Tony Baxter’s era of Imagineering changed Disney theme parks

Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter on Main Street for the Disneyland World Premiere of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END. Photo c. Scott Weitz and All rights reserved.

Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter on Main Street for the Disneyland World Premiere of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END. Photo c. Scott Weitz and All rights reserved.

Park-goers and themed entertainment fans felt shockwaves across the internet over the last twenty-four hours leading up to today’s confirming announcement: Tony Baxter, long-time Disney ride design innovator and standing Creative Executive for Disneyland, has resigned as a full-time Imagineer at the company. For those who don’t inhabit or follow the theme park industry closely, Baxter’s departure from Disney Imagineering marks the end of an era and the interruption of a continued legacy that linked today’s Mouse ride creators back to Walt’s original creative artists, writers and engineers who forged Disneyland out of an orange grove and changed park entertainment forever.

If you’ve ever hurtled down Splash Mountain, raided forbidden temples with Indiana Jones, or rode a crazy train through Big Thunder Mountain, you have been whisked away from the every day world and into transcendant adventures conjured up in Tony Baxter’s imagination. Tony launched EPCOT’s original Journey Into Imagination, fired up the maiden voyage of Star Tours’ simulated space flights, and supervised the development of Disneyland Paris. Tony Baxter’s fingerprints, both literal and figurative, have touched Disney theme park hits for decades — a long strange trip begun nearly fifty years ago when he first earned his ears as a Disneyland cast member in the mid-1960s. Yes, Tony Baxter is an important, influential figure in Disney park history — and he has ended his tenure as that figure today.

This is a big deal. Tony would be the first to insist that his departure as a full-time Imagineer is not the end of the world — not even the Walt Disney World — but it’s a huge and likely unfortunate change. In such instances, I despise the term ‘transition’ since it makes such a move sound like a perfunctory changing of gears instead of what it truly is: and ending of one thing and a beginning of another. This is likely as true for Tony personally as it is for Disney theme parks, their design future, and within the company as a continuing entity founded upon a singular vision and philosophy of entertainment created with joyful integrity. Tony learned that philosophy and shared glimpses of that vision from encounters with Walt Disney himself when Tony worked the Carnation Plaza Gardens at Disneyland, as well as taking the time and interest to be mentored by the original generation of Imagineers who defined what an “E ticket” experience is for generations of park guests. I encourage you all to read the text of his resignation letter posted online today, hosted in one instance over at Mouse Planet‘s forum.

That the general population may not know the names of Tony’s mentors — creative forefathers like Marc Davis, Claude Coats, John Hench to name a few — is understandable; but to realize that the youngest, current generation of Imagineers will now lose a daily link back to these originators is a most unfortunate, impoverishing “transition” in WDI’s unfurling creative legacy. Baxter vows to remain accessible to today’s Imagineers (and tomorrow’s, one can only hope), but his departure may already imply that his invaluable first-hand knowledge and creative philosophy is already undervalued in the company. Baxter also vows his passion for WDI-made dreams brought to life in Disney parks shall not waver; now we can only hope that his passion doesn’t end up outweighing Disney’s passion for the same, if it isn’t already waning as evidenced by his departure.

Imagineers like Tony Baxter have inspired me with Disney attraction wonders since I was five-and-a-half and made my first trip to Walt’s original Magic Kingdom in Anaheim, California. As Baxter’s groundbreaking attractions began transforming Disneyland and Walt Disney World in the 1980s and ’90s, his appreciation for Disney park history inspired me to meet one of my personal Imagineering heroes, show writer X Atencio who penned the scripts and songs for classic attractions including the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion among many others. Chatting with and interviewing Atencio was a similar revelation of Disney Imagineering philosophy to me, and I continue applying such lessons learned and visions shared as I write and help create themed attractions today. Any current or future Imagineer who doesn’t get at least a little inspired to learn more, think larger and feel more about their work by heeding Baxter’s advice will be poorer for it.

I have briefly met Tony on a couple of occasions at Disney events, including a Main Street interview at the Disneyland World Premiere of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES where he was still supporting the Pirate ride’s cause amid all the Hollywood hoopla. But the most meaningful and lasting impression I have of Tony (so far) actually happened on my turf instead of his. For nearly two decades I was part of the creative team for a seasonal Halloween haunt show in Burbank, and for several years we put on that show literally a block away from the Disney Studio lot. Often we incorporated satirical send-ups of Disney rides and movies in our shows, once including an all-out ghoulish parody of THE LITTLE MERMAID. Many Disney employees and fans would attend these shows and support them enthusiastically, often laughing louder than the general Halloween audiences at our inside jokes. Tony attended our shows several times, usually quite recognizable in one of his notable Disney/WDI jackets even if he maintained a low-key presence in the crowd. As I was often working in-character among the crowd between shows or occasionally in the on-stage cast, I recognized him as a returning viewer but rarely said more than seasonal greetings and fan-talk with him on his visits. What spoke volumes to me was watching him watch our show, taking in our massive stage sets, laughing at my twisted song lyrics and scripted jokes — Disney’s most famous active Imagineer enjoying another show just like everyone else around him.

One of the reasons Tony Baxter is a great and invaluable Imagineer is that, deep down, he’s a fan of such entertainment too. He doesn’t simply design theme park attractions as his job, he understands the joy and power of communicating ideas and emotions through these manufactured dreams because they spoke to him first. Baxter knows that magical transfer can happen between show and audience anywhere in any format if created properly. As much as Imagineers build attractions both great and small through the skilled application of art and science, the best of Imagineers know they mean nothing without some heart bringing them to life.

Tony Baxter has heart, miles and miles of it. I join all those in theme park fandom and industry who celebrate his career-to-date in the wake of today’s announcement, and wish him all the best going forward in his new pursuits both in and out of Disney. Both realms can still learn a lot from him if they have the brains (and heart) to hear his message. Many of us are still listening, Tony.

One thought on “Tony Baxter’s era of Imagineering changed Disney theme parks

  1. Pingback: Rick West on putting the parks back into theme park design | Scott Weitz Show Creations

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