How Garner Holt is sparking an early interest in the attractions industry among students
March 1, 2022 By Scott Fais
In early January, adolescents from across southern California went on a mission—descend upon a nondescript office complex south of the San Bernardino National Forest in search of the future. Inside, the 50 students entered a vibrant factory space, filled with colorful equipment and plenty of room to dream. Outfitted in white lab coats, they set forward toward a common goal: create an animatronic, similar in nature to the story-telling robotic figures made famous by Walt Disney Imagineering for Disney attractions around the globe.
During the three-day workshop, the students from all different backgrounds learned new skills, gained confidence, and built self-esteem, while expanding their horizons to what a career in the global attractions industry could look like.
“From animatronics, to ride and show systems, to sculpting and costuming, along with mechanical and electrical engineering, there are about 50 career paths in our building,” says Garner Holt, founder of Garner Holt Productions, of the Redlands, California-based facility known for designing and building animatronic figures found at parks and attractions.
During the Animatronics Academy Career Camp, students participated in hands-on art and engineering activities, connected electrical circuits, learned about pneumatics and hydraulics, sculpted with clay using ratios and fractions as a guide for the right proportions, painted, and added feathers to their creations. The students’ final step was to bring the animatronic songbirds they crafted to life using a controller and prerecorded soundtracks—all in a day’s work.
“I was shocked how some of these kids come into these classes where we’ll say, ‘Take your pliers, and you’ll do this’ … but the students will ask, ‘What are pliers? What is a screwdriver?’ They have never held a tool,” Holt shares with Funworld.
The goal of the program Holt developed is twofold: to sustain the global attractions industry with talent for the future and to generate inspiration in the lives of participating students, shining a light on a unique career path.
“I love engineering and art. I think engineering is the smartest form of art,” says Journey, a freshman at Citrus Valley High School who participated in January’s career camp. “Before coming to Garner Holt, I thought I wanted to be an engineer, but now I know I want to become an engineer!”
Analytics firm Gallup surveyed almost 2,000 K-12 superintendents in 2018 and found that students who are engaged—involved in and enthusiastic about school—are more likely to be hopeful for the future and have better academic performance.
“When the kids see all that we create, it gives them inspiration about what they can do,” Holt says.
Holt has spent his professional career designing, engineering, and fabricating nearly 5,000 animated figures for clients such as Disney theme parks, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios, Efteling, Europa-Park, family entertainment centers (FECs), museums, and casinos. His legacy project is expanding several educational outreach programs to communities around the United States.
“I think it’s important to use education as a vehicle to introduce kids to and get them excited about something that they can [bring] forward into a career,” he says.
Finding His Calling Early
Holt, the son of a racehorse trainer, says if his parents would have had their way, he would be a veterinarian today, specializing in equine science. “From the time I was about a month old until I was 10 years old, I was on the back of a horse,” Holt says.
However, at an early age, he developed a fascination for everything spooky, solidified by an episode of “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” filmed at Disneyland.
“To this day, I still remember running into my parent’s bedroom saying, ‘Oh my gosh! There’s this place called the “Haunted Mansion” at Disneyland and could you take me?’” Holt recalls.
During that trip to Disneyland, Holt’s love of animatronics blossomed.
“I was obsessed to the point where it was just the only thing I could think about. I don’t think I ever got back on the horse again,” he says with a laugh.
Following the excursion to Disneyland, Holt came home and set up a card table in the family garage, where he built animated objects using spare parts, like door hinges and rope.
Soon the projects evolved, like the haunted house built in the backyard. Much to his parents’ horror, a story in the Sun Telegram newspaper brought 400 people to their doorstep to see the attraction.
Next, the Central City Mall paid Holt to build a haunted attraction, and back at school, his English teacher supported Holt’s enthusiasm when building an animatronic figure of Uncle Sam. This led to Holt forming Garner Holt Productions—all before he was old enough to drive a car.
Holt’s big break came when he landed the contract to build animated figures for “Grand Canyon Rapids,” a water ride at the MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park in Las Vegas.
Today, Garner Holt Productions’ credits include building lifelike figures ranging from pirates and presidents, to wizards and princesses, as well as 540 Chuck E. Cheese animated figures once found at the FEC brand. The company’s portfolio also features parade floats, dark ride elements, show sets, thematic pieces, show equipment, and special effects.
As the projects grew, so did the number of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts groups wanting to tour Holt’s facilities.
“The kids coming through the place would just light up like lightbulbs,” Holt says. “They would come out with a smile on their face and say, ‘I want to work here someday.’”
Ryan Rainbolt is one of those influenced by Holt. At 12 years old, Rainbolt was inspired by a tour of Garner Holt Productions he attended with his grandmother, Beverly Bird.
“It’s a day that I’ll never forget; the day that really altered the course of my life,” Rainbolt says. “My grandma reminds me that when we left, she said, ‘Ryan, maybe one day you’ll work for Garner Holt.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to work for Garner Holt, I want to be Garner Holt.’”
Little did Rainbolt know that he would eventually go on to fulfill his grandmother’s prediction.
In 2010, Rainbolt became the principal at Bing Wong Elementary School in San Bernardino, California, where he created a hands-on makerspace for students to use. After an invitation to tour Rainbolt’s well-equipped classroom, Holt began to sponsor the program—even providing an animatronic figure—before hiring Rainbolt full time to recreate the educational spaces on a grander scale.
Today, Rainbolt is the president of Garner Holt Education Through Imagination, the for-profit enterprise focused on delivering STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education and career exploration. In a separate facility located across the street from the Garner Holt Productions’ headquarters, Rainbolt leads a team of 20 educators on staff, many of whom are former teachers.
Together, they serve students and school districts by:
- Hosting in-person workshops at their Redlands, California, facility.
- Designing and installing AniMakerspaces in elementary, middle, and high schools and even libraries.
- Conducting virtual tours and online workshops for remote learners.
- Developing and selling engineering kits to be used at schools and at home.
Garner Holt Education Through Imagination’s AniMakerspaces—the brand name of the learning laboratories the company installs in schools—are chock-full of 3D printers, laser cutters, vacuum formers, embroidery machines, sewing machines, and airbrush stations to support curriculum connected with themed entertainment.
“We want them to feel like maybe they just entered a place that feels much more relevant to their futures than the place that they just exited,” Rainbolt says.
Journey agrees, saying, “The world would be such a different place if this was just implemented into schools.”
Students using the AniMakerspace at Fontana High School in California recently made models of internal organs on a 3D printer. The custom AniMakerspace is designed to cater to the biotechnology, biomedical, and biomechanical fields, matching the school’s health-oriented career path-ways.
To date, more than a dozen AniMakerspaces are up and running inside schools in Southern and Central California.
“The Garner Holt programs are the kinds of experiences schools have been looking for; programs that harness the magic of STEAM learning and show kids how they can create careers for themselves doing the things they love,” says Ted Alejandre, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools.
Rainbolt says a dozen more AniMakerspaces are in the design phase at schools across the U.S. An AniMakerspace is slated to open this autumn in Kissimmee, Florida, at Give Kids The World Village, a nonprofit resort providing cost-free vacations to children with critical illnesses and their families. Holt announced the donation of the learning lab in November during a press conference at IAAPA Expo 2021.
On March 13, 2020, as COVID-19 spread across the U.S. and government-imposed lockdowns sent students home, Garner Holt Education Through Imagination received numerous cancellation phone calls and emails, resulting in a $750,000 loss in one day. And the cancellations didn’t stop coming for the business unit that previously hosted up to 300 students a day.
“We didn’t know if the company would even survive at that point,” Rainbolt recalls.
Like many manufacturers and suppliers, Garner Holt Education Through Imagination pivoted and started creating Animatronics Fundamentals Kits to be used at home, along with providing virtual tours of the factory.
“We were able to bridge this gap between virtual and distance learning through a screen and hands-on tactile learning,” Rainbolt tells Funworld. “COVID-19 forced us to innovate in a way that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Kits containing sculpting materials, pneumatic parts, and electrical circuits were shipped to schools, where children and their parents would pick up supplies.
The result has allowed Garner Holt Education Through Imagination to bring a tactile learning experience to kids outside of North America. “Now we think this virtual experience will be far more popular than the live one,” Rainbolt says.
Empowering an Industry
Holt and Rainbolt are quick to share with other businesses how Garner Holt Productions created its initiative to develop sustainable talent.
In addition to his role with Garner Holt Education Through Imagination, Rainbolt is the chairman of the separate, not-for-profit Garner Holt Foundation.
“The foundation was created out of a recognition that we were not able to serve as many kids as we wanted to,” Rainbolt explains. “We recognized about a year and a half into the creation of the for-profit Education Through Imagination that some kids are not as lucky to have schools and school districts with the foresight, innovative mindset, and funding to be able to pursue a program like this. So the thought was, ‘What do we do for the kids who are really passionate about this kind of work but don’t have access to the equipment and resources on their school campus that they need in order to pursue a career in themed entertainment?’”
The 501(c)(3) nonprofit group is currently developing a new concept named Garner’s Garage, which will include programs in robotics, automation, engineering, and visual and performing arts but be provided free of cost to communities in need. The idea stems from how Holt attributes part of his success to time tinkering in his own garage while growing up.
“We hope that one day, just like there’s a YMCA in every community, there’s a Garner’s Garage in every community,” Rainbolt shares.
The first location is slated for Redlands, California, near where Holt grew up. Fundraising efforts are already underway.
“You gotta have the willpower and the wherewithal to want to make a change,” Holt says about getting started. He encourages other manufacturers, suppliers, and facilities to examine their own businesses, physical spaces, and communities’ needs to see how they can give back to and inspire the thinkers of tomorrow. He feels it all starts with opening the doors for a tour.
“These children will be the designers of the future; they will be the engineers of the future—every part of our industry needs to be sustained,” he says. “Students can’t get excited or engaged if they don’t know it exists.”
Scott Fais is the managing editor of global communications and digital content at IAAPA. Contact him at SFais@IAAPA.org.