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

November 12, 2013, 1:20 PM · Last week, we brought you Part One of our interview with legendary attraction designer Tony Baxter. Today, it's time for Part Two, when we talk about how to get hired in the business, the creative use of misdirection, and the birth of Epcot's Figment.

[Update: The audio file is now online!]

Tony Baxter

Robert: So along the way, you had to pick up an engineering education, as well?

Tony: Well, an innate engineering education. I had gotten in here through my portfolio from school and also with a crazy thing that I'd been nurturing since high school — it was kind of a maze with steel ball bearings. You pushed the first one in and it went through a trick and the last thing it would do is trigger another one, and another one, until 10 of them had gone through: roller coasters and music boxes and carts and whatnot. And finally a curtain came down, saying 'The End.' I brought that in as a back-up. After looking at my portfolio, I could tell that 'adequate' look — it was kind of like, 'we have people like Herbie Ryman and Marc Davis and you're merely… adequate.' So I said, 'I have something else in the car,' and we brought it in the back and I ran it and the next thing I knew there were people continually coming through from about 2:30 until they closed at five or whatever. They would go back to their offices and say 'you've got to go down to the model shop and see what this kid has brought in.' I know this because for a year afterward people would come up and say 'you're the kid who brought in that thing.'

It had a huge impact, and the thing that I think that I learned from it — and I tell young people here — is 'what is it, beyond what you do that is extremely good or well done, what is it that's going to distinguish you from all the other applicants, and make them say, 'well, we could hire A, B, or C, and we get an adequate illustrator, but if we hire C, we also get someone with obvious engineering ability'?' That's the business we're in. I tell people, in today's world, do you speak Mandarin Chinese? Because if you do, and you're a good estimator, or architect, or whatever, it's going to be the sway point since so much of our effort right at this moment is in Asia.

So that [engineering know-how], for me, was very helpful, not only for Indiana Jones, but also my first project [which] was Big Thunder, which was a gravity ride and that's exactly what I used for my marble machine: gravity. I wouldn't say that I was the engineer on the track, but I kinda knew intuitively what I was going to have to do to make the engineers happy with the track. I'd do an aesthetic concept and then we'd turn it over to them and they'd say, 'well you're going to have to move that butte over here,' and then we'd say, 'that's going to be ugly and it doesn't work well,' and then I'd try to figure out what is it that you're trying to tell me: 'why I have to move that?' 'Well, you're out of energy at that point, unless you get it closer, you'll never be able to get all the way to the pick-up point.' Ah, okay. So then I would be able to work within that.

Sometimes I would use very simplistic ways, and an engineer would stand there and almost go blank face. One of them was for a length of track. I was trying to get what the essence of the problem is. 'We don't have enough energy to get there? Okay, well, what is that? Four hundred feet of track? Yeah. Well, that could be a string, and to scale, 400 feet would be 400 inches.' So you could put it on a table, and figure out where could it be. The string stretches over here, and now that has to go over here, and real quickly, I could get an idea of where I could get it to go with that piece of string. And they'd look at me, like, 'he did that with a piece of string?'

The other one was an even better one. On Splash Mountain, we got into a big estimating disaster. They misdiagnosed the amount of rockwork by about half. If you had a surface, if there was a cave inside of it, the cave wasn't estimated. Just the surface. And where we had grass growing on the top, they said that wasn't rockwork. But in fact it was a pan that had to be even stronger than the rockwork because it had to hold dirt and whatever else. So that wasn't caught. What I did, I said get me some Reynolds aluminum, and cut it into 10-inch squares. So we got a big stack of squares. Then I just molded it over the rocks [on the model], and then we counted the sheets of 10-inch foil, and that told us how many square feet [of rockwork we needed]. Now we can do all this by scanning in a computer, but this is back in the analog days.

Robert: But that takes the fun out of it.

Tony: Yeah. If you didn't use a quarter of that square, we'd rip it off, then you'd put all the ripped parts [aside], and after you'd counted all the tin foil, you subtracted the ripped-off pieces. Once we had the thing all silver with tin foil, and there was no rockwork showing, I said, okay, that's it. So I didn't have to deal with any numbers that way. It was all just counting.

Robert: What are some of the big misconceptions you see out there about Disney attractions, where people say, 'oh, Imagineering did this,' when, in fact, you never really did think about that? Haunted Mansion has so many legends of being filled with things…

Tony: Haunted Mansion is the hologram one. Even fairly astute directors, I won't go into any names, but they're shocked when they find out the simplicity. Disney relied on misdirection a lot, so if you're in a place that's about ghosts, then you're predisposed to see things that are normal that way. That was a lesson that Yale Gracy was a master at. The simplest gags are fine as long as the guest is not looking at what he's really seeing, but looking at what he thinks he's seeing.

When we did Indiana Jones, I had stored in the back of my mind a phenomenon I had observed. It's one of those wonderful things — even though you know what's going on, you still perceive it to be what it is not — that's riding through those car washes where you put your car in neutral and then the room moves around you. It invariably feels like you must have put it into drive and instead of park, because my car is moving forward. Brain-wise, we're conditioned to believe that cars move, and rooms do not. I don't know if that's in-born, or it's a learned thing, or evolutionary, or whatever it is. But that is one of the laws of nature that we can't avoid. So when we take people into the rolling ball scene at the end, and the physics of the ride system are that it's got to keep moving forward, even if it's slowly, and you have Indiana Jones saying 'back up, back up,' the rolling ball is coming, by having the whole room go that way, it feels like you are trying to pull backward. It's a little kick in the car, and you hear the engine, and everybody buys right into it because all the cues are that's what's happening, even though that's not what's happening.

Robert: And the doors at the beginning.

Tony: Yeah. All of these things are kind of like what a magician does, which is throwing the focus. I think Disneyland has mastered that. Probably the simplest one is Peter Pan. I've got sit down and measure the square footage on that. I would say it's probably no more than a large home; it's pretty small. There's about three rooms in there. But by turning out all the lights and telling you that you're flying out of a bedroom window, out over London, and then off to the stars, it can go so profound as to get someone like Ray Bradbury to write Walt and say just that: 'today, I will be eternally grateful because I flew out of a child's bedroom window, out over moonlit London in a galleon on its way to the stars.' You're thinking about this poet, this writer, this inspirational mind, who was completely captivated by that. It's weird to me because obviously ride technology and sophistication are way, way beyond Peter Pan, but I can tell you, right now the park is open and there's about 40 minutes of people waiting in line for it, — I can guarantee that without being at Disneyland. People are willing to suspend that disbelief and buy into what it does offer because the thought of doing that is so compelling. It's such a compelling experience that they're willing to overlook the shortcomings of it.

Like the submarine ride — I don't think that the public thinks about it being in the largest building in Disneyland. And I learned from that when we did Splash Mountain. When we were under construction, we had a building that was towering over the Haunted Mansion, which is supposed to be stately and there on the edge of the wilderness, and everybody said, 'what have you done?' And I said, it's not going to look like a building, it's going to look like a place. A lot people can't see that until grass is planted on it, and it is now no longer a threat to the stateliness of the Mansion.

But the submarine ride: I remember that Bob Iger couldn't believe how it is costing so much. Because he thought that it's just a little pond there, so he came down one day and asked 'where is this money being spent, because I know that ride and it just goes around.' We walked him in, and I remember there was haze because of all the welders, and the haze diminished the depth down to infinity in there, and it looked like a giant convention center. It's two rides, because you have the left ride and the right ride, whereas in rides like Pirates, and Haunted Mansion, and Indy, everyone's seeing the whole thing. In that ride, half the people are seeing this ride, and half the people are seeing [the other], so the building has to be twice as big. So we walked in there, and he said, 'okay, I get it.'

But he had to see that, because Disney is so good at misdirecting that you almost have to force yourself to pull out of the experience and clinically analyze it. When I was doing a tour for designers, we stopped very close to the gate between City Hall and the Emporium, and I said, just listen for a minute. Invariably, you can hear the natives in the Jungle [Cruise], which is 30 feet away from us. One of the deceptively beautiful things about Disneyland is that you're going to spend the next two hours getting over there and getting to that point, and you're 30 feet from where you began. But your brain is somewhere else, at the deepest, deepest point in Adventureland. In many ways, it's beautifully laid out in keeping the audience guessing what's really going on. I think some of the later efforts allow too much exploring. Indiana Jones is a great example — here's this little temple in the tiniest land in Disneyland. Adventureland is about half the size of any of the other [lands], but it houses the biggest ride we've ever built. It was a negative liability that we had about an eighth of a mile between the start of the attraction there in Adventureland and the actual physical experience. I think it actually became a positive because it really takes you out of where your mindset was back when you decided to go on this ride and gets you prepared for something entirely of another world, when you finally arrive.

For me it's not so much about misconception, I mean you could go into those, but it's kind of like trivia: How many leaves are on the treehouse, and just make up a number, because nobody knows. I always laughed at that. How do they know? The last thing you do is spend money having somebody count leaves. Then if one broke on the assembly, it's all off anyway. There's the things like "5/8ths scale," no, it's whatever scale was practical. You've got to get people in the building. You couldn't walk through a 5/8ths scale door, so the first floors are nearly reality and as it goes up it varies to whatever looks good. I think most artists versus architects approach it not so much with a ruler saying 'it's gotta be 5/8ths scale,' it's like 'what feels right?' What is the right way to do that? You might exaggerate more on this building because of its verticality and then on a stumpier building you wouldn't need to do that. So you just play with it to make sure that they all look believable in the end.

Robert: Obviously, all projects change in between concept and actually getting built. But is there one out there with a really good story of changing radically between the time somebody thought of it and the time it actually got developed?

Tony: (Laughs) They all do! I told you a little about Star Tours beginning life as a roller coaster and I think that's pretty typical. My journey through Epcot I think is one that has an evolution that's kind of interesting. It started with The Seas pavilion and I always try to find some way of creating personality because I think through personality people know what to hang on to. If it's just stuff, without someone who's appealing to you, it's like the Jungle Cruise without a jungle guide. If you took the skipper off and put the boat on auto-pilot and you went through and just saw animals, it wouldn't be nearly the ride. We started with The Seas pavilion and this was before Little Mermaid, and I thought wouldn't it be cool if we had Poseidon who opened up the world of the sea and dared Man to experience it from his realm. And to do that I thought, well, I always look for a starting point that I can hang my hat on. I remember DeMille and The Ten Commandments having Moses stand on the rock and part the Red Sea. I thought that if you could have Poseidon raise up out of the water, kind of angry at Man, and it's because you don't know what it's like, and you haven't been a part of it, and beckon everybody in the audience to step out of humdrum Epcot theater across this threshold of water that pulls back and we go out and enter the kingdom of the sea. Then it got morphed into a thing that was more technologically oriented which was… I didn't like it as well.

I went on to The Land pavilion, and I still had that need to personify it. We created a character called The Landkeeper, who wasn't quite as dramatic — he was more humble. He wasn't like a big sea god who was 30 feet tall, a massive Yeti-sized Audio Animatronic. This was a kindly, kind-of Professor Marvel from The Wizard of Oz, who knew all about the land and caring for it, like everybody's grandfather farmer. And he was going to take us through the story of The Land. And that didn't go, and they moved away from what was basically an ecologically-oriented story that was ahead of its time to one that was more based on food production.

So now I had this cast of characters floating around in my mind and Big Thunder kind of happened and we went on hiatus for a while, and when I came back it was for Journey Into Imagination. It was not like something [where] you could go to a book and see what the world of energy or the world of transportation or the land or the sea was. It was a world that only existed mentally, philosophically. So it was absolutely imperative that it had to have characters. Otherwise, if I try to tell you how you imagine, or how I imagine, it's just someone's opinion. But if you create a character and say that's how he imagines, well, by the way, you might get something out of this by emulating or seeing the value in what they do. So we developed the Dreamfinder from the Landkeeper from Poseidon, I guess, is the evolution. He was the keeper of all knowledge of imagination and out of him we quickly developed 'what is the story going to be?'

[It's] like what you're doing right now: You're gathering information from me, you're going to combine it with other things that you already know now, and you'll create something new out of it. We tried to test that on everything from baking birthday cakes to atomic bombs, and everybody more or less goes through the same process of creating new things. But something was missing. It was very knowledgeable and all that, but imagination is supposed to be this fun thing. There's this child thing — really, I think one of the sad things about school and maturing and everything that happens, the innocent spontaneity of a child is more or less learned out of you, into being a responsible adult person.

There's an unbridled chaos that I think the movie Big — which was after our Imagination pavilion, so I didn't have that for inspiration — [illustrates]. In that movie, you've got a 12-year-old Tom Hanks in a toy factory, as a vice president, and everyone there is just eager to strangle his neck because he has that unlearned, no discipline, attitude of not sitting through the meeting, listening to the charts and graphs about why we think children will like this, but he's sitting there playing with a toy, and he immediately knows that it's not any fun. He goes 'I don't get it. What's fun about a robot that turns a building? That's not fun.' And they go, 'didn't you read your graph that shows if we can get into this…?' Right there in that movie, I think it should be required. It's probably more important to me, that movie, than anything we learn in school. In art class, I would start with that. I would say, against all the learning that you've already had, you have to allow that to still survive.

I see examples of it over and over again. You think of Steve Jobs — here's a guy who changed the world. When he was 12 years old — I think 12 is kind of an interesting year: you're very knowledgeable, you're very educated, but you're still young enough that you haven't been beaten down, you haven't had the hormones kick in, you've got this cocky attitude, unbridled absorption of knowledge. Well, when he was 12, the movie 2001 came out. And in that film, there are clearly iPads on the table while everyone's eating. The HAL computer? Look at it and look at the dynamics of an iPod — they're identical, the shape of it, everything, the pod, the circle, all this stuff is exactly that. I think what he saw was a negative world that was controlled and ruled by computers, but it fired that 12-year-old brain to not say 'here's why that won't work,' but to say, 'I think it would be very cool to have these flat things, and talk to a computer that does everything for you.' That framework stayed in his brain for his whole career. You see that in the movie Big, when Tom Hanks envisions a computer comic book, where the kid writes where the thing is going to go, well, that's the basis of every video game today. You put the thing in, and then you go wherever you want to go. I remember when that came out, and they said, well, we think it'll be like $39.95, and I went '39.95? (laughs) If they get it down to $3,995, that would be crazy, but nothing like that is ever going to happen.' So here we are, and the graphics in these things are as good as reality.

We started with thinking about Dennis the Menace. I brought in a comic where Dennis, on Christmas morning, has opened all the packages and his parents are waiting there for him to say 'gee, you're wonderful parents,' instead he goes, 'is this all? Is this all I get?' and the room is just filled with clutter. That's that child thing — it's absorbing so much and all it can think of is more — not limits and all the things we adults see. So we need a child — how do we create that child?

Steve Kirk had done a thing, a steampunk, crazy project he had worked on — it was a snarly, long-necked, snaggletoothed dragon, and I grabbed it and I showed it to the Kodak Company that was working with us, and they liked it a lot. Again, it was one of those things where I went, that'll never be approved as Disney. It's not going to go. But they picked it up, and ran with it and suddenly it was in a corporate book saying these two characters will be taking you on this Journey Into Imagination, and I got called into the office. I said I didn't know they took a picture of it.

We had the Dreamfinder name, [but] we just had the dragon. As they were evolving and getting more Disney — it seems so obvious now that its name was Figment, but it wasn't. I was watching a Magnum P.I. and they had hidden a goat in the garden, and the old butler was mad as hell, and Magnum was trying to sooth him and hide the fact that he had the goat there, and they got into a big argument and Higgins, the butler, said, 'well, figments don't eat grass.' Magnum had said it was just a figment of your imagination. It's one of those things that gets dropped into your lap and that nobody owns, but it's ripe to say, 'we're going to own that, That's going to be ours.' I came in that next day and I pulled the little snaggly model out and said 'meet Figment.'

It was funny. Everyone said, 'well, of course, that's Figment.' The amazing thing now, is that if you Google word on Images, up comes that little purple dragon. Disney more or less has taken the valuable mental real estate of that word, figment, and owned it the same way as the word mermaid, through Ariel, or pirates, with Johnny Depp. You can go down the list. People overlook the valuable mental real estate that is available is free. It's out there. For all the years that aquariums existed, somewhere buried in the back there were clownfish. They're now out in the front and the children don't go, 'oh, mommy, look, it's clownfish.' They go, 'Nemo!'

When we were building Paris, part of my ritual for friends who came over was the tour on Saturday of going to all the sites. We'd go up in the bell tower with all the gargoyles and look over Notre Dame. Until Hunchback came out. Then all of a sudden, there's a long line. I said, 'oh, we must have hit it just wrong and a tour bus or something unloaded.' As we stood there, and you're hearing the different languages, I picked up on one, and the little boy was going, 'are we going to see where Quasimodo lives?' So suddenly now a character took a place — and I was saying this earlier — and personified it. Going up the steps and looking at the gargoyles, this child now can related with that. It transformed it from being of limited interest to a very, very important thing to him, because this is where Quasimodo lived. I think this mental real estate, finding it, nurturing it, making it meaningful for people, is great, because in the end it strengthens something that exists and gives it purpose.

Next week: We wrap up our interview with Tony in Part Three.

Replies (9)

November 12, 2013 at 1:54 PM · Mr. Baxter says: "If it's just stuff, without someone who's appealing to you, it's like the Jungle Cruise without a jungle guide. If you took the skipper off and put the boat on auto-pilot and you went through and just saw animals, it wouldn't be nearly the ride."

THC is standing and applauding.

(Pause ... Wipes away a tear)

Continues applauding.

November 12, 2013 at 2:17 PM · So it would turn into the Land at Epcot. No more live guide just a boring boat ride by plants on auto pilot
November 12, 2013 at 2:53 PM · Nice catch! That's exactly what went through my mind as he cited the example. But he was on a roll, so I didn't hijack the moment to mention it. But I am so glad that others caught that, too.
November 12, 2013 at 3:14 PM · If they had such a hard time in deciding how to call Figment, how would the guests have a clue? I never understood the significance of the Imagination pavilion. The decline of this pavilion makes it clear that there's no substance behind it. It is time to convert it into a new World Showcase country.

The stories behind Splash Mountain and Big Thunder is awfully pendatic. How would an schooled engineer not figure out common sense? So Tony Baxter came to the rescue? I'm not knocking Tony. I'm just saying that the engineers must be on the slow side if the story is true. Or perhaps Disney needed someone to increase their budget, otherwise, the rock work for Splash Mountain would come out completely half-baked and Big Thunder Mountain will constantly stall.

BTW, I'm an engineer. I would use a string.

November 12, 2013 at 3:43 PM · THC is still standing and applauding.
November 12, 2013 at 4:43 PM · I just loved the original The Living Seas but Tony's idea sounds amazing. Also would have liked to see his version of The Land.
Thankfully he could go all the way with the Imagination ride. It was once the most fun ride in EPCOT before they "improved" it into a lifeless mess.
November 12, 2013 at 5:18 PM · I think what Tony was saying with the Thunder story is that one needs the ability to think about the physical concerns of engineers and the aesthetic concerns of designers to create a compelling themed attraction. He's not saying that the engineers couldn't have designed the track without his string trick -- heck, it was their design idea that Tony was trying to change. But he wanted to preserve certain vistas and visuals, too. You can go to any Six Flags and Cedar Fair park and see perfectly functional coasters that don't deliver the theming and vistas of Thunder. That's what you get when you leave the design to engineers alone.
November 13, 2013 at 7:17 AM · "If they had such a hard time in deciding how to call Figment, how would the guests have a clue? I never understood the significance of the Imagination pavilion. The decline of this pavilion makes it clear that there's no substance behind it."

Well, agree to disagree. What was brilliant about the original was that it was such a great ride, with such a clear narrative (at the age if 8 I had no trouble "getting it"). To me, this Imagination pavilion, and the ride especially, was like the landmark homage to the spirit of Walt himself. This is precisely because it was separate from all of the IP that was usually the focus. There was a purity to it. (I get that figment and dreamfinder were essentially new IP, and that they were there partly to sell Kidak film, but still, it was a refreshingly un-cynical thing. Tony's quip about how the suits weren't happy about the dragon to begin with reinforces this). The decline of the pavilion, I would argue, was symptomatic of a triumph of business concerns over the spirit of imagination itself.

November 13, 2013 at 7:42 AM · One more thing:

Mr. Baxter, if you're reading these comments, I want to thank you for a lifetime of great work. Like all brilliant creative people, I know that you were just doing what had to be done, and doing the best you could. To me your creations are special, and you have brought great joy to me and my family, and have allowed us to share time and fun with one another in a very meaningful way. Thank you for sharing so generously in these interviews. And thank you for sharing so generously in your life's work.

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