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Tony Baxter to transition from being a full-time Imagineer to becoming WDI advisor

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Tony Baxter to transition from being a full-time Imagineer to becoming WDI advisor

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You're going to be seeing a lot of stuff about Tony Baxter online today. Stories about how this longtime Disney Company employee (i.e. Tony started at Disneyland Park back in August of 1965 as a sweeper and eventually rose through the ranks to become Senior Vice President of Creative Development for Walt Disney Imagineering as well as being Creative Executive for Disneyland) will soon transition from being a full-time Imagineer to becoming a part-time advisor for WDI.

Now for some of you folks out there, the news of Tony's upcoming exit from 1401 Flower Street may come as a shock. But for those of us who have actually been paying attention, it's been apparent for quite some time now that Baxter has been unhappy. Witness what he said from the stage back in November during IAAPA's Epcot 30th anniversary panel. When Tony told a ballroom full of themed entertainment professionals that " ... I don't think the Imagination pavilion works anymore."

Now for a long-time Company man like Baxter (who's normally very circumspect. Especially when it came to Disney-related controversies, he tended to follow Thumper's Father's advice. As in: "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all") to be so openly critical of the changes that have been made to this Future World attraction was seen by many in the industry as a pretty big Red Flag. Especially since one of the people that Tony was paneling with at this Attractions Expo event was Eric Jacobson, the veteran Imagineering VP who's currently in charge of Epcot.

Tony Baxter (far left) and Eric Jacobsen (far right) at the Epcot
30th anniversary panel at the 2012 IAAPA Attractions Expo

So to have Baxter out in public talking like this was a pretty strong indicator that all was not well in Tonytown. So when I reached out to some WDI insiders late last year to get their thoughts about what this second generation Imagineer had said at IAAPA, the general consensus was that Baxter would be going bye-bye very, very soon.

So when word began to leak out yesterday that Tony had gotten together with friends at the Tam O'Shanter for lunch so that he could then announce that he'd soon be transitioning from full-time Imagineer to part-time advisor ... I have to say that the themed entertainment professionals that I spoke with yesterday afternoon to confirm these rumors were sad, but not surprised.

"Why sad?," you ask. Because -- to be blunt -- given the way that the corporate culture at The Walt Disney Company in general and WDI in particular has changed over the past 20 years, the chances that another Tony Baxter is going to be able to come along and then make that ginormous leap from ice cream scooper to model designer are slim to none. Things have become so stratified at 1401 Flower Street with so much of the work now being out-sourced that ... Well, it's highly, highly unlikely that those sort of  creative opportunities, the ones which allowed Tony to come to the attention of WED pioneers like Claude Coats and then be mentored are ever going to happen anymore.

Copyright 2013 CFEC / Cedar Fair Parks

Which is a damned shame. Because in a lot of ways, Baxter was / is the ideal Imagineer. By that I mean, this guy ate, slept and breathed theme parks. Case in point: When the Timber Mountain Log Ride opened at Knott's Berry Farm on July 11, 1969, Tony was there in the park that morning. Since this sort of attraction (i.e. a themed flume ride) was something brand-new to the industry (a field that he hoped to work in someday), Tony braved the crowds. He had to be there right as this attraction first opened to the public. So that Baxter could then learn everything he could about how Knott's Timber Mountain Log Ride worked, what its most successful show elements were, etc. So that when Dick Nunis began pushing the Imagineers to come up with some sort of flume ride for the Disney theme parks, Tony then had a solid body of practical knowledge to draw from.

And Baxter was very, very generous when it came to that knowledge. Long before there was an Internet, Tony was already a master of social media. Back in the late 1980s / early 1990s, he was already making regular appearances at Mouse Club meetings and National Fantasy Fan Club conventions. Where -- armed with a carousel of slides -- Baxter would then take Disney enthusiasts behind-the-scenes on then still-under-construction projects like Euro Disney or the Disneyand Resort's never-built second gate, WESTCOT Center.

It was these presentations, plus Tony's willingness to go out on weekends on his own time and then meet with fans when so many other Imagineers viewed working at WED as strictly a 9-to-5 job, that helped turn Baxter into the world's first celebrity Imagineer. Which (I have to be truthful here) upset a number of the higher-ups at 1401 Flower Street. It bothered a lot of these folks that Tony had become the best-known guy working in the building. The Imagineer that many Disneyana fans knew by name and revered. Which is why -- to counteract his high profile with the fan community -- Baxter supposedly deliberately got assigned lower & lower profile projects to work on over the past 15 years.

Tony Baxter's last project of size, the 1998 redo of Disneyland's
Tomorrowland area. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

The bizarre irony of this situation is that -- at the exact same time that Tony was reportedly deliberately being marginalized at WDI -- one of the biggest names in themed entertainment supposedly reached out to Baxter and offered him his dream job.

Here's the story as it's been told to me multiple times over the past 10 years by numerous themed entertainment professionals: American business magnate Steve Wynn reportedly reached out to Tony and tried to recruit him to come design theme parks & hotels for his company. Baxter would have supposedly been the head of his own creative division at Wynn Resorts, Limited and would have regularly worked on high profile, multi-milllion dollar projects.

Tony was allegedly very flattered by this offer but still turned Steve down. The reason? "Imagineering is broken and Disney management hasn't realize it yet," Baxter supposedly told his friends. "That's why I can't leave. Someday Disney management is going to realize that WDI is broken and I still need to be in the building when that happens.  I'm the one who knows how to fix this place."

The Tony Baxter tribute painting which is about
to be featured in Big Thunder Mountain
Railroad's new interactive queue.
Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

At least that's how Tony was supposedly thinking a few years back. As to why he's now decided to go from being a full-time Imagineer to becoming a part-time advisor ... Well, maybe Baxter just got tired of waiting.

Whatever the case, I'm just grateful that Tony hung in there as long as he did. More to the point, I genuinely appreciate that -- over the past 25 years or so -- Baxter has been as generous with his time, talent and knowledge as he has. The info that I gleaned from those NFFC presentations that Baxter gave back in the 1980s & 1990s, the stories that he shared at those events I've repeatedly folded into stories that I've posted here on JHM over the past decade. And I'll continue to do so for years yet to come.

Here's hoping that WDI is wise enough to keep its new part-time advisor very,very busy. Because I am certain that there are dozens of themed entertainment companies out there -- especially a certain Las Vegas mogul -- who'd love to be able to pick Baxter's brain on a regular basis.

Your thoughts?

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  • A sad day. Tony was always one my go-to guys when I was writing or making programmes about Disney. He caught the spark from that previous generation of torch-bearers of Walt Imgineering vision – John Hench, Marty Sklar, Claude Coates, Blaine Gibson, Marc David, X and others – and he kept the flame alive... A charming guy, a generous spirit, Tony truly loved what he did and everything that was represented by that sometime wonderworks on Flower Street...

  • Pushing Tony out the door won't solve any perceived image problem that WDI has given that fans everywhere are going to be pretty upset about this development.  Hopes for a new land/attraction at Disneyland have often centered around Tony Baxter's ideas for the park, I doubt that any of the rumored expansions will get a green light now given this development.  It was Tony who tried to open Iger's eyes to the possibility for an expansion at Disneyland.  From this point forward, I think that the social media community will turn a very critical eye towards Disney, and WDI, given that Disney is yet again throwing the best talent they've got to the curb side.

    The only reason that Carsland is a big success is that John Lasseter pulled a lot of strings to get the right budget.  BVS is nice eye candy but doesn't have any rides!  Mermaid is most decidedly not a Tony Baxter project as it is mediocre to horrible, ditto with Monsters Inc.  So, Tony is right that WDI is broken, and he was sort of fans "last hope" that things would turn around and something big/high quality would happen with Disneyland.  The Imagineering committee who did Mermaid did a horrible job, be it budget and/or just lack of imagination.

    I don't see how admitting that the Imagination Pavilion "might not work" is the cause of Tony's departure, at that point in time his exit was probably already in the works.  Nothing will get done in Disneyland, no more little plusses added to rides or big projects.  The end of an era.

  • Sad news, indeed - Tony's always been generous with his time to the fan community (and I imagine probably will continue to be), and it's always a shame to see one more person who "gets it" walking out the door at Disney, because I feel the Company needs those people to maintain the corporate culture that made it so successful. Like Jim, I can't say I'm too surprised - Tony's getting pretty close to retirement age if he's not there already, and if he realized that (a) he was fighting an uphill battle and that (b) there was some way he could keep a hand in themed entertainment, it was better for him to bow out gracefully than wait for someone to show him the door.

    My concern about WDI goes beyond the loss of Tony and other Imagineers of his generation, though. As Jim mentioned, WDI grew a lot of the talent that allowed it to be so successful for so long in-house; when the cuts eventually came, the folks that WDI trained became the core of a lot of sucessful companies in the themed entertainment industry. But where are the next generation of Tony Baxters going to come from?  The major players are out-sourcing more and more projects, and the companies they're outsourcing to don't really have the time or the money to cultivate new talent.   A few weeks ago, I joked to some friends on another website that Marty Sklar ought to work with a college to set up  a school of themed entertainment so they can bring in new blood. Maybe it's time for that joke to be taken seriously.

  • Well, the end of days is nigh.....sigh.

    I wouldn't be surprised if they kicked Tony out because he was critical of WDI's latest greatest concepts including Avatar Land and the interactive gaming phenom that seems to be taking Walt Disney World by storm.  In fact, why not just do it - make WDW's 5th gate a park dedicated to interactive gaming - oh cool then they can have a hotel tied to it (by bus of course) that is themed to the old Laser Tag game concept.

    I imagine Joe Rodhe is going to get a big promotion out of this and have free reign to push interactive games all over DLR (not to mention "environmental" crap that he so much loves - Disney Animal Kingdom is the most boring zoo, park - whatever in the world.  I can't dis it enough - just pure crap and soon with a blue tinge thanks to the Avatar decision.  

    I can't imagine that Lasseter or Iger clashed that much with Baxter - Iger has at least allowed the purse to be opened of late for parks development and Lasseter at least tries to ensure that the crap WDI is producing has at least has some elements of "Imagineer Gen 1" quality.  

    Although, maybe Tony was opposed to the Pixarization of DLR - I mean really, will Buzz and Woody ever be as timeless as Pluto and Peter Pan?  What is odd is that with the Star Wars and Marvel franchises now a part of an Imagineer's creative arsenal, why on Earth would Tony want to leave unless they have restricted use of these two content areas to only select Imagineers.

  • This confirms what all of us "negative" sayers have been saying for years.

    Now maybe Jim will get off the NExt GEn fruitcake bandwagon.

    But of course Jim and the "Walt Disney" company love saying..."Walt is dead."

  • I'm happy for Tony. At one time I'm sure he was proud to say he worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, now I highly doubt that's the case. Their ideas have become embarassing compared to their triumphs of the past, so why would he want to stay and be a part of it? I say let Disney continue building low-budget attractions, interactive queues that people could not possibly care less about, and  lackluster character meet and greets , and allow Tony to move on and be a part of something that actually deserves his attention. Good day for Tony, bad day for Disney, a company that apparently revels in self induced foot shooting.

  • Andy, Anonymouse, you guys are completely wrong once again! >:(

    Same goes for DisneyTom, to an extent.

    Besides, Tony is not being "pushed out". He's leaving on his own terms, but will remain a consultant to WDI.

  • Definition of consultant....Human gold watch

  • Anonymous, it is you that are wrong, word is that Tony isn't very happy with the 'deal', and they basically haven't let him do anything the past four years.  If you read Tony's internal WDI memo, you'd see that he has plenty of criticism for WDI.

  • YeaH "anonymous" - pony up what you think you know.

  • I think Tony wanted to retire from Disney. He stayed his whole life there and didn't want to leave when he had better opportunities. I would have advised him to accept the job at Wynn. Wynn did wonderful things for the hotel and gaming industry. Wynn is an innovator in his realm and Tony could have branched out in an new field. Tony couldn't fix Disney's organizational problems. An old timer is too close to the problem. Everyone that is capable of fixing the problem has left. A new generation is needed revive the organization. Tony made a mistake in staying. He left a legacy that stopped 15 years ago. That is the real shame.

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