The sad end of an era

In 2011 when Steve jobs died I felt sad.

I never met him, never had any contact of any sort with him and yet I was sad. He touched my life through his work at both Pixar and Apple. It was a strange experience to feel a read sadness for the loss of someone I did not know at all.

For a long time I have wondered what it would have been like to be around when Walt Disney died. Hard to believe since I am feeling so old these days but I am too young to have even shared the earth with Walt so much have been at an age to have any understanding of who he was when he died. I know Walt the way most of us do; through his work, his legacy and the archives of mostly black and white films and photos. And yet his work and his actions have had a huge impact on my life, the lives of my family and the lives of millions of people the world over. Seeing Walt die would have crushed me.

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Today we got news of something nearly as sad, that Tony Baxter is leaving Walt Disney Imagineering… and it is again very strange for me, especially since no one has died! Tony Baxter was the first real connection I had to Walt Disney Imagineering. He was the name and face that I could put on the process and the “magic” that Disney created in the parks. In essence he was (and is) my Walt Disney.

I was a kid when my family first visited Walt Disney World, back then it was simply the Magic Kingdom and a couple of hotels and it was a truly inspiring place to be. The times were different, the company was different the world was different. I think that I got lucky in some ways being the age that I am. I was the PERFECT age to see Star Wars on my 9th birthday with my friends and father. Likewise I was the perfect age to be introduced to Walt Disney World when it was new and almost naive in its innocence and optimism. I was an early teenager when EPCOT Center opened and I got swept away in its bright view of the future and its “anything is possible” point of view. These things impacted me in immeasurable ways, they in fact may be the single largest influences on my life outside of my immediate family. One thing they had in common was Tony Baxter.

My appetite for all things Disney park related was ravenous. I had an unquenchable thirst to learn how it was done and who did it. Somehow Tony Baxter was our ambassador. He put himself out there, spoke to the fans, gave interviews and was an endless source of inspiration. He was the then current link to the Imagineers who created the parks to begin with and everything he touched turned to Gold.

Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, the original version of Imagination at EPCOT, New Fantasyland at Disneyland, Star Tours, Indiana Jones, Disneyland Paris… the list of his achievements goes on and on and reads like a greatest hits list of Disney’s past. Tony became a hero figure to me. He was the guy who really made his dream come true… who started as a kid scooping ice cream on Main Street and rose to the greatest heights within WDI. For years I have worried about how Tony would leave, knowing he had to eventually. I hoped it would be with great fanfare and reverence as an old man, carried out on the shoulders of the younger generation he mentored. Instead as it turns out he has been forced out by a fearful group of current management who in all likelihood are tired of hearing an old timer talk about how it used to be, and should still be.

The news has made me sad, I mean really and honestly sad. Sad in a way that has taken me by surprise in its intensity. Tony leaving Disney is like Walt Disney leaving Disney; hard to imagine.

Tony is a true fan of Disney. He is not a guy in it for the paycheck. He is not a hired gun. He cares deeply for Disney and it shows in everything he ever did for them. Here is a guy who replanted olive trees that once stood in Disneyland at his own home just so that piece of Disney history would not be lost. Calling him the ultimate fan is a huge understatement.

Tony:

Thank you for all you have done to carry on the magic. Thank you for the inspiration you gave to millions of kids that you never saw in person but that you touched in real and meaningful ways. Thank you for the chance to pass these same feelings down to my daughter (whose favorite ride BTW is Big Thunder, who was very excited to be tall enough to ride Indy for the first time last month and whose first “big” ride was Splash Mountain). Thank you for passing along the ideals that built Disneyland to those who may not have understood them otherwise. Thank you for being open and available and simply for caring.

Caring about what you do may be the most rare of all traits and one thing is for sure… Tony cared… and still does.

WDI will never be the same.

Here is Tony’s letter to his fellow WDI employees… He is a class guy:

AN OPEN LETTER TO FELLOW IMAGINEERS

Decades ago, Imagineering had the bold notion to start the 21st century 18 years early by unveiling the “future” at Epcot in 1982. This positive look at tomorrow had a numbing effect on the bleak vistas depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. As a kid beginning my career at Disneyland in the mid 1960s, both of these “futures” were far off from a universe where Disneyland was the only Disney park, Mr. Lincoln was a state of the art attraction, and everything operated under Walt Disney’s guidance.

Today, while there is a new set of “futures” to explore, the time has come for me to evolve my role at Walt Disney Imagineering. Beginning this February, I will be transitioning to a position as a part time advisor. While I will not be here on a regular basis, I will continue to be available to any and all of you as needs arise. Though my time will be limited, my passion for the magic WDI creates will be just as strong.

Since early last year, I have been thinking about what I would say to all of you when this time arrived. It has been a wondrous 47 years spanning the opening of Walt Disney World to Big Thunder and Star Tours … from Epcot’s original Journey into Imagination to Disneyland Paris and Indiana Jones. The Imagineers I have known and shared these times with have provided invaluable experiences not to be found anywhere else on earth.

As one of the lucky second-generation Imagineers, I had the unique opportunity to experience firsthand the core philosophies of our company. I was fortunate enough to work with Claude Coats, Marc Davis, John Hench and the many others who built this industry alongside Walt Disney. I was able to soak up their wisdom and partner with them on creative projects. I have passed forward many of their key philosophies, and as our culture and scope have evolved, I have tried to balance my support of these foundations, with the business of charting “what’s next.” Now the 21st century brings a new reality … for the first time, the younger generation is master of the key technologies driving the future. While upcoming generations deal with tech tools that are evolving almost daily, many of Disney’s keystone philosophies remain stable and relevant. These philosophies help define our creative edge to a world that is eager for aspirational content. With no particular order, here are five that continue to inspire me, and I think you may find useful in shaping “creative futures” for the years to come.

Creating Lasting Experiences – Legendary Imagineer Marc Davis once said, “We don’t really have a story with a beginning, an end or a plot … It’s more a series of experiences … building up to a climax.” Guests still want to be astonished, and our best attractions deliver that wow factor with visions and emotions. I always start with the notion that it is the 20th repeat ride, not the first that is the most important. Park experiences are by nature less able to focus on linear stories and tangible feelings than motion pictures. Unlike a movie, what separates an OK attraction from a great one is that people find themselves “in” the great ones. They have been taken to a place they couldn’t have imagined without Disney. How intriguingly we craft the level of guest engagement has direct bearing on desire for an umpteenth ride down the same track.

In Fantasyland, a simple line of dialogue heralds the beginning of one of the most aspirational ride experiences ever created; “Come on everybody … here we go!” After riding Peter Pan, futurist Ray Bradbury was moved to write; “Walt, I’ll be eternally grateful that you made it possible for me to sail from a child’s window, out over moonlit London in a galleon on its way to the stars!” Despite the fact that by today’s standards Peter Pan’s technology is dated, its mystique has remained unwavering. The WDI challenge is finding ways to ensure today’s more sophisticated experiences have similar intangible qualities that provide groundwork for lasting appeal.

Sincerity – One of Walt Disney’s ways of overcoming what sophisticates tended to see as corny or sentimental was his absolute belief in sincerity. Defending Disney’s signature animation style in the movie Cinderella, Walt expressed what is to me a true hallmark of the Disney difference: “You have to believe in the honesty of Cinderella’s world, or you will not believe in the magic as it unfolds around her either.” The power of sincerity to win over an audience is “front and center” in the new Cars Land. Here, a truly believable environment fuses with the fantastic to give rise to new reality.

Valuable Mental Real Estate – Awhile back there was talk about the elusive “Disney Difference.” What the “difference” is may be open to various interpretations, but I see it centered on cultivating “Valuable Mental Real Estate.” Since the early days at the studio, Disney has excelled in focusing diverse talents on plussing core ideas. Enhanced value stems from something as simple as the emotional appeal of Epcot’s Figment character in comparison to hundreds of other generic dragons. When the whole team undertakes a mission to make “our dragon” stand out in every way, mental real estate values go up.

At Imagineering, where we must deal with equal parts of controlled insanity and disciplined evaluation, this can be complicated. Years ago, who else could have come up with the crazy idea for Flying Saucers and then make the concept work! (Sort of). Piloting flying saucers is every kid’s dream, and in spite of the ride’s technical shortcomings, people will forever recall the Flying Saucers as an E ticket. This rides aspirational, “bucket list”, once-in-a-lifetime intrigue, more than made up for any less than stellar performance.

Disney Hallmark Values – Current culture and the structure of our company are vastly different from the time when I began my career. Yet within that dynamic, hallmark values continue to add major appeal to today’s more socially sensitive content. Disney’s feature Beauty and the Beast shared many hallmarks with its ancestor Snow White, but it spoke to a vastly different audience with a finer tuned voice. Likewise, the more recent Tangled fuses traditional Disney values with relevancy aimed at a new generation.

Beyond the WDI walls, Pixar and Marvel achieve a consistency of success in their fast paced arenas. Each Pixar team is confident enough in their individual productions to freely reach out and tap into links that insure Pixar’s hallmark differentiators are a part of every project. Marvel has taken a different route, tasking individual creative teams to bridge their storylines under an overarching and epic saga. Regardless of the diversity of deliverables, hallmark values are key to all Disney entities, and everyone needs to be alert to where they reside, and how and why to fuse them to the DNA of a project.

Mentoring – At both ends of a career one of the most important working relationships is achieved through mentoring. When you are in your 20s and 30s it critical to find a mentor you can admire and trust. What proved most valuable for me was a mentoring partnership that skipped a full generation. A wide age gap creates a cross-generational opportunity for two-way learning. A young mentee sees a mentor’s still bright light as support for his or her own growing visibility, and the gap vanquishes the sense of competition. In a complementary way, a mentor’s satisfaction is fueled by the growing knowledge and skills transferred to their younger partner. My mentor was Imagineering legend Claude Coats, nearly four decades my senior. For Pixar director Pete Docter, his mentors were animation giants Joe Grant and Ollie Johnson. Pete and I absorbed as much knowledge as we possibly could during a period of growth in our careers. I would like to think our esteemed mentors also drew inspiration from our curiosity and unexplored visions!

A mentorship is not a few hours of counseling every so often; it is pulling together on real projects, with business/creative goals and knowledge gains to be made by both sides. This is the partnership I had with Claude Coats, and we remained lifetime friends because of our shared working time together.

Going Forward – No company is perfect, and like any other corporation Disney has its own politics and challenges. We are artists, engineers, managers, filmmakers and musicians. But our company is unique; there is no place like it on earth. We are lucky. At the end of the day, it is my hope that this letter will add to the special culture that I have been privileged to grow in. I see the probability for that happening in my interactions with younger Imagineers like Michel, Josh, Zach, Dylan, Laura, Manuel, Vanessa and Brandon, which are beyond rewarding to me. At a time when “unlearning” is as critical as “learning,” it’s important to listen to the way these people think and enjoy the things they do. Creativity I have mined from their game-changing perspectives, now effectively influences my own design process. I hope that when their careers peak some decades from now, they will look back on our time together as I value the time I was able to spend with Claude Coats.

And now it comes down to the point at hand. I am not suggesting that I could be a mentor to you all, but that said, you should all have someone you can turn to in this manner. I do hope to be available to help support your ideas, give advice or even join a team whenever appropriate. My role will be one of supporting your visions in the best way I can, and encouraging you to maintain and build upon this already special place. I will have availability, and if you would like my assistance in any way, please e-mail Bruce Vaughn’s office to request my time.

This is not a goodbye, but hopefully a letter of introduction to the many of you that I have not yet had the chance to meet personally …

Tony Baxter

Feb. 1, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “The sad end of an era

  1. “We don’t really have a story with a beginning, an end or a plot … It’s more a series of experiences … building up to a climax.”

    It’s interesting to read this quote from Marc Davis at a time when every last thing in the parks right down to the urinals seems to have an elaborate back-story. WDI has certainly changed.

  2. People, and sadly current management, often get a linear plot driven story confused with what Disney really does best. Mansion does not tell a true story, neither does Pirates, or Thunder or virtually any of the best Disney attractions. They have tried to cram them in there coming up with things about Sea Captains and Brides and evil mining tycoons and whatnot but no one gets that or cares about that. It is about transporting guests for a few moments to a time and place that they coudl never be, and then allowing them to imagine the rest.

    Baxter understands this, he learned it from the best… I hope he managed to pass it down to a few who can continue the fight.

  3. Well after 47 years no one could blame him for taking time for himself.. and how generous to offer to continue to mentor and advise. Hopefully Disney will take him up on his offer.

  4. Wow! Just Wow… A real classy guy taking a bow. Regardless of the reason, Tony has done it like no one else can. Well done sir!

    Thanks SO VERY MUCH for sharing this thoughtful and useful letter.

  5. Sincerity is a real challenge these days. Cynicism is even more standard than it was in Walt’s day. I really hope there’s someone left at WDI who’s committed to carrying that torch.

    • Sorry… I didn’t mean to scare you! Tony is alive and well but a piece of Disney really did die the day he left.

      I wish his departure coudl have been a celebration of all he has done over the decades (say 10 plus years from now). Instead it is just sad as there is so much more Tony could do.

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