Tony Baxter and Walt Disneyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, I got the opportunity to attend most of the Mouse Club and National Fantasy Fan Club (NFFC) conventions and Show and Sales events. I got a chance to meet many Disney Legends, like Ken Anderson, Marc Davis, Bill Justice, Bill Evans, Ward Kimball, and so many more.
More importantly, I got to hear them share stories and was lucky enough to write down some them down.
One person who was extremely gracious and accessible was Tony Baxter. When I first met him in the early 1980s, he was still basking in the accolades of the New Fantasyland at Disneyland Park and the Journey Into Imagination attraction (with Figment and Dreamfinder) at Epcot.
Since the surprising announcement of his reduced presence at Walt Disney Imagineering, I thought I would share some of the things Baxter said about Walt Disney. Fortunately, because of his kindness and openness, there are tons of Baxter interviews out there, so I am just going to concentrate on some of the Walt things I heard him say more than a decade ago.
Good friend and MousePlanet staff writer David Koenig has previously shared some of his Baxter interviews.
I like Tony Baxter. Some people do not, but I do for a number of reasons. Baxter is what is known as a second-generation Imagineer. He never worked directly with Walt as an Imagineer, but worked and was trained by the first generation who did. He learned how and why Walt wanted things done and tried to emulate that spirit.
Baxter, who started 2013 as senior vice president Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) and Creative Executive for the Disneyland Resort, unexpectedly announced in "an open letter to fellow imagineers" that the time has come for him to evolve his role at WDI: "Beginning this February, I will be transitioning to a position as a part-time adviser. While I will not be here on a regular basis, I will continue to be available to any and all of you as needs arise. Though my time will be limited, my passion for the magic WDI creates will be just as strong."
Like others, I am sure there is much more story behind this story but we might never hear it for years. At least the letter did not include the typical Disney exit announcement of wanting to spend more time with his family or health considerations.
MousePlanet has posted the entire letter.
Baxter had a 47-year long career at Disney, something that is uncommon at the Disney Company today. He began his Disneyland career in 1965 at the age of 17 as a sweeper, quickly working his way up to the role of ice cream scooper at Carnation Plaza Gardens, and, finally, a ride operator on Autopia.
Growing up in Orange County, Baxter was a frequent visitor to Knott’s Berry Farm, but watching the Wednesday night Disneyland television show absolutely captivated him about Walt Disney's new park. Baxter and his family went the first summer Disneyland opened. He once told me “and from that moment on it has been a major part of my life.”
He used to ride his bike down to Disneyland and agonized until he hit the minimum age to be able to work at the park. His goal was to work in the Monsanto House of the Future or the Rocket to the Moon. Because he was small for his age, he ended up sweeping and scooping ice cream for three years.
However, it was still a dream come true.
For five years, he worked at the park while, at the same time, he was majoring in three areas at college: landscape architecture, architecture and theater design. In later years, he pointed out that the study of all of these subjects tremendously benefited his work as an Imagineer. He attended Santa Ana College, Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State Long Beach.
In the summer of 1969, he was working as part of the Submarine Voyage crew when he submitted his portfolio to Imagineering. His dream job of working in WDI began the first week of January 1970 as an apprentice model builder assigned to Disney Legend Claude Coats, who was like a father to him and mentored him in the way to create environments in attractions.
Unlike Marc Davis, who used characters in an attraction, Coats’ strength was in providing the background atmosphere in attractions like the Submarine Voyage, The Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
With Walt Disney World set to open in 1971, Baxter was sent down to Florida to help with the installation of the Fantasyland dark rides and, in particular, the 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea attraction. He was only 23 years old and was supervising construction workers twice his age.
When he returned to California, he started developing the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attraction, his first big project that led to so many other beloved achievements over the past few decades.
“Walt would come to the Park almost every weekend," Baxter said. "I used to see him in the morning as early as 7 a.m. Walt loved to walk around the Park and check things out in the quiet hours before the public got there. He loved being around people but didn’t care for being mobbed once the park opened. I think he came early because he liked to play with his ‘toy’ before everybody else got their hands on it and he was in the spotlight.”
Baxter recalled that once the park opened for the day, Walt would try to position himself so he could see the ride and guests’ reaction to the ride.
“Sometimes he would stand by the fence of the Pack Mule Train and wave to the kids as they went by," he said.
Other times, he would slip into the back of the Enchanted Tiki Room just as the show was starting to see the guests reacting to the feathered performers. Baxter said that Walt had several favorite locations where he could observe his guests.
Here is the version Baxter told me about meeting Walt Disney for the first time at Disneyland. It is pretty similar to what he has told others over the years, but there may be a few readers who haven’t heard it.
“As I said, I was working scooping ice cream at the Carnation Plaza Gardens. We had been told that he was going to be coming sometime that day just to observe. We were told that there were to be no breaks, no lunches, no closed stations even though we were understaffed, and had to work constantly until after he had left. I am sure Walt never knew anything about all of that. Management was trying to show him that everything was wonderful, running smoothly.
“Hours went by and he still hadn’t shown up. I was getting more and more tired. I was the ‘lead’ so I figured it was my responsibility to let Walt know what was really going on. I worked up this little speech about how nobody got their lunch or got to go on a break and that we didn’t have enough people to work the location. I was going to let him know exactly what was going on.
“I remember I saw this shadowy form, followed by a dozen other people, and they were all heading right toward me. Walt walked up and smiled, ‘Well, how are things going here today?’ I was just in awe. I replied, ‘Fine. Just fine.’ I couldn’t even shake his hand because my hands were covered with melting ice cream!”
However, another Walt encounter still makes him a bit angry today.
“Since I worked at Disneyland, I could get my younger sister and her friend in on my pass while I went off to work. She was about 11 at the time. Anyway, one time she and her friend spotted Walt on his little electric cart and decided to follow him. He stopped at "it’s a small world" and they ran up and begged if they could ride with him. “Of course!” he said. So they sat in the front seat of the boat and floated through the ride.
“He even pointed out his favorite part which is the scene where the African children are rolling with laughter with a hyena. That scene was taken out after Walt’s death because the NAACP wondered why the children from other countries were more dignified and doing things like reading books and singing but these African children were being compared to a laughing animal.
“Anyway, when they finished the ride, Walt asked them if they wanted to go on it again. Well, of course, they shouted “Yes!” He told them, “Then this time we all have to sing the song together”. So they all sang the song through the entire ride. Then Walt took them backstage to see how everything all worked.
“He gave them both Disneyland ticket books and autographed a postcard with his picture on it. I was so mad when she told me all about it. She was only 11.”
However, Tony did end up getting a special autograph from Walt. Baxter’s family had a relative who was part of the management team for the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade. Baxter’s family was given special tickets to the parade seating and the football game. At the parade, the Baxters were sitting three rows from Walt Disney, who was the Grand Marshall that year.
“My sister went down to talk to Walt and ask him if he remembered her. He said he did. She told him how mad I was that I didn’t get to go on the ride with him and that I couldn’t even meet him today because I was working at Disneyland on New Year’s Day. Walt signed the Rose Parade souvenir program to me and I still have it today.
“I would see him occasionally in the employee cafeteria and just say something like ‘Hello. How are you?’ or ‘Hello, Mr. Disney’ because I was just so in awe even though I know he wanted to be called ‘Walt’. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
The day of Walt’s death was overwhelmingly emotional for Baxter.
“It was a weekday [Thursday] and I wasn’t scheduled to work that day because I had school. It was like the end of the world for me. I got in my car and drove to Disneyland and got my paycheck and my One Year employee pin. What was going to happen now with Walt gone? He touched everything…the castle, the characters, the rides…everything. I was numb. What will happen now? Walt Disney is dead. There would be no Walt Disney telling me about his dreams and encouraging me to help make them come true. Walt gave us a wonderful world to live in. I feel very fortunate I grew up during the time Walt was alive.”
Baxter got a few of his friends together to go see the Disney live-action film, Follow Me Boys!, which was playing at a local theater.
“Whenever I see the movie today,” Baxter said, “I can hardly get through it without getting very emotional.”
I believe that Baxter really did keep the spirit of Walt alive and contributed things to the Disney parks that will continue to bring joy and wonder to new generations.
The NFFC still holds conventions and Show and Sales events. The local branches of the club do so, as well. However, they are now officially known as the Disneyana Fan Club. Last year, I attended a two-day Dayton, Ohio, gathering and must have done something right because they have invited me back this year to talk about my new book, Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South among other things. So anyone who would like to drop by and say hello or get a book signed June 29-30 at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Dayton (it’s only $5 a day admission), visit this link for more information.