Garner Holt Productions, a very special company that manufactures magical devices for your favorite theme parks, turns 35 today. But who is Garner Holt? Let’s turn the clock back to 1976 . . .
Imagine a Disney Imagineer showing up at your parent’s house to check out the animatronic Uncle Sam that you had built.
And you’re barely 16 years old.
Garner Holt had constructed a fairly remarkable Uncle Sam animatronic figure for the Bicentennial Celebration of 1976. Word of Garner’s accomplishment made its way to WED and to the attention of Disney Imagineer Wathel Rogers. A year later, Garner formed Garner Holt Productions while still in high school.
Most of the early work that Garner Holt Productions focused on were some low-budget haunted houses and some retail environments. Garner developed an animatronic parrot that was a second generation, so to speak, of the Tiki Room birds. Sequoia Creative got wind of the bird and asked Garner Holt Productions to help out. This led to Garner meeting Bob Gurr and eventually getting contract work with Disney. Eventually, the Company would be the first outside agency to create a fully-compliant animatronic for Disney with the Jack Skellington figure for the Haunted Mansion Holiday at Disneyland.
After the success of Jack Skellington, the Company would go on to create over 400 figures for Disney theme parks worldwide and 500 animatronic shows for Chuck E. Cheese restaurants. Over the past 35 years, they’ve created over 3,500 animatronic figures in over 30 countries on five continents (whew!).
Garner explains the growth of Garner Holt Productions:
Since I founded the company, we’ve built almost 3,500 animatronic figures. I started out building simple little skulls that talked. We’re building a velociraptor right now with almost a hundred functions. What we do every day here now would have been unimaginable when I started out.
Over the years, Garner Holt Productions has expanded into more than animatronic figures for theme parks and restaurants. Their litany of services also includes parade floats, show action equipment, props, sets, scenery, puppets, video/media and costumes. They have worked on everything from small exhibits to entire theme parks
Most recently, the Company has been directly involved with projects for Cars Land at Disney California Adventure and an attraction for Hong Kong Disneyland. Chances are, if you’ve visited a Disney park (or theme park in any one of 30 other countries around the globe), then you’ve likely experienced a Garner Holt production.
I had the opportunity to ask Disney Legend and Imagineer, Bob Gurr, about his thoughts on Garner and his relationship with the Company. He also adds some insight into Garner Holt Productions’ new partnership with Disney.
In May 1995, Garner Holt asked me to help with a new project he had for a theme park in Korea. He was operating out of a very small industrial area shop, building mostly human and small animal sized animations. But his new project was to be 40 feet tall and weigh several tons.
We joked that there’s a giant difference between a critter that would fall off a work bench and an outdoor tower than could fall in a 100 MPH wind. The first incident might whack your foot, but the second instance would surely kill you. Thus a need for actual engineering.
Neither Garner nor I ever had any engineering training, but we’d find a way to safely design and build this giant tower – giant for him anyway. So I did the main structure, Garner’s fabricators did the rest. This required stress analysis and some civil engineering calculations, which I could easily do, but not officially sign off on the documents. But somehow, building and installing the whole thing turned out to be the more important requirement. The tower still stands today.
Over a three year period I helped Garner with four interesting projects leading ultimately to a very productive relationship with Disneyland as well as other Disney theme parks world wide. Garner and Disney have recently completed an agreement whereby Garner inherits all of Imagineering’s historic animation and show production designs and tooling, and will furnish much of Disney’s future show production requirements.
On a recent Friday the thirteenth I was a VIP guest at a BBQ ceremony honoring this historic Disney to Garner Holt transition. I was the only person in attendance that has lived the entire saga from Walt’s tiny Studio Machine Shop in late 1954 thru larger shops, eventually the vast MAPO animation and fabrication, then on to the Disney Show Design and Production, and Finally Garner Holt Productions.
Just in time for Garner Holt Productions’ 35th anniversary, they have taken on the great responsibility of the legendary MAPO division of Walt Disney Imagineering. I think you’d all agree that Garner’s 35 year journey has been nothing short of extraordinary. We can’t wait to see what the next 35 years brings!
Do you want to read more about working with theme parks, animatronics and Disney? Check out these other great titles!
- Building a Better Mouse by Steve Alcorn and David Green
ImagiNERDing is written and edited by George Taylor
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