As a guy who started his own company before he graduated from high school, Garner Holt is just a big kid who owns a giant toy factory.
"I feel like I've never worked a day in my life," said the founder and president of Garner Holt Productions, the world's largest animatronics maker.
Located across from a string of high-voltage power lines near San Bernardino International Airport, Garner Holt Productions is tucked into an industrial park that remains hidden from most theme park fans.
Inside the 60,000-square-foot design and production facility a team of 50 engineers, programmers, mechanics, tailors and artisans turn theme park ride concepts into reality. The scenic shop handles everything from sculpting, welding and woodworking to mask making, hair and costuming to sets, props and special effects.
The San Bernardino factory has been abuzz for months working on a multimillion-dollar makeover of Timber Mountain Log Ride at Knott's Berry Farm.
The 1969 log flume remains the most popular attraction at the Buena Park theme park despite decades of disregard and disrepair. The extensive renovation will add about 60 animatronic figures to 10 scenes in the classic attraction.
Over the last 35 years, Garner Holt Productions has built nearly 3,000 animatronic figures for Disney, Universal and other theme park chains around the world.
Ever since a fateful trip to Disneyland at the age of 12, Holt dreamed of working at Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative arm of the theme park giant. But it was another fateful visit by an Imagineering legend that convinced Holt he could build his own animatronics factory.
Holt's racehorse trainer father Burlin always wanted him to become a veterinarian. However, the mechanically inclined Holt loved to tear apart old televisions and radios and dreamed of owning a factory. But it wasn't until 1973 during a visit to Disneyland that Holt realized what he wanted to make in that factory: robots. Instead of caring for dogs, birds and horses, Holt wanted to create animated versions of animals, humans and mythical creatures.
"That sealed my fate for the rest of my life," Holt said. "I still remember leaning over the front seat during the car ride home and saying, 'I'm going to build theme park rides.' "
The next day Holt set up a card table in his father's garage and started building his own animatronic robot. One card table turned into two and then three. Before long there was no room left for the family's cars as the teenage tinker transformed the entire garage into his workshop.
By 1974, the family's backyard resembled a miniature Disneyland complete with a moat for Holt's version of Pirates of the Caribbean. His parents came home one day to discover their son charging the neighbor kids 25 cents each for a ride in a Skyway-style bucket dangling precariously from a taut cable.
That Halloween, Holt built his own Haunted Mansion in the backyard with talking skulls and flying bats that turned a tidy profit for the 14-year-old. The backyard maze was so impressive that the young entrepreneur was hired the following year to build haunted houses for a pair of area shopping malls.
All the while, Holt continued to return to Disneyland as much to figure out how the rides worked as to ride them.
"Early on I learned that the guys walking around in blue shirts maintained the rides," Holt said.
Inquisitive and persistent by nature, Holt asked as many questions as he could. Some blue shirts told the kid to go away. Other mechanics invited him behind the scenes to spy on the inner workings of the rides.
A poor but resourceful student, Holt convinced his teachers at Pacific High School in San Bernardino to let him work on his robot project in class. In English he wrote a script for the back story. In drafting class he sketched out the mechanical frame. In metal shop he built the skeleton. In shop class he worked out all the electrical connections.
The plan was to build an Uncle Sam animatronic to celebrate the 1976 bicentennial that would be Holt's tribute to the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction at Disneyland.
In one of his classes, Holt found a pile of magazines with advertisements for companies that sold actuators, cylinders and all the parts he needed for his project. His mother typed up some official looking form letters so he could ask for samples.
"My mom helped me keep up the ruse," Holt said. "But before long we realized what I had was a real business."
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."