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Going along for the Ride with Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter

Go behind the scenes to learn about the development of Disney parks and rides

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Going along for the Ride with Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter

Tony Baxter, senior vice president, creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering and Disney evangelist extraordinaire.

Disney, 2007. Used with permission.
Updated January 24, 2008
In early 2007, as the creative gurus at Walt Disney Imagineering that develop and build the company's parks and attractions were putting the final touches on Disneyland's much-anticipated makeover of the Submarine Voyage, I sat down with Tony Baxter, Imagineering senior vice president, creative development to learn more about the ride's history and the creative process involved in bringing it back. An Imagineering veteran whose affiliation with Disney goes back to the 1960s when he operated the Submarine Voyage as a teenage cast member at Disneyland, Baxter was an ideal candidate to talk about the classic ride.

I flipped on my recorder, asked Baxter a couple of introductory questions, and he began to talk...and talk and talk. With his moustache, kindly demeanor, and trace of gravel in his voice, there is a hint of Walt Disney in the Imagineer. And like the man for whom the company is named, Baxter shares an evangelical fervor and joy for the Disney parks and his work. He offered some illuminating behind-the-scenes insight about the reborn Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. I captured his fish stories in my feature, The Submarine Voyage to Find Nemo. But Baxter didn't stop there. Placing the subs within the context of Imagineering's evolution and his considerable history and leadership with the organization, Baxter regaled me with all kinds of Disney park lore. What follows are some highlights from our fascinating conversation.

How to become a Disney Imagineer

Do you dream about joining the Imagineering ranks and creating theme park magic? There's no surefire way to land one of the plum jobs, but you might be able to get some tips from Baxter as he describes the journey that took him to the Glendale, California house that built the Mouse.

Tony Baxter: I had been a Disney geek since the day that Disneyland opened. I was fortunate to have been able to tour Imagineering just before I began working at Disneyland. The day that [Great Moments with] Mr. Lincoln came west--two shows were running simultaneously at the New York World's Fair and at Disneyland--I saw the show and I thought it was so amazing. I said, 'That's it. I'm signing up today to get a job here.' In the five years I worked at Disneyland, I sold popcorn, scooped ice cream, and eventually worked as a ride operator at the attractions. In the summer of 1969, I joined the Submarine Voyage crew.

I studied landscape architecture at Cal Poly and developed an idea for a Mary Poppins-themed attraction as a course project. A friend at Disneyland was able to get it to Imagineering where they passed it around. That led to a second, more in-depth tour of Imagineering. It was a reality check. They told me [my project] was pretty good for someone starting out, and then showed me the work that was done there. It was overwhelming, but it was sort of a kick in the can. As a result, I changed my career and school and went to Long Beach State to study theater design.

After graduating college, I applied at WDI [Walt Disney Imagineering, then known as WED--for Walter Elias Disney--Enterprises] and submitted my portfolio, which included an attraction I developed based on the film, The Island at the Top of the World. I had invested my entire senior year in the project. Ultimately, the film was not a hit--but I got the job.

I think Disneyland is unique, because it is theater and it uses a landscaped environment and architecture to tell its stories. So I was well versed in all three of those areas. It worked out well. I sort of stumbled into my profession.

It's a small world--in a big city

For the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair, Walt Disney Imagineering developed four landmark attractions: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Magic Skyway (which included animatronic dinosaurs that eventually ended up in the diorama through which Disneyland's train passes and inspired the lumbering creatures inside Epcot's Universe of Energy), It's a Small World, and the Carousel of Progress.

Tony Baxter: The World's Fair was critical, because Walt [Disney] used it as a proving grounds for WDI to develop bigger and better shows, and to advance animatronics beyond the [Enchanted] Tiki Room. I consider the fair to be the first golden era of Imagineering attractions. The Omnimover system, the PeopleMover, and sophisticated audio-animatronics were all developed for the fair. It was a giant leap forward in what could be done.

The first of the gen-2 Imagineers generates some big thunder

Imagineering tapped Baxter, at a relatively young age, to take the lead on projects for both Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland and encouraged him to tackle Frontierland as one of his first assignments. The sprawling area, by far the largest of the Anaheim park's lands, accommodated the Davy Crockett-crazy era of the 1950s when Disneyland opened, but was becoming stale by the 1970s.

Tony Baxter: The original Imagineers who had worked with Walt were beginning to retire, and I was the oldest young person there. I was in a good position. Claude Coats [who worked on animated classics such as Pinoccchio and Dumbo and helped design many attractions including Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride] was probably the nicest person I ever met [at Imagineering]. He took me under his wing and helped me develop what became Big Thunder Mountain, the first ride to open without any input from Walt. In California, I was nervous because we were knocking out Nature's Wonderland, one of Walt's rides. But it was becoming obsolete; people weren't riding it.

Big Thunder Mountain [which opened at Disneyland in 1979] became a major hit because it looks impressive and frightening and it rings all the roller coaster bells. But most of its impact comes from the story, the emotion, and the effects, rather than the [relatively tame] physical experience. So a lot of people can enjoy it together. There is a sense of triumph when an older person or a little kid gets off the ride and had a great time. In the end, it's all about the repeatability of an attraction.

Next page: The discussion continues with insight into Epcot, Star Tours, Spider-Man, and more.

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