Monday, July 12, 2010

The 444 Charges of the Flashlight Brigade - A Disneyland´s Audio-Animatronics Story

07.12.10 - All through the night they wait, 444 silent figures frozen in a medley of sculptured attitudes. Shadows shiver and shift in the dim light of flickering bulbs, teasing smiles from boisterous pirates and caressing the soft curves of childlike cheeks. The soft lapping of underground rivers provides a background for the sharper sounds of night. A button hangs by a thread and falls, its staccato passage loud in the silence. The figures wait.

Several hours after sunrise, 21 women gather hurriedly in Disneyland's costume department. Wearing light blue smocks, slacks, and rubber-soled shoes, they greet each other in a confusion of accents — English, Spanish, German, Japanese — and quickly scan the bulletin board for their morning assignment.

The women are creative seamstresses. Every morning, 365 days a year, they climb through six of the Park's most popular attractions, checking the costumes of the 444 "Audio-Animatronic" figures inside. ("Audio-Animatronics" is the name of the process created by WED Enterprises, the Disney design and "Imagineering" firm, by which three- dimensional figures are able to speak and move in a lifelike way. The women's 444 charges "perform" in Pirates of the Caribbean, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, It's a Small World, The Haunted Mansion, Flight to the Moon and Carousel of Progress.

Gathering up vinyl bags filled with needles, pins, thread, cleaning fluid, soap, and baby powder, the ladies check the power of their flashlights and assemble in six groups.

As they head for the door, one woman calls to another: "Lori, be sure to check the fold in the 'pooped pirate's' trousers. It falls out of place during the night."

The blonde called Lori laughs and answers: "Well, he doesn't move it, that's for sure." She thinks for a second, then adds under her breath: "But sometimes I'm not so sure."

As the women enter into the world of their charges, a subtle change of mood takes place. Voices become quieter, eyes narrow in an attempt to pierce the semi-darkness, and levity disappears. The professional seamstress with a fine eye for detail now is in full command. And so is the trained athlete.

Walking one foot at a time along the narrow rim of the river inside the Pirate attraction, flashlight probing upward, Lori notices that a pirate's sash is slightly askew. Hedy, a sturdy grandmother who works out regularly at a gym, quickly and precisely climbs up to the pirate and rights the sash.

"Ah, you naughty fellow," she chides him. "Why you want to make trouble, eh?" She stands for a second as if waiting for an answer and then, chuckling, returns to the group.

Ducking under low ledges, climbing up steep rock steps, crossing back and forth over narrow bridges, the women check each figure thoroughly. One pirate's shirt shows signs of wear; a mental note is made of his number (each of the 444 figures in the attractions has a number, which the women must memorize). Tomorrow a new shirt will be exchanged for the worn one.

A beam of light picks up a sparkle of gold where it shouldn't be. Hedy rushes over and picks it up.

"It's a button," she says, glancing closely at the still figures nearest her. All join in the search for the empty buttonhole. Memories are jogged. One lady finally remembers.

"I made the dress that has these buttons on it. Let me see, it's figure number — up there!" She points to a pirate's female captive some 20 feet up on a balcony. A needle and thread are quickly produced. In minutes, the button is replaced. The silent pirates seem to smile at the women with satisfaction. The women smile back.

A voice shatters the moment, announcing that the waterfall soon will be turned on. Lori glances at her wristwatch. The show is about to start. She spurs the others on. Finally they are finished. It has taken them one and a half hours to complete their assignment.

As the weary group wanders back to the costume department, Hedy looks toward the Small World attraction and wonders aloud, "How do you think things went with our 300 'children' today?"

As if in answer to her question, a lone figure rushes by, almost running, with a small costume over her arm. Questions fly after the scurrying woman. The answers are brief: there is an emergency; a guest, probably a child wishing to share with the diminutive figures, has thrown some peppermint candy; it melted during the night; a white, brocade costume now is stained red — the stain may be permanent.

(Every figure has at least one duplicate costume, sometimes two. When a costume is damaged beyond repair, another must be made immediately.)

The women all hurry to the Small World attraction, eager to offer assistance in the crisis. Only the tiny figure looks serene, as the women frown in concentration. A chain is formed. As each soiled garment is removed, it is passed to the end of the line and the new article handed forward.

Time is running out. The sound in the attraction has been turned on, and the animation has begun — except where the crew is working. The steady beat of the figures' eyelids opening and closing mark time as the women struggle to meet the showtime deadline.

The final piece of costume is adjusted. The women sigh in relief. Their tiny charge smiles at them angelically.

Walking back to the costume department, they study the stained clothing. It looks damaged beyond repair. They will have to make another costume. But they haven't failed, the show will open on time.

Laughing and exchanging bits of gossip, the 21 women return to their sewing machines. It's time for the day's work to begin.

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