Thank you, Tony Baxter
Published: February 3, 2013 at 9:39 PM
Baxter's departure shouldn't have surprised anyone. If I'm remembering my dates correctly, Baxter turns 65 this year and Disney's already unveiled an "unofficial" tribute to him in the new backstory for his Big Thunder Mountain at Walt Disney World. At the IAAPA convention in Orlando this year, Baxter tag-teamed with retired Disney Imagineer Marty Sklar to beat up on the current state of Epcot, something Disney Imagineers never do… until they're out the door, or walking through it.
But Baxter surprised me (and others, I'm certain) by announcing not that he's retiring, but that he is changing his role to become a "part-time advisor" for Disney. Let's hope that's not just an empty title. Without Baxter's leadership, Disney -- and theme parks -- wouldn't have nearly as many fans as they enjoy today.
Baxter was The Man at Disney Imagineering when the company made the leap into theme park dominance in the late 1970s and 1980s. It might be hard for fans who weren't around in the 1970s to imagine, but Disney wasn't always the clear market leader in theme parks. As a kid growing up in the 1970s, a lot of my friends considered the Six Flags, Kings and Marriott theme parks every bit as good as Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom (which everyone back then just called "Disney World"). Disney had Pirates and Mansion, but those other parks had well-themed lands, too (really, they once did!). Yet while the industry's other chains shifted direction to become iron parks, Disney -- under Baxter's creative leadership -- created some of the most richly detailed, technically advanced and immersively rewarding attractions ever developed.
Thunder. The original New Fantasyland (at Disneyland). The original Imagination pavilion in Epcot. Splash. Disneyland Paris. Indy. The new New Tomorrowland at Disneyland. Baxter's projects got budgets from Disney bigwigs, and then they made the turnstiles click, justifying even bigger budgets for the next project.
Until the late 1990s, that is, when Baxter couldn't get the big budgets for ambitious new projects any longer. It's not that someone else became the favorite at WDI -- no one could get budgets during what became the (mercifully brief) dark ages at the Disney theme parks. Even Tony Baxter couldn't get Disney to do the right thing by its theme parks back in the dark days of Paul Pressler's run atop Disney Parks.
Fortunately, things have changed. But Baxter's not the man at WDI these days. Principle Creative Advisor John Lasseter is, thanks to his leadership of Disney's multi-billion dollar cash cow, Pixar. When Lasseter wanted a Cars Land at the Disneyland Resort, he turned not to Baxter, but to a new generation of Imagineers, led by Kathy Mangum.
In the long run, that's for the best. As John Hench and Marc Davis eventually gave way to Tony Baxter, Baxter eventually had to give way to someone else. But as any theme park fan who's enjoyed a ride on Thunder or Splash could suggest, so long Tony Baxter's around and willing to dream up some new ideas for fresh theme park experiences, Disney ought to be listening. The guy's got a pretty darned good track record, after all.
Let's thank Tony for all he's done for theme park fans with a ride on his first great attraction, Big Thunder Mountain (Disney World version):