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Full Steam Ahead, Mr. Baxter

Tony Baxter with models of Discovery Bay and Dumbo's Circus, 1976

Tony Baxter with models of Discovery Bay and Dumbo’s Circus, 1976

As you’re no doubt aware by now, veteran Imagineer Tony Baxter resigned from Walt Disney Imagineering last Friday, his birthday, after a remarkable 47 years with the company. Tony will be staying on as a consultant to the company, providing his insight to those who are wise enough to seek him out.

But despite the fact that Tony will no doubt continue to do great work in the years to come, the fact that he has been a very public face of Imagineering for decades make this a deep loss for fans. Tony was not only the creative lead of a number of extremely significant attractions over the years, but he was also a very tangible link to the Golden Age of Imagineering; directly mentored by the great Claude Coats, Tony worked alongside a pantheon of creative legends in his early years. He is also one of the very few active Cast Members who were working for the Company when Walt was still alive.

As for the slate of Tony’s accomplishments, I’m reminded of the scene in Jaws when Robert Shaw introduces himself by saying “You all know me; know how I earn a livin’.” Tony’s resume is well-known to any fan, but bears re-examination; when you think about it, you’re staggered by its magnitude. With the customary caveat that no project is the work of any one individual, it seems clear that Tony has had the single greatest influence among active Imagineers on the modern Disney parkscape – the vision of Disney theme parks that most of us grew up with.

After all, what is a modern Disney park without Big Thunder Mountain? Without Splash Mountain? It’s hard to imagine what Disneyland would look like without Tony’s influence, and his breathtaking 1983 overhaul of that park’s Fantasyland completely re-invented how we envision that “cardinal realm” of Disney parks. It’s proved the template for similar lands ever since.

The list goes on: Star Tours, Indiana Jones Adventure, and the not-so-insignificant contribution of that jewel of a park, Disneyland Paris. He’s made critical contributions to everything from The Living Seas to Soarin’. And, for much of the last decade, he’s devoted himself to the restoration of his beloved Disneyland; his steady hand has guided the return of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Sleeping Beauty Castle tour, and the long-dormant submarines of Tomorrowland. Some might scoff at these smaller-scale projects, but I envy Tony for being able to tackle these deeply significant attractions that are fundamental to Disneyland’s unique texture. Disney parks are not beloved because someone plopped a bunch of “big box” e-tickets in a parking lot; it’s the unique blend of A-E ticket shows that makes Disney special, and featuring a variety of experiences allows everyone to enjoy the parks. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln is just as important to Disneyland as Space Mountain, and Tony understands that.

Equally numerous as the attractions we’ve listed are the grand visions which never came to fruition. What fan doesn’t still pine for Discovery Bay, thirty years later? Tony’s proposed-but-unrealized projects read like a checklist of park devotee fantasies; they range from endless concepts for Disneyland and Disneyland Paris to my own personal obsession, WESTCOT. They also include a warehouse full of ideas that remain yet unknown to the general public, but will astound and amaze when they one day come to light. If you pine for “what could have been,” you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Tony's striking original concept for Epcot Center's The Land.

Tony’s striking original concept for Epcot Center’s “The Land.” A master modelmaker, Tony has often developed new projects through striking mockups such as this.

Special mention must be made here for my own personal favorite of Tony’s attractions, Epcot Center’s beloved Journey into Imagination. Alongside a team of talented artists and co-creators, Tony crafted an iconic and memorable experience that the public still pines for more than a decade after its closure. The pavilion gave Epcot Center what it sorely needed – it’s own trademark characters, Dreamfinder and Figment. It also combined technology and artistry to present a “creative playground of the future” that has never been bested since, despite today’s fancier technology, “interactive” flat-screen displays, and RFID. It was the one Epcot Center attraction that could have been as evergreen as the Magic Kingdom classics Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean; it was a show that demanded no updates to keep up with “the future”, and a show with timeless, universal themes.

I won’t feed you a line about how Imagination “made the magic of imagination come alive” or anything like that; what made it special for me was that it created a completely immersive experience that played to each of the senses in indelible ways. From the smell of atomized rose fragrance which I can vividly recall still today, to the beauty of white “paper” animals dancing in multi-hued lights, to the prickly tingle of the Imageworks’ “pin screens,” the Imagination pavilion presented an array of experiences that were completely and amazingly unique at the time.

And oh, that ride. Piling into the six-seater purple vehicles before those doors slowly slid shut, before your car accelerated into the first starlit show scene; it was as if you had passed the proscenium into another world, a multimedia fantasia that combined the best of Disney illusioneering with a barrage of visual and auditory puns and gags. That incredible turntable with the massive dirigible; Dreamfinder painting the world’s largest polarized light mural with a fiber-optic paintbrush; the volcanic organ spitting out words which became the ride’s reality. And some scenes which truly terrified young me, giving the ride a menacing edge lacking from today’s offerings. I could rattle on and on about the striking images and environments featured in that ride, but in the end it would wind up listing pretty much every scene of the show. One impression after another, vividly impressed into my subconscious for all time.

When Tony announced his departure from Imagineering, he sent out a letter to his collaborators. I encourage you to read it here. It’s heartbreaking, breathtakingly succinct, and profoundly and startlingly true. All my nattering on this blog over the last five years can be summarized (and stated far better than I ever could) in that one simple letter. I wish it could be carved in gilded letters five stories tall on the cliff faces over Glendale.

With the caveat that we expect many more wonderful things from him, Tony can rest assured that his legacy is secure. The list of attractions above are certainly enough to make one a lowercase-l legend, and it’s obvious that he will one day become an “official” Disney Legend; as a friend described it to me, it’s the equivalent of a pro sports star that gets inducted as an all-star on the “first ballot”. His work and his name will be remembered for all posterity, which is more than I can say for nameless managers and bureaucrats – “strategic planners” – who, at times, stymied his work. They will be forgotten, Tony will not.

There’s so much more I could say, but in the end there’s nothing I could say that we all don’t already know. I don’t know Mr. Baxter personally, so I can’t speak to his plans or intentions or feelings about all this. But what I do know is that, if he so desires, this could only be the beginning of spectacular things. Any theme park company in the world should be camped out on his doorstep Monday morning with truckloads of cash demanding that Tony create madcap, magnificent new things for them. Freed from the shackles of WDI’s demented internal politics, the sky is the limit for Tony.

We wish him well, and despite the fact that such words are inadequate, we thank him sincerely.

I would encourage all of you to leave a message in the comments below thanking Tony; I’ll try to see that they make their way to him. Tell us about your favorite Tony attraction, or any memories you might have about his work. For those of you who are creative professionals who might have worked with Tony, how about some stories about working with him? Thanks to everyone who comments.

A very young me (and family) enjoying one of Tony's greatest creations in October 1982.

A very young me (and family) enjoying one of Tony’s greatest creations in October 1982.

Thank you, Tony.


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34 comments to Full Steam Ahead, Mr. Baxter

  • Theresa

    From my first visit to Walt Disney World in 1990, to my most recent one last week, Big Thunder Mountain remains as one of my favorite attractions (and not just in WDW, but anywhere). It’s one of the attractions I am most excited to take my nephews on during their first visit to WDW, building a new generation of fans of Tony Baxter’s amazing work. Thank you, Mr. Baxter, for all you have done for The Disney Company, and for all you will do in the future.

  • I have a lot to thank Tony Baxter for.

    Growing up in Europe, I’d always loved theme parks and their design but it was Disneyland Paris, my first Disney park, that really stayed with me and inspired me. Sometime in my teens I stood on Main Street and realized that I’d love to help create that kind of environment for a living.

    A few years later, I and two friends attended a conference in the Netherlands only because Tony was going to talk. We expected to see him on stage for 10 minutes… instead, over the course of two days he must have spent over an hour chatting with us students about his experience, about European parks and even some advice. That’s one encounter I’ll never forget.

    Today I actually get to create artwork and graphics for the very park that inspired me. And if that wasn’t enough, I also met my wife while working as a ride operator in Fantasyland and Frontierland. So thank you Tony Baxter for all the great work you and your teams have done… It’s not hyperbole to say that it changed my life.

  • I wasn’t aware of Tony Baxter when the foundation of my Walt Disney World fandom as built in the 1980s. In fact, despite his likely mention in books at the time, I couldn’t consciously accept and recognize his existence until further in life when I rekindled my Disney fandom via videos, filling in my library of books, and the Internet community. Once there I could start to fill in the blanks behind the many rides and attractions I’d already loved since such a core age of my life. At the point of nostalgia and reverence for the Disney I grew up with, Mr. Baxter and his imagination permeated that amazing history that I soaked in. He became this important connection, all the way back to Walt’s time and forward through the modern era. As a kid, I was too scared of Space Mountain so Big Thunder Mountain was the only rollercoaster for me. To this day, it’s still a profound experience for me (even as I’ve grown to enjoy “scarier” coasters) because of the theme of the attraction and the connection I can continue to make to my youth. Splash Mountain opened a little later in my youth and at a time when I was ready to embrace a thrilling drop. But it epitomized what I loved about Disney….a thrill ride/dark ride hybrid; music and characters with a brilliant climax. And an attraction that (in its heyday) was such a high standard for Imagineering. And ultimately, like Michael and so many others, Journey Into Imagination was a beacon in my youth. EPCOT Center of course holds so much sway over my every being and for so many years in the 1980s, we’d return to experience all those attractions over and over again. Nothing was stale, nothing ever felt old hat, even when the Studios opened. While I go on and on about Horizons, Journey Into Imagination held a different place for me. I was young enough to be enamored with Figment and Dreamfinder, so much so that my treasured stuffed animal for years was Figment. But Figment was an avatar of a greater love of Journey Into Imagination. From its glass pyramids outside to the ride itself, it inspired a wildly imaginative child with one little spark and one massively delightful experience.

    I know Tony Baxter had his hand and his brain in so many other attractions and I feel immense appreciation for all of them (of course, space permits). Thank you, Tony. For allowing us a journey through your imagination, and inspiring our own.

  • DeeJay

    He saved what could be salvaged from Thunder Mesa and for that alone he should forever be thanked. His countless other contributions to all the parks have brought joy and wonderment to millions. WDI will, for all intents and purposes, be simply Imagineering as the last link to WD is removing his name placard. If I’m not mistaken, everybody who is currently working in WDI has always worked for WDI and not WED. This fact alone is sad beyond belief. I guess the bean counters have finally won.

  • Josh T.

    I met Tony the day after my 18th birthday and Disneyland Paris’s 20th anniversary in the Emporium in Main Street. If I could ever speak to him again, I would say to him what I never got a chance to say, which is: Thank you for creating the place that defined my childhood and inspired me so much as I grew up.

  • Tony was the shaper of my Disney fandom. From Big Thunder Mountain ot Splash Mountain to my all time favorite Journey Into Imagination, Tony has brought me and my family more joy than I can measure. Thanks, Tony, and you can read my full thoughts here

  • The attractions that Tony Baxter was involved with are basically all among my favorites in any Disney park. Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, the wonderful original Imagination ride, and now Indy are at the top of the list. He’s done so much for the growth of the modern Disney parks after Walt Disney that he’s one of the most important contributors to the greatness of Disney’s current parks. I also visited Disneyland Paris, and the main park is beautiful; I wish we’d have had more time there.
    Thank you, Tony. You’ll be greatly missed.

  • I’ll be succinct. Thank you, Tony. I owe you a significant chunk of my childhood.

  • Thank you, Tony. Thank you for Big Thunder. Thank you for Journey Into Imagination. Getting to hear you speak and to meet with you at Epcot last year was a true joy. You helped shape the wonderful childhood memories I have of Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center. Thank you for that, and thank you for the memories you continue to help create now that I’m a husband and father. Your ideas executed have inspired four generations in my family. There’s no way I can ever repay that. I’d like to hope to see more of your vision applied to reality, but you’ve provided us all with a lifetimes worth of experiences. So I’ll be satisfied with you knowing how much all your efforts have meant to me and so many I love and care for. Thank you for everything.

  • Tony, Splash Mountain has long been my favorite attraction. It’s music, characters, and fun ride system have made it my “go to” since I first experienced it. Actually, those 3 things have become staples of the attractions you are well known for, and all of them are the theme parks as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin are to Walt Disney’s animation legacy. You continued the tradition, working with the original Imagineers, to fully understand what Disney needed to do to create the next big thing, and it didn’t include any bands or RFID. Your candid admission that Imagination didn’t work anymore shows you really do “get it” and are one the Imagineers who still yearn for the attractions that wow us. While we won’t know exactly what went on inside the walls of WDI to hasten your retirement, just know that there are many of us outside who are on your side and rooting for you. Thank you.

  • Nathan

    Thank you Tony,

    No words can describe my feelings. Just thank you, and good luck in the new chapter in your life.


  • Tyler

    For me, and I’m sure many others, when I think of Walt Disney Imagineering, the name Tony Baxter is one that instantly pops in to my head. Mr. Baxter represents everything that ever set Disney apart from the pack. As a young kid visiting Walt Disney World up until the late 90s or so, I didn’t really know who Tony Baxter was. I wasn’t well versed in my Disney history. But I knew his work. Mr. Baxter, along with numerous others, allowed me to travel through the world of imagination, take a ride on a runaway mine train, or take a ride through the galaxy. As I learned more about Mr. Baxter’s work-specifically in EPCOT Center- I began to realize what a huge part of my life he had been. His hands were on many of my favorite attractions. I’ve yet to experience some of Mr Baxter’s greatest works, having never visited Disneyland or Disneyland Paris, but I have every reason to believe that when the day comes that I do, I’ll come away impressed. I’ll always admire Tony especially for his work at Disneyland over the past decade, his work on Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, the castle walkthrough and Fantasyland dark rides. I equally appreciate the efforts Mr. Baxter made toward attractions we may never see, which show just as much as any attraction I can ride today how much he understands what makes Disney so special.
    I hope that as Mr. Baxter takes this next step, he knows that he has many fans who appreciate everything he’s done in his time at WDI. I also hope he takes joy in the fact that for years to come, people will have boundless fun on a trip to the Laughing Place or the town of Tumbleweed.
    I know I’m sad to see Mr. Baxter go, but I’m happy for what he’s given us.
    Thanks, Tony, for sharing your imagination with us.

  • Growing up in the 1990s, Journey to Imagination was my favorite attraction of all- I never doubted or second guessed myself. I still have fond memories of embarking on its flights of fancy as a kid, though my memory’s betrayed me by forgetting much of the wondrous sights and sounds to be had. The last time I was ever to ride alongside Dreamfinder I was 7 (I still remember crying leaving Epcot to go on our plane), but oh, how it and its marvelous Sherman song have stuck with me through the years. I can still remember getting a Figment doll for my 6th birthday, and I still keep it in my room to this day. I remember holding back tears at the D23 EPCOT 30th Celebration when you presented the ride-through. I could go on and on (even about my lovely week spent traversing Disneyland Paris or the time I was finally tall enough to ride Indiana Jones), but I will say this: more than any other attraction, movie, character, etc. my love of Disney is probably strongest around Imagination. Imagination, to me, is a constant reminder of why I love Disney so much in the first place, and always provides that little spark of inspiration to continue doing so. This little writing cannot describe my gratitude for you, so I send you off with a prayer and the best of wishes as you journey into new adventures.

  • I have known Tony for many years and I did know he would retire this year, but it was to be later in the year, and certainly not it way it was done. He is the best of the best of the best and his name will live long and prosper. He is already a Legend in our minds. I can only wish him the best in thing yet to come. I love you Tony and will follow your career no matter where you go.

  • Hilde

    Thank you, Tony! For your contributions, and maybe especially for Disneyland Paris. It was my first Disney Park, and man was it worthy. :) Good luck in your next endeavour!

  • There are many people out there that have no clue who Tony Baxter is. They are not familiar with his work, attractions he helped design, concepts he imagined, or the art that he produced. That being said, the influence of Tony Baxter through all of those peoples experiences of his creations are very profound. Whether they know it or not, their love of one attraction or another at the various Disney parks is a direct love of Tony’s work personally. As a fan it is easy to look down the laundry list of projects he has worked on and express my love for many of these and the impact they have had on my life. Instead I want to thank Tony for the millions of people that appreciate all he has done, but do not know the “man behind the curtain” so to say. Thank you Tony from all of us fans and the one who can’t as well, for all your hard work and dedication to your craft. We hope that life treats you well.lifelife

  • I had the pleasure of meeting/briefly chatting with Tony at D23’s first anniversary event and he was absolutely wonderful. I’m very sad to see him go – the original Imagination was a favorite as a child (I was so frustrated when I went back after it was gone and couldn’t find the ride I remembered so well! My parents weren’t as familiar with the ride and I think thought I was nuts…) and Big Thunder and Splash Mt are still favorites. Best of luck to Tony on his future!

  • Professional Dreamer

    I sincerely hope the new President of Disneyland, while listening to input from all his Vice Presidents, requests a “Special Tour” with Tony Baxter, and learns from Tony’s vision and wisdom on not what could be but should be done to enhance the park and guest experience! PD

    • Professional Dreamer

      Tony’s concept for an OZ Land behind Big Thunder and leading into it from Fronteirland sounds like it would fit right in to his next chapter.

      • Professional Dreamer

        When I learned that Walt Disney had purchased the rights to Frank Baum’s Oz Characters back in 1954, and having grown up with his books through my parents and their parents, I have been waiting for Disney’s Imagineering to do something with all the mythical characters. Hopefully Tony’s Discovery Bay and Oz Land will become his reality and Disneylands.

  • Thank you so much for all your wonderful work, Tony Baxter! While I think it is true that every job is important, if done well and with pride, it must be so special to know how particularly long-lasting and significant your accomplishments in the Disney parks are–to have created experiences that have made kings laugh and children dream. Walt stated that he wanted Disneyland to be a source of joy and inspiration and I think your projects have carried that ideal with great integrity. The great degree to which you cared about Disney, and by extension, Disney’s guests, always came through and was as appreciated as it will be missed in the future.

    Best wishes for the future–we will try to remember what you taught us: That everyone has a Laughing Place; that sometimes it only takes a Little Spark; and for the Love of God, don’t look into the Eyes of Mara.

    [Additional gushing at ]

  • Congrats, Tony!! I want to share with you how inspirational your body of work (so far) has been in my life. As a youngster, I loved “Journey Into Imagination” – and the magic, artistry and emotions that you poured into that attraction touched me.

    Your creations left such an impression on me that it wasn’t long before I decided to enter the industry and had a hand in creating several attractions, one of which (Nights in White Satin) has been compared with the original Journey into Imagination.

    Usually the comparison goes something like “Nights in White Satin is 1/3 as good as the original Journey Into Imagination” :) And any time I hear something like that my heart just sings.

    Thanks again Tony, your ideas, philosophies and passion for the magic changed my life in a wonderful way!

  • Thanks for everything you’ve done, Tony. Your work has undoubtedly shaped the vision in my mind when I think of a Disney theme park. While there are certainly other roller coasters that top Big Thunder Mountain Railroad when it comes to thrills, none match the overall experience created. The same can be said for other log flumes and Splash Mountain.

    I sincerely hope that the current generation of Imagineers are able and willing to seek you out for advice and are wise enough to listen to what you have to say.

    Thanks again, and good luck in anything the future brings your way.

  • A sincere and tremendous helping of thanks to you, Mr. Baxter for your endless utilization of creativity and unswerving dedication to the art of themed design. Wherever the path ahead leads you, be assured a loyal following will support and champion your future endeavors, be they brick-and-mortar projects, books, articles or creative nurturing.

    Though you are likely too humble to admit such a thing, you occupy rare and equal footing alongside the likes of your own mentors, such as Bud Hurlbut and Claude Coats. While momentary technology trends and flash-in-the-pan thinking quickly become afterthoughts, your work remains smart, rock-solid and timeless. Best of luck in filling this new “blank page”—no one does it better. – Dan

  • It’s no small statement to say that “Journey Into Imagination” probably has had more creative impact on me than anything that has come before or will come after. Thanks so much.

  • I grew up on EPCOT, and Journey Into Imagination was one of my favorite attractions. Everything about it just filled me with joy. Thank you, Mr. Baxter for all of your contributions. I was so excited to get to hear you speak at the EPCOT 30th anniversary program by D23, and I hope I have more opportunities to hear your stories in the future.

  • It wasn’t until the past ten years, when I began to read and learn more about the behind-the-stage-curtains of Disney attractions, that I realized that the attractions that were my absolute favorites when I was growing up happened to have the name Tony Baxter in common. The amount of inspiration that I have personally gotten from Tony’s work is unmeasurable, so the amount of inspiration his work has and will release on the world has to be near infinite. Thank you, Tony, please don’t hide too well.

  • David Nicely

    Mr. Baxter, Disney is an everyday part life for my family and you have been apart of making this life better! EPCOT has always been my favorite park and I appreciate all of the details, whether out in the open or a little hidden, that are throughout the park. You have graced generations with your vision and imagination, and thank you just does not seem enough. We always tell people Disney isn’t about “rides”, its an experience of all the senses. We will continue to tell our children about you and the other Imagineers who have brought us so much joy as a family. God Bless you Mr. Baxter!!

  • […] Tony Baxter resigned from Walt Disney Imagineering this past week, and Progress City, USA has a blog post looking back on his career. […]

  • David T. Jones

    Beyond the spectacular E-ticket extravaganzas (yes, that Imagination turntable surprised and delighted me), I”ll always remember two “minor” Tony Baxter efforts: Tony’s memorable and obviously heartfelt presentation ( at a Disneyana Convention) of the beautiful Disneyland Paris, including the “correct” placement of an Exit sign, featuring Figaro (now coming full circle as an AA figure in Disneyland’s Princess Faire) and the restoration of that park’s unique Sleeping Beauty Walk-through, the type of “extra” experience that keeps us coming back to Disney Parks time and again. Even though
    your success is firmly established, Tony, I fervently hope that you have the opportunity
    to truly mentor the next generation of Imagineers. I’m sure they joined WDI expecting
    to create the best, and they deserve to work alongside the best. Please keep the
    torch lit and aloft. Best regards and wishes for a creative future.

  • Figments Friend

    What more can be said of a man who has a body of work so cherished and appreciated? Beloved…yes that is the word…you efforts are indeed beloved and highly valued for the stunning pieces that they are.

    Tony, you have only just begun to dream.

    SO much more is awaiting you….and it will now be on your terms.
    Just the way we both like it…. (happy smiles)

    Like many here, you and your works have had a tremendous influence on me since i was young, and i would say had a absolutely huge effect on my personal outlook towards creative arts as a career. Your personal story of how you started, and where that passion for what you do took you inspires others to reach for those same goals.
    I am not afraid of admitting that you were a creative mentor to me, even back when i was too young to understand the concept. You still are to this day and i thank you for this immensely. So difficult to put into words what that means to someone on a personal level when one is not a *creative type*….but i am sure you will understand.

    I thank you Tony for all you have given, all you have worked for, all you have sweated over…and all the politics and internal struggles you have had to put up with over the more recent years. As they old saying goes, *Talent will out(last)..* and you, my friend, will outlast indeed.
    Words do not speak volumes, experiences do you , Tony , you have certainly given us some remarkable and life-changing experiences that have made many a life all the better and brighter.

    I thank you for all that you have done for me, and i thank you in advance for all the wonders you will share with us in the future.

    Forward !

  • Creativity and efficiency is a major theme park.
    DAVID THEMING WORKS, is based on this philosophy for their projects.

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