walt had spent an afternoon alone shopping in Paris, he returned to the family’s hotel room with two big bags full of wind-up toys. Not only were his daughters completely entertained by the toys, but Walt also was intrigued.
“It’s amazing that you can get such interesting movement from a very simple mechanism,” Walt said aloud to his family.
Some of the toys from that venture are on display in Gallery 7 at The Walt Disney Family Museum. Diane Disney once described the toys as “possibly the forerunners of Audio-Animatronics.”
Today, Guests at Disney Parks can enjoy audio-animatronic figures at many of the parks’ attractions. There are audio-animatronic figures at attractions, such as Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Haunted Mansion attraction, and the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, among others.
And as lifelike as those audio-animatronic figures are, there are many things they can’t do. For example, they can’t get dressed by themselves. They can’t keep their clothes on. They can’t change their clothing, should there be a snag in their pants or a hole in their shirts. That’s where Lupe de Santiago always came in.
Mexico-native Lupe de Santiago dreamt of working for Disney. Now she’s the cast member behind many of @Disneyland’s nearly 1,000 Audio-Animatronics® figures and featured in #OneDayAtDisney. More on her Disney dream, almost two decades in the making: https://t.co/Ff1GXepCiv pic.twitter.com/wlCwby0MXT
— Disney Parks News (@DisneyParksNews) March 6, 2020
de Santiago is a seamstress, and she has years of experience dressing the audio-animatronic robots Guests see in the attractions at Disneyland. She says dressing the figures in the attractions is very different than helping an actual person get dressed.
“With a human being, you can say, ‘Can you move your arm? Can you put your leg up?’” said de Santiago. “With the animatronics, you cannot say, ‘Can you move?’”
Audio animatronic figures at Disneyland each have three costumes to their names since the costumes must be cleaned and repaired; that way, there’s always a spare. Some of the figures have more costumes, especially if their place inside an attraction involves them sitting in water (like some inside the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction).
de Santiago has several obstacles in her way when a figure is in need of a change of clothes.
First, she has to be very careful when she’s trying to get to some of the figures. Some of the Pirates are leaning out of windows. And imagine what she must do when she’s trying to get to the buccaneers who sit on the bridge inside the attraction!
Then she has to deal with the wear and tear of the costumes on the figures. Because the characters are constantly moving, wear and tear happens very quickly on some of the costumes, even though the figures have “body protectors” that do their best to keep the mechanisms of the figures from touching the fabric of the costumes.
And then there’s the challenge that comes from hydraulic oil leaking onto the fabric of the costumes from time to time, except for Mr. Potato Head at the Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney California Adventure. He leaks hydraulic oil so often, his costume is changed every day of the week!
For this reason, Mr. Potato Head owns 12 costumes, instead of three.