Animatronics: An Ever-changing Legacy of Wonder

In the same way that roller coasters revolutionized the way park guests experience thrills in motion, animatronics forever changed the way attractions’ stories are told in parks and resorts the world over.  Since Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland in California introduced animatronic figures powered by linear pneumatic cylinders controlled by early reel-to-reel tape (the “audio” in “Audio-Animatronic”) in 1963, the art and science of the unique technology has progressed to a level of incredible realism and exceptional versatility.  The Tiki Room proved that dimensional animation was both feasible and popular with guests.  Animation-heavy attractions that have followed in the ensuing half century prove, again and again, that animatronics are here to stay—both inside park gates and out.

A portrait of Garner L. Holt with one of his company’s creations. Holt founded Garner Holt Productions in 1977 while he was in high school. Today as president he operates with the help of nearly 100 employees. “We continue to develop higher realism and interactivity,” Holt said, adding that the company always also strives toward offering products that easy to use for the customers.

A portrait of Garner L. Holt with one of his company’s creations. Holt founded Garner Holt Productions in 1977 while he was in high school. Today as president he operates with the help of nearly 100 employees. “We continue to develop higher realism and interactivity,” Holt said, adding that the company always also strives toward offering products that easy to use for the customers.

Moving mechanical figures have captivated audiences for centuries, in magic shows, early stage tableaux, store windows, and the very first themed attractions.  Their early ability to fascinate remains the same for modern animatronics: dimensional mechanical figures come to life.  Today animatronics are everywhere in theme parks, themed shopping and dining, museums, casinos and many other places.  Almost all major show-centered rides open with use of animatronic technology in one form or another—from Disney’s Radiator Springs Racers and Mystic Manor, to Universal’s Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, plus countless other attractions around the world.  Animatronics are the technological and character-based vernacular of the theme experience world.

A major player in the global dispersal of animatronics in all sorts of venues, Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) has built more animatronic figures than any other organization in the world, some 4,000 individual figures since 1977.  Last summer, a dozen of the company’s animatronics debuted as the stars of Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure.  At the same time, GHP built an animated band for ROSHEN Confectionary in the Ukraine, and an exceptionally lifelike Morgan horse for the Fort Sill Museum in Lawton, Okla.

This year, GHP re-imagined the classic Timber Mountain Log Ride (1969) at Knott’s Berry Farm by designing all-new show scenes and populating them with nearly 60 animatronic people and animals.  In May, Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland opened with more than a dozen GHP animatronic figures and animated props, as did an interactive dark ride in a park in Seoul, South Korea.  GHP is in the midst of installation for animatronic elements in a major grocery store chain in the eastern United States, and is creating a new interactive animatronic exhibit for the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

However commonplace they are today, the technology of animatronics is ever-changing.  “One of my favorite aspects of this business is continuing to push the envelope in realism,” said Garner Holt, GHP’s founder and president.  “Part of our ongoing research and development effort is an all-new, self-contained, except for power, human animatronic figure with nearly eighty independent functions.  We’re also coming up with an animated velociraptor with more motion than any dinosaur animatronic in history.  We’re hoping to really challenge the way audiences think about animation and prove that with the best ideas and methods, they can look totally alive.” Both figures will debut next year and will represent some of the most sophisticated animatronics ever created, with the unique ability to be showcased almost anywhere without need of a dedicated animatronic support infrastructure.  New technologies like this can help to provide new animatronic solutions for all types of venues worldwide.

The past two-and-a-half decades have seen the rise of animatronics in new locations outside park gates, like the globally successful Rain Forest Cafes, Chuck E. Cheese FECs, and even in places like Ripley’s Believe it or Not museums.  The non-theme-oriented Eastern-European candy giant ROSHEN approached GHP to design an animatronic band for a new flagship location in Kiev last year.  “The figures and their performance are designed purely for the delight of ROSHEN’s customers,” Holt said.  “They reinforce an image of fun, high-quality products and are really a form of subtle advertising.”

The versatility of animatronics as a technology—for selling a story or a product, performing history or underscoring fun—has ensured its longevity.  Because animatronics are the ultimate actors, they can continue to define roles in all sorts of venues.  “Animatronics have captivated audiences from their first appearance,” said Holt. “Since then, we’ve tried to constantly improve, to make them available to anyone, to make them look more real, to make them better and more versatile.  We’re always trying to blur that line between mechanical and alive.  And we’re always getting closer.”

(Bill Butler is creative design director for Garner Holt Productions, Inc. For more information, call 909-799-9090, email billbutler@garnerholt.com, visit www.garnerholt.com, circle 219 on the reader service card or visit the company at IAAPA Attractions Expo Booth 1362.)

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