Great Moments with Mr. Baxter

by David Koenig, contributing writer

I'll admit it: I'm a sentimentalist. I don't like to see things that I love change (except for my kids, whom I continue hoping will one day remember to make their beds). You don't colorize Casablanca. You don't remake Psycho. And you don't rip out stuff at Disneyland that I still find magical.

Oh, I'm fine if you update the outdated (the New Fantasyland of 1982 vs. the Original Plywoodland of 1955) or replace the mediocre (anyone miss the Aluminum Hall of Fame?).

But when elements I adore (like the Skyway or the PeopleMover) are torn out in favor of something inferior or, worse, nothing at all, I'm troubled. I love being able to step back in time and share the experiences of my childhood with my own children. I grant that the Skyway was an unsophisticated, old-fashioned contraption, but it afforded a unique experience that is sorely missing today.

But what if the average visitor of today—and of tomorrow—prefers entirely different experiences? If Disneyland's primary selling pitch was "Come see what entertainment was like in 1955!", few young people would have any interest in visiting the place, and its core audience would eventually die out.

Dealing with this delicate balance—between what nostalgic visitors want to hold onto and what will most appeal to younger visitors—has always been a prime driver for Imagineer Extraordinaire Tony Baxter, who today, as he turns 65, steps down as creative caretaker of Disneyland. When he was first hired by WED Enterprises in 1970, he was both lifelong Disneyland geek and fresh-faced college grad with big, bold ideas for updating a place that was beginning to atrophy, under the care of increasingly cautious and insular old-timers. He spent the next 40-plus years constantly trying to both appeal to modern audiences and appease traditionalists.

He described the balance perfectly in a chat with me in 2004:

Baxter: It's like when we took out the (miniature Mr.) Toad building and added something in Storybook Land, because the newest attraction (represented in Storybook Land) was Peter Pan from 1953. By 2000, we had Beauty and the Beast and all these. So we added Eric's castle from Mermaid and we added Sultan's palace, and everybody went ballistic. And I rode it with a little girl and the woman was, "Over here is Alice, and she went down the rabbit hole," and "Peter Pan's park," and the girl wasn't listening to any of that. She goes, "Mommy, look! It's Jasmine's house!" You realize we owe it not just to our comfort, but to that little girl. The story of Jasmine was more identifiable to her because it's of her generation, and the problems that Jasmine and Aladdin faced more related to what a kid today is, rather than "I want to scrub and wash for a man," which is Snow White and Cinderella. Kids like these, but it's not very appealing to a little girl to go, "I'll wash and cook and I'll do all the laundry if you'll just let me stay in your house."

You've got to balance it out. You don't want to offend everybody. We put the Toad house back in after we got a little more money. But you've got to constantly be looking at not letting it become a Lawrence Welk project, because my parents loved that, and they'd say, "Why can't you listen to decent music like this?" And I'd say, "Why can't you listen to the Beatles and the Stones and whatnot?" They could not conceive of my era, and I wasn't really passionate about their era. And the worry I had is that Disneyland would stay in its little bubble, appealing very much to 50-somethings and 40-somethings and 60-somethings, but irrelevant to kids who are growing up today, especially when the '70s came and the only great movies were being done by Lucas and Spielberg. That was really scary, because what do we do? The Black Hole Ride? The Robin Hood dark ride? Or the Fox and the Hound Theater? We tried those, and you get to the point where you say there's nothing here. There's no reason to do this.

So that was tough, trying to get them to realize they had to marry the myths in order to get those two generations to feel that Disneyland was cool. I think it worked. Most people don't understand who did what. They only understand whether they like something. I think we're more sensitive to it's not a Disney brand than the kids are. What is a Disney brand? Is it Jerry Bruckheimer? Is it John Lasseter? Is it our own animators?

Koenig: When Disneyland opened, the elements of Disneyland were their brand, not Mickey Mouse. The characters were spotted infrequently. The merchandise was little ride vehicles and coonskin caps and ash trays with the castle on them.

Baxter: When I do talks for Merchandise, they don't even think about what it is they could sell. They just order the (character) plush, get the hats and the mouse-ears, get some T-shirts. I said, "What if you didn't have that? What would you do? What are the things you'd sell?" Believe me, (in the early years) merchandising was phenomenal. Jungle boats, blacklights, crayolas that you could color in the dark and view with the blacklight. That was the best event I ever had at Disneyland was getting a $13 blacklight and a set of colors of paint. I went home that night and my house seemed like a Disneyland. It was amazing things like that that they had to be very, very creative to come up with, rather than falling back on just slapping a character decal on.

Koenig: Is there much preserved at Disneyland from 1955, like any old pack mule trails?

Baxter: Yeah, there are pack mule trails. (In replacing attractions) what you try to do is understand what was special about the attraction. Sometimes there's not much, like the Motor Boats, other than making out in a place where you can be away from your parents. But then trying to capture that in what you replace it with, and making sure the new attraction has all that. Now the Treehouse was an interesting thing, because what is it about the Treehouse? I figured it was a sense of home and family. A very unique home and a very fun family that really lived in this thing.

I think the big fear in our pulling it out that I got from it was the guests who were bothered by it felt this sense of family was going to be replaced by this commercial cartoon. It was just the Flavor of the Month. I had seen Tarzan, and they hadn't. I knew that movie had this incredible sense of family. Nothing in Swiss Family Robinson comes close to when Tarzan walks out of the treehouse after realizing that the mother he's always believed in is here. He said, "No matter where I go, no matter what I do, you will always be my mother." It said right there on the steps of that treehouse. I remember saying to the two animators, "You know, if you do a sequel, these people are going to be living in this treehouse." And they said, "You got it!"

So I knew when they saw what we did with it, we would be vindicated because the number one thing happening in that house was the sense of family and home. Whether it was Tarzan or whether it was Dorothy McGuire's house, it still has that sense of somebody lives here, this is where they had the baby. This is a home. Just for a fun thing we put in the "dee-dee-dee-da-dee"playing on the organ.

Star Wars was an adventure through outer space that took people dreamed they'd never get to go. Monsanto did that in a psychedelic way that was perfect for my generation, growing up in the '60s. Here were the '70s kids and '80s kids who wanted to go to the galaxy far, far away, and they were the most extraordinary visual effects. The only thing missing from sitting in that chair at Edwards (Cinema) is you didn't experience it. You sat there watching Luke and Han and Leia, while you're sitting there eating your popcorn. So (in Star Tours) when Rex says, "I've always wanted to do this," and the thing goes down into the trench, and you feel it, every kid who ever sat in that Edwards seat was going like that (thumbs up).

On the other side of the coin is where's Inner Space? Well, there's that scene in the beginning of the film where you go by the Mighty Microscope. We had ILM build for us and put into storage down there in a maintenance bay. So you try to do some of these that are fun, but on the other hand you've got to capture the same emotion—and where we do that is where you get into trouble. Where you take the Carousel of Progress, which was just another great family thing, with parents showing their kids what they grew up with. It was dreaming about the future, that the family continues no matter what happens, with devices and whatnot, we're a family. They took that out for America Sings. It didn't have any effect. It's just a cute show. They literally took out a flavor of Disneyland.

You have to be very careful in how you balance the thing out. Losing, to me, America the Beautiful and then converting Lincoln into a quasi-comedy put us in danger of losing that sense of feeling really great that you're in America and proud of America that you live in. And, boy, do we need it now. I mean hearing flies on my neck and my hair being cut and, to me, the new speech is irrelevant. The Gettysburg Address was great for people that lived 100 years ago, but it doesn't really have much power on a group of kids today.

(At the time of the interview, Baxter was still trying to get a Submarine Voyage back in the still-empty lagoon.)

The sub ride is another missing component. I would say, "Where can you ride Dumbo, go underwater, and hear the 16th president of the United States, all within an hour and a half?" And that's really important, because that's stretching the limits of what a Disneyland is—from sheer, unbridled and unsophisticated fun and fantasy, to a weird mystery going underneath the North Pole in a submarine to the lost continent of Atlantis, to having very profound things said by the president of the United States. That makes Disneyland bigger. The more homogenized the attractions get, the less differentiating characteristics there are between Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, the Block, and Main Place. And you start saying, "Gee, well, it's kinda fun to go down to Fashion Island on a Sunday afternoon. It's pretty, they've got fountains, it's pleasant, not crowded, it's free to park. See, we're always looking for what makes Disneyland extraordinary. You can ride Dumbo, go underwater, and see the president talk. The more you sculpt it down, the more dangerous it is in terms of it being regular and common.

Fantasyland, all the rides are 25% in length longer than they were. (For the 1982 remodel) I made a point of saying we're gonna have people constantly comparing, so even if the ride isn't any better, it will for sure there will be 25% more feet. So that was like bottom-of-the-barrel thinking, but before we did anything else, we're gonna put that many more feet of ride in there. And, boy, it was hard, because the hat shop became a new scene for Toad. Alice went into the old storage facility for the old Fan 2 restaurant. Snow White we built a new building out back. Pinocchio was new, and Peter Pan we moved the facade out about 35 feet, and then pushed the carousel back to where the tea cups were, so people cannot believe that the carousel used to be up between Snow White and that was where the tea cups were, where the carousel is.

Koenig: Did the dark rides retain any of the same track?

Baxter: The one that has a lot of the original track is Peter Pan, and then when you get to Skull Rock, we added on all brand new track that takes you over that pirate ship, which is sitting out of what used to be the asphalt that you walked on in the old Fantasyland. So it's out there in front of the building, that's where the boat is. And that boat has all the fixtures of the Tuna Boat. It's got all the lamps and the rigging and stuff were salvaged from the Tuna Boat, which we had built in its full entirety out in Paris. And they're doing a show out on it this summer for Peter Pan, with cannons that go off every 20 minutes or so.

Understanding the logic behind certain pieces of magic going away can help with dealing with the loss. But it still hurts on a day like today, when Disneyland is losing one of the greatest, most magical assets in its history. Hopefully, whomever takes his place will walk that same creative tightrope.

Thank you, Tony.

Next Week: Some "Mouse Tales" with Tony Baxter



  1. By Jim Korkis

    David, I always enjoy your writing (including your latest book about Danny Kaye King of Jesters which is getting such amazing reviews and even has a section or two that is Disney related) but I rarely write to tell you so. This was a terrific column. I think many of us are saddened that Tony is moving into an advisory capacity because he is probably the last of the second generation of Imagineers. The first generation worked directly with Walt. The second generation worked with the first generation and learned how and why to do it "Walt's Way".

    Also, Tony has been an amazingly good friend to Disney fans. In the Eighties I went to a lot of Mouse Club and NFFC conventions and heard him talk....not just on stage but to those of us offstage who bombarded him with questions. Time for Tony to write his book. Anyway, thanks for sharing your interview with him and I look forward to the next installment. I think Tony makes some very valid observations about the need to balance tradition with a new generation. I am not upset by the introduction of Captain Jack into PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN because I know there is a generation or more who only know the films and the additions were done in such a way that "my" PIRATES is still there for me to enjoy but also gives enjoyment to folks who never rode the attraction in its prime.

    I hope you will consider sharing more from your vault of interviews in the future. This excerpt certainly honors Tony and gives many folks who never got to hear him in person some idea of how his mind works. Yes, there are emotional stories connected to things at the Disney parks and people need to understand them before they change them and destroy the story. Sometimes a change can reinforce the story...but only if you know what the story is in the first place.

    Once again, very much enjoyed. You should consider putting together some of your interviews and submitting them to Didier Ghez for the WALT'S PEOPLE book series.

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