WDW Chronicles: Obama in Hall of Presidents

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the August 19, 2014 Issue #778 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Hall of Presidents"The American dream is as old as our founding, but as timeless as our hopes. It is born every day in the heart of every child who wakes up in a land of limitless possibilities, in a country where 'We the people' means all the people. We may come from different places and believe in different things, but what makes us Americans is a shared spirit.

"A spirit of courage and determination, of honor and generosity. It is a spirit grounded in the generations that have gone before us, but open to the unimaginable discoveries and possibilities on the horizon that lies ahead.

"Let us enjoy it, cherish it, defend it, and pass it on to our children as the bright and beautiful blessing it is. This enduring American Dream."

That is the speech that the audio-animatronics President Obama recites several times a day, every day, at The Hall of Presidents in the Magic Kingdom.

Whatever your political affiliation or personal opinion of the President, most Disney fans can admit that the 700-seat The Hall of Presidents attraction theater is a pretty impressive achievement.

The entire show may not be as entertaining as some people might want but the technological advancements as well as the overwhelming attention to detail is astounding. For instance, President Franklin Roosevelt wears polio braces under his pant legs as he did in real life, even though they are never seen by the audience.

When The Hall of Presidents opened in 1971, President Richard Nixon was in office. Since that time, seven presidents have been added to the attraction, bringing the total number up to 43 presidents. President Obama is the most recent addition, added in 2009, with much publicity.

If Barack Obama is the 44th president, why are there only 43 men standing on the Hall of Presidents stage when the curtain rises? Obama is the 44th president, but Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, so he is both the 22nd and 24th president.

President Obama recorded a recitation of the oath of office and the above speech on March 4, 2009 in the White House Map Room — the same room where he retook the actual oath after a minor flub on Inauguration Day — to accommodate the WDW attraction theater's new updated sound system. The speech was written by Obama's speechwriter, Jon Favreau (not the director of the Iron Man movies).

The sound quality wasn't optimum for the recording in the room, so White House staff placed upholstered screens around the room to achieve good acoustic quality.

"That speech took a village," said Pamela Fisher, the senior Disney show writer and director on the project. "Mr. Obama had seen renderings of the final audio-animatronics and told me that we had made him better-looking than he was. It is quite an experience to arrive in the White House and actually be present when the president records his speech for the Hall of Presidents."

Fisher and Kathy Rogers, Imagineering senior show producer, both flew to Washington, D.C. to guide the president through the recording. Afterward, they were both given a private tour of the White House.

Recorded in a 20-minute session videotaped at the White House, the real Obama got a another shot at taking the oath of office (nailing it correctly 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 http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/Behind-the-Scenes-President-Obama-and-Disneys-Hall-of-Presidents/)

The audio-animatronics figure of President Barack Obama incorporated new ways to integrate an array of subtle movements and facial expressions (thanks to a more flexible silicone skin) into the figure. The figure was similar in advanced technology to the Captain Jack Sparrow figure installed in The Pirates of the Caribbean attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

"The new President Obama figure is the most dynamic figure Disney has ever created. We're very proud of the technological advances that allow this to make him come to life so realistically," Imagineering Senior Vice President Eric Jacobson said. "We are sticklers for detail. This is as authentic and lifelike as we can make it."

As a result, the audio-animatronics Obama purses its lips to pronounce its "b's" and "p's" in a way that was described as "frighteningly evocative of the real one," and raises its hands, open-palmed, while shrugging its shoulders, in a way that can only be described as "Obamaesque." 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.

Even with all the publicity surrounding the new figure, which was built with great secrecy in the Los Angeles area, The Walt Disney Company refused to reveal how much it cost to build. However, as a rough comparison, around the same time, Disney spent more than $3 million building and programming a human-size version of Luxo Jr., the lifelike desk lamp mascot of Pixar Studios, to perform a variety of three-minute routines at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Disney legend Blaine Gibson sculpted every president except Obama. His protege, Disney sculptor Valerie Edwards, sculpted Obama with supervision by Gibson, who was 91 years old at the time.

Edwards, who was a 21-year veteran of the company, studied hundreds of photos and hours of video in order to capture every physical attribute and nuance of the president's look and personality.

"Well, it's a great pressure, of course, to completely do an accurate job of somebody that's in the media so often," Edwards said. "I can watch the different speeches and I can watch his cadence as he speaks, I can watch his muscles as they move, I can see how his face changes as he speaks to see if there's any dominance in muscle."

Imagineers also worked closely with White House staff to get the proper measurements of the body and to create realistic clothing and accessories worn by the figure in the show, right down to a lapel pin and watch. Even the president's wedding ring, with its braided design, was recreated to painstaking accuracy.

Disney was diligent about working with White House staffers to make sure his clothes, hair and mannerisms were portrayed as accurately as possible.

"He's very tailored and very well-dressed all the time so that's what we were trying to achieve, and I think we did," said Janice Jones, a costumer at Walt Disney World.

The figure was built in California and then shipped and installed in Florida. Disney Imagineer John Cutry was primarily responsible for programming the 21st century reproduction of the president.

The first contemporary president to speak in the show was Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush followed eight years later. Fisher had also traveled to the White House on Disney's behalf in 2001 to capture the voice of Mr. Bush. After he had finished his "take," she said, he stiffened his arms and "started acting like he was an animatronics figure. He's got a sense of humor."

The Hall of Presidents was closed between October 31, 2008, and July 1, 2009, to undergo an extensive renovation to upgrade its audio and visual effects and systems before the installation of the Obama figure.

In addition, the entire show was rewritten and re-recorded to tell the moving story of the bond between the presidents and "We, the People," focusing on the chief executives who have guided America through trying, turbulent times. The attraction was officially renamed: "The Hall of Presidents: A Celebration of Liberty's Leaders."

"Young children watch this, and you want them to feel a sense of identification with the president," said Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian, who was recruited by Disney in 2006 to write a Hollywood-style treatment about the presidents, which became the basis for a twenty 20-minute documentary made for the exhibit. "This makes the president someone not so far removed from them."

"These presidents are human beings with their own need to withstand adversity, sometimes to conquer fear," Goodwin continued. "Yet the other side of it is that mystery of leadership. The best ones are able to give confidence and hope to the American people themselves."

Pam Fisher worked closely with Kearns Goodwin to develop the story and described the new version as "a very human story — one that we hope strikes a chord with all guests."

"The magic of the show is actually being able to see all of the presidents throughout history on this stage together," said Eric Jacobson. "We have to use all our magic to make that happen. Other surprises are on the way. All I can say now is, stay tuned."

More than a hundred people worked directly on contributing to the figure, which they playfully dubbed "Robobama." It was officially unveiled to the public on July 4, 2009.

Disney not only rewrote the show extensively but also rehabbed the home of the attraction for the first time since it opened. In addition, Disney digitized a new film narrated by actor Morgan Freeman and outfitted all 43 presidential robots with new wigs and beards, skin and wardrobe because with the repetitive movements of the figures, clothing gets stressed from the inside, especially around the elbows and knees.

The Lincoln figure now rises and delivers the Gettysburg Address in its entirety. The late actor Royal Dano, the original voice of Lincoln at the 1964 New York World's Fair, speaks for the president.

"And this is the first time George Washington will have a speaking role," said Kathy Rogers.

Actor David Morse provides the voice of George Washington. The actor also played Washington in the 2008 Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning HBO mini-series, "John Adams."

For those guests who take the time to visit, they experience a very moving patriotic tribute to the history and spirit of America just as Walt Disney desired when he originally conceived of the show in the mid-1950s.

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Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives:

Jim also writes for the AllEars® Guest Blog every other week, contributing entries under the heading of "Jim's Attic." Find his latest entry here:



Disney Historian and regular AllEars® Columnist Jim Korkis has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of several books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com.

"The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse" is more than 300 hundred pages covering the life and career of Mickey Mouse, with thousands of facts, quotes and stories about Walt Disney's famous alter-ego.

"The Vault of Walt, Volume 2: Unofficial, Unauthorized, Uncensored Disney Stories Never Told"

"Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?"

"The REVISED Vault of Walt": Paperback Version / Kindle version


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.