Imagineer Wathel Rogers was the man to call whenever inanimate objects needed to come to life in grand Disney fashion. Wathel breathed life into the robotic Audio-Animatronics® figures featured in such theme park attractions as the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland and The Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World. Former senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering John Hench once recalled, “Wathel was always making everything come to life. If it was stationary and we wanted it to move, all we had to do was call Wathel and in his quiet, calm way, he’d make it work.”
Born on June 29, 1919, in Stratton, Colorado, Wathel’s unique sculpting ability became evident when, as a boy, he would make one-of-a-kind toys out of household items and other scrap material.
In 1937 he entered Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and, from there, joined The Walt Disney Studios in 1939. Wathel worked first as an assistant animator and, later, as animator on such films as Pinocchio and Bambi.
World War II briefly interrupted his tenure; in 1943, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps to serve as a staff sergeant in the photographic section. After the war he returned to Disney’s Animation Department, where he contributed to such beloved classics as Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty.
In his spare time, Wathel continued to sculpt and build toys, including model railroads, which caught Walt Disney’s attention. Soon he was asked to contribute his sculpting talent to the Studio, creating props and miniatures for live-action films including Darby O’Gill and the Little People and The Absent-Minded Professor, as well as television shows including Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro.
In 1954, Walt asked Wathel to help develop the model shop for his latest project, Disneyland. Wathel became an ace Imagineer, assisting in the construction of architectural models during the Park’s design and development phase.
One of Wathel’s greatest challenges came when Walt assigned him to help research and construct a nine-inch-tall figure of a moving and talking man. “Project Little Man,” as it was called, became the prototype of Audio-Animatronics® technology; Wathel was about to become known as “Mr. Audio-Animatronics.”
In the early 1960s, Wathel continued to pioneer the new technology. Among his greatest achievements was the development of a robotic Abraham Lincoln for the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction, which debuted at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. He also contributed to Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise; for the American Adventure at Epcot Center, he helped create the first “walking” Audio-Animatronics® figure, Benjamin Franklin.
Wathel Rogers passed away on August 25, 2000.