Sally Dark Rides is proud to have many talented employees on our team. Many of them have worked with us for years, some even decades. One of our most critical team members is Todd Gillrup, VP of Operations. He has been with Sally for almost 30 years, with many achievements and projects under his belt. Recently, we sat down with Todd to talk about his background, expertise, and interests.

A Lifelong Creative Mind With Big Dreams

Todd Gillrup, lifelong creative visionary, started dreaming about his future as an artist after becoming hooked on Star Wars in his childhood. At a young age, he aimed to become the George Lucas or Jim Henson of his time, with aspirations to one day work in film. He spent his childhood drawing and painting, notably, life-sized cardboard replicas of Star Wars characters. 

A Jacksonville native, Todd first learned of Sally Dark Rides in high school. His parents were always supportive of his art, and pulled a few strings to get him a behind-the-scenes tour of the company. That’s when he fell in love with animatronics. The tour was nothing short of inspiring, and led him to enroll at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to pursue his art degree in Industrial Design Technology. There, he worked on his portfolio of 3D design including character fabrication and stop motion, under the tutelage of Tom Savini (prosthetic makeup artist for Friday the 13th).

Humble Beginnings Lead to Great Things

Fresh out of college in 1992, Todd knew Sally Dark Rides was where he wanted to pursue his dreams. His Hollywood-centric portfolio was unique and forward-thinking. Sally’s then art director, Peter Dalsgard, recognized his talent. Peter was a Disney fanatic and had a vision to bring the company up to that level of quality and prestige. At the time, Sally didn’t have a role for Todd, but hired him anyway because of his potential.

Todd was happy just to be cleaning floors for the first few months on the job before he completed his first real art project painting a set of eyes for a talking vegetable crate. The rest, he says, is history. 

In 1996, Todd was promoted to supervisor of the art department where he continued to create, research, and develop new techniques for character finishing. Then, in 2000, Sally’s former operations manager asked Todd to become his apprentice and eventually take over for him. Todd’s continual pursuit to enhance Sally's animatronic characters by raising the level of quality and realism is an unmatched feat.

“He picked me. Which was a shocking and great honor,” Todd says. “It scared me, I didn’t want to leave my art behind. I asked him, ‘if it doesn’t work out can I have my art job back?’”

Today, the memory makes him laugh. Because before long, Todd realized he loved his new work and was good at it too. “I enjoyed hitting deadlines, collaborating with the team, and doing the things that make good managers. I didn’t know I had those skills. But when I started learning the position, it was refreshing,” he explained.

In 2003, he proceeded to take on that operations manager role. Two years later, he was named VP of Operations, a position he’s held ever since.

Role at Sally Dark Rides: VP of Operations

It’s no wonder Todd has spent his entire career at Sally Dark Rides. He commented on his overall experience so far:

“It’s been a great ride. Always seems like I am moving forward. I love the people here and we make a great product.”

As VP of Operations, Todd uses his knowledge as an artist and skills in operations to price out new projects and ride concepts.

“I look at things such as, how much detail does it have? Is it a new sculpt? Is it something we could pull character parts from existing molds?” He explains. “It’s difficult to price accurately, I do reference past history, but every character is unique and different.” 

Todd also works with the design team to determine the specifications needed for a project. He helps lay out the plan for how a character will be translated from the design and fabricated, then ensures it’s followed through on time and on budget. “Ultimately, every animatronic begins and ends with me on my watch,” he says.

One of his favorite aspects of the job is helping with art direction on a daily basis. “That’s what keeps me in the creative field,” he says. “I get to be that mentor I had in Peter when I first started.” His team counts on and respects his direction because they know he’s been in their exact shoes, moving up the ladder ever since he started back in 1992.

Favorite Project: Sesame Street: Street Mission

It was a dream come true for Todd working on the recent Sesame Street: Street Mission project for PortAventura World. Having grown up idolizing Jim Henson, he was eager and determined to re-create the characters perfectly. The only way to get it right was by working directly with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in New York. “We had to scale the characters up and make them twice as large as they are in real life,” he explains. To keep them authentic, the Creature Shop created enlarged puppets from the original character patterns to fit over Sally’s animatronics. “It was an honor to see the shop and work with the team,” he says.

The project’s excellence has since been corroborated by the testament of our esteemed colleagues and honorable awards: Europe's Best New Ride by Park World Excellence (2019), Family Ride of the Year by European Star (2019), Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement (2020), and one of European Star’s Top 3 Best Dark Rides (2020).

Insights into the Industry

Thinking about the future of dark rides, Todd believes AR and other multimedia technology will become increasingly important and more affordable over the next few years. “We’re using the Unreal video game engine. That’s a big step. It’s smart to look at the video game side of the world and make our rides more video game-like.” Using this type of system puts interactivity at the forefront as the media reacts to targets hit in real-time, creating a more modern and dynamic gaming experience.

Todd says this video-game approach could lead to increased re-ridership, keeping spectators wanting more by giving them a new experience every time. Sally experimented with multiple ride endings starting back in the 90s and will continue down the path of pairing both mixed reality and opportunities to change rides on the fly.

Since Todd has been around, he’s seen major changes in the industry, but one thing remains the same—Sally’s commitment to making a high-end, reliable product for every customer at an affordable price.

“What makes Sally incredible is the level of artistry that goes into the final product. Our clients get a lot of value for the money. We can deliver a Disney or Universal-type ride for less than half the money they spend.” 

Life Outside Sally

Todd loves tech both in the office and in his free time. You’ll find him at home playing video games or building his own computer on the weekends. When he’s not gaming or creating, he’s reading about advancements in technology, future game hardware, video games. He has a 14-year-old son who he enjoys spending free time with, and hopes he’s been able to pass down his love for the creative-world to him.