If you’re a big Disney parks fan like I am, you’ve more than likely heard of the Disney Imagineers. The Imagineers are the folks at the Disney company who have all of the big ideas. They come up with, design, create, and build the greatest attractions, shows, restaurants, parades, and park signage in the world. Walt Disney Imagineering (or WDI) was originally founded by Walt Disney himself (though then it was called WED Enterprises for Walter Elias Disney) when he was creating Disneyland. Over the years many Disney Legends passed through the hallowed halls of WDI: Bob Gurr (designed numerous Disneyland and WDW attraction vehicles), Marc Davis (gave us Pirates of the Caribbean among other greats), and Claude Coats (it’s a small world & The Haunted Mansion are just the tip of the iceberg) just to name a few. But one of the greatest stories ever told in Disney history is the one about one of the Disney company’s newest Legends. Here’s The Amazing Ascent Of Tony Baxter.
Tony Baxter was born in February of 1947 in Los Angeles, California. He grew up in nearby Orange County where he became an avid watcher of Walt Disney’s weekly television show, Disneyland. The show served as a preview to the theme park while it was being built, and also gave Tony an idea for what he wanted to do with his life. When he wasn’t working on art projects for school or visiting Disneyland as a child, he could often be found in his backyard designing attractions and shows he would’ve liked to have seen in Disneyland. Tony Baxter was a dreamer who luckily lived close by to the place where dreams came true.
In 1965 when Tony was 17 1/2 years old, he discovered that if you worked in Disneyland, you were able to get into the park whenever you wanted for free. That was enough for him! He took a job as an ice cream scooper at the Carnation Plaza Gardens in his favorite place on earth. In his early days of working in Disneyland, Tony would often see Walt Disney roaming around the park. Although he never developed a personal relationship with Walt, he was often inspired by how much Walt seemed to be enjoying himself around Disneyland. To Walt Disney, Disneyland wasn’t a burden, a job or a hassle. Disneyland was Walt’s greatest creation and Tony never forgot to keep that same sense of amazement with him as he grew through the company.
When Tony wasn’t working and was on a break from one of his shifts in the park, he would often walk around and explore backstage. The story goes that one day while he was trying to get a look at Pirates of the Caribbean while it was under construction, he ran into Disney Imagineer and future Disney Legend Claude Coats. After telling Coats what he was doing, the Imagineer graciously offered to give Tony a private tour of the Pirates of the Caribbean construction site.
In the late 1960s, Tony was enrolled in college as an architecture major at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) when he brought an attraction concept he had designed to work with him in Disneyland. His superiors and coworkers encouraged him to take the concept to WED to have them take a look at it. which he eventually did. The folks working at WED advised him to start taking some art classes which he did, eventually changing his major to theater design and transferring to Cal State Long Beach. When he was about to graduate he took another shot and brought a Disney-inspired attraction concept back to WED Enterprises. He was hired by WED in 1970, and sent off to work in Florida at Walt Disney World.
From a high school ice cream scooper at 17 to a Disney Imagineer in just five years is a pretty remarkable rise for anyone in the Disney company. Tony’s first job as an Imagineer was as Field Art Director for the Magic Kingdom’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea Attraction (which glamorously had him painting the attraction backdrops completely black!) At 23 years old, Tony was working alongside his mentor Claude Coats on Snow White’s Scary Adventure in the Magic Kingdom. After the Magic Kingdom opened by the end of 1971, he was sent back to work at his original location of Disneyland.
Tony Baxter and his teams went on to create some of the most iconic attractions and areas in all of the Disney theme parks. He and his team designed and developed Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (originally in Disneyland), he was the head of the complete overhaul and re-imagining of Disneyland’s Fantasyland in 1983, which he transformed from a circus tent atmosphere to a beautifully detailed European village. He helped create the concepts for the original Seas and Land pavilions at EPCOT Center, and eventually designed the Imagination Pavilion and it’s two most famous characters, the Dreamfinder and Figment. Tony then went on to bring George Lucas and his popular properties into the Disney family with attractions like Star Tours, the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, & the Indiana Jones Adventure.
Maybe the most famous story about Tony Baxter, however, is that of the iconic Disney attraction, Splash Mountain. When he was a child, Tony went to see the classic Disney movie The Song of the South. He loved it and always hoped he could do something around that film. The story goes that while he was stuck in traffic on his way to Walt Disney Imagineering one day, he was thinking about what he and the company would do with the animal audio animatronics from the recently closed America Sings attraction. He and his team had also recently been kicking around a concept for a water-based flume attraction that could be designed and built in Disneyland. All of a sudden it all clicked! The animals animatronics would be a perfect accompaniment to a Song of the South inspired attraction, and the flume would be a perfect way to tell the story. Splash Mountain was born! Well, kind of. Tony originally wanted to call the attraction the Zip A Dee River Run (from the song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”) but then Disney CEO Michael Eisner had a different idea. Disney was about to release the movie Splash (yes, with Tom Hanks) and Eisner thought it would be a great cross-promotion to have the word splash in the attraction’s title. Splash Mountain was actually born!
Tony Baxter retired from his position at Walt Disney Imagineering in 2013 and within a few months he was given the ultimate Disney honor: he was named as a Disney Legend and received his own window on Main Street USA in Disneyland and in WDW’s Magic Kingdom. He continues to work with current imagineers as a creative consultant to this day.
We often rush from place to place or from attraction to attraction on our Disney vacations and don’t always realize just how much work and effort goes into building the amazing attractions, sensational shows, and incredibly detailed lands, restaurants, and buildings in the Disney theme parks. Tony Baxter is one of us. He was a Disney fan first who worked hard, caught a few breaks along the way, and became one of the most influential Disney Legends of all time. The next time you’re riding Splash Mountain, be thankful that some kid who once loved Disneyland and scooped ice cream just so he could get in for free was able to achieve his dreams. He helps us live out ours on every Disney vacation.
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