Tony Baxter's CSULB art portfolio got him in the door at Disney. Now, he is the vice president of creative development and is in charge of keeping the happiest place on Earth happy.
Published: Monday, November 5, 2007
Updated: Saturday, April 9, 2011 18:04
Imagineering is the CIA of Disney. It's no wonder why they are so secretive about this department, it is literally the "think tank" of every Disney theme park. It is here that "Imagineers" (engineers with imagination) come up with the ideas for shows, rides and attractions for all the Disney parks in the world.Working in this office is the ultimate honor for Disney cast members, and as far as hierarchy goes, Cal State Long Beach alumnus Tony Baxter is near the top. He is the vice president of creative development for Disney Imagineering. He is a top idea guy. When Disney needs an idea for something, they go to him. It's a huge job and responsibility for Baxter, and, like most things at Disney, it started off with a dream.
"I went to Disneyland for the first time sometime during the first year it opened," Baxter said. "It wasn't at the start of the summer because my parents were very adverse to crowds. Walt had done an amazing job on the television of ramping up for it, so I was more than ready to go. It was probably sometime during the fall that I got there, and it changed my life."
Baxter became Disney-obsessed, and it stuck with him through the years. When it came time for him to go to college, he went to Cal Poly Pomona to study landscape architecture. While there, he took a random art class for an elective. For a project, he sketched a dark ride (a slow-moving ride through the dark like you would see in Fantasyland) based on the film "Mary Poppins." His art professor saw his work, and told Baxter he didn't belong there. He should be in art school.
So Baxter transferred to Cal State Long Beach and started studying art and theater design. He studied under Dr. Maxine Merlino, who let him negotiate his assignments to be related to Disney. Baxter was studying in the "Woodstock era" of the late '60s, so the art department was a pretty hip place to be.
"I liked the ambience of [CSULB], especially the art department," Baxter said. "It was very loose at that time. I liked that part of the era. I liked the fact that you could sleep overnight in the printmaking department and it wasn't like security would be around or anything. It had a 'do your own thing' attitude, but I also craved the discipline and I got it."
It was while studying art here that Baxter got his first job at Disneyland. He was hired in foods, and supported himself by scooping ice cream in Carnation Plaza Gardens on Main Street. It was at this location that he had his first encounter with Walt Disney.
"There was a day at the ice cream stand where I worked at when he was supposed to come visit us," Baxter said. "So we were all working diligently and nobody took any breaks because they didn't want to go away. I wanted to tell him, 'We really need to hire more people because we don't have enough people here to staff all these windows and we're not giving breaks to do it,' so I would look really good. I had it all mapped out. Then he came around. I had imagined him saying, 'Well, how are things going here today?' and he said something that was so close to that that it was almost like a déj vu. I just went 'Fine. Everything's fine,' because I was just so in awe of him being there in person."
Dr. Merlino let Baxter design a Disney attraction instead of an opera for his senior project. A determined Baxter bought a share of stock so he could receive and dissect Disney's annual report. He saw Disney was going to release a movie called "Island at the Top of the World," and designed a ride based on that.
That project was the center of his portfolio when he interviewed at Imagineering. It was a combination of that project and a machine he made out of walnut wood with pinwheels and towers that had ball bearings roll down it that landed him the job.
Baxter has been at Imagineering ever since, and is responsible for attractions like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye and the brand new Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. He acknowledges that he uses his theater design degree everyday.
"Everything we do is really theater. It's a theater you get to walk through and experience," Baxter said. "I often tell people that we do theater in a landscaped environment using architecture as the tool. I had one year of architecture, a year and a half of landscaping and about two and a half years of theater design. It's like a triathlon. I'm an Ironman.