The Legendary Career of Imagineer Tony Baxter

If the Disney Parks had a Mount Rushmore, clearly Walt Disney and Roy Disney would make up half of it. But who would be the other two figures? Some of the early Imagineers who helped invent the Parks would certainly be in consideration, like John Hench, Marc Davis, or Mary Blair. Or perhaps Joe Rohde, the Imagineer whose singular vision spearheaded Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Heck, we might even include Michael Eisner, for reinvesting in the Parks in the 1980s and 90s!

But another person to consider for that immortalizing edifice would surely be Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter, a man called by his biographer the “first of the second generation of Walt Disney Imagineers.” If you’ve been to a Disney Park within the past 40 years, you’ve almost certainly felt Baxter’s impact, so let’s pay tribute to the man by diving into the importance of his legacy!

Credit: Disney Parks Blog

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The Second Generation of Imagineering

What does it mean to be the first of a generation? In the case of Tony Baxter, the description refers to the fact that he was the first truly influential Imagineer who hadn’t been a part of the hand-picked group of artists and filmmakers that Walt Disney himself had chosen to help him build Disneyland, and later Walt Disney World.

mickey mouse and walt disney

Credit: Disney

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This matters because while the early Imagineers were largely making things up as they went along, trying to see what did and did not work in a theme park, Los Angeles native Tony Baxter had grown up knowing and loving Disneyland. As an adult, he was able to remember what it was like to view the Park through the eyes of a child, and he kept that sense of childlike enthusiasm when he worked on attractions, lands, and entire Parks (a trait that many of the early Imagineers attributed to Walt Disney, himself).


Credit: Disney

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By the end of the 1970s, as most of the first-generation Imagineers were working on EPCOT, their interest had moved on from Walt’s obsession with immersion to the more presentational style featured in the semi-educational attractions at the new Park. However, Baxter and his generation of up-and-comers were more interested in recreating the types of experiences he had seen at Disneyland as a child, with immersive designs and strong storylines.

After working in Disneyland in various roles – from ice cream scooping to running attractions – Baxter graduated from college in 1969 and was officially hired by Walt Disney Imagineering in 1970. Nine years later, the first ride built in Disneyland without any input from Walt himself opened. That ride, co-designed by Baxter and his mentor Claude Coates, was Big Thunder Mountain.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Walt Disney World

Credit: Disney

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Big Thunder Mountain was more than just a roller coaster. It took the idea of a “runaway train” to its ultimate end, with a full backstory, immersive sets through which the tracks would wind, and a focus on atmosphere above and beyond pure thrills. Baxter himself would explain (as quoted in David Younger’s Theme Park Design & The Art of Themed Entertainment) why this attraction so greatly varied from the presentational types then being created by the first-generation Imagineers for EPCOT:

I began to realize that the second-generation Imagineers had an advantage… we had the opportunity to be kids here at the park, we knew what it was like to be amazed by it, and now we’re able to bring some of that to the forefront of our work. The original Imagineers were following through on what they assumed the public would like, and not so much what they themselves would like as ‘adult children.’ […] As second-generation people, we were affected by our experiences at Disneyland and by growing up with Disney entertainment… Most of the people who were there when Walt died were terrific visualizers of his ideas, but when left with trying to conceptualize a movie or ride after he was gone, they had problems because they were so used to having that role filled. No one had dared attempt that role, because Walt rarely let that happen.

And Big Thunder Mountain would only prove to be the beginning of Baxter’s Imagineering career.

castle disneyland paris

Credit: Disney

The Baxter Touch

A full list of Tony Baxter‘s achievements at the Disney Parks would take up an entire book (and, in fact, they have: Tim O’Brien’s biography, Tony Baxter: First of the Second Generation of Walt Disney Imagineers). Some of the highlights, though, include:

  • Journey into Imagination – It’s no surprise that the most immersive, “Disney-like” ride in EPCOT’s first phase was co-designed by Baxter. If you love Figment, probably the most popular character to come out of the Parks, then you can thank Tony Baxter for that!
  • New Fantasyland – In 1983, Disneyland’s Fantasyland underwent a renovation that rethemed the architectural and design style from a Renaissance theme to one that looked like a Bavarian village, a project spearheaded by Baxter.
  • Star Tours – If you enjoy the union of Disney and Star Wars, Baxter had a hand in that, as well. He was the director of the original Star Tours attraction, the beginning of a long history of Star Wars at the Disney Parks!
  • Splash Mountain – Disney’s major log flume attraction was Tony Baxter‘s baby from the beginning; he came up with the concept, brought in the Song of the South theming, and developed it through to opening. He was so crucial to Splash Mountain‘s success, in fact, that Walt Disney Imagineering is bringing him on as a creative advisor to its upcoming replacement, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.
  • Indiana Jones Adventure – The incredible thrill ride in Disneyland’s Adventureland was built by over 400 Imagineers, but a core team of about 100 was led by Tony Baxter in designing the track.
  • Disneyland Paris – So far this list has been purely domestic, but perhaps Baxter’s most impressive achievement was serving as the executive producer of Disneyland Paris – making him that Park’s equivalent to Walt Disney!
Tony Baxter's Window on Main Street, U.S.A.

Credit: Disney Parks Blog

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As you can see, Tony Baxter has more than earned his status as a Disney Legend, as well as a Lifetime Achievement award from the Themed Entertainment Association. But maybe the biggest honor of all is his appearance in the real-world Disneyland equivalent of Mount Rushmore – a window on Main Street, above the magic shop, that reads, “Main Street Marvels – Tony Baxter, Inventor, Imagination is at the heart of our Creations.”

About Andrew Friedenthal