(LR): Jonathan Becker (Research and Development Imagineer), Josh D’Amaro (Chairman, Disney Parks, Experiences and Products), Richard-Alexandre Peloquin (Research Engineer Imagineer).

Christian Thompson

Disney’s imagineers are always on the lookout for bigger and better attractions for its theme parks – and there are few things bigger than life than the incredible Hulk.

With Project Exo, which has been in development for around two years, the company’s research and development team is trying to bring Disney’s greatest characters to life in its theme parks. The project has been under wraps since its inception, but the company recently pulled the curtain back to showcase its progress.

And it’s big.

In April at a warehouse in Glendale, California, an imagineer was playing with a huge, posable green hand and using a mechanism attached to a metal glove to clamp two massive fingers and a thumb around a tiny plastic taco. The Interaction is a game about the Hulk handing Ant-Man two tacos during Avengers: Endgame.

Close-up of an anatomical hand prototype from Disney Imagineering’s Exo project.

Walt Disney Imagineering

Another member of the team was walking around on stilts wrapped in thick black padding to create the appearance of a Hulk-sized calf and thigh.

The R&D team is gradually developing a full-body exoskeleton system in the hope that one day these characters will be able to walk through Disney’s theme parks and interact with guests.

And Bruce Banner’s alter ego isn’t the only concept Project Exo uses to test this new innovation. The group created a series of furry wampa feet based on the iconic ice creature from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

The goal is not to create a character, but a platform to create numerous characters, said Leslie Evans, Disney boss Imagineer.

“One of the exciting things about a project like this is that we have characters bringing our country to life and we have these gigantic characters that guests can see from afar … I think that’s a really exciting prospect,” she said.

Disney hasn’t revealed which characters might eventually go to the parks, but the company has no shortage of towering characters, from Mad Titan Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Baymax from the animated film “Big Hero Six”.

The company has no date on when these oversized characters will appear in the parks, Evan said. The project is still in the early stages as its engineers work on how to fuse a range of new technologies into a seamless character that not only looks real to park goers, but is comfortable and easy to use for Disney cast members as well.

Disney’s Imagineering 3D printed muscle for its exoskeleton prototype.

Walt Disney Imagineering

The group is testing 3D printing processes to create muscles that can mimic authentic humanoid movements, which was not possible with foam. These special prototypes are much lighter than traditional materials, which means that the performers don’t have to carry as much weight and can stay comfortably in the costume for longer periods of time.

A story of innovation

Innovations like this are part of Disney’s parks DNA, which dates back to the 1960s with Walt Disney’s audio animatronics, Evans said. Iconic rides like It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as attractions like the Hall of Presidents and the Enchanted Tiki Room, were up to date when they opened and continue to draw park goers.

Thousands of animatronics are used in Disney parks, most of which are stationary. More recently, Disney’s Imagineers have developed a robot called stuntronics that can swing and spin through the air. In a Spider-Man suit, this technical marvel can be observed in the air at a height of 18 meters above the roof of the WEB building on the Avengers Campus in Disneyland.

And then there is the Kiwi project. The project announced earlier this year aims to achieve the opposite of Project Exo. In private meetings with reporters, the prototype takes the form of a young Groot, barely three feet tall, waddling and cooing like a toddler who utters only three words: “I am Groot.”

Disney Imagineering’s Project Kiwi prototype.

Walt Disney Imagineering

The small, free-running robot has cameras and sensors that help it move around in space and interact with people. As with Project Exo, Disney’s goal is to create a platform that can be customized to fit a range of tiny characters that normally couldn’t be portrayed by an actor. Think: Winnie the Pooh, Baby Yoda, and Rocket Raccoon.

Project Kiwi is headed for the “play test” phase, where the Imagineers bring the character to the park to interact with guests and collect feedback. The company has not announced when and in which park this will take place.

How important it is to cross borders

As guest expectations rise, Disney’s Imagineers need to push the boundaries of technology and imagination even further. After all, new rides can make people go through the gate, but their experience convinces them to come back.

Disney has a long history of its parks’ viability prior to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, the Parks, Experiences and Consumer Products division accounted for 37% of the company’s total revenue of $ 69.6 billion.

Its theme parks around the world drew around 156 million visitors, the highest number of any theme park group this year. That is more than twice as much as the second highest Merlin Entertainment in 2019. Merlin operates Legoland, Madame Tussauds and a handful of regional parks.

Rival Universal Studios recorded 51 million visitors in 2019, but they also have far fewer locations. It is currently in the process of adding another park in Beijing and a new domestic park called Epic Universe.

Disney’s parks have constantly evolved, and these updates have resulted in park goers flocking back to revisit old attractions and experience new ones.

Only in the past two years has the company opened Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in its Florida-based Hollywood Studios Park and in Disneyland, California. It also redesigned its A Bug’s Life land at California Adventure. It’s now an Avengers campus, and it’s home to a renovated attraction in the Tower of Terror that’s now themed as Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout.

“We continue to create believable worlds and bring characters big and small to life in new and exciting ways,” said Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products. “Everything we do is innovating and providing our guests with a next-level immersive experience.”

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Studios and CNBC.