The magic of making dreams come true

Fascinated with mascots and other characters since childhood, brothers and STEM alumni Jordan Gustafson ’11 and Cody Gustafson ’18 led the Holly the Husky squad on campus and now work with Disney, Marvel and LEGO.

(l-r) Jordan Gustafson, Holly the Husky, Cody Gustafson, courtesy photo

Adults often tell children to never lose their childlike sense of wonder, to keep their interest in new things, new places and new experiences — to find the ordinary, amazing. But maintaining this level of excitement is hard. Once school starts so do the pressures of getting good grades, fitting in and building a future. The wonder begins to slip away.

There are some, though, who manage to keep it alive, such as brothers Jordan and Cody Gustafson, alumni of the University of Washington Bothell’s School of STEM.

Both experienced that wonder whenever they were in the presence of mascots.

“I didn’t even care what mascot it was, really,” said Cody (Computer Science & Software Engineering ’18). “I remember when I was around five years old my neighborhood opened a new McDonald’s. The characters Ronald McDonald and Grimace — Ronald’s best friend — came to the store, and I got to meet them. I didn’t even particularly like the food, but I was just so excited, I remember thinking it was amazing.”

The brothers didn’t have to outgrow their enthusiasm for mascots when they became college students. Or even now as working professionals.

Fifty events, thousands of smiles

Jordan started at UW Bothell in 2008, the same year Holly the Husky mascot joined the University. Holly’s activities were limited in the early years, so although he would see her on campus, his involvement wouldn’t begin until after he graduated. That’s when Cody donned the mascot costume, serving as the lead Holly from 2016 to 2019.

Cody represented UW Bothell as Holly in roughly 40 to 50 events on- and off-campus, including the Husky 5k, Sustainamania, Bothell’s 4th of July parade and more. “It’s so magical seeing the students and younger kids come to life and really love the character,” Cody said. “It made working all the long days worth it.”

Jordan was there for most of the events, too, as the “Holly handler.” He was responsible for all logistics such as helping his brother climb a flight of stairs while in costume, making sure Cody was staying hydrated — especially when performing outdoors during the summer — and serving as an organizer to make sure Holly was at the right place at the right time. He was also in charge of capturing photos and videos of Holly in action, which is what he loved most.

“I was able to get some really fun shots from the various events and preserve those special interactions with Holly and her fans,” said Jordan (Computing & Software Systems ’11).

The moments that matter

Looking back, Cody said one of his favorite events was the Celebrate Woodinville Festival held at Wilmot Gateway Park in August 2018. He fondly remembers meeting a little girl around the age of eight who kept hugging Holly and wanting to play pat-a-cake, the child’s clapping game.

“I remember she said, ‘I like dogs and I like wolves so you are my favorite.’ She was so taken with Holly that she wanted to have a playdate,” Cody recalled.

He said it is those moments that matter most to him. “You never know what kind of an impact that kind of interaction will have on a child, but I think that when they hug Holly, in a way, they are hugging the school.

Cody Gustfason as Holly the Husky, backed by members of the University of Washington marching band

“As Holly, it’s your job to create that special moment for them, so whenever they drive by the campus or see the University on a screen somewhere, they remember that moment and more important, that feeling,” Cody said. “To me, that’s what it is all about.”

Jordan agrees, adding that he got to experience similar joys as the handler. “It seemed like there was something special that happened at every event we worked together,” Jordan said. “At the end of the day, it was fun to just see people — both kids and adults — have fun with Holly. We would joke that we were setting the foundation for the next class of UW Bothell students in a few years.”

Holly embodies pandemic lessons

These days, Jordan and Cody don’t have the opportunity to suit up or handle Holly the Husky anymore, but they still remain involved in the program. A few months ago, they were on the UW Bothell campus and saw a poster for the re-emergence of the Holly Squad program and decided to reach out to Katie Horowitz, assistant dean for Student Engagement, to see if they could help.

“Holly the Husky embodies many of the lessons we learned from the pandemic such as slowing down and enjoying the little things and everyday experiences,” Cody said. “I think we need Holly now more than ever. She represents the kid in all of us who makes the most of every situation and doesn’t take life too seriously.

“Combine that with in-person events that we’ve all been missing, and it makes for a magical experience that only Holly and UW Bothell can provide. Jordan and I wanted to do everything we could to bring that back to students and the community.”

Horowitz is extremely grateful for, and inspired by, the brothers’ support. “Since getting in touch a few months ago, the brothers have enthusiastically led Holly mascot training for our student leaders, shared ideas for expanding the program and even created a ‘Holly Is Back!’ video,” Horowitz said. “Their continued commitment to building the community and sharing their school pride is truly moving. I am thrilled to have their support and to have them as alumni.

“UW Bothell is better because of Cody and Jordan’s commitment and enthusiasm for our University.”

Featuring new Star Wars stars

When the brothers aren’t helping out with the Holly Squad, they are applying what they learned in their STEM education at UW Bothell to contract work at entertainment-related corporations including Disney, Marvel and LEGO. Their work also has been honored by the Star Wars franchise.

In 2015, the Gustafson brothers entered the Star Wars Fan Film Awards hosted by Lucasfilm and Disney. They created a short stop-motion parody based on the bounty hunter Boba Fett coaching the inexperienced bounty hunter, Greedo, on how to capture Han Solo.

“We have always been big Star Wars fans, so we were familiar with the jokes that resonated with the fan communities,” Cody said. “The video wound up going from being a finalist to eventually winning Best Comedy at the Star Wars Celebration convention, which was mind-blowing.”

They entered the awards competition again in 2018, submitting a short video that harkened back to an inside joke from the “Empire Strikes Back” film. “There is a scene where Willrow Hood, one of the extras, is escaping the villains carrying a cylindrical object tucked under his arm. Years later, fans identified it as an actual 1970s ice cream maker that the production team hardly made any modifications to,” Cody said. “The character is only seen for maybe five seconds on the screen but has become a huge meme and legend in the fan communities so much to the point that they made toys of him.”

The brothers’ video submission was a short piece about having to evacuate where you live and taking only your most important possessions — and they featured Willrow Hood grabbing his ice cream maker.

Not your typical computer science alumni

The brothers’ ice cream video went on to be highlighted on the Star Wars YouTube show and was chosen by Dave Filoni, executive producer of Lucasfilm, to receive the Filmmaker Select award. It was also awarded in the Best Comedy and Best Stop-Motion short categories. “Knowing that someone who has been one of our creative heroes for years had enjoyed it was more than we ever thought possible,” Jordan said.

Jordan and Cody Gustafson at the premiere of “Rise of Skywalker”courtesy photo

The Star Wars projects also opened some doors and opportunities, the most memorable of which was being part of a group invited to the red carpet premiere in Hollywood of Star Wars’ ninth saga film, “Rise of Skywalker.”

“It was such a surreal experience being so close to some of our childhood heroes, getting to be at the Dolby Theatre where the Academy Award ceremonies are held,” Cody said. “We may not be your typical computer science alums who go on to get their master’s degrees, do groundbreaking research, develop the next iPhone or fly in a spaceship, but we are using the training — just in a different way than we thought we might have.

“We are extremely grateful to UW Bothell for giving us the opportunities and skillsets needed to follow our passions, however different they may be.”

Read more recent news

See all news