July 31, 2012

The Great Tony Baxter Debate: Part Two

The Greatest "Second Generation Imagineer". The man who totally ruined Disneyland's Tomorrowland. The beloved creator of the much beloved Figment from Epcot's Journey Into Imagination. The Imagineering "Heir Apparent" to Walt Disney. A devout fan with a larger than life ego. Who really is Imagineer Tony Baxter? 

Awhile back, I published the first article on The Great Tony Baxter Debate. Given the recent viewing of Mr. Baxter accompanying The Walt Disney Company CEO Robert Iger around the nonpublic access areas of Disneyland, well, it seems it might be time to take a second look at just what the man may be up to these days.  

Word was Tony would be retiring soon, and until then, Disney suits were comfortable giving him small vanity projects that well suit Tony's deep love for the park Walt walked as well as keeping some of its old school charm. His caring touch on old favorites like Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk Thru, and of course, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, were a resounding success. Seems not only the guests realized these gems large and small have an impact on the overall feel of the place. The Disneyland Historical Preservation Society must have been thrilled.

Fast forward to the grand reopening of Disney California Adventure. Old (and wise!) thought  brought extravaganzas like Cars Land and it premier attraction Radiator Springs Racers partnered with the beautifully sublime Buena Vista Street to turn the once ugly duckling of a park into a young, growing swan of beauty. Almost instantly, the Company redeemed the reputation of the park. With refurbishing of the Disneyland Hotel and ongoing changes at Downtown Disney, seems like the Disneyland Resort is finally becoming true to its marketing slogan.

All well and good- but what would be the next act for Disneyland as it approaches it 60th anniversary? Enter Mr. Baxter. 

As a protegee of the great Imagineer Marc Davis, I will say with much confidence that there is no one like Tony Baxter in the last twenty years of Disney design and excellence. A running list of attractions that bear his involvement of leadership read like a "Who's Who" of Imagineering's best projects:

  • Splash Mountain
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
  • Indiana Jones Adventure
  • Journey Into Imagination
  • Disneyland Paris... and more.

Above: Art for Tomorrowland '98

Sure, he's had a share of less than successful ones, Tomorrowland '98 and the Rocket Rods come to mind, but Tony Baxter has also had his share of deep disappointments as the suits went the cheap route over one that stressed quality and guest experience. His gorgeous design for Anaheim's originally announced  second park, Westcot, lost out due to sheer misunderstanding of what the public desired and acknowledged as Disney quality. Replacement came in the form of the Bargain Basement Imagineered and disastrously received California Adventure 1.0.  (The above link sends readers to the first part of  the series telling the story of California Adventure 1.0 through concept art.) Tony was smart to distance himself from all of it, from design to hype to public ridicule and backlash.

Quoting my previous article here, "Understanding the politics, he shrewdly positioned himself as the guardian of Disneyland and a link to the creative genius' of the past. It is the place in which he belongs. Disneyland is better for it- and the fans should be grateful. If Tony was not keeping watch over Walt's park, it would soon end up looking like the Magic Kingdom in Florida! Just imagine Main Street U.S.A.'s unique shops being turned into one giant mall, the Cinema being removed, and the Opera House turned into a theater for Hannah Montana, and you get the idea of where the park would be headed."

If adventure has a name, it's Indiana Jones!

Beautiful work, wouldn't you say?

Yet, it is a delicate line the man must walk. There's rumor that Tony is not all that popular in the hallowed halls of Disney Imagineering and that his projects are just too expensive. On his side comes his history of excellence in creating beloved masterpieces and truly understanding what made Disneyland great. On the other end, it is said he has no fan in Tom Fitzgerald, who now heads up Imagineering.

My gut instinct tells me, quality will win the day this time. The turnaround in fortunes for California Adventure has not gone unnoticed nor has the huge success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, soon making its way to California to take another chunk out of Disney's pocket. Yes, it has worked in Florida. 

So, what will be on the drawing boards? Early contenders include a Lone Ranger themed attraction for Frontierland. Let's be honest here. Few attractions see the light of day this century unless there is a movie tie-in, so this could be a go. Just adding Johnny Depp a la Pirates of the Caribbean, and you've got a sure fire but expensive hit. Die hard Disney geeks might be wanting to see a repurposed and revised version of the old Marc Davis legend, Western River Expedition, but I do not think it will happen. Land is just too rare in Anaheim. And the attraction deserves to be built at Florida's Magic Kingdom where it was intended. In can still be done in a new form around the bend from the exit of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. All it takes is some engineering magic of old. 

Another movie tie-in brings us to option number two. An attraction built on the upcoming Disney film, Oz the Great and Powerful.  The open land does straddle Fantasyland and Frontierland, and the storyline could lend itself to some stunning adventures utilizing new technology. Can Disney pull off relaunching the Oz series? That has yet to be seen.  One thing is certain. Currently, James Franco does not have the star power of Johnny Depp... at least for now.

Disneyland Paris' Space Mountain- a quite incredible journey!

The last attraction to be speculated is also a movie tie-in. Tron Legacy. Perhaps a fan's dream, but the idea of riding a light cycle would bring a chunk of futuristic pizzaz to a tired and worn Tomorrowland. (Breaking News: See Al Lutz's new MiceAge article- seems to confirm this thought!) For now, the land is a cartoon filled shadow of its former glory. It's probably the least utilized area of the park- and its the one spot in which the Magic Kingdom in Florida wins the park comparison competition. 

Where's Tony's heart and strength? Probably in creating the fantasy worlds of the past, although the Jules Verne inspired Discoveryland in Paris was one of the successes of his team. My hunch tells me Tony Baxter has a heart for attractions with a strong story and a full host of Audio-Animatronic characters. Given this project could be his last big hurrah, I'm voting he creates a new classic with old school execution. 

Is Tony the right man to lay hold of some of the last acres of available land at Disneyland? Yes- with no qualifications. Besides, who would you suggest that could pull it off with such class?

(Concept art from various artists. Copyright The Walt Disney Company.)


Anonymous said...

FYI, Rocket Rods was not Tony Baxter's fiasco, it was Eddie Sotto's.

Brian said...

FYI, Rocket Rods was not Tony Baxter's fiasco, it was Eddie Sotto's.