Born in Los Angeles on February 1, 1947, Tony Baxter grew up in Orange County, California. It was the perfect time and place for this future Imagineer—he not only witnessed the birth of the theme park industry, but he also grew up alongside his beloved Disneyland. A Disney fan from an early age, Tony especially enjoyed his weekly visits with Walt courtesy of the Disneyland television program. The show whetted his appetite for Walt’s new wonderland rising from the Anaheim citrus groves. In his spare time he could be found building models and mocking up rides in his backyard.
He went to work scooping ice cream at Carnation Plaza Gardens in Disneyland when he turned 171⁄2—the earliest age at which one could get hired by one of the park’s lessees— and went on to other positions during the five years he spent working there. During lunch hours, he would poke around backstage. One day, while trying to get a peek at Pirates of the Caribbean, a chance encounter with Imagineer and Disney Legend Claude Coats led to a personal tour of the unfinished ride.
Unbeknownst to both of them, Coats would wind up mentoring Tony years later when he joined the ranks as an Imagineer.
In 1970, at age 23, Tony was hired as an Imagineer, and was soon shipped off to Orlando to serve as a field art director for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for the upcoming opening of the Magic Kingdom. He would remain in Florida until the end of 1971. In the following years came a string of creations that helped define the modern Disney park landscape. Tony’s teams developed Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the first of which opened at Disneyland in 1979. During that decade he also helped create concepts for the Seas and Land pavilions at EPCOT Center, as well as the unrealized Discovery Bay and Dumbo’s Circus areas for Disneyland.
In 1983 Disneyland debuted an entirely new Fantasyland; Tony’s team transformed the area into a spectacularly detailed European village with re-envisioned and enhanced attractions. That same year, the Journey into Imagination pavilion opened at EPCOT Center. Again led by Tony, the project resulted in one of the most timeless and beloved attractions in the Epcot roster as well as a pair of unforgettable characters—Figment and Dreamfinder.
More attractions followed. With Tony’s assistance, filmmaker George Lucas was brought into the Disney fold, resulting in innovative projects such as Star Tours (1987) and the groundbreaking Indiana Jones Adventure (1995). Childhood memories of Song of the South, which he saw in theatrical re-release, helped inspire Splash Mountain (1989)—the initial idea for which was Tony’s alone. He also worked on smaller projects, such as 1987’s opening of The Disney Gallery at Disneyland.
After serving as executive producer of Disneyland Paris (1992), Tony returned stateside and developed the concept for WESTCOT Center, a proposed futuristic theme park for Anaheim, a redesign of Tomorrowland at Disneyland (1998), and an ambitious slate of projects to enhance the park’s luster for its 50th anniversary and beyond. These included the restoration of the Disneyland submarines (a sentimental favorite of Tony’s) with Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage (2007), the re-opening of an enhanced Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough (2008), an upgraded restoration of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (2009), Star Tours — The Adventures Continue (2011), and Fantasy Faire (2013).
On February 1, 2013, Tony announced that he would be stepping down from his Imagineering role as senior vice president of creative development. He remains a creative advisor and mentor of a new generation of Imagineers and continues to work on new ideas and attractions combining time-tested design practices with modern technology. “I’d like to think that’s one of the things I learned working at Disneyland,” he once said. “The emotional side of the business. It’s been my edge as I transitioned into being professionally engaged to develop these things.”