Garner Holt, founder and president of Garner Holt Productions, with an animatronic gorilla.

Garner Holt, founder and president of Garner Holt Productions, with an animatronic gorilla. (Garner Holt Productions / April 23, 2013)

The aha moment came when a pair of parts salesmen dressed in business suits knocked on the front door and asked to speak to Mr. Garner Holt.

"My grandmother told them, 'He's out in the backyard working on his bicycle,' " Holt said. "Here I am in bare feet with my shirt off and these guys are trying to sell me parts."

In 1977, the 16-year-old businessman incorporated Garner Holt Productions, installing himself as president and chief executive.

Around that time Holt made a video of Uncle Sam in action and on a lark his friends persuaded him to send the tape to Imagineering. Made out of fence posts and cobbled-together parts, the amateur animatronic moved in 28 lifelike ways.

Soon enough, the phone rang. Holt's mom answered and told her son that somebody from Disney was on the phone. The teen was certain his friends were playing a prank on him. But they weren't. The folks at Imagineering had watched his video and were impressed. They wanted to come out to the house and see Uncle Sam for themselves.

Holt was nervous when the team from Disney showed up, but his apprehension turned to disbelief when he shook hands with his personal hero, Wathel Rogers. Considered the father of audio-animatronics, Rogers pioneered the groundbreaking technology while working at Disney in the 1950s and '60s. A commemorative window along Main Street USA pays tribute to Rogers' contributions to Disneyland.

After milk and cookies in the living room, Holt took the imagineers out to the garage to demonstrate Uncle Sam's abilities.

"When we were done I said, 'I've given you a tour of my workshop, is there any chance I can come tour your workshop?' " Holt recalled.

At the time, Imagineering (then known as WED) and the MAPO animatronics division were busy working on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland and the upcoming Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World. After the tour of the secretive workshops, talk turned to job opportunities. The imagineers were impressed with Holt's skill and drive, but encouraged him to stay in high school and go to college.

But at 16, Holt was tired of school. He decided to throw himself completely into his fledgling business.

"I figured I could always go back to school or go work for Disney," Holt said.

Thirty-five years later, Garner Holt Productions now has more than 500 animatronics in attractions at nearly every Disney theme park around the globe -- from Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster and Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage to Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure and Radiator Springs Racers.

In 2012, Garner Holt Productions acquired the complete Disney animatronics parts inventory dating back more than 40 years. The 500,000-part former MAPO inventory includes components from Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress. That means Garner Holt Productions now serves as the replacement parts manufacturer for Disney animatronics.

"I could never imagine where this company would take me, from my parents' garage to the greatest theme parks in the world," Holt said. "It’s been an incredible ride."  

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