Garner Holt: Doing Disney Better Than Disney–Thus Becoming Disney

Head "Under the Sea" to see dozens of Garner Holt creations.

As a child, Garner Holt was so amazed by a Wonderful World of Disney episode of the Haunted Mansion, that he decided he would create animatronics for a living. Long story short, he now makes amazing animatronics, parade floats, and other fantastic scenery and theming elements. Do you like the new Little Mermaid attraction at Disney California Adventure? Haunted Mansion Holiday? Did you like the floats for Walt Disney’s Parade of Dreams for the 50th Anniversary? Do you like everything that moves when you hit it on Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters? That’s Garner Holt.

One of Garner Holt's biggest breaks with Disney was Haunted Mansion Holiday.

Here’s the twist–Garner has never been an Imagineer. Nor has he ever been an official Disney Cast Member. He’s what you call an outside contractor. He has done Disney so much better than Disney that he has essentially become Disney. And with that, he gets to do some of the most amazing and fun projects–not just for Disney but for many other parks, restaurants, and exhibits.

Of course that didn’t happen overnight. But it has happened, and yet he has never worn a Disney name tag. It’s not a new thing. Hollywood has always had two modes of operation. The old mode was that the studio was a stable of talent. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney was part of the stable for MGM, and Annette Funicello and Haley Mills was part of Disney’s stable. The same was true for the technical talent of the studios. That’s why you know of artists like Xavier Attencio and John Hench in Imagineering. Walt Disney was very faithful to a tradition of having a stable of artists and technicians.

Garner's creations extend to making parade floats come to life.
But now most studios, including Disney, does much more work bringing people in from outside the company. So it’s no surprise that we’re seeing the same idea spilling over into the parks. In other words, if you want to grow up and be an Imagineer someday, your best chance may be having your own company. Why? Well, more than any other reason is economics. It’s cheaper for Disney to hire from the outside than to maintain people like this from the inside. But beyond that, it may be that you may be able on your own to accomplish something that you can’t do in a big bureaucracy like Disney. Like it or not, that seems to be the growing reality.
But with that reality comes new opportunity. And that opportunity is to be at the front of the wave in your area of specialty. Do you really want a great career at Disney? Do what you do so well, that Disney needs to come to you to be the best they can be in the business.
Beyond Garner, there are many examples of such. Take the “Glow Fest” that was held summer of 2010 at Disney California Adventure. In order to get that up and running in a short time, Disney hired an outside contractor to design and staff the event. Want a bigger example? Look no further than Pixar. It took John Lasseter and company being so much better than Disney, that eventually Disney had to acquire them.
My own fate is sort of a backwards twist on that. After a number of years working for the Disney Institute I left for other opportunities. But in time I realized that leaving the Disney Institute actually allowed me to produce a better experience for my clients than if I had stayed at the Disney Institute. Yes, I don’t have the capital or the labor force behind me. But I can provide more insight, more content, more value to my clients than if I stayed at the Disney Institute.
Whatever you want to do with your life, know that you can become so much better than the very best in your business that in time you become the very best in your business. Not easy, but it can be done.  To that end, take Garner’s advice–put enough perseverance and focus on your dreams, and they will come true. And for you Disney dreamers, know that if you work hard enough and smart enough, you may end up doing Disney so much better than Disney that you may become…well…Disney.