D23: Imagineer Tony Baxter on his decades shaping Disneyland design

Aug. 09, 2013 | 2:32 p.m.
Imagineer Tony Baxter first created a model for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, seen here in 2004, in the early '70s. (Genn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Imagineer Tony Baxter first created a model for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, seen here in 2004, in the early ’70s. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

When a young Disney employee in the early 1970s by the name of Tony Baxter found his daily assignments to be lacking a certain luster, he opted instead to devote his time to building a model train. This self-described “little train” would eventually cost more than $15 million to construct.

Known today as moderate thrill ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Baxter’s extracurricular hobby would ultimately become one of the premiere attractions at the Disneyland and Walt Disney World resorts. It opened first at the Anaheim theme park in 1979.

“Going into Big Thunder, I was a kid in a model shop. Coming out, I was a designer,” says Baxter.

At 66, Baxter this year has transitioned from his senior executive position at Walt Disney Imagineering into a creative advisory role. Baxter officially will be recognized as a Disney “legend” at a ceremony Saturday at the company’s D23 Expo in Anaheim, and it is true that his influence likely will be felt on the parks for decades to come.

In a career that’s spanned 40-plus years at Disney’s resorts, Baxter’s input has helped shape many of Disney’s most recognizable projects, ranging from Frontierland’s runaway mine train to attractions influenced by the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” films. During his tenure, Baxter was a principal on the development of thrill rides such as Splash Mountain, he reworked classics like the Haunted Mansion for Disneyland Paris and he devoted years to an abandoned Disneyland project known as Discovery Bay.

His behind-the-scenes story, well known to devotees of Disney lore, began when he was a teenager. His first Disney job wasn’t glamorous, but it got him in the gates. Baxter in 1965 was hired as an ice cream vendor, and he later transitioned to ride operator.

In college, Baxter bounced from studying architecture to urban planning before ultimately settling on theater design. He credits Maxine Merlino, the former dean of the School of the Arts at Cal State Long Beach, as encouraging him to apply the program’s lessons to ride design.

“She said, ‘I’m not going to make you do opera and opera design because I know your focus isn’t there,’” Baxter says. “She let me do a ride for Disneyland. Maxine didn’t really care about Disneyland. I converted her, with the theory that it’s a modern-day theater for the public.”

Before long, Baxter was staging productions with animatronic characters. Armed with models of potential rides he constructed during his college years, Baxter was able to use his park connections to get face time with those in Imagineering. He was hired not too long after his graduation. In spring 1971 Baxter was sent to Orlando, Fla., to help on the construction of Walt Disney World.

During a 45-minute conversation with Hero Complex, Baxter spoke about his years as an Imagineer. Forty-five minutes, however, is barely enough time to get the inside story on what happened beyond the steps of Main Street U.S.A.

Below, Baxter reflects on just a few highlights of a career that touched multiple theme parks and the imaginations of those around the globe.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, seen here in 2011, will re-open in Anaheim later this year. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, seen here in 2011, will reopen in Anaheim later this year. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

On dreaming up Big Thunder Mountain

Though Big Thunder Mountain replaced a more relaxed, Jungle Cruise-paced mine train ride dubbed Nature’s Wonderland at Disneyland, Baxter cites an aborted Walt Disney World attraction as a main source of inspiration.

The Western River Expedition was a boat ride once planned for the Florida theme park. It was a project, Baxter says, “very similar to Pirates of the Caribbean,” only the theme was one of the ol’ West and cowboys. Early Walt Disney World designs of the attraction show a large carved rock facade that was to be called Thunder Mesa and potentially house a mine train ride.

There was one unforeseen problem with the Western River Expedition plans. When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, guests noticed not what was to come but what the park was lacking in comparison to Disneyland.

“The park opened and the No. 1 cry from the guests was that it didn’t have a pirate ride,” Baxter says. “So all the efforts went to not doing the Western river ride and to instead building Pirates. I knew then we’d have a hole in Frontierland that would need something. I focused on Big Thunder, knowing that for a very reasonable amount of money it could fill that gap.”

Though it could be seen as an expansion of one aspect of the original Thunder Mesa plans, Baxter says navigating corporate politics to sell the ride was no sure bet. Baxter credits lessons learned from artist Harper Goff, who worked on a number of conceptual designs for Disney parks in addition to films such as “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

“One thing I learned from the great film art director Harper Goff is let your work speak for you,” he says. “Don’t try to be up on a soap box selling the idea. I had a beautiful little model and it was hard not to fall in love with it. Whether people liked me as a person or not, they saw the little train ride and gave me the opportunity to build a bigger model.”

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is currently closed for renovations in Anaheim and slated to reopen this fall.

Tony Baxter, in the queue for Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure in 1995. (Los Angeles Times)

Tony Baxter, in the queue for Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure in 1995. (Los Angeles Times)

On Star Tours and the Indiana Jones rides

Looking back, Baxter believes Disneyland in the mid-’80s was in danger of losing its relevancy.

“Disneyland is in sync with where American and universal pop culture is at any given moment,” Baxter theorizes. “Any generation can come and reflect on what was vogue in their formative periods. In the ’70s and ’80s, Disney had drifted away from generating that…. That was where getting the studio involved in bringing Lucas in was critical.”

With the opening of the “Star Wars”-influenced Star Tours in 1987, things began to shift back in a positive direction, according to Baxter, who also was involved in numerous Lucasfilm-inspired attractions at Disneyland. He was the primary architect of the not-quite-a-roller-coaster thrill ride, Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye, which opened in 1995.

The ride’s sputter-and-start, ’30s-vintage-looking vehicles that propel guests through the attraction remain one of Baxter’s crowning achievements.

“It’s the first vehicle that sort of gives you an emotional experience of the ride that’s not too different, in my opinion, of what lighting and music do as tools of the theater,” he says. “Our ride vehicle can emotionally react. It can recoil from a snake, it can walk tentatively across a swaying bridge or it can move hesitantly forward into the darkness. It gave us a tool that gave you a precursor to what lies ahead — a fear that we hadn’t been able to do in boats.”

Star Tours replaced the beloved Adventure Thru Inner Space at Disneyland. The date of this photograph is unknown. (Disneyland)

Star Tours replaced the beloved Adventure Thru Inner Space at Disneyland. The date of this photograph is unknown. (Disneyland)

On having to destroy someone’s childhood memories

Of course, when Star Tours opened at Disneyland, it replaced the long-standing Adventure Thru Inner Space, a ride that attempted to create the effect of shrinking guests.

“When we made the announcement that it was closing, it was like a bomb went off,” Baxter says.

Baxter has been at Disney long enough that he’s seen his own creations reborn. Chief among them was the original Journey into Imagination at Walt Disney World’s Epcot. In Baxter’s incarnation two characters known as Dreamfinder and Figment figure heavily. The latter is a little purple dragon, shown early in the ride to be the creation of the Dreamfinder.

Since the early ‘80s the ride has gone through numerous updates, one that in the late ‘90s largely deleted Figment from the attraction. Complaints from guests resulted in another remake in the early 2000s, with Figment once again given a more prominent role.

“What I find is that people who were young when they visited Journey into Imagination were moved by Figment,” Baxter says. “Figment reflected the world as they saw it. To Figment, everything is possible and there are so many things out there they’d love to do and get involved with. If people were mature, and had closed the doors to being imaginative, they would find Figment strange or corny.”

When the ride was updated, Baxter says, energy was focused on aspects of the ride that appeared out of date. Figment was lumped into that category.

“Change is something we have to do,” he says, “but when you change it, you need to be aware of why it worked in the first place so that you don’t undo the very fabric of what made it fantastic. The renewal on that ride I think absolutely missed what it was that Figment and Dreamfinder meant for a younger generation of people. What it needed was a way to reflect those ideas to a more sophisticated group of young people growing up post the digital revolution.”

Baxter himself has reshaped some beloved Disney attractions. Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse was, Baxter says, “marked for extinction” in the late ‘90s, but he and other Imagineers pitched re-branding it to 1999’s “Tarzan” film, which resulted in protests to “save our tree,” he remembers.

“It was celebrating a movie from the early ’60s, and the people who grew up with it were now 60 years old,” Baxter says. “They weren’t going to be climbing a tree. So can we keep the tree and make it relevant? Turning it into ‘Tarzan’ did that.

“In the end,” he continues, “whatever replaces something must fulfill the dreams and emotions that were there in the original and do it one better. If you do that, you’ll be fine. People have so much affinity growing up there and are very protective of it. It’s like a hometown and they don’t want to see it lose in any way what it means to them.”

Tony Baxter in 1996 discusses the redesign of Disneyland's Tomorrowland. (Los Angeles Times)

Tony Baxter in 1996 discusses the redesign of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. (Los Angeles Times)

Discovery Bay and future Disneyland expansion

In 1985 The Times ran a story about a new themed land to be called Discovery Bay that was in the planning stages to be built beyond Disneyland’s Frontierland. In 1998 The Times again ran a story that Discovery Bay was in the planning stages to be built beyond Frontierland. The area was described as possessing “a thrill ride in which a dormant geyser roars back to life, propelling riders in a mine-shaft elevator skyward.”

Some of the projects planned for Discovery Bay have appeared at other Disney parks — for example, a Journey to the Center of the Earth attraction was constructed for Tokyo’s DisneySea.

Although Discovery Bay has yet to materialize, Baxter believes Disneyland still could expand beyond its current borders.

“People don’t realize how much land is left at Disneyland,” he says. “There’s plenty of land for good ideas. A tremendous amount of our land lies in the rear area of Frontierland and to the north behind the berm.”

Asked if he’s hopeful that any Discovery Bay elements will eventually be resurrected — or even if anything will be built on that land in his lifetime — Baxter quoted Captain Nemo from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

“As the boat was sinking beneath the sea, Nemo said, ‘All this will someday come to pass in God’s good time.’ As the park toys around with where they need to focus their energy and attention, which may be Tomorrowland or may be Frontierland, I do know this: We have lots of space for new things to be imagined in the backspace of Frontierland.”

– Todd Martens | @toddmartens

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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