Howdy, and welcome to the second installment of “This Animatronic Life.” Before I kick things off today, a word of thanks to all of you who wrote in with such kind and enthusiastic comments for my first article—THANKS! You all hit the nail on the head when you talked about the power of dreams, keeping your eye on the things you want to accomplish, and believing in you own imagination. Thanks so much for the great feedback and questions. I hope to be able to answer them in future installments.
On the occasion of the release of famed Imagineer and Disney Legend Bob Gurr’s new book, Design: Just for Fun, I believe it’s fitting to dedicate this column to him and to share some of my memories and background with this incredible man. Like lots of fans, I’d known about Bob for many years, ever since I became a serious student of the history of Disney theme parks and technologies. I knew that after he left Disney, Bob had worked on some major projects, particularly with Sequoia Creative, which he had co-founded with Disney Audio-Animatronics guru Dave Schweninger in 1984.
In the mid to-late-1980s, my company, Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) was still a pretty young enterprise. My projects were typically local and low-budget: haunted houses in shopping malls, and other usually retail-oriented things. One day in about 1987 I was contacted by someone from Sequoia who knew about an animatronic parrot I’d built a couple of years before. This parrot was a sort of cousin to the Tiki Room version, but had about three times the number of functions, including flapping wings (which Disney’s birds don’t do), a tail flip, head tilt, and others. At that time, Sequoia was working on a large project in Las Vegas that included a sort of Vegas Tiki Room section.
I was invited to bring my animatronic bird down to Sequoia’s studios in Sun Valley. While I was there, I was treated to a tour of their great design and production shop. At every picture of every project we passed and pretty much everything in the shop, my guide told me, “Bob Gurr designed this. Pretty clever mechanism…he also designed this…and this…” It went on like that for just about everything I saw, from the famous King Kong at Universal, to items for the 1984 Olympics, Michael Jackson, and many others. At the time, Sequoia was working on the animatronics for Rivertowne Restaurant and the Clarke Quay development in Singapore. Although there were lots of engineers and former Disney folks working there, Bob was clearly the design go-to-guy around Sequoia. I was beginning to get a glimpse at what a true mechanical genius he is, although I didn’t have the opportunity to meet him then.
Sadly, nothing ever became of the Vegas Tiki Room concept, and I didn’t cross orbits with Bob for another few years. In about 1990 I got a call from R. Duell and Associates, at the time the major and most prolific theme park design firm in the world. Founder Randall Duell was a former art director from MGM where he worked on some of the greatest films ever, including Singin’ in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz. After he left the studio, Randall worked on the infamous Freedomland project with C.V. Wood. Although almost unknown today except by those within the themed entertainment industry and very devoted fans of theme park lore, Duell had a hand in many major theme park projects, from the original Six Flags park (Six Flags Over Texas), to Marriot’s Great Adventure parks, the original Universal Studios Studio Tour, Magic Mountain, Opryland, and many others. Duell even constructed the United Kingdom and France Pavilions at Epcot. Needless to say, for a little upstart like me, a call from Duell was a big deal!
Duell was working on a park just outside Seoul in South Korea called Yong-in Farm Land, known today as Everland. The firm was designing an entirely new entrance corridor in the vein of Disney’s Main Street, USA, but with a more international flavor. The centerpiece was to be a huge fountain resembling a blooming flower, with a series of animatronic animals representing different countries around the base (like a French poodle, an English bulldog, an Indian elephant, and others), called the International Festival Flower Fountain. When they asked if I wanted the job, I immediately said yes, although I had absolutely no clue how I would pull it off. This was becoming a pattern for me: say yes to the work first without the foggiest notion of how to build it, and figure it out as I went along. In many ways, I think that kind of business and personal practice is what has made GHP so versatile and long-lasting.
This was no ordinary fountain: it was to be thirty five-feet tall, have a rotating, illuminated globe at the top, have six cartoonish animal animatronic figures around the base, a complement of scenic cartoon flowers, special effects lights and an elaborate fountain show. Plus the whole thing had to “bloom” with enormous, twelve foot-long petals opening on the main flower column. At the time, the biggest thing I’d ever built was an animatronic scientist who stood a towering 5’9”. I was really in a fix!
While contemplating how I’d gotten myself into another crazy project and wondering how I’d ever do it, I suddenly thought of a man with a reputation for great mechanical design on some of the biggest (size-wise) and most famous projects ever: Bob Gurr. I called 411 and asked if I might have his number. As luck would have it, Bob was listed, so I called him out of the blue one morning.
“Hi, Mr. Gurr,” I said. “My name’s Garner Holt, and I have a little company that builds animatronics and things, and I’ve got this project…” I told Bob about my fix and by the end of the conversation, he’d agreed to meet me and see about giving us a hand designing this monster. When I got the contract signed with Duell, the only thing that existed to illustrate what the fountain might look like was literally a napkin sketch by some park executive in Korea. Most times, this offers the designer a lot of freedom. But because I was such an unknown, failing to meet the desires of the client might have spelled certain doom for GHP. I designed a concept that helped define the fountain and its associated figures and effects, and my team at GHP later created artwork and models to show Duell. Shortly after our conversation, a couple of my staff and I met with Bob at his house. As we sat around his kitchen table with a dozen ideas spread out on loose sheets of paper, we hashed out the basic mechanical design for the huge center portion of the flower fountain.
Bob sketched up a lot of the largest and most complex mechanisms, and GHP built what he drew. Despite my early trepidations, with Bob’s help the project came together and everything worked perfectly. The fountain and its animatronics and fountain effects are still operating today. Having Bob on board for the flower fountain was wonderful in more than one way: in my capacity as a designer/builder, he was a tremendous asset to getting the project completed and operating reliably; as a Disney theme park buff, having one of Walt’s original and greatest Imagineers working on one of my projects was a dream come true. It was a bit surreal, and I couldn’t help myself from asking him about the original Mr. Lincoln animatronic figure, what it was like to work with Walt, and all sorts of other things whenever the opportunity arose.
Over the years as my company grew, I got to be pretty good friends with Bob. I always marveled at what a truly talented and generous man he is. I’d run into him at various industry and Disney fan events, and he was equally gracious in all settings, always with his trademark bubbly persona and incredible memory. Several years after the Korean flower fountain, I began work on a project that had “Bob Gurr” written all over it. It was a huge project, both in scope and scale, and was going to be the centerpiece of a massive expansion to the Caesars’ Palace Forum Shoppes in Las Vegas. Some readers might remember the huge Trojan Horse that stood at the entrance to the FAO Schwarz toy store in that addition. This was another enormous project that I needed Bob’s help to make reality.
This wasn’t just some big horse—it was a 45’ tall toy-style version of the mythic war machine. But instead of having soldiers inside, this Trojan Horse needed to hold more than a dozen animatronic figures, a series of animated gears, a moving head, special effects lighting and fog, and have space enough for a nearly 200 square-foot retail area inside the horse. This thing was huge—its head alone was the size of a motor home. Yikes! I knew I needed Bob to help design this thing. Unlike the flower fountain, this project would be located directly over the heads of thousands of shoppers. It had to be designed with safety as our main focus. Bob’s reputation for safe and reliable design was (and still is) legendary. With his help we successfully produced the Trojan Horse and it became a Vegas icon in its own right until it was removed a couple of years ago. Later in Vegas, Bob introduced me to Steve Wynn, whom he’d worked so closely with on the Treasure Island project. Subsequently, GHP did some design work for a nighttime show at the incredible Wynn Las Vegas hotel.
Because I have always been such a big Disney fan, actually getting to build things for Disney marked a major milestone and a turning point in my career. One of the earliest projects for Disney was development of a huge machine that would rescue stranded parade floats from Main Street, USA. When I got the request for a proposal, I thought, “Main Street? Wheels? Big machine? I need Bob Gurr!” I asked Bob if I could include his name on the roster of GHP folks who would work on the project if I got it, and he graciously agreed. Bob knew, as I did, that his name was valuable and stood for experience and keen know-how. I knew Disney would take GHP seriously with Bob on the team. His interest in helping me achieve a goal of doing work for Disney by agreeing to be part of my team is typical of his generosity with his experience and knowledge.
The last project Bob worked on for GHP was also the biggest. I called him up one day to tell him about it, and Bob told me he was spending lots of time biking and on cruises, and was officially retired and would no longer accept paying work. “I’m not really doing anything for money anymore,” he told me. “But I’ll always be glad to take a look at what you need me to if you’ll take me out for a bowl of soup at Mimi’s Café.” That became a running gag between us: a simple bowl of soup for the great man’s technical advice. I’ve always been glad to make the trade!
The project I needed him for was one of the opening day attractions at Tokyo DisneySea, a magnificent Little Mermaid theater show. Part of the show was the appearance of an enormous animatronic version of the evil sea witch, Ursula, whose oversized face and hands would extend out over the performers and into the first rows of the audience. The machinery necessary to make this character come to life was truly monstrous. Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) was unable to handle the work, so it was given to Walt Disney World’s Central Shops for design and fabrication. At some point, it became clear that Central Shops wouldn’t be able to handle the job either, and so I was given the opportunity to bid on it. A familiar feeling of, “How do I get myself into these things” came over me when I was awarded the contract!
The design called for a 65’ long horizontal telescoping crane-type system that was fixed to a gimbal at one end and could move about 60° on the other. At the moving end of this machine would be a 15’ tall stylized Ursula face, designed by Michael Curry. This was clearly another Bob Gurr essential job! Like the Trojan Horse, overhead safety was of prime importance in the Ursula crane. Ordinarily, something this big would be powered by high-pressure hydraulic actuators, but since the entire figure would perform over actors on the stage and some guests in the audience, we had to use electric servo actuators.
When Bob came on board for the project, he said it was a good thing I’d called him: Disney had already approached him about the Ursula project months before. The designs he’d given them were largely ignored by Disney, but they became the basis of the design we ended up building. In the end, the figure reached a full 65’ long, weighed 27 tons, the moving side traveled on railroad tracks on a specially-built bogie, and the major functions were accomplished using 5’ long actuators, all electric. It was truly a monstrous machine, but a very successful one. When Tokyo DisneySea opened, the Little Mermaid show was rated at number two in the park for guest satisfaction and number one for reliability, thanks in large part to Bob’s clarity, simplicity, and robustness of design. Not a bad trade for a bowl of soup!
There’s a lot to be said about these huge, oversized projects, and I’ll go into greater detail about them in a future column.
Bob’s career is something I think all Disney fans marvel at. His great new book—while typically detailed and full of great detail like all of Bob’s stories—represents just part of his amazing career. Speaking from the position of a fan first, and later a fellow designer on projects with Bob, and now as a friend, I think I echo the thoughts of everyone who’s met him in saying that Bob is among the finest people I’ve had the privilege to know.
One of the best compliments I’ve ever been paid came from Bob. One day while he was out at GHP, we were walking in the shop. We had about fifty animatronic figures in various states of production, some for Disney attractions, and lots of props and setwork. He turned to me and said, “You know, Garner, your shop reminds me so much of how MAPO used to be when Walt was around.” There is almost nothing in the world that is so meaningful to me as that wonderful spirit of creativity and the hum of a busy workshop that I think of when I imagine MAPO during Walt’s time, back when they built all the great things for the ’64 World’s Fair, Pirates of the Caribbean, and others in the mid to-late-1960s. That Bob would liken my little shop and GHP’s work to Disney’s back then was just about the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.
I could go on for days about how much Bob means to me, GHP, and the throng of Disney fans who adore him. He is a joyful, brilliant, infectiously creative person who is the real deal in mechanical design and innovation, too, and an exceptional artist. A couple weeks ago, I ran into Bob while waiting in line for Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure during the WDI preview. GHP was privileged to create twelve of the animated figures in the incredible new attraction. As I shook Bob’s hand he gestured around the queue and out to one of the huge rock formations in the land and said, “Garner, isn’t this just the greatest thing you’ve ever seen?! It’s beautiful! I’ve never seen something so wonderful!” He was absolutely giddy, just like a little kid going to Disneyland for the first time.
Bob has had that same true sense of joy every time we’ve met. There’s no challenge too big for him. Things that seem like mechanical nightmares at first blush are just detail problems to be solved for him—and he can solve them every time! Working with Bob has been one of the highlights of my career. To know him is a blessing. Bob has brought student tours through my shop many times over the years, and I always wonder if the kids know how significant this man is to the story of Disneyland and entertainment mechanical design. Because Bob would never let on that he has changed and charted the course of that story in so many ways and been such an inspiration to us all. To him, all those wonderful things he designed were just for the fun of it.
So, with only a touch of bias, I have to recommend wholeheartedly that everyone needs a copy of Bob’s book, Design: Just for Fun! I’ve got red copy number 194 on my office bookshelf right now!
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Meet Imagineering Legend Bob Gurr – Book Signing and Lunch – June 30, 2012
Bob Gurr is a true Disney and theme park design legend. He’s also a fantastic story teller and all around nice guy (as you read from Garner above). And lucky for us, there is a limited opportunity for you to grab a signed and numbered copy of his new book and join him for lunch at the Anabella Hotel (just behind DCA and next to the Anaheim Convention Center) on June 30th. The Collector’s Edition of his new book Design: Just for Fun has already sold out, but we’ve got the last 100 copies saved for our readers. Don’t miss out on this unique opportunity to spend time with one of the true greats of Disney Design. Sign up for the Bob Gurr Luncheon and Book Signing Today!