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Theme Park Insider interview with Disney Legend and Imagineer Tony Baxter: Part Three

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Published: November 19, 2013 at 3:51 PM

Tony Baxter led the creation of some of the Walt Disney Company's — and the theme park industry's — most enduring attractions: Star Tours, Splash Mountain, the Indiana Jones Adventure. Earlier this year, Disney honored Tony's decades of service to the company by naming him a Disney Legend, and earlier this month, Disneyland gave Tony a window on Main Street, placing him among the park's hall of fame of designers and employees.

Tony Baxter's window on Main Street USA

Over the past two weeks, we've been presenting a transcript of our recent conversation with Tony. Today, we wrap up with Part Three of that interview. If you'd like to listen to an audio recording of the conversation, it's available on the Theme Park Insider Podcast. (And if you missed the first two parts, here they are: Part One, Part Two.]

Tony: I think the misconception is that Disneyland was melange of things that were IP-oriented and other things that were not. A lot of people say to me, 'I'm getting tired of all these attractions based on IP like Star Wars or Indiana Jones or Cars Land. Why don't you do an attraction like Big Thunder that doesn't have any IP?'

Walt a genius at cross-promotion. There wasn't a single thing about Disneyland that wasn't embedded in the public mind one way or another. At the obvious end you had feature films like Peter Pan and whatnot. The less obvious things were the nature movies that made up The Living Desert, The African Lion and whatnot. And then obviously, Davy Crockett and Zorro and everything that infused Frontierland. The one area where he said 'Eh, I don't have anything for this,' was Tomorrowland. And they went to work creating a series with Ward Kimball and Wernher von Braun that were so exceptional that 40 years later they were released on DVD with Leonard Maltin hosting. All that because those who grew up with it, their lives were changed. [President] Eisenhower even got them shown to Congress because they were so effective in turning the public's opinion about space, and making it, again, relevant and character-driven.

Walt had the luxury and the tools to be the benevolent dictator that he was and say, if we're opening this ride and it doesn't have any IP, I'm going to literally spend two hours on television with it. So attractions like Pirates and the Haunted Mansion — you can argue on one side that there was no existing IP, on the other hand, you say how many people watched the Sunday-night [TV] show versus saw a movie that year? I would argue that probably more people saw the Sunday-night show where Walt took us through the Pirates model and showed us the figures.

I think the extreme was the Haunted Mansion where not only had it been talked about for probably five years on television, but when it opened, because of that, [we had] the highest attendance in Disneyland's history, in 1969. I think it still stands. It was like 89,000 people at Disneyland that Saturday when it opened. That was because he had done such a good job of getting our palates whet to see it, and teased us with all of the things we would see inside of it.

Whether it's a movie or it's a television show, or it's something that is marketed in a promotional way, these are all tools. I think the fallacy is to draw the line and say, well a movie like Star Wars is [IP] and something like the Jungle Cruise is not. In fact, there were so many impressions and many of the things like in The Living Desert from Nature's Wonderland, the cat up on the cactus was a movie poster from The Living Desert. So when you went into the ride, and there was the cat up on the top, that was a thing that every kid dreamed about — from the Fridays when we were going to get to see that in school instead of having class that afternoon!

I think he was a mastermind — first of all, there was a resistance about television in the movie studio industry, and Walt said 'why?' It doesn't matter where the impressions come from, it's how do we focus those? So I think when you look at the park now, we have lots of studio support with Pixar and Marvel and whatnot, and we have means of promoting things internally and whatnot that are not as well used as we used to, but I don't think anything gets to the finish line without the number of impressions the audience has about it being there is pretty consistent, whether it starts life as a movie, or ends life as a movie, in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Robert: That's a classic example of how a park can becomes its own IP — you can launch a movie franchise off a park IP. Then you look at something like Mystic Manor in Hong Kong, which is pulling IP from Tokyo DisneySea, and connecting it with Chinese mythology to create something that's really connecting with people.

Tony: I don't think we're as aggressive on this as we will be and could be, but between the fans and what we do now online, you look at the number of impressions about something, we as fans wouldn't even have the ability to know about Mystic Manor if we rewound the clock 20 years ago. You hear, 'I think Disney did some sort of thing,' and there's one picture of it in the paper last week and that's it. Now, we've all virtually ridden it.

Robert: The POV video was online, in HD, within hours.

Tony: Right. It's not just limited to Disney and the major theme parks. You can go to a minor [park] and find pretty good documentation of these things today. I think the fallacy of saying this is based on IP, and this is not — it's really breaking down. We wanted to believe it was a solid foundation, when it wasn't. Walt Disney did one of the greatest pirate movies ever in Treasure Island, so that was in the can. I'm sure it was like, ooh, that was fun, and it's still really good 10 years later, why don't we make a ride about Pirates? I don't look at it as a line.

I think the worst type of IP attraction is where you slap a name on something that's totally generic. I won't say other parks by name, but they'll go out of their way to buy the rights, and it's basically a billboard out in front of something they've bought from a steel vendor. To me, that doesn't do anything. It's got to deliver the emotional expectations if you're labeling it with IP.

Indiana Jones is a good example, because everything about that ride, we pretty much developed here. I actually have a slide that I put in a show, where I bring up the Indiana Jones Adventure and the perfect script and everything, and then I show 'Kentucky Buck Adventure' and a similar script, and I say, 'okay, tell me the emotions that are going through you as you see both of these.' And you get 'authentic,' 'correct,' and everything about it, and then 'rip-off' and all that, and I say, why would you avoid the relationship with Lucas and the payments and all that when what it 'buys' you are all these negative feelings? I'm sure we could do that, but why? Why not say that Disney's got the ultimate one? Star Wars is the ultimate space adventure. Indiana Jones is the ultimate. If we want to do anything in those worlds, you either are inauthentic or you're authentic.

Recently, the Discovery Center in Santa Ana had an Indiana Jones exhibit, co-funded by National Geographic. You look at the business sense of that — how do you get kids to go to a National Geographic thing on archeology? You don't. But you throw that in, again, and it's 'oh my gosh, I've got to go see that' because I care so much about that character and he will show me why this world is interesting.

Robert: We've talked about threads and making connections with people. What are some of the threads out there in the theme park business that you hope the next generation, that you've been bringing along, will develop in the future?

Tony: Well, the biggest misstep — well, we've got to be careful how we say this one — I won't say a word, but it looks a lot like this.

[Note from Robert: At this point, Tony goes to his desk and picks up a large booklet labeled "Walt Disney Imagineering: Harry Potter Plans," with an illustration of a Hogsmeade-like land on the front. I show the greatest restraint of my professional life in not lunging across the table to grab the plans from his grasp. Instead, I clench every reflex in my body, to allow Tony to continue talking.]

I think that people have learned from Disney that in the end you don't win by going cheap or avoiding what it is that is currently relevant to an audience. We've talked a lot about the young people of probably your age [Generation Xers, born between 1965-1977], who were into Star Wars and the Indiana Jones thing. But now there are people who have come of age between 2000 and now for whom the world of Harry Potter was incredibly influential. I talk a lot at UCLA, and when I do — they're very sophisticated kids, with their iPads and whatnot — and I say, 'how many of you stood in line at Barnes and Noble at midnight on release day?' Over half the class! You bought a book, now I'm told that you don't read anymore… so what was it? It was compelling IP. And the fact that I don't want to be left out when the kids are all discussing tomorrow what Hermione did and all this stuff. I've got to know.

She [JK Rowling] was so thorough in creating a believable world, it was just like Disney in the theme parks, or whatever. Things like Remembralls, and Howlers, and all these things — they were so classic in the way the word was constructed that they stick in your brain. Whereas I look at the world of Lord of the Rings, and, other than the Orcs, I can't tell you the names of the people. They were too confusing. But the Potter world — it's the kind of thing you have to look at and say, once in a lifetime a project like that comes and becomes the relevant myth for a generation.

What I saw was that not only did Universal take advantage of that, it was IP that was owned by Warner Bros. and JK Rowling, so they had to go out on a limb to procure it. In the end, what they've done is link that park with one of the major demographics that go to theme parks today. We all have to stand back and take note. So you see Disney throwing depth charges back — with Cars Land and soon Avatar, and a new Fantasyland. I think competition is healthy, no matter where it happens, because people get comfortable, and it takes things like that to shake it up. Again, you can't spend enough money on Harry Potter for that generation, because they will go to the Nth degree to relive their childhood. I don't think anyone has done a better job that they did in bringing that to life. And I'm actually very excited to see what Part Two looks like in another year.

Now there are other parks that do a very good job in being relevant to their specific audience. There's one that comes to mind, Efteling, which is a very small-budgeted park over in Holland. It's just as beautiful as Disney in many ways. The park is based on the conceptual ideas of Anton Pieck, who was a contemporary of Walt Disney, and who did beautiful illustrations back in the 20s, 30s, 40, and 50s. They have held to that. Like at Disneyland, if you go in there and are familiar with Anton Pieck's work, everything in there is reflected thematically. I find going to parks a very learning experience, and when you meet with their people, they will tell you that when they've diverted from that, and tried to bring in either generic roller coaster material, or do a Disney-type attraction that looks like our IP — they're kind of embarrassed by an attraction that is very Small World-like, but not Efteling-like. It even has an earworm song that I can hum for you, but I won't. [Laughs] They look at it and they go 'we didn't do the right thing, because it doesn't reflect the values of Efteling.' I think they've been more successful than any park I know of, other than Disney, of developing their own IP, their own rides. They have Pirates-sized rides there, with Audio Animatronics and everything that they generate internally. They don't buy things from outside vendors. So they were a contemporary of Disneyland. They were very small in the beginning, and learned a lot from Disney. I've gone there many times, and I've learned a lot from them. It isn't a phenomenon that Disney alone owns. Whether you're relevant to the world, or relevant to your own specific ethnic population, or whatever it is, that is the key to distinguishing [yourself].

I'm going to put a line here. I think there's a big difference between amusement parks, theme parks, and then storytelling, Disney-style parks. I love going to them, but I'm not a fond practitioner of either one or two. For me, it's 'how do you find these stories that move?' When you put something in that's got to hold for 20-40 years, you can't be riding once, then go, 'well, I've done that.' It's the 20th ride that's more important to design for. If you're just designing for a thing that plays like a movie, once you go, [it's] 'ah, I didn't see that coming,' and now there's no value to come back again. People won't. The reason that line at Peter Pan is still there, and it's 40 minutes long, 58 years later, is because it's something that's reassuring and something that is relevant even today. It's not burdened with dialogue and exposition that you just cringe at having to go through -- a preshow or something that is boring and based on you never having seen it before.

Walt used to say about the pirate ride, the dialogue in there is relatively unimportant. It's like a cocktail party that you're walking through — you listen to a little bit here and a little there. Every time you ride it, you get a different combination of things that you dial into. So it's ultimately rideable, over and over again.

Robert: You're creating an environment in which people can fill in their own narrative.

Tony: That is critical. Filling in your own narrative. It's more like when you ride through the streets of Paris on a tour bus, sure you can dial into this prerecorded thing. But when you stop at a red light, and you look down there and there's a lady leaning out of her window, and there's a cat on the balcony and these little red flowers and she's got the most expressive face, and you zoom in and you've got this picture, that is your story. It's that personal, 'wow, she defined what I think a lady in Paris would look like,' whereas the narration is some generic thing that I only want to hear once and if I ever went back there again, I'd just turn it off.

That's a thing you have to fight all the time to keep. That's why I thought it one of the most important things I leave for these people is 'forget that script.' Use it as a guiding tool at the beginning, like my Poseidon who's going to open the sea like Moses. If you literally took that as a line of dialogue, it would become boring after you got to that point again. It's this emotional thing of getting to find your own way through this experience that drives it home to people. I can hardly wait to go back to Disneyland and go on these things that I've already been on -- what is that about? A movie theater survives because every Friday it's got new content. If they had to show the same content for 10 years, it'd be closed. [Laughs] It's so story-driven. In our parks, you create the story. The most important person is you — how you interact with it, and creating places where there is no one, set way.

I won't give names for attractions, but I think it would be good for your audience to think about which ones allow you to create these amazing things and which ones do you avoid going on because they're pretty rote — here's this scene, and it's more like a display that you're not engaged in, you're just viewing a display.

Robert: I think that's the criterion that distinguishes what ends up at the top of our ratings, and what are the ones that you and your successors are going to be thinking, 'well, we might be able to take that out and replace it with something else and no one's gonna miss it.'

Tony: It factors all the way through obvious ones like Pirates and the Haunted Mansion down to very simple things, like Dumbo. What if you took the arms, and pull the elephants off and put a Tilt-A-Whirl pod out on the end of it? [Dumbo's] target audience is a four-year-old, because everything about it is non-threatening and it looks very exciting to someone in that age group, and the face has all the characteristics of a lovable creature that you might know through the most innocent, sweetest little movie Disney ever did. For a certain age group, it is absolutely aspirational and a rite-of-passage attraction. And parents vicariously get joy out of seeing their child loving that. But it could be just as easily be made generic and have no queue for it at all, even though the experience would be exactly the same.

Then you take a look at a misstep that I will go on record with, because I think everybody kind of agrees. The Flying Saucers was not a particularly exciting ride, but it was a flying saucer. There isn't a single person going to Disneyland who would go home saying 'I didn't go on the Flying Saucers.' What do mean that you didn't ride a flying saucer? We decided that there's such a mystique about that ride — it was an E ticket the entire time it was there. It closed as an E ticket. So let's try to do it again. And Luigi's was born. But Luigi's is a flying rubber tire. Well, there isn't a single person on the planet who wants to fly on a rubber tire. If the ride doesn't deliver — as the Flying Saucer ride didn't, either — now you have a thing that is like Dumbo without Dumbo.

You've got thrill as one of your components, you've got experience as one of your components, and you've got IP or emotional connection as one of the components. You really need to analyze going in, well, I'm not sure about thrill — you know, this is pretty basic. So it's got to have incredible IP — I get to go on a flying saucer. Okay, I don't care what it is, I've just got to say that I've done that.

If you said Dumbo isn't thrilling, and you took the Dumbo character out of it and put a pod on the end of it, so now it has no IP, and it doesn't go anywhere environmentally, like the Jungle Cruise, so… why are we building it? There's no reason here to build it. You could probably make a case for a ride working on one of the [components] — that's a thrill ride, like California Screamin': no theming, doesn't go anywhere, but it's one heck of a thrill. So you can work on one. But you can't work with none. That could be decided at the beginning of design -- which one we going to have as our safety valve? If the other two don't deliver, we have this.

Please tell us your thoughts about our interview with Tony Baxter, in the comments.

Readers' Opinions

From O T on November 19, 2013 at 8:21 PM
Thank you Robert and Tony for creating an incredible read into Disney theme parks and the industry of creating rides and parks. Tony is very open and shows some new perspectives on Walt and the way good themed entertainment is produced. It was also fun to read he's got a lot of love for my home land theme park Efteling.

Sometimes he contradicts himself and I was hoping Robert would have asked about that but I'm sure you didn't notice at the time and Tony is so talkative you just don't want to stop him. He explains why known ip is so important and always is needed but Efteling and amazing Disney rides like the original Journey into Imagination didn't need them and created actually new ip's (and merchandising). Anyway I wish you picked his brain on that one a bit.

It also got me thinking. From day 1 Disney was always about cross promotion, but unlike today, it didn't feel like it back then. Now ABC, the movies and parks all seem to promote the next best thing but doesn't step back to celebrate what it's got resulting in the feeling you are walking in a big commercial. I see banners and characters of Frozen before the movie arrives in the parks. The artwork in the studio is a great fit but all the other stuff is to early and takes away from the other offerings.
I was also wondering what Tony meant by: "I think that people have learned from Disney that in the end you don't win by going cheap..." Does he means the poor performing second parks the Disney company constructed of offerings like the Jack Sperrow Experience or that other parks try to copy Disney on the cheap?

Thanks again for an amazing interview and I hope a lot will follow in the future, thanks.

From Jeffrey Britton on November 20, 2013 at 7:00 AM
Loved the series. I think you should do more interviews with castmembers.
From 96.246.121.76 on November 20, 2013 at 7:57 AM
Wonderful series. I really enjoyed it.
From Amanda Jenkins on November 20, 2013 at 9:42 AM
I think I could sit with Mr. Baxter everyday and never be bored nor run out of questions. This series has been increedibly interesting. And I commend you Robert for not grabbing that notebook on Harry Potter plans. I don't know many who would have that amount of self-control.
From Ti Marco on November 20, 2013 at 10:44 AM
I really enjoyed this article. But, Robert...not even one...tiny...peek?
From James Rao on November 20, 2013 at 11:47 AM
Wonderful interview, Mr. Niles. I very much appreciate you sharing it with us.

Tony Baxter is just a brilliant man. He, more than anyone else I have ever heard interviewed regarding theme parks, just "gets it". I especially loved his comment, "I think there's a big difference between amusement parks, theme parks, and then storytelling, Disney-style parks." I have never really thought of there being three distinct types of parks, but he is spot on with that statement.

I am now sadder than ever that Mr. Baxter is not the one guiding the ship when it comes to Disney Imagineering. Sure, Mr. Lasseter is vibrant and exciting, and has produced some great stuff, and would probably be a fine Bob Iger replacement, but as Mr. Baxter explained with Luigi's Flying Tires, Mr. Lasseter sometimes becomes too wrapped up in the now, rather than thinking about the impact an attraction will have over the long haul.

Wow... Tony Baxter is the man. If I ever had the wherewithal to open up my own theme park, he would be my first hire.

From Ted Heumann on November 20, 2013 at 1:07 PM
In John Lasseter's defense, I think we all thought that the flying tires would be AWESOME.
I would rather that Disney swing for the fences and miss than to bunt and still fail (e.g. DCA 1.0).
Plus, the Flying Tires aren't a horrible attraction. I think that people's expectations were too high. Plus, any B or C ticket attraction with an E ticket length line, is disappointing. Most people that HATED it, waited 60-90 minutes. The people that liked it, waited 10-15 minutes.
From James Rao on November 20, 2013 at 2:26 PM
^Tony Baxter didn't think it would be awesome. ;)

And as a side note, Luigi's Flying Tires was mostly a walk on during my September visit and I still thought it "blew".

From Anon Mouse on November 20, 2013 at 4:22 PM
The IP discussion is interesting. He argues that IPs are not thrown around carelessly in Disney attractions. This is a good point to make when other people complain about such things. Disney is likely to add more IP in attractions than create new original attractions in the future.
From O T on November 20, 2013 at 6:43 PM
^true but I think he was and is wrong about Lord of the Rings and Avatar. I know more people who can recall names from the LOTR ip (Gandalf, Bilbo,etc) then Avatar.
From 98.85.101.33 on November 20, 2013 at 9:15 PM
Disney parks look very stale to my Harry Potter generation.

Who is Captain EO and why do they still have that dated attraction open?

I wish that Tony Baxter could had trained an apprentice to help move Disney into the future. Universal gets it.

From 69.151.9.213 on November 20, 2013 at 11:56 PM
Man, what a shame that Disney missed out on Potter but bought the stupid Muppets. That theater is empty most of the time at WDW, and at DCA too, from what I hear. When is something GOOD going to be put in those areas? How about Monstropolis and the Door Coasters?
From 96.246.121.76 on November 21, 2013 at 12:31 PM
Perhaps Disney did miss an opportunity with Harry Potter, but having been to all of the Florida parks recently, Disney still does it the best. The nicest grounds, the best employees, and great places to eat.

That doesn't mean I don't have my criticisms, I do, especially in regards to the mess that EPCOT's Future World has become.

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