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Why "Western River" Went South -- Part 6

Why "Western River" Went South -- Part 6

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OUR STORY SO FAR: If you've read Parts 1 through 6, you've already have a pretty good understanding of the history of "Western River Expedition." At least from the Marc Davis point of view. So there's no need for me to do yet another recap.

But please be aware that Imagineering is a highly collaborative place. People of all ages - from all walks of life - work there. And these folks don't always get along.

Imagineers often have disagreements about how certain theme park attractions should be constructed. These spirited discussions usually lead to better rides and shows for the public. But sometimes, people's feelings get hurt in the process.

Such a thing happened during the latter development phases of "Western River Expedition." An off-hand remark by a then-junior member of the Imagineering team accidentally derailed WED's grand plans for Thunder Mesa. What rose up in its place was a thrill ride that has become so popular that versions of it can be found at all four Disney resorts worldwide.

This was an attraction that made that young Imagineer's career. But - in the process - this thrill ride crushed another man's dream. As a result, this senior WED employee held a grudge against this younger man for over 25 years.

Not exactly a tale you'd expect to hear about two guys who work on "The Happiest Place on Earth." But it's a true story, kids. So sit back and enjoy the next exciting chapter in the never- ending "Western River Expedition" saga.

"I don't like it," said Tony Baxter.

Standing beside the model he'd been laboring over for weeks now, Baxter's comment shocked his bosses at WED. After all, who was this young kid to be passing judgment on the company's theme park plans.

Who indeed?

Tony Baxter was part of the new breed at WED. Hired in 1970 while Walt Disney Productions was beefing up its Imagineering staff to handle the Florida project, Tony was an Orange County kid who'd practically grown up at Disneyland.

As a youngster, Baxter made so many visits to the Anaheim theme park that he memorized most of the park's original attractions. This was a skill that he'd use to amaze - and sometimes frighten - family and friends. After watching a Fantasyland ride vehicle enter its show building, young Tony could predict - sometimes down to the second - when that particular ride vehicle would exit its attraction.

While in high school, Baxter furthered his knowledge of Disneyland by becoming a cast member. Starting out in 1965 as a street sweeper at the park, Tony eventually worked his way up to ice cream scooper at the Carnation Plaza Gardens before finally moving over to Tomorrowland. There, he worked as a ride operator on "Journey Thru Inner Space."

After graduating from California State University - Long Beach with a degree in theatrical design, Baxter landed his dream job when he was hired by WED in 1970. Now Tony would no longer be just a visitor or employee at Disneyland. He was one of the folks who was entrusted with "imagineering" new rides and shows for the park. It was a job Baxter took very seriously.

Tony's enthusiasm for his initial assignments soon caught the eye of master Imagineer Claude Coats. Coats - best known today for the superb atmospheric settings he created for Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Haunted Mansion" - soon became Baxter's mentor, teaching Tony all the tricks of the Imagineering trade.

Despite the great difference between their ages (Baxter was just 23, while Coats was in his 60s) and experience, Claude and Tony were began working together on Fantasyland attractions for Walt Disney World. Coats was so impressed with Baxter's attention to detail on scenery the young man designed for "Snow White's Scary Adventure" that he arranged for Tony to receive a field assignment.

And that's how Baxter ended up Orlando in the summer of 1971, telling 50 year old contractors how to sculpt rocks and reefs for that park's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." It was on this particular project that Tony learned a lot about the proper placement of props and mechanized figures on Disney theme park attraction. Put too few in one area, the guest feels cheated. Put too many and the guest gets confused, doesn't know where to look. The knowledge Baxter gained from his "20K" field installation experience came in handy a lot sooner than he thought it would.

Once Walt Disney World opened, Baxter returned to Glendale to find that - now that the Florida project was up and running - WED no longer needed so many Imagineers. So, as Walt Disney Productions began laying off all its new hires, Tony became terrified that his Imagineering career would be over just as it was getting started.

But Claude Coats - who had grown fond of Baxter - called in a few favors and got Tony a job in WED's model shop. Here, Baxter worked on models for many of WDW's proposed "Phase I" attractions. Chief among these was Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mesa.

Tony actually enjoyed working on the model for WDW's Space Mountain. Given that an elaborate marble maze he had constructed for his own amusement had helped land Tony his job at WED, Baxter got a kick out of the idea that he was actually being paid to build yet another small scale roller coaster.

But Big Thunder Mesa was another matter entirely. Having spent his first few years at WED basically as Claude Coats' apprentice, Tony had trouble adjusting to working with Marc Davis. Claude was a gentle and generous man, willing to politely take the time to listen to whatever ideas another Imagineer had to offer.

Davis - on the other hand - was a task master. Marc had designed each and every aspect of Big Thunder Mesa and expected its model to meet all of his exacting specifications. Any suggestions Tony would offer to improve the attraction, Marc would immediately dismiss. After all, what could this 25 year old kid know about designing theme park attractions?

It was a very frustrating time for Baxter, who - after begging to be given some part of Thunder Mesa to do on his own - eventually ended up with the runaway train ride. Unfortunately for Tony, Davis had envisioned this piece of the proposed Frontierland addition as the show building's secondary attraction. Meaning that he would not allow Baxter to make Thunder Mesa's train ride so entertaining that it would potentially over-shadow or out-shine "Western River Expedition."

That's maybe not the nicest thing to say about Marc Davis. But please understand that Davis was an artist, and all artists have egos. Having labored for five years to bring "Western River Expedition" to life, Marc was determined that his dream attraction wouldn't end up being upstaged by some little runaway train ride.

Even with these Davis-imposed limitations, Baxter still turned in some beautiful designs for Thunder Mesa's runaway train ride. Tony even recycled Claude Coat's designs for the "Rainbow Caverns" sequence from Disneyland's "Mine Trains Through Nature's Wonderland" to give this proposed Florida attraction a snazzy opening sequence.

But still Baxter found himself frustrated by the circumstances he was working under. Tony knew that - if he were just given half a chance - that he could make Big Thunder Mesa's runaway train ride into something really special. That chance came unexpectedly in the spring of 1974, when Disney Chairman Card Walker, WED head *** Irvine and several other senior executives from Walt Disney Productions stopped by the model shop one afternoon.

This was a particularly crucial time for the "Western River" project. Walt Disney Productions was still reeling from the effects of the energy crisis. Walker had responded to the nation's fuel problems by putting all future development for the company's Florida resort - including Thunder Mesa - on hold.

But now gas prices had begun sliding down again. This meant that Walker could consider unfreezing future projects for Walt Disney World. But which project should the Disney CEO let thaw out, and which plans should he permanently assign to the deep freeze?

That's why Walker, Irvine and his cronies were touring WED. They were trying to decide which shows they should go forward with and which projects they should table - permanently. With this in mind, the Disney brass walked into the WED model shop and found themselves dazzled by the Big Thunder Mesa and "Western River Expedition" models.

Anyone who ever saw these models still comments on how beautiful they were. The "Western River" model had all these richly detailed miniature versions of the ride's sets and figures. The Thunder Mesa model was a beautiful little tabletop mountain with a miniature version of Tony's runaway train ride rolling through its caves and canyons.

Impressed by all the time and effort that Baxter had obviously put into the Thunder Mesa model, Walker complimented Tony on his craftsmanship. Card was surprised when Baxter shrugged off his compliment.

"What's the matter?," Walker asked. "Don't you like the ride?"

"No," Tony replied. "I don't like it."

Baxter went on to explain what he felt were the flaws with Thunder Mesa's runaway train ride. Chief among the attraction's flaws - in Tony's eyes, anyway - was that the ride didn't really tell a story and the its thrill element were introduced too late in the game. Wouldn't it be better if Thunder Mesa's runaway train ride were exciting right from the get go, with suspenseful scenes all along the way that built a thrilling climax?

Tony then quickly explained how *HE* would have designed a runaway train ride for Thunder Mesa. Using all the lessons he'd learned while putting together WDW's "20,000 Leagues," Baxter spoke of atmospheric scenes like coyotes howling on high bluffs, dinosaur bones that stick out along the train's route as well as a dramatic cave-in finale.

Baxter was pleased that Card seemed entertained by his ideas for Thunder Mesa's runaway train ride. But he was floored by Walker's next suggestion. Card then asked Tony to work up some plans for his proposed attraction - *NOT* as an extra added feature for Thunder Mesa, but as a stand-alone ride that would compete for "WRE" 's Frontierland construction site.

Walker had quickly grasped the innate appeal of Baxter's runaway train ride idea. Here was an attraction that would make an easy fit for the area's theming. It would also quickly add a new thrill ride into the park's line-up of shows and attractions (something that recent guest surveys had suggested that WDW's Magic Kingdom was lacking). More importantly, this runaway train ride could probably be built for about a third of what Marc Davis was asking for "Western River Expedition."

That alone was reason enough for Walker and Irvine to give Baxter the go- ahead to develop his runaway train ride idea as a potential replacement for "Western River Expedition."

When Davis heard about what had happened, he was livid. Here was Baxter - the young Imagineer who was supposed to be helping Marc get his long proposed Frontierland attraction off the drawing board - who ends up convincing Card Walker to allow him to develop a different attraction for the very construction site along WDW's Rivers of America.

Tony tried to apologize, explaining that he hadn't intentionally stolen Marc's thunder (figuratively as well as literally). But Davis could not be assuaged. For the 25 years that followed this incident, Marc held a grudge against Baxter - insisting that the young Imagineer had deliberately undercut his "Western River" project.

Time and again, Tony tried to make it up to Marc (Davis' "America Sings" figures turn up in Baxter's "Splash Mountain" not by accident, kids. Tony was even then - 10 years later, in 1983 - still trying to make it up to Marc. This gesture didn't work, though. We'll cover this part of the story in greater detail in our next installment), but to no avail.

So now there are two western themed attractions competing for the exact same spot along WDW's Rivers of America. Only one can be built.

Guess what happens next, kids?

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