Sally Corporation: Bringing characters to life in Jacksonville

Sally Corporation’s fully functioning zombie.

Words and images by Sarah De Nicolais

Under the dim lights a long-haired teenager appeared, his eyes open wide in fear as he ran from a nearby ghost. Even more frightening, the boy, Shaggy from the televised cartoon series “Scooby Doo,” was fleeing through a graveyard.

Real humans, standing nearby, were urged to shoot laser guns at the pair. Those people, a group of visitors who’d come to see local animatronics in action, felt as if they had stepped into the television to enter a cartoon world.

But here Shaggy and his companion ghost have not only assumed three-dimensional bodies, they’ve also moved off the drawing boards of Hanna-Barbera cartoonists and into a building in Jacksonville that houses not only them but dozens of other characters — animal, human and, well, alien.

Sally Corporation, located at 745 Forsyth St., is their new home. It’s a place where a team of people with incredible imaginations create animatronic figures and amusement-park rides. Its customers are amusement parks, museums and retail clients.

Today, as it does every Tuesday and Thursday, Sally also opened its doors to groups of curious visitors who wanted to see what was happening behind the scenes.

The company was begun in 1977 after founders John Wood, John Fox and John Rob Holland were inspired while working on a college project. Determined to make their project stand apart from the others, they decided to give their presentation with the help of Sally, a manikin head they created and programmed to speak.

Today the corporation boasts of having created rides all over the world, including Scooby Doo Adventure in Spain, Justice League: Alien Invasion 3D in Australia and E.T. Adventure at Universal Studios in Orlando.

Sally’s team of professionals varies from graphic designers and sculptors to engineers. But as tour guide Julie Cornell said, “All share the same goal.”

That goal is to create the most creative and imaginative animatronics possible. In fact, Sally offers complete services from creative design to the physical construction of the client’s dream.

Tour guests were amazed by how life-like this robot wolf was.

Drew Edward Hunter is vice president of creative design for the company and said he found his dream job when he was hired by Sally Corporation almost 25 years ago.  

“(It’s been my dream) ever since I was a little boy and my parents took me to the original Disneyland two years after it opened,” Hunter said. “I went on Mr. Toad and Snow White and Peter Pan and I wanted to grow up and do that.”

Hunter was determined to make his dreams come true and spent many years of his life studying theater and art. He began his career staging haunted houses and even spent time as Bozo the Clown.

In 1997 he accepted a job at Sally Corporation.

“My favorite part is when we have an opportunity to work with a client and they may have a basic idea of what they want to do, but they don’t know how to develop it and they turn that over to us,” Hunter said. “It’s a great deal of fun when we are able to work with them, develop their dream, develop their concepts and ideas, and make it reality.”

Constructed within the walls of Sally Corporation are robots created to look like pirates, zombies, even a giant singing bear. The team builds animals such as tigers, wolves and owls, and each creation is drawn then completed in six months time.

To Hunter, each project he’s worked on with the team at Sally Corporation has been “fascinating in its own right.” However, there are a couple that stand out.

One was the redevelopment of an old walk-through haunted house in Stockholm, Sweden. From the storyline to the scenes, lighting to sound systems, Hunter and his team took the shell of the attraction and transformed it into an all new experience.

“The House of Nightmares opened in April 2015 hosted by the insanely insidious and delightfully diabolical Dr. Morphio,” Hunter said. “The show is full of all sorts of special effects and high-powered scares, including numerous live performers.”

Before the attraction opened, Stockholm’s Grona Lund amusement park teased its guests with an imaginative advertising campaign that Hunter said really paid off.

“The blood-curdling screams heard from inside the attraction definitely told the tale!”

Tour Guide Julie explains the process of creating face molds for the robots.

Whether you’re an owner of an amusement park or just want to see how one comes to life, Sally Corporation is the place to visit.

Staff offer free tours of their Jacksonville facility every Tuesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. every hour on the hour but reservations must be made in advance. The tour guides are entertaining, educated and eager to share with guests the world of Sally Corp.  

As tour guide Julie Cornell walked through the cluttered warehouse, works of animatronic art were scattered everywhere. Around one corner a massive Tyrannosaurus Rex robot loomed over a crate.

At the flick of a switch by Cornell, the dinosaur came to life. The robot roared and craned its neck down toward its visitors as Cornell explained that the dinosaur costs $90,000 and weighs roughly 900 pounds.

The visitors — appropriately — were awed.

So whether it’s a moving cartoon creature or a blood-thirsty dinosaur, they’re all “alive” at Sally. And visitors seem impressed, young or old.

“The tour was awesome,” said Daniel Chen, a Florida Community College at Jacksonville student. “The guides were knowledgeable and amusing, and what happens inside of the building is truly amazing.”


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