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Garner Holt to talk about the future of AA figures at Saturday's Marvelous Mechanized Magic Kingdom event

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Garner Holt to talk about the future of AA figures at Saturday's Marvelous Mechanized Magic Kingdom event

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Before we get today's article started, a quick word of warning: Today is the very last day you can purchase tickets for Saturday's Marvelous Mechanized Magic Kingdom event. And if you're a theme park history buff and you don't attend this multi-media extravaganza (which is being held at the Disneyland Hotel from 4 - 11 p.m.), you're really going to regret that decision.

Why For? Because you're then going to miss out on hearing great stories from  Disney Legends like Alice Davis, X Atencio, Bob Gurr and Floyd Norman. Not to mention hearing about what's currently going on with the themed entertainment industry from in-the-know guys like Larry Nikolai, Ethan Reed and Garner Garner Holt

"And who's Garner Holt?," you ask. Well, it's funny you should ask. Because ...

Disney Legend Bill Justice programs one of the dueling portraits for the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland
Disney Legend Bill Justice programs one of the dueling portraits ghosts for Disneyland's
Haunted Mansion. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I was just talking with Roger Colton about the entertainment that the Carolwood Foundation will be presenting as part of next month's "Together Again" event. And Roger mentioned that - part of October 30th's "Story is King" panel - they'll be showing "Disneyland Showtime."  You know, that episode of "The Wonderful World of Disney" from March of 1970 where the Osmond Brothers, Kurt Russell and E.J. Peaker performed at Disneyland which featured all that great behind-the-scenes footage of how The Haunted Mansion was put together?

Which is funny. Given that - just days beforehand - I had been talking with Garner Holt about that very same episode of "The Wonderful World of Disney" and how it had changed his life.

"I saw that show on television and immediately told my parents that I wanted to go to Disneyland. So they took me to the Park and I rode Pirates and Mansion. And I was just dazzled by the Audio-Animatronic figures that I saw," Garner remembered. "And as we were driving back home, I leaned over the front seat and said 'I'm going to do that someday. Build AA figures like we saw in Disneyland today.' "

Garner Holt and his Uncle Sam robot
Garner Holt and his Uncle Sam Robot. Copyright
Garner Holt Productions Inc. All rights reserved

I know, I know. A lot of kids say things like that. But Holt was different. By that I mean: This time of year, a lot of us decorate our yards for Halloween. But how many of us build a backyard haunted house that's so successful that our local mall contacts us? Offering up an entire empty storefront so that we can then stage this same sort of seasonal show to entertain patrons at that mall?

Well, that happened to Garner when he was 15. By the time he was 16, Holt had built a robotic version of Uncle Sam. Which - given this was 1976 - the mall then put on display as part of their bicentennial celebration. And this Uncle Sam figure got so much positive press that veteran Imagineers Wathel Rogers & Wayne Jackson contacted Garner and then asked if they could come out & see the thing.

"So I showed them Uncle Sam and then toured Wathel & Wayne around the hi-tech facility where I'd built this figure. Which was my family's garage," Garner laughed. "And that I said 'well, I've given  you a tour of my workshop. Is there any chance that I can now come tour your workshop?"

The hosts of the American Adventure attraction at EPCOT, Will Rogers, Mark Twain and Ben Franklin
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And the next thing Holt knows, he's down in Glendale wandering around WED & MAPO. And the mid-to-late 1970s was a particularly terrific time to drop in on the Imagineers . Given that they were just finishing up work on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and then gearing up to do EPCOT Center.

"I remember getting to see the three heads that they'd created for the hosts of the American Adventure. Which - at that time - were Ben Franklin, Mark Twain and Will Rogers," Garner recalled. "Plus a new version of the raven for the Haunted Mansion that the Imagineers were about to install. Plus they were testing the phosphorescent pool effects for Big Thunder. There was a lot going on at WED when I first visited the place."

Which - you think - would have made Holt that much more determined to go to work for Disney. Become one of the Imagineers who actually designed & built AA figures for attractions like Epcot's American Adventure or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. But that's where you'd be wrong.

Garner Holt and a friendly gorilla AA figure
Garner Holt and friend (Garner's the one on the left)
Copyright Garner Holt Productions Inc.
All rights reserved

You see, Garner struck out on his own. Setting up a storefront operation in San Bernardino, Holt started small. Sometimes it was just him and a handful of part-time employees who built those high quality yet affordable robotic figures that Garner Holt Productions sold. Which you can now see in museums, theme parks and restaurants the world over.

Now where this story gets interesting is that - when WDI began exploring the idea of possibly out-sourcing the production of AA figures for the Disney theme parks - who did the Mouse turn to? Garner Holt Productions.

"We were offered the opportunity to build the Jack Skellington figure for Haunted Mansion Holiday. Which we jumped at," Holt said. "And since we delivered a high quality figure that performed so well at such a low price point ... Well, that got us a lot of notice."

The Jack Skellington AA figure from Disneyland's Holiday Haunted Mansion
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

 

And among the folks who have noticed the terrific work that Garner Holt Productions has done for  theme parks & restaurants ("I find it kind of amusing that two of our biggest clients - Disney and Chuck E. Cheese - are fronted by mice," Garner smiled) was the US Military. Who just recently tapped into this company's expertise with Animatronics to create a state-of-the-art training facility.

"We just finished building AA figures which will then be installed inside of this two acre building at Camp Pendleton. This facility will be used for localization of Marines before they're then sent overseas. Meaning that - inside of this building - there's a highly detailed recreation of an Afghan village. Which duplicates the exact sort of conditions that these Marines will encounter while they're out on patrol." Holt said.

"I have to admit that I really like the idea that kids who were once entertained by the figures that we make here at Garner Holt are now being taught how to be safe while they're overseas. The fact that something we built here in San Bernardino might wind up saving someone's life while they're over in Afghanistan ... Well, that's something to really be proud of," Garner continued.

Chad Imes preps props at Garner Holt for Disney's The Little Mermaid
Garner Holt fabricator Chad Imes preps props for an upcoming project.
Photo by Joshua Suddock of the Orange County Register.
All rights reserved

Mind you, these figures that Garner Holt Productions built for the US Marines aren't the only cutting edge things being created inside of this 50,000 square foot facility. If you get Garner started talking, he'll then tell you about where he sees Audio-Animatronic technology headed in the next few years. Which will possibly incorporate facial recognition software so that a character in an attraction will realize that you've been on this ride before and then vary its performance. Or better yet recognize when a Guest is hearing impaired and then automatically start using ASL as a way to communicate with this individual.

But - of course - in order to hear Holt talk about this topic, you're going to have to buy a ticket to Saturday night's event. And given that they're going to stop "Marvelous Mechanized Magic Kingdom" sales at close of business today ... NOW would be a very good time to go purchase your admission to this event.

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  • I'll be down there this weekend.  Looking forward to it!

  • Cool article ... one of the best I've read around here in quite awhile. I'm really looking forward to making a trip out west once the new DCA is completed.

  • Outsourcing their AAs is one of the most shameful things the Disney suits have ever done. And boy, have they paid for it. There's a dead dragon at Disneyland right now - one that fell apart right in front of an audience. Nice. No reflection on Mr. Holt  - from what I've heard, he built the thing to behave a certain way, but the suits tried to force it to act another, and the result was BOOM.  But I can't give Imagineering too much credit - thanks to a design flaw, the Yeti in the Expedition Everest ride worked for maybe a couple of months, then broke down and has been inanimate for 2 years. That failure, however, is also a result of outsourcing IMO. When you cut budgets and shatter morale, you're not going to get the best work out of anybody.

  • Oh, Gigglesock, shut up! You're such a troll!

    Go get a life, you loser!

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