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Going along for the Ride with Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter

Page 2: Epcot, Star Tours, Spider-Man

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Going along for the Ride with Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter

Imagineer Tony Baxter credits Star Tours as an important turning point for the company and for the evolution of rides.

Disney, 1990. Used with permission.

Imagineering and Imagination

Baxter was instrumental in bringing to life some of the attractions at Epcot, the second gate at Walt Disney World and the first to deviate from the Disneyland prototype. He helped design The Living Seas and The Land pavilions as well as an attraction in which he takes great pride, the original Journey into Imagination ride. While Mickey and the gang freely roam Epcot now, when the park debuted in 1982 the classic characters were banished, partly to distinguish it from the Magic Kingdom. Baxter helped fill the void with new, original characters.

Tony Baxter: Imagination is the keystone, the most important building block for anything human beings do. For the Imagination ride, we wanted to create a parallel universe. We developed a wise, old, bearded sage and a brash little kid [who looked like a miniature purple dragon] with no attention span. They became Dreamfinder and Figment and were quite popular. [Famous character actor] Billy Barty provided Figment's voice. We invented leaping fountains, which gave water a personality, and placed them outside the pavilion. They've been copied a lot.

Star Wars rockets Disneyland to new places

Baxter says that the early-1980s period following the opening of Epcot were bleak times for the parks and Imagineering. CEO Card Walker, who had come up through the ranks and worked directly under Walt Disney for many years, retired. Disney's son-in-law, Ron Miller stepped in as CEO, but the company lost its cachet, its creativity was ebbing, and corporate raiders were baring their teeth. Amid some controversy, the Imagineers went outside the company to find inspiration in George Lucas' blockbuster, Star Wars. Baxter says that the motion simulator ride, Star Tours at Disneyland, was the first of its kind; however, Doug Trumbull, who developed the Back to the Future attraction at Universal Studios, had been tinkering with simulator rides since the 1970s and debuted the first ride film, Tour of the Universe, in Toronto a couple of years before Star Tours.

Tony Baxter: In the ensuing years after Walt's death, it was pretty dry at the company. I was really scared. I thought we needed to be more in sync with the audience. The most critical thing about Disneyland is that it's relevant emotionally. We were in danger of becoming more of a museum [than a thriving theme park]. I talked with [then Imagineering executive vice president] Marty Sklar, and we approached Ron [Miller] and said, 'We have to bond with children who are 12. We need a dramatic reawakening. It's either George Lucas or Steven Spielberg right now.'

When Frank Wells and Michael Eisner came on board [in 1984], they didn't have the sense that everything at Disneyland had to be strictly Disney. Eisner had worked with Lucas [and got him on board to participate in what would become Star Tours]. Going with a third party, I was nervous about the public's reaction and their sense that we were ruining the Walt thing. I figured that we had to do better than Adventures Through Inner Space, the attraction we were replacing. That would quell the critics.

When Star Tours debuted, we had to leave the park open for 60 hours to handle the crowds. It was an enormous success. And it was an important turning point for the company [and for] the evolution of rides. It was the first real breakthrough since animatronics and a major step forward.

Disney's web of secrecy: Are the Imagineers developing something better than Spider-Man?

Star Tours helped usher in the age of the motion simulator ride. Universal Studios took it to the next level with The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and its breakthrough concept of the roving motion base vehicle. When it debuted in 1999 with the opening of Islands of Adventure, it was instantly hailed as the theme park ride to beat. Apparently, the Imagineers are in battle mode.

Tony Baxter: Motion simulation allows the ride vehicle to work as an element in a story. It's a tool to help set emotion. We do that with Indiana Jones [Adventure at Disneyland]. With imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Star Tours launched many similar attractions. The ultimate challenge...was Spider-Man and its synchronized motion base with 3-D [filmed scenes]. We looked at that and we started experimenting. Now, we have something that goes beyond that--but we won't talk about it. [Baxter laughed as he made the last remark.]

I think this kind of a war [between ride designers] is really healthy. When the industry settles down and there's no development, parks turn to festivals and events rather than amazing new attractions. We're at an interesting point because the coaster wars, going higher and faster, is at maturity. Nobody is going to drive a revolution by using mechanical rides. The real desire is for emotional connection.

Next page: The discussion continues with insight into Disneyland Paris, the Rocket Rods, the Submarine Voyage, and more.

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