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One Little Spark: The Legend of Tony Baxter

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One Little Spark: The Legend of Tony Baxter
Credit: Walt Disney Archives

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Take a journey into the imagination of the man who created such iconic Disney experiences as Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Figment, Star Tours, and more!

Legends Series

Credit: KtP

The heart of the Disney parks around the world is truly the amazing cast members who make the magic each and every day. Each and every job feeds into the greater experience and the magic that is Disney. From the imagineers to those who scoop our ice cream on Main Street, each cast member’s contribution adds just a little more whimsy and fantasy to the overall experience.

This series of articles will focus on highlighting Disney legends that have truly defined Disney. For me, (Jaelyn), understanding the history behind the parks and rides really deepens my appreciation and overall enjoyment of a Disney trip. I hope that by sharing these legends’ stories with you, your next trip to the parks is even more meaningful! Most of the information gathered in these articles comes from D23 archives. This is a great place to start digging if you are interested in the history of Disney!

Backyard Dreamer

Credit: D23

Tony Baxter was born in Los Angeles, California on February 1, 1947. Tony grew up alongside the emerging powerhouse of the Walt Disney company. The company’s first full length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, first premiered ten years prior to Baxter’s birth. Disneyland itself opened in Anaheim, California on July 17, 1955 when Tony was just eight years old.

In an interview with D23, Baxter recounts that he loved watching the weekly Disneyland television program with Walt Disney himself when he was growing up. This show, titled Walt Disney’s Disneyland, ran from 1954-1958. It was created to finance the development of the Disneyland theme park.

Credit: Disney

During this show, Walt would tease the opening of Disneyland with “sneak peeks” into the development of the park. Additionally, the show highlighted each of the four main lands in Disneyland: Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland.

It was through these shows and his own experiences attending Disneyland as a child that Tony Baxter decided he would one day love to be a part of the Disney magic. Baxter spent his free time building ride models in his backyard and dreaming of ways to make the Disney experience even more magical for guests.

First Start

Credit: D23

At the age of 17.5 years old, the youngest age possible to be hired, Baxter began scooping ice cream at Carnation Plaza Gardens on Main Street in Disneyland. This job allowed him to get his foot in the door with the company and learn the important fact that it is truly the cast members who make the magic come alive.

On the job, some real pixie dust connected him with his future mentor through a chance encounter. In an interview with D23, Baxter recounts eating in a cast members only food court. While eating, he could see the construction of the new Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. He ventured over to get a sneak peek at the progress of the ride and ended up getting a personal tour by Disney legend Claude Coats. Unbeknownst to either man, the pair would work closely together in years to come.

In the year 1970 at the age of 23, Tony Baxter was hired as an Imagineer. He was sent to Orlando from 1970-1971 to work on his first project: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at the soon to open Walt Disney World.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Credit: KtP

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Baxter’s first attraction he worked on, was open at the Magic Kingdom from 1971-1994. This attraction, based off of of the 1954 Disney film of the same name, was an approximately 20 minute submarine ride through a lagoon. It was adapted from The Submarine Voyage experience at Disneyland.

Baxter’s role was both to transform the ride vehicles to have the appearance of sea-worn submarines. Additionally, he worked on deep-sea ride elements of the attraction that features the ruins of Atlantis, mermaids, jewels, and gold.

Closed initially for the creation of “Ariel’s Grotto”, this space at the Magic Kingdom is now a part of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride space and queue.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Credit: Susan

Arguably Baxter’s biggest breakthrough into Imagineering was his role in the creation of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland. This attraction opened in 1979 at Disneyland. A Disney World version of the attraction soon followed.

Tony designed this original attraction based on the scenery at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Utilizing some of the attraction set pieces of Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, guests “embark on a harrowing journey through dark caverns and deep sandstone gorges, encountering swarming bats, crashing landslides, and rumbling earthquakes along the way.”

Credit: KtP Writer

The gold rush theming combined with the curse of the spirit of Big Thunder add to the unique elements of Disney storytelling that simply have the Tony Baxter touch.

In 2013, the ride’s queue received an overhaul to add further storytelling elements to the plot of the attraction centering on the Big Thunder Mining Company. In the queue, one can spot a portrait of the company’s president Barnabas T. Bullion, who has been made to share Baxter’s likeness.

Land and Seas Pavilions

Credit: KtP

Though the existing iteration of the Land and Seas Pavilions are not exactly what Tony Baxter had in mind, he had created original concept drawings for both of these still-standing Epcot pavilions.

Tony’s Land Pavilion design involved a show building designed with large crystal shapes, a design that seems to have come to fruition more closely at the Imagination Pavilion. Baxter’s original design included each crystal containing a different ecosystem for guests to explore while suspended above ground in a balloon that transported guests amongst the crystal ecosystems. While this obviously did not occur, we instead have many hot air balloons suspended from the ceiling of the Land Pavilion as a possible tribute to this original idea.

Credit: Susan

Tony’s original plans for the Seas Pavilion included a restaurant that had views of the aquarium, similar to Coral Reef Restaurant. In addition, the plans included a very large ride involving Poseidon and a sea-storm with guests traveling through the seas in glass bubbles. While this did not come to fruition, the pavilion still has many influences by Baxter’s original design.

Imagination Pavilion

Credit: KtP

After Disney decided to go in a different direction for the Land Pavilion, Baxter set his sights on the Imagination Pavilion in Epcot. Sponsored by Kodak at the time, the pavilion was designed to tell the story of the process of creation and creativity. It focuses on gathering, storing, and recombining ideas to come up with something new.

Credit: D23

The existing ride experience of Journey into Imagination with Figment is nowhere near the original that was once in the pavilion. The original, with the characters of the Dreamfinder and Figment as inspired by the canceled Disneyland Discovery Bay project, is a cherished favorite of many fans.

Running from 1983-1998, Journey into Imagination took guests on an experience in the clouds with the Dreamfinder and his dragon Figment through the process of developing imagination through the realms of Art, Literature, the Performing Arts, and Science. As the ride ended, guests were taken to Imageworks, a creative playground of the future.

Credit: D23

Though the ride now in existence is missing the magic of Baxter’s original creation, Figment is still a very popular character who has an almost cult-like following for dedicated Disney fans. In a late 2020 interview as part of a VIP reception of Walt Disney Birthplace’s virtual celebration, Baxter stated that he would come out of retirement to redesign the ride to bring back its glory.

As proven by the recent popcorn bucket saga, fans love Figment. Maybe this popularity surge will be the “spark of light” needed to get a much needed ride refurbishment?

Splash Mountain

Credit: D23

The current iteration of Splash Mountain was also the brainchild of Tony Baxter. D23 reports that Baxter came up with the idea for the attraction while stuck in his car during rush-hour traffic in 1983.

It has been said that then CEO of the Walt Disney Company Michael Eisner was looking for ways to incorporate thrill rides into the parks an effort to engage the teenage demographic. The idea of Splash Mountain was pitched to Eisner and his then teenage son. His son gave his approval, so the ride was given approval.

Credit: D23

Splash Mountain was adapted from Disney’s film Song of the South. Beloved characters such as Brer Bear, Brer Fox, and Brer Rabbit were taken from the film’s plot to create the ride. Several of the audio-animatronics from the closed America Sings attraction were used in Splash Mountain’s creation.

With the announcement of an impending re-theme of this attraction to fit the character intellectual property of The Princess and the Frog, guests are still unsure what this ride will look like going forward. Tony Baxter, however, will be returning from retirement to participate in the design process of this popular ride’s re-theming.

Star Tours

Star Tours Celebrates 35 Wonderful Years in Disney Parks
Credit: Susan

In an interview with Attractions Magazine, Tony Baxter details his journey in the creation of Star Tours. Telling the story of how the ride was almost a roller coaster experience similar to Space Mountain, Tony tells how Star Tours became a flight simulator ride like it is today.

Tony worked to capitalize on the relationship with George Lucas in order to make this attraction a lasting and memorable experience for guests.

Indiana Jones Adventure

indiana jones adventure
Credit: Disney

Indiana Jones Adventure, an enhanced motion vehicle dark ride found in Disneyland, was Tony’s next big project. Opening in 1995, Tony led a team of 100 Imagineers who designed and built the half-mile long track for the ride as well as the different concepts for each of the ride’s rooms.

The premiere attraction, Temple of the Forbidden Eye, was adapted as Temple of the Crystal Skull at Tokyo DisneySea.

Disneyland Paris

Credit: KtP writer Donna

Serving as the executive produce of Disneyland Paris, Tony Baxter was able to put his unique flavor of design throughout the park. Arguably one of the most beautifully designed Disney parks, Baxter was able to take the classic elements of Disneyland and Disney World that guests know and love and translate them for a European audience while elevating many artistic and storytelling qualities.

In particular, the design of Discoveryland, the park’s answer to Tomorrowland, is truly unique and provides many beatiful artistic design elements.

Honoring His Contributions

Credit: D23

In 2013, Tony Baxter was named as a Disney Legend. He has a Disneyland window with his name on it on Main Street, USA that celebrates his many contributions to the Disney company. It is nearly impossible to visit a Disney park without experiencing an attraction, restaurant, or pavilion that has not been touched by Baxter’s creative genius. His contributions continue to spark our imagination and dreams each and every time we enter the parks.

For me, the Imagination Pavilion and the heart of its design truly have captivated my love for Disney parks. Epcot is my absolute favorite park because I think it most closely represents the spirit and dreams of Walt himself. The idea behind celebrating the imagination and creative thought process while honoring our child-like dream state through the characters of the Dreamfinder and Figment is truly representative of Walt’s own creative spirit.

What is your favorite Tony Baxter attraction? How have his ideas created memories for you and your family? Comment below or on our Facebook page.

-Jaelyn W.

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