Thank you, Tony Baxter

February 3, 2013, 9:39 PM · Tony Baxter stepped down last week. Baxter had served Walt Disney Imagineering as its Senior Vice President for Creative Development, but theme park fans will remember him better as the man behind some of the Disney theme parks' greatest hits: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, and the Indiana Jones Adventure.

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.

Barnabas T. Bullion
Barnabas T. Bullion, my butt. That's Tony Baxter -- whom Disney soon ought to name an official "Disney Legend."

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):

Replies (6)

February 4, 2013 at 1:22 AM · Thank you, Tony Baxter, your attractions have brought joy to many people's lives and you showed that theme matters. Best wishes and don't go too far away...
February 4, 2013 at 4:08 AM · Agreed. Baxter is / was a brilliant Imagineer, and a true innovator. His legacy is secured and he will definitely be missed. However, I'd like to think he's leaving now because he thinks Imagineering is in very good hands. Based on what I have seen of late (Cars Land and New Fantasyland especially), I think he is right.

FWIW, I wish him the best.

February 4, 2013 at 7:39 AM · I STILL think that's Donald Sutherland :)
February 4, 2013 at 8:36 AM · It seems like the reaction is a combination of shock and despair. I have no dog in this fight as I support no one in the organizational changes at WDI, but Tony Baxter lasted as long as anyone is supposed to in the job environment. The fact is he has retired. To say he hasn't and only he moved on to a part-time status is ignoring the truth. Perhaps the advisory role is a honest to goodness retainer to keep him in Disney's wings so he doesn't start working for the competition. Or maybe he is still valuable and they want to retain his talents. Nonetheless, he has relinquished his title and no longer influences the direction of the theme park even though it was evident that his reign has left a long time ago. My feeling was he was blamed for some badly received projects at Disneyland Resort although he was handicapped (or accurately "knee capped") by the executive leadership (Eisner). Such things cannot be fixed as they are in the recent past. People just move on. Eisner moved on with less distinction, but a good parting gift.
February 4, 2013 at 8:50 AM · Thank you Tony for all of your great accomplishments. More specifically, two of my favorite attractions, Splash Mountain & Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and one of my favorite characters, Figment....A ride on Splash Mountain always puts a big smile on my face.
February 5, 2013 at 9:45 AM · So Hes a Part time Imagneer Sweet but all i have too say is i loved Tony Baxter's
work and i love the rides he made

Thank You Tony Thank You

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