By Eric Peterson | Jul 09, 2018
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
To date, Garner Holt Productions has manufactured more than 5,000 animatronic figures for customers in 43 countries, including Disney Parks, Universal Studios, and Chuck E. Cheese.
"My family was into racing and rodeos," says Holt. "I spent most of my childhood on the back of a horse. My parents dreamed of me being a veterinarian. Then they made the fatal mistake of taking me to a place called Disneyland when I was 14."
On the ride home, Holt informed them he was going into the animatronics business, and started tinkering in the garage at home. Three years later, in 1977, he officially incorporated Garner Holt Productions when he was 16.
For the first decade, Holt cobbled together sales from retailers and other businesses, building animatronic displays for holidays and trade shows.
Then, in the late 1980s, the now-defunct theme park behind the MGM Grand in Las Vegas came calling. "I talked my way into doing all of the animatronics and the special effects for the largest ride in the park," he says.
That led to more work in Sin City, including an animatronic Trojan horse for Caesars Palace, in the 1990s, then he broke into the big leagues at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. "We got Disney's attention," says Holt. After making a few displays and floats, Holt realized his dream of working on "a classic Disney attraction" when his company built The Nightmare Before Christmas animatronics for the seasonal Halloween overlay at the Haunted Mansion in 2001.
Garner Holt Productions next built the animatronics for four Buzz Lightyear attractions at Disney parks around the world. Next came projects based on movies-turned-attractions for Finding Nemo and Cars as well as new animatronics for more classic rides, including Jungle Cruise and It's a Small World. In 2015, the company crafted a new Abominable Snowman for the Matterhorn. "We replaced the one that had been there for 30 years and made it a lot more terrifying," says Holt.
As of 2018, it's added up to "nearly 500 figures for Disney," says Holt.
But the company's market extends beyond theme parks, which account for about two-thirds of sales. Garner Holt Productions has also manufactured figures for NASA, McDonald's, the U.S. military, museums, restaurants, retailers, and individuals. The late King of Pop, Michael Jackson was a customer -- the company made him pirates and other figures for Neverland Ranch -- and other celebrities followed. One customer has $10 million of animatronics at their home.
"It could be a museum, it could be a science center, it could be a zoo," says Holt. "It could be a bedroom in a basement. We're not going to tell them no."
The military has used the company's animatronics in training simulators that replicate the conditions of urban warfare at the Infantry Immersion Center at Camp Pendleton. Holt likens it to Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland, except "[y]ou're trying to kill the pirates and they're trying to kill you."
No matter the customer, the name of the game with animatronics is realism, and Holt says that means eschewing pneumatics and hydraulics in favor of electronic actuation. "We've taken the expressiveness of animatronic figures further than anybody in the world has," says Holt. "We've really pushed electronic actuation to the limit."
Case in point: a strikingly realistic Abraham Lincoln head that the company recently developed.
Electronic actuators are more durable, faster, quieter, and smaller than a hydraulic system, plus there's no fluid to clean up if it leaks, says Holt. "Parks are really trying to get rid of all that hydraulic infrastructure," he explains.
Artists formerly used to carve figures by hand, but the process has changed in recent years. The company's technicians now utilize a 7-axis robotic arm from KUKA. "Now we use a robot to make a robot," laughs Holt. "I paid off the KUKA on the first job I did with it." Garner Holt Productions has also adopted other cutting-edge equipment, including 3D printers, waterjets, and CNC machines.
The company is on a roll in 2018. "We've doubled our sales," says Holt. "Right now, it's going fabulously. We're trying to keep up with it. . . . We're a very profitable company. We're doing very well."
The catalyst: "All of the theme-park companies are pulling out all the stops to build parks everywhere."
The operation moved from 64,000 square feet in four buildings in San Bernardino to a single 125,000-square-foot facility in Redlands in 2018. "This new place allows us to consolidate our four buildings under one roof," says Holt.
From the new mothership, he plans to steer animatronics into new territory. "We are pursuing things that have to do with AI [artificial intelligence]," says Holt. In tandem with ultra-lifelike animatronics like his Lincoln head, "They'll look you in the eye and have a conversation with you like it was a real person."
The big picture involves robots joining the workforce to drive trucks and flip burgers. "We want to put a human face on that," says Holt.
He envisions a future where visitors to Garner Holt Productions' office are greeted by a receptionist who alerts employees of their arrival. "We'll point out to you that the secretary isn't even a real person," says Holt. "We want to create the illusion of life. That's my life's work."
Challenges: "We need to continue to expand to meet the opportunities we have," says Holt. "It's all part of growth. We never bite off more than we can chew, but there's a lot out there to chew right now."
Within that, the company has been hiring in 2018, and he expects that to continue. "Just as important to us as skill, it's really important to me that this place works together as a giant family," he says, adding that it's key that his employees "play well in the sandbox together."
Opportunities: "We're getting into consumer products right now," says Holt. The concept is souvenir animatronics that allow visitors "to take a piece of the park home with you," he elaborates. "If you go on a ride and see our characters, it might be something you buy in the gift shop on your way out."
He's looking to manufacture such products in China to bring the idea to market by early 2019. "We're basically in the process of continuing to develop our own manufacturing in China with offices there," says Holt, noting that the company currently does some prototyping overseas, but manufactures its animatronics exclusively in California and ships them worldwide by air or sea.
Holt also hints at initiatives he's not quite ready to reveal. "We have some things we've been working on for some time," he says. While he won't let the cat out of the bag until the time is right, he says it builds on the "location-based entertainment" squarely in the company's wheelhouse.
Needs: With the new space in Redlands, Holt anticipates needing more staffers. Capital isn't a pressing need, but he's intrigued by the concept of a deep-pocketed partner. "We fielded investors before, but I'm still the 100 percent owner," he says. "There's always this fantasy of having somebody step in with $25 million and say, 'Let's do something that nobody's ever done before.'"