Going Along for the Ride with Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter

Go Behind the Scenes to Learn about the Development of Disney Parks and Rides

Tony Baxter gets window on Main Street at Disneyland.
••• Tony Baxter gets a window on Main Street at Disneyland from Mickey Mouse and Disney COO, Tom Staggs. Disney.

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 mustache, kindly demeanor, and a 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.

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.

What's Cool about Being at Disneyland

Among the many wonderful things about the Disney theme parks are the ways in which the architecture, attention to detail, splashes of color, doses of whimsy, and other well-placed elements converge to subconsciously evoke senses of optimism, reassurance, anticipation, and other emotions -- the emotional connection that Baxter often mentions. Disneyland Paris is perhaps the most lavish and beautiful of the Disney parks and the one most likely to stir emotions.

Tony Baxter: Space Mountain [at Disneyland Paris] broke a lot of ground. It was the first coaster to introduce onboard audio and the first Disney looping ride. But its real milestone was the catapult lift we placed outside the building. We owe it to a lot of people that won't go on this ride to give them one heck of a show. If you're afraid to ride it, watching it [launch] makes you even more afraid. So much of what's cool about being in a Disney park -- is being in a Disney park. That's why I'm a firm believer that when we do a little thing like Dumbo [the Flying Elephant ride], let's make it look like Leonardo da Vinci. Let's make the most beautiful oversized music box. It's a jewel to watch.

Disappointment and Hopefulness

As Disney brass changes, and the decision makers who control the budgets impose their authority, working at Imagineering can be a heck of a roller coaster ride -- in more ways than one. Michael Eisner had been the company's savior at the start of his tenure, but had seen his halo fade when its fortunes started to falter. Eisner appointed Paul Pressler as Disneyland's president in the mid-1990s. With an intense (some might say ruthless) focus on trimming expenses and wringing profits, Pressler and Cynthia Harris, the successor Pressler appointed when he was promoted, helped put a stranglehold on Imagineering. However, by 2003, Pressler and Harris were gone and new Disneyland president Matt Ouimet brought a more open mind -- and checkbook -- to his position.

Tony Baxter: There was a dry period here [in the 1990s] where management took control of WDI's unbridled approach to design. We tried to work with it. I think some of the things we did were good under an austere budget. One of my biggest disappointments was Rocket Rods [the ride that replaced the PeopleMover in the "new" Tomorrowland, but was closed down shortly after it opened]. We had a beautiful show designed for that, but we weren't able to do it. It just became a fast ride around the park. If it had the show, it would have been great.

What a difference a few years make. Baxter's beloved Submarine Voyage had been closed in 1998 amid a spate of budget cutbacks. But with a mostly new regime of powers that be, Imagineering got the green light to make over the ride with a "Finding Nemo" overlay in 2004. The resulting ride is a triumph. (For more about the attraction, see my Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage ride review.) And it has been, by all accounts, an unabashed success for everyone involved--including Tony Baxter.

Tony Baxter: Compared to where we were in 1998, when we had a company that could hardly wait to close [the subs] down, it's been especially exciting to me to see the commitment and support. I've come full circle.