I thought I’d kick off these blogs about Main Street windows with my favorite modern day Imagineer, Tony Baxter. When you mention current day Imagineers, even the mild Disney enthusiast will name at least one of two: Joe Rohde or Tony Baxter. Joe Rohde has been a long time imagineer and has had a hand in creating almost everything at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. But that’s Walt Disney World and I’m all about Disneyland…and let’s not forget, this is about Tony Baxter.
Tony Wayne Baxter was born in Los Angeles on February 1st, 1947, which would have made him 8 years old on opening day at Disneyland. When he was 17, two things happened that would help guide Tony down the path to Imagineering. First, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln had just been installed at Disneyland after its run at the New York World’s Fair and Tony sat through the show completely mesmerized by the animatronic Lincoln. Second, Tony toured Walt Disney Imagineering around the same time.
These two things led him to apply for a job at Disneyland…any job. Something I have thought about doing on numerous occasions at the park, but then I come back to my real life. Tony was hired in 1965 at age 17 scooping ice cream and selling popcorn on Main Street while he attended Cal Poly Pomona with a major in landscape architecture.
During his college years, Tony had the opportunity to meet once again with WED Enterprises (now known as Walt Disney Imagineering) and show them what was his senior project. It was a complete ride design for a Mary Poppins themed ride. Tony was shown the kinds of jobs that an imagineer did on a daily basis and he was shown current projects that the imagineers were working on for Disneyland. He left WED that day with a new plan and he promptly transferred to California State University to study theater design. In 1969, Tony graduated and in 1970, became an imagineer.
His first years with WED were spent on odd projects with minimal input. He found that these projects lacked the excitement he wanted. So in his spare time, he worked on an idea born from a concept that had been created for Walt Disney World that never came to pass. The creation for WDW was created by animator and imagineer Marc Davis and was called The Western River Expedition. This concept was a huge “wild west” complex that included caverns, a log flume ride and a runaway train.
Tony worked in his spare time on the runaway train idea from the Western River Expedition. He came up with the name of the attraction by pulling form what Marc Davis had already created. There was an area of The Western River Expedition called Thunder Mesa and it was the area that Marc designed to house his runaway train. Tony pulled from that name and came up with the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
He designed the ride and built a very detailed model of the complex and ride. The model caught the attention of park executives and the project initially was given the green light. Soon after, it was put on hold while resources of people and money were diverted to another project…Space Mountain.
After Space Mountain was finished, Big Thunder was given the green light again and construction began in early 1979 in Frontierland, taking up the area that Walt’s original ride, Nature’s Wonderland occupied.
Big Thunder opened on September 2nd, 1979 and was the first ride ever opened at Disneyland that Walt had no input in. The ride was so successful, it has been duplicated in both Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris under Tony Baxter’s supervision.
As I’ve said, Tony Baxter is my favorite modern day imagineer and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was just the start in a long line of very large projects that he’s had a hand in. Other projects that Tony worked on include:
- Journey Into Imagination Pavilion at Walt Disney World. One of the things he created in this ride was Figment. A purple dragon that has recently had a come back in fame and merchandising.
- The 1983 redesign of Fantasyland at Disneyland
- The Disney Gallery. This occupied the area above Pirates of the Caribbean that was initially designed to be Walt and Roy’s apartments and is now the Dream Suite.
- Star Tours
- Splash Mountain
- Disneyland Paris
- Indiana Jones Adventure
- The not so successful steam punk redesign of Tomorrowland.
- Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
- The redesign of the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough
- Re-Opening of Captain EO
- Star Tours – The Adventure Continues
These are just a few of the projects that Tony has had his hands in over his 48 year career with Disney (that includes his start as an ice cream scoop). He retired from his full time position as Senior Vice President, Creative Development, Walt Disney Imagineering on February 1st, 2013, which was also his 66th birthday, and became a part time adviser.
On August 10th, 2013, at the bi-annual D23 convention, Tony Baxter was named a Disney Legend. This honor is saved for those Walt Disney Company employees that have left a lasting mark on the company. For Legends that had a hand in the parks, this usually also means a window on Main Street. And for Tony, that honor was carried out on November 1st, 2013.
Tony’s window on Main Street in Disneyland is above and to the left of the Main Street Magic Shop and reads “Main Street Marvels – Tony Baxter – Inventor. Imagination is at the heart of our creations.”. The last line of his window is a nod to the song “One Little Spark”, written by the Sherman Brothers for Journey Into Imagination, a project that Tony spearheaded for EPCOT at Walt Disney World.
You might ask me why is it that Tony Baxter is my favorite modern imagineer. And I feel I have several good answers. First, Tony is a real life embodiment of having a dream and working hard to achieve it. He took any job he could get just to get in the doors of the Walt Disney Company and to be part of the magic and he worked hard to get into WED.
Secondly, to me Tony has maintained the standards set by Walt Disney to entertain and create attractions that entire families could enjoy together. And as the Senior Vice President, Creative Development, Walt Disney Imagineering, he carried the “torch” (so to speak) from Walt to make sure that the ideals Walt created Disneyland on were stuck to and held to the high standards that Walt would have expected. Disneyland and the Walt Disney Company will only continue to thrive as long as people like Tony Baxter are there to make sure they’re upheld.
As always, thanks for reading and please share the site with other Disneyland Diehards…