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This Animatronic Life

This Animatronic Life

Rating: 3 votes, 5.00 average.
by , 05-13-2012 at 08:13 PM



Howdy everyone and welcome to “This Animatronic Life.” My name is Garner Holt and I’m the founder and president of Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) located in San Bernardino, CA. Some readers may recognize our name from various theme park and other projects we’ve been part of over the years.

Last year at the D-23 Expo event in Anaheim, a MiceChat moderator floated the idea of a brief column for the website based on some of my experiences working for theme parks and the creation of animatronics in general. I’m glad to share some of the stories and wonderful projects I’ve had the opportunity to be part of in 35 years of professional work in animatronics and other creations. In that time, I’ve met and worked with amazing people and even some Disney Legends, had a hand in creating some really incredible attractions, and spent lots of time agonizing over how to make something that seemed impossible come to life. Because a lot of our work is for clients like Disney and Universal, there will be a bit of editing in the secrets they’ve entrusted me with for projects over the past decade.

Since this is primarily a Disney fan oriented website, I think a little confession is in order: my company would not exist today if I weren’t a major, mega, huge Disney fan. In fact, the entire reason I began fiddling with animatronics in the first place was because as a pre-teen I fell in love with the technology at Disneyland—in Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and especially Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln—and wanted to create the things I saw there for myself. I clearly remember the day as a 12-year-old I told my parents on the trip back home from Disneyland that I didn’t want to grow up to be a veterinarian as they wished (my dad trained race horses), but instead wanted to build things like I saw at Disneyland as a career. I was about twelve at the time, but the idea stuck. I founded Garner Holt Productions (I named it that because it sounded like Walt Disney Productions) in 1977, when I was 16 and still in high school.


I’ll talk more about the foundations of GHP in a future column. Today, I wanted to share a little bit about the first time my work with animatronics brought me in touch with Disney. After that fateful day at Disneyland, a type of obsession with animatronics had taken over my imagination and I was hooked on learning everything I could about them. During the next few years, I built a series of haunted houses in my backyard that I filled with very simple animated props I built in the garage. I opened the haunted houses to the public—to my parents’ horror—and got a huge bit of publicity in the local newspaper. Hundreds of people traipsed through our house and backyard. I loved the haunted house, but my dream was to build my own Disney-style animatronic figure. In 1975, I decided to create an animatronic Uncle Sam figure to celebrate the Bicentennial the following year.

I was in ninth grade at the time, and convinced my teachers to let me work on Uncle Sam as an official school project. So I wrote the script in English class, drew the mechanical frame in drafting class, and worked on the electronics in shop class. My dad had some old angle iron in his barn and a welder, so I learned to weld some door hinges to the metal to make a very rudimentary frame. I’m sure a lot of you Disney fans have seen or have a copy of the August, 1963 issue of National Geographic Magazine. I found a dog-eared copy in my English class and was astounded to find the article about the Mr. Lincoln figure being built for the World’s Fair. Up to that point, I had never seen what the inside of an animatronic figure looked like.

I knew from pestering a Disneyland blue shirt maintenance employee what made the animatronics move: air or hydraulic “cylinders.” Knowing this felt like being in on a major industrial secret. In the advertisements of some old Machine Design magazines in the back of my drafting class, I noticed an ad for air cylinders from the Roger Howell Company in Burbank. I called them up and told them I was looking for air cylinders to build an animatronic figure with. The saleslady told me that they supplied the ones for Disneyland, too—which was a pretty encouraging fact! That year, I asked for an air compressor for Christmas. When all the other kids in the neighborhood wanted a new bike or a basketball hoop, I got an air compressor from Sears so I could run these air cylinders for the Uncle Sam I was building.


Through lots of trial and dead-ends, I finally got a real, working animatronic figure built in time for July 4, 1976. My Uncle Sam debuted at a local shopping mall and was a hit with guests. He even received coverage on the Channel 4 news. At that time, my youth gave me a lot of mileage with the very prototypical nature of the animatronic! He showed at the mall for a few weeks, until mid-summer 1976—I doubt he would have held up much longer! I knew I needed to keep pushing and plussing the figure to make it really move and look like a Disneyland animatronic. I did some more tinkering through that summer and fall, and into the next year, balancing the time spent in my garage workshop with my obligations at school. I started on “Uncle Sam II” on summer break 1977 and had him almost entirely designed later in the year—I had incorporated GHP a few months earlier, in July. I was 16 at the time.


Uncle Sam II had a number of design and functional improvements over the original. In fact, he turned out so well that I decided to film him and some friends talked me into sending the film to WED Enterprises (today’s Walt Disney Imagineering). I borrowed a camera from the A/V class at school and took the bedspread off my bed and hung it up in the garage behind Uncle Sam and filmed him going through his show. I mailed the tape in to WED with a letter (from 17-year-old me, “President of Garner Holt Productions, Inc.”!) asking someone there to take a look.

A couple of weeks later, I was out in the backyard feeding some goats we had when my grandmother yelled out the window that I had a phone call from a secretary at Disney. She said it was the secretary of someone with some ridiculous name and figured it was one of my friends razzing me. The name was Wathel Rogers!

The fans of Disney animatronics history will know the name Wathel Rogers. He is considered the father of the Audio-Animatronics technology Disney pioneered in the early 1960s. Along with a small group of other hugely talented and totally un-sung Imagineers, Wathel helped create a technology that has changed the landscape of themed entertainment in a way few others have. I first came across Wathel’s name in the Mr. Lincoln article in that old copy of National Geographic. To hear that he was interested in my Uncle Sam was a huge shock.

I ran into the house and caught my breath to steady myself before taking the call. Wathel’s secretary said he wanted to see my Uncle Sam in person and asked if he could make an appointment stop by my house the following week. I just about fainted!


The next week, Wathel and another legendary Audio-Animatronics Imagineer named Wayne Jackson drove out from Glendale to my family’s house near the old Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino. My mom and grandmother met them at the front door and plied him with cookies in the living room. I was readying Uncle Sam in my “workshop” out in the garage. They called me in and I had an almost surreal introduction to one of my heroes, Wathel Rogers, right there in my living room! I would never have believed the man in the pictures with Mr. Lincoln and Walt would be eating cookies and talking about an animatronic I had built in my own house. Talk about strange!

I invited Wathel and Wayne out to the garage to see my setup and to watch Uncle Sam go through his paces. I was probably never more nervous during a performance than I was then, not even with an audience of hundreds of people at the mall. Everything went fine, and Wathel seemed impressed that a long-haired kid could pull off a pretty convincing animatronic. We “talked shop” a little bit, and then he said something every Disney fan wishes to hear: “Well, you’ve shown me your shop. How would you like to see ours?” An invitation to WED from the father of Audio-Animatronics himself!

Of course, that was like getting invited to Oz. At the time, WED and MAPO were into production on EPCOT Center, so I was able to see a number of those great Audio-Animatronics attractions in their early forms. As Wathel walked me through WED, I met John Hench, Herb Ryman, and Marc Davis, and was led through MAPO by Dave Schweninger, another legendary name in animatronics. Needless to say, the visit to WED cemented my love for animatronics and convinced me even more that creating them was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. This year, GHP turns 35 and Disney is now my biggest client.

Through the years, I kept in touch with Wathel and would show him the latest things I was working on. I graduated early from high school so I could focus my energies on animatronics and kept making new improvements, new characters, and increasingly complex figures. During another trip to WED when I was about 19, I showed Wathel a new expressive animatronic human head I’d built. I set the head up in the old “Illusioneering” room and was running it when suddenly the door burst open and a whirlwind of a man being followed by a big cadre of underlings breezed into the room.


It was Orlando Ferrante, Disney Legend and former head of all engineering and production for WED/MAPO and one of the most important figures in the history of Disney theme park production and installation. He walked right up to my animatronic head and got in real close. After a couple of tense moments of silent inspection, he turned to Wathel and said, “This looks just like one of ours!” I exhaled and squeaked a quick thank-you. He continued, “Why are you reinventing the wheel? Why don’t you work for us?” Wathel told him it was in the works, and just as quick as he’d come in, Mr. Ferrante disappeared again. Even so, to this day I have never been an employee of Disney in any capacity, only a vendor, although at the time it was certainly my major goal in life.

Starting as a 16-year-old kid in awe of Disney animatronics and the Imagineers who created them, and having the opportunity to work on great Disney attractions is literally a dream come true. And a big part of convincing me to follow my dream was the encouragement I got from Wathel Rogers that day in my garage workshop way back in 1977 and in subsequent years. To this day, I keep the page from the National Geographic he signed for me way back then in my office, right behind my desk.

I hope to continue writing about my experiences in the animatronics and themed entertainment industry in this column in the future, if you folks are interested. I’ve been asked a number of times to speak at Disney fan events in Southern California, and I always love to hear what other fans have to say about animatronics and to answer, when I can, their questions about this wonderful technology. If you have questions you’d like to see answered in future installments, please let me know!



Garner Holt is the founder and president of Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) Located in San Bernardino, CA, GHP is the world’s largest designer and fabricator of animatronics, show action systems, special effects, and other creations for theme parks, museums, retail and dining experiences, and other attractions. Inspired by a childhood trip to Disneyland and a lifelong love of Disney theme parks, Garner founded his company when he was only 16 years old. Since 1977, GHP has created nearly 3,000 individual animatronics and hundreds of other items for clients like the Disney Theme Parks, Universal Studios, Chuck E. Cheese Restaurants, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, NASA, Lockheed-Martin, and hundreds of other clients. Find out more about Garner and GHP at www.garnerholt.com

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Updated 05-13-2012 at 08:30 PM by This Animatronic Life

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  1. planetsix's Avatar
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    I agree with danyoung ^!!!! Tell us what you've built for Disney!
  2. Country Bear's Avatar
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    Great article Garner and thank you so much for helping with our craving for theme park technologies and how they came to be. In addition to my interest in every word you plan to share with us in the future, I wondered if you might be able to speak to the progress in hardware/software technology that runs shows/AA figures over the years? I have seen pictures of the music box metal disc systems when Walt first started with AA's, up to the reel to reel systems of the 70's & 80's. I assume we do this on an Iphone now? I look forward to your every column! Thank you for sharing.
  3. chesirecat's Avatar
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    Thank you for the article Mr. Holt, it was both very well written and interesting. It is really nice to see someone who followed their passion to the limits.

    I'd be interesting to hear more about the future of AA's. I, like many, was captivated with AAs in Disneyland, like in the Country Bear Jamboree and was stunned to watch a television program describe how an air-pressurized system was used to control the figures. I just assumed that electrical motors were somehow involved.

    With the development of linear actuators, it seems that this would both make AAs more reliable, cheaper to build, and perhaps more life-like, though I am no industry expert. Also, as others have noted, increases in computing power surely would make programing a AAs show cheaper on the computer hardware end.

    With all of these possible cost saving technologies, I wonder why Disney doesn't seem interested in producing shows with a large number of AAs. Yes, shows like Bug's life have some AAs, but it seems like a step backwards as screens are utilized for most of the show.

    Obviously, maintenance becomes more an issue with an increased number of AAs, but I wonder if in the future it might be possible to build a figure with redundant linear actuators, such that if one fails a technician is automatically flagged, but the figure can also operate as needed for the show, if this isn't already done. It would be great to see a musical show with a large number of AAs of the quality of the Ariel AA.
  4. jcruise86's Avatar
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    I loved reading that--thank you for sharing that with us!
    I hope to read parts 2 through 20!
    One question, what do you think about Honda's running and stair-walking Asimo robot?
  5. Dagobert's Avatar
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    Thanks for this amazing column. It's always interesting to hear such things from someone inside the companies.
  6. C. Andrew Nelson's Avatar
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    Garner Holt, I can't even begin to properly thank you for sharing your experiences with everyone here. Your story really hit home for me. You and I are about the same age. I too had my focus and direction changed forever thanks to my first visit to Disneyland. I was so captivated by the effects and the animatronics in all the attractions that, like you, I had to know how it was done and how I could recreate it all. My cousins and I used to set up haunted houses too every year. I had full intentions of becoming an imagineer and virtually no one in my high school understood why my heroes were people like Marc Davis and John Hench instead of football players or rock stars. To me these guys and the rest of the talent at WED were rock stars. Where I differ from you is that my life took a turn in another direction in the summer of 1977 when I went to see Star Wars. Staring up at the screen in the first few moments of the film I decided then and there that I needed to do that for a living.

    Inspired by George Lucas' saga and the incredible artists & technicians at ILM who brought George's vision to life, I set out to become a visual effects artist and animator. I eventually got my break and ended up spending six years at LucasArts helping design and create games followed by four years at ILM working on the effects for the Star Wars prequels and many other films. I'm currently a VFX & animation consultant for feature films, television, commercials, and games as well as a teacher and lecturer and I sit on the Board of Directors of the Visual Effects Society. None of it would have happened had it not been for that first visit to Disneyland (and all the subsequent visits) which was like a creative and artistic awakening for me. So the entire time I was reading your article I was geeking out at how cool your experiences have been. Wathel Rogers in your living room!!! That's amazing! I've sat in dailies with George Lucas and conversed with him about efects. I've worked directly with VFX legend Dennis Muren. And I've even spent time with John Lasseter. But none of them ever stood right in my own living room! Wow!

    Sorry, didn't mean to talk so much about myself. I'm merely trying to express how much I connected with your article. (I've never been an official Disney employee either, but I've consulted on projects for them.) I love hearing success stories like yours - stories of tenacity and determination - and passing them along to students and audiences I have the privilege of speaking to. I'm going to steer several people I know to this article because they need to read your story.

    Thank you for your inspirational tale. I hope you will continue to share your experiences here. Blessings to you. (My apologies to everyone else for being so long-winded.)
  7. penguinsoda's Avatar
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    First of all, welcome to MiceChat! I'm so happy that you are sharing your stories, thoughts and history with us!

    What an amazing start! I loved reading about your early days, and am in awe how you were able to start the path to your career so successfully at such an early age! Such an inspiration! I look forward to seeing more!
  8. SAMLAND's Avatar
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    Welcome to our (MiceAge/MiceChat) World. What a great story. Looking forward to learning more.

    Sam
    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  9. DisneysMagic's Avatar
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    Very interesting article. Looking forward to more in the future. One request? When you publish article pages from magazines like you did, a clickable link to an enlarged source would make reading it a lot easier. Thanks!
    Updated 05-15-2012 at 10:00 AM by DisneysMagic
  10. tofubeast's Avatar
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    Thanks so much for sharing your inspiring story. Looking forward to your future articles!
  11. This Animatronic Life's Avatar
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    Hello to everyone and thank you for all the very kind and positive comments! GHP really is a dream come true and we get to do wonderful, amazing things every day. I'm glad the column has had such good feedback--I'll definitely have to write more now!

    A couple of you commented on the advances made in computers for running these animatronics. That's a big part of the evolution story...cams to reel-to-reel tapes, to early solid-state controllers to today's mini controllers. When I first started, my figures ran on cams I made out of cardboard. Now, our standard controllers are the size of a paperback book, can hold hours of animation data, audio, lighting cues, and have an on-board amp! A lot still depends on size of the figure we're controlling: the controller for the Ursula figure we built for Tokyo DisneySea is as big as a refrigerator, while the one for Jack Skellington at Disneyland is about the size of brick.

    Size and relative impact and price of control has gotten cheaper, but the hardware and internal materials are still a bit pricey. This has more to do with the price of animatronics than their controllers. I'll talk more about the anatomy of animatronics in a future installment...all that fun nitty-gritty stuff.

    As time goes on I'll do my best to respond to your questions where I can. Again--thanks very much for your enthusiasm! I've got something in the works for the next column already and look forward to sharing more about animatronics and GHP with you then!

    --Garner
    Updated 05-15-2012 at 06:32 PM by This Animatronic Life
  12. unkadug's Avatar
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    Love the article!

    I look forward to your upcoming articles delving into more AA minutia, trivia, and insights.
  13. MickeyMaxx's Avatar
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    Welcome to MiceAge/MiceChat, Garner! Great column, and I am so looking forward to many more as we go forward.

    Thanks!
  14. Mandrini's Avatar
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    Thanks for sharing your dream and now your reality. Life is full of wonder and real magic for those who follow their dreams...
  15. ttintagel's Avatar
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    What an amazing story! And what wonderful teachers you must have had, to encourage and support you in your efforts.
  16. Upanova's Avatar
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    I truly respect the story that Garner Holt has, he really has made his dreams come true. It was an honor and privilege to work for Garner from 1995-1997 as one of his creative team. I miss my time working there and it was truly a major learning experience for me. He runs the best company out there for Audio-Animatronics and he has improved the craft of this esoteric art. His Disney stuff is top quality and incredibly impressive. I've had to move on in my life and now I own my own theatrical business that is growing by leaps and bounds. I could have never achieved my dreams as well without learning from Garner and his philosophy. Owning a company has been the hardest things I've done in my life but I learned so much about business and the entertainment industry from my early experiences. Thank you Garner for teaching me and helping to encourage me! Christine Alducin Bogle. www.stagewestcostumes.com.
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