- May 26, 2018
Tom Garrison was known to many in Windermere and West Orange County as one of the Disney executives who relocated from California to Florida in 1970 to open the new Walt Disney World and who rose through the ranks in the marketing division.
But to those who really knew him, he was a wonderful joke teller and ultimate trickster — and he loved to share a good laugh with friends and family.
Garrison, 84, a Disney legend who spent 36 years in Windermere before moving in 2006 to Hendersonville, North Carolina, died of COVID-19 complications July 22, 2022. His family is holding a memorial service at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 1, at Church of the Messiah, 241 N. Main St., Winter Garden. His ashes will be buried alongside those of Penny, his wife of 52 years, in the church garden after the service, and then a reception will take place in the Parish Hall.
In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to be made to Cure Alzheimer’s Fund.
A LIFETIME OF DEVOTION
Garrison was known for his devotion to his wife and three children, his faith, his career, his friends and his golf.
Born April 5, 1938, in Centralia, Illinois, he graduated from Northwestern University in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in communications. He married his college sweetheart, Penny Parker Garrison, that same year and moved to Burbank, California, to start their lives together.
His auspicious, decades-long career at Disney began in the mailroom. There, among many other company pioneers and luminaries, he met Walt Disney himself.
Garrison moved from the mailroom to publicity and then on to Disneyland’s Operations and Entertainment divisions. In 1970, he was appointed to a special group of young executives who would serve as the opening team for Walt Disney World in Orlando.
That pivotal turn in Garrison’s career path took him, Penny, and their young daughters, Kathryn and Kristin, from Burbank to the small town of Windermere. In 1971, soon after their arrival, his son, Richard, was born.
Longtime family friend Bettye Chatham recalls the first time she met the Garrisons.
“At that time, there was still an orange grove next to us,” Chatham said. “I was sitting outside trying to cool off. … This station wagon came pulling down through the trees and pulled into our lot. This man got out, and I thought, ‘They must be homeless people or hired to pick oranges.’ He came bounding out. … I really think I was the first person in Windermere to meet Tom. … Tom and I carried on and I still didn’t know who he was.”
The Chatham and Garrison families remained close friends for 25 years, Chatham said and lived two houses apart on First Avenue in Windermere. Garrison and Chatham’s husband, Louis, played golf frequently, and the families traveled together in the Garrisons’ oversized Ford van nicknamed Big Red.
“We were like family,” she said. “They spent Thanksgiving with us, and we spent Christmas with them.”
The Chathams were asked to be Richard’s godparents when he was born in 1971.
A CAREER MAKING MAGIC
Garrison served as area manager and then manager of operations at the Magic Kingdom and was tapped in 1981 to become director of marketing administration, a role in which he helped shape the grand opening plan for Epcot. After 32 years with the company, Garrison retired in 1994.
Tina Phillips was Garrison’s executive secretary for 21 years. She had just graduated from high school and was working as a secretary for a woman in Guest Relations in 1971. Two years later, Garrison was looking for a secretary and asked Phillips if she would like to take the position.
“There wasn’t really an interview or anything,” she said. “It was a good fit. I supported him. He was one of the managers of operations at that time. In 1981, he was promoted to director of marketing. I went along with him. It was a package deal, I guess. Then I supported him from ’81 to June of ’94 when he retired.”
“Tom was definitely not a micromanager,” said Judi Daley, who worked at Disney under Garrison for many years. “He trusted his leaders to make their own decisions in order to take care of our guests and fellow Cast Members. He also made it a priority to get to know the frontline Cast Members and support them personally.”
He loved to celebrate, Daley said, “and one of his most memorable characteristics was his sense of humor and enjoyment of a practical joke on occasion.”
The family shared comments from a Facebook post announcing Garrison’s death to those who worked at Disney in the 1970s. Among the outpouring of funny, touching messages and remembrances were these: “a tough exterior when needed and a gregarious smile that welcomed you in,” he was “the straightest of shooters,” a “fun-loving leader,” “one-of-a-kind mentor” and “one of the great people who made Disney great.”
His family particularly loves this story told by Danni Mikler, which captures the essence of who he was:
“The first time I met Tom, I was a brand-new ticket seller, selling tickets to resort guests at the Magic Kingdom entrance for the Night of Joy! I had a line of guests, and this strange hand slid under the window and tried to grab my change fund. I freaked, and we ended up with change everywhere. Tom introduced himself, approved comp tickets for the three parties in line and helped me pick up the coins. He said, ‘Let that be a lesson to you’ and then gave me $2 in case I didn’t balance.”
Garrison’s first priority always was his family. His children knew to follow him no matter where he was going because that’s where the fun would be. He taught them the joy of taking back roads, old school jazz, bad jokes and helping others, especially those standing on the periphery.
He shared with them his love of James Bond and John Wayne movies and loved to belt out “Climb Every Mountain” with tears in his eyes.
He gave his children perspective (“In a hundred years it won’t make any difference”) and called all of their female friends Mary Margaret. He provided for them so well, could imitate Donald Duck’s voice and had a sneeze that startled anyone in its vicinity, his children said.
“Dad was one of those dads who was bigger than life,” said his oldest daughter, Kathryn Garrison. “One of our most favorite stories to talk about as kids is how we thought every dad was able to put their hands in the fireplace fire and move the logs around. Aren't all dads superhuman?
“It wasn't until after we had been at friends' houses that we learned that this wasn't true,” she said. “Dad led life by his passion. He took up space. He loved big. He laughed loudly. He fought for the people he loved and cared about. And he was the most fun.”
She attributes her love of jazz music and peanuts to her father.
His favorite holiday was Christmas, she said, and he loved any decoration that played music.
“Dad brought the magic,” Kathryn Garrison said. “He loved Christmas. Church was a big part of the celebration. Jesus is born. Santa is real. Long after we knew the secret of Santa's true existence, we always had to leave cookies, milk and carrots out for Santa.
“My best Christmas memories of Dad are the times when we were kids that he would take each one of us — Kris, Rich and I — separately to Lake Buena Vista and we would go to the shops and pick out a Christmas present for my mom. It was a special time with Dad. Afterward, we would go to the lounge there and listen to jazz music, a trio.”
The Church of the Messiah in Winter Garden was important to Garrison, and he centered his family’s life around the church. He was a ceaseless volunteer in his community and had special affection for the Edgewood Children’s Ranch, where he served as board chairman.
“Tom was just such a down-to-earth person,” Phillips said. “He treated everybody the same. It didn’t matter if they wore a tie or a costume. He just treated everybody the same. He was a Christian, and it came through in his leadership abilities. He was very fair; he was unbiased. He believed in people, he believed in what they could accomplish.”
Phillips recalled Garrison’s love of community and his extensive work with the Edgewood Children’s Ranch, where he served as board chairman and even mowed the property.
Phillips said Garrison was quick to help people whenever he could. When a Disney executive was severely injured during a ski trip, Garrison kept in touch with the man in the rehabilitation center and promised him he would still have a position at Disney when he returned to work. He arranged for a specially equipped van and a specialized computer so the man could continue working.
“Tom took care of people,” Phillips said. “It wasn’t always blatant or known. He believed in people, he mentored people. He was just one of the best people I’ve known in my life.”
In retirement, Tom and Penny moved to Hendersonville and became active members of St. James Episcopal Church and the Hendersonville Country Club, where he played golf as often as he could. They loved both communities where they established roots, forming friendships and connections that sustained them and brought them so much joy.
Penny passed away in 2014 due to complications from Alzheimer’s.
Garrison is survived by his children, Kathryn Garrison, Kristin Garrison (Shannon Zimmerman) and Richard Garrison (Cheri Garrison); and his grandchildren, Finn, Lotus, Penny Lou, Lola, Zoey and Ezra.
Garrison was known to ask one question of every person he met, including the nurses in the emergency room where he spent his last hours: “If it takes a chicken a day and a half to lay an egg and a half, how long does it take a chicken to lay an egg?”