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.
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.
Thank you, Tony.