Tony Baxter, a longtime head Disney Imagineer, who is responsible for major projects like Indiana Jones, Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Railroad, stands in the Indiana Jones queue at Disneyland Wednesday
ANAHEIM Tony Baxter just wanted to go to Disneyland for free, so as a 17-year-old he got a job scooping ice cream near Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Baxter would prepare hundreds of banana splits and Fantasia ice cream – burgundy cherry, banana and pistachio – for crowds that pooled at the Carnation Plaza Gardens restaurant after the summer fireworks.
Tony Baxter bio
Residence: Anaheim Hills
Education: Santa Ana High School; Cal State Long Beach
Favorite Disney characters: Rapunzel, Flynn Ryder, Cheshire Cat
Favorite Disneyland spots: Fantasy Faire, outdoor patio of Café Orleans
Favorite Anaheim place: Oak Canyon Nature Center
Other favorite Orange County places:Newport Beach, South Coast Plaza, Knott’s Berry Farm
Source: Tony Baxter
Tony Baxter’s Disneyland projects
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, 1979
New Fantasyland, 1983
Star Tours, 1987
Splash Mountain, 1989
Indiana Jones Adventure, l995
Tomorrowland redevelopment, 1998
Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, 2007
Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough, 2008
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln return, 2009
Baxter’s projects abroad:
Journey into Imagination at Epcot in Florida, 1982
Opening of Disneyland Paris, 1992
Over the next 47 years, Baxter went on to spearhead the concepts of signature Disneyland rides including Splash Mountain and Star Tours. He made models that determined what attractions in Walt Disney World would look like, and he led the development of Disneyland Paris.
But Baxter has one more mark he wants to leave at Disneyland: A Disneyland window, a tradition started by Walt Disney himself to honor people instrumental in the planning, design, construction and operation of the ground-breaking theme park.
And on Nov. 1, he will get it.
The windows, Disneyland’s highest honor, are installed with the honoree’s name, often on Main Street, U.S.A., as if part of a pretend business.
Baxter, of course, has gotten a lot of awards. But the window is different.
“I think it stands apart from everything else,” said Baxter, who remains a Disney consultant. “To me, there’s something very special at Disneyland, because it’s Walt’s park.”
As a boy, Baxter dreamed of going to Disneyland when watching Walt Disney on television. Born in Los Angeles, Baxter lived in San Clemente and then Santa Ana. He graduated from Santa Ana High School.
At the park, Baxter would see Walt Disney himself driving the Carnation truck.
“It was great seeing him in the morning, enjoying this incredible toy,” Baxter said, referring to the theme park.
One day, knowing Disney was coming by Carnation, Baxter prepared to emphatically tell Disney that the restaurant needed more employees. But when Disney asked how things were going, the only thing that came out was, “Just fine.”
Baxter’s first goal was to become a ride operator; he started on Autopia. “I really loved the interaction with guests.”
When he graduated from college, in theater design, Baxter got a chance to go behind the scenes, starting in 1970. Baxter wowed imagineers – the creators and builders of Disney attractions – with a model of a marble maze.
Baxter’s first assignment wasn’t splashy – making fiberglass flowers that cover hidden tiki gods hanging outside the Enchanted Tiki Room. The design remains today.
Soon, Baxter was assigned to a new park underway in Florida – a place where he made models for the Snow White ride and art for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. His assignments quickly grew.
In his 30s, Baxter helped re-think Frontierland in Disneyland: He developed the concept for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, his first major thrill ride, which opened in 1979.
He fell in love with the Indiana Jones character from the 1981 “Raiders of the Lost Ark” movie and joked with a friend: What if this were a Disney ride?
Nothing like Indiana Jones had ever been done before. Years later, he was able to make a ride that combines complex vehicles with elaborate scenes. It remains his favorite.
“It’s storytelling, but it’s also out of control,” Baxter said, standing outside the entrance. “This was a breakthrough, a real breakthrough.”
Baxter is also proud of smaller designs.
Before Splash Mountain was constructed on the west side of the park, Disneyland planners intended to remove planters in New Orleans Square to make more room to walk. Baxter was horrified.
He deployed lessons learned in college studying freeway design. Crews installed a cloverleaf-style line going into Pirates of the Caribbean below a new pedestrian bridge – more paths without removing any trees.
In his last years at Disney, Baxter mentored young colleagues such as Michel Den Dulk, who had heard about Baxter while growing up in the Netherlands. “If you work for the theme park industry, as a designer, sooner or later the name Tony Baxter comes up,” Den Dulk said.
Baxter knew of Den Dulk, too, from his work in Europe. In 2008, Baxter sent an email with the subject line, “What great things are you doing?” Baxter successfully recruited Den Dulk for Disney.
“He loves to talk about Disney and everything related to Disney,” said Den Dulk, 33. “Although there’s an age gap, of course, that’s not visible in any way when you work with Tony, at least from my experience. Tony is all about the work and the quality and the ideas and Disney, and that’s what it’s about.”
Colleague Kim Irvine, who has worked alongside Baxter since the 1970s, said Baxter deeply understands Disneyland.
“Tony has always been to me the quintessential Disneyland fan and he understands our demographic so well,” said Irvine, the art director of Disneyland. “He understands the Disneyland fans, because he is one.”
His imprint on Disney is so great that Disney fans often recognize him.
During a September walk through Disneyland with a reporter, two men followed Baxter, pretending to take pictures of other things but were after shots of him. Another visitor shouted to Baxter at Splash Mountain.
“Thank you so much for everything,” Bryant McVey of Dallas said.
When approached by the reporter, McVey explained: “He’s one of my heroes.”