Tony Baxter Talks Walt Disney Treasures: Disneyland: Secrets, Stories & Magic

The Senior Vice President, Creative at Walt Disney Imagineering talks about this immense new set.

Tony Baxter has lived and breathed the creations of Walt Disney for over 40 years. During his incredibly successful career at Walt Disney Imagineering, he even breathed life into some of Disneyland's most successful creations like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Star Tours, Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones Adventure, and most recently on the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.

Walt Disney Treasures: Disneyland - Secrets, Stories and Magic will be released on December 11, an thorough look at the creation and history of the landmark theme park, and I had the opportunity to speak with the Disney executive over the phone.

This has to be the most extensive look at Disneyland to date.

Tony Baxter: (Laughs) That is an understatement. If you're into Disneyland, this is a 100% must-have.

What do you think people will be most surprised with this DVD set?

Tony Baxter: Well, it's interesting. There are so many elements to it. There are some really great shots that have been found recently by Ed Hobleman. He brought them to my attention about a year ago and said, "Look at all this footage," and we just could not believe the treasure trove of footage that no one has ever seen. I guess Walt, from before Disneyland opened in 1954 all the way up to 1976, just told people to go down there and shoot footage, in the same way he did the Nature Series back in the 50s. He sent people out to just shoot animals, and then it was composed later. I think he did the same thing with Disneyland and then that continued on after he passed away in '66, another 10 years where they just shot random footage with the thought that they might assimilate it into these progress shows, television featurettes. I think it just kept going and going and going and I think no one really looked at it until Ed went through this archive of hundreds and hundreds of reels of film. Out of that, a lot of the stuff that's in the background, and there are all these great legends of Disneyland like back to Mel Albright, Buzz Price, the foundations of the park, and some of us newer people at the end of it. As background, you see a lot of shots of this amazing footage and it was so good that we were able to, as an extra, put about 40 minutes of it on there. Even for someone like myself working here, there were so many things that were revealed in that, that you didn't know, that I think people are just going to be amazed about. So that was a huge part of it, a big incentive to get this thing under way, it's just having suddenly that treasure trove of material. There's been about 5 or 6 television shows that we've seen over and over again, and have the same footage of the construction and so forth. I've seen it endless times, to the point where I know every nail that was hammered into the buildings on Main Street.

Laughs

Tony Baxter: But this other stuff is just amazing. You know, Walt riding his bicycle through the completely unfinished park about two weeks before it opened. You can really see exactly what's going on, and kind of the innocence. I think that's what I keep picturing again and again, is the innocence of Disneyland when it was first created. Probably the best time capsule for that aspect ot it is the beautifully shot Disneyland U.S.A. featurette that is on this disc, which was done a year after Disneyland opened. It really captures, not just Disneyland, but America in the mid-50s. A very innocent, post-war America with all their dreams and ideals. It's a film that's been kicking around in a very bad, decomposing version, and I've been using that bad version just to show the new employees, trying to help them understand, you know, "Where was our heritage? What was the founding building blocks of Disneyland?" The end of it is very emotional, the flag-raising and the reading of the plaque. It's being presented to a much more innocent America, and yet, some of the values in it are still very very relevant. I always find that it's a very good foundation block for new employees, and then we talk about what is still really important about Disneyland that we have to keep preserved and really cherish. And what are things - that are obviously fun to laugh at, as the film unfolds - that need to be continually made relevant to a more sophisticated audience for Disneyland in the 21st Century. I think all-in-all, it's just going to be like opening a cornucopia.

I was intrigued by Operation: Disneyland, the short that was never intended for public broadcast.

Tony Baxter: I know it's on there, but I haven't actually seen that one. It sounds really interesting. When I get my copy that will be the first thing I look at.

So was that part of the things that you were unearthing?

Tony Baxter: A lot was based on what they had previously issued on the first Disneyland Treasures box. I think it was actually called Disneyland U.S.A. and ironically it doesn't have the Disneyland U.S.A. featurette that's on this second boxed set. I think this is complementary to that because on that first one they have the entire opening day live broadcast, and so this Operation: Disneyland kind of complements that as an extra if you have that first set. But I haven't seen that one as of yet.

Disneyland was the first theme park in American history. What do you think that Walt Disney himself would think of Disneyland today, or the influx of other theme parks across the country?

Tony Baxter: Yeah, well it was a thing that kind of grew in Walt's mind in between the late 40s and mid 50s. He was really enthralled with antique railroading. He built a little train set in his backyard, called the LillyBelle, that could hold about four people. Ward Kimble and Wally Johnson, two of the animators, were also into trains. They went to the Rail Fair in Chicago I think in 1948. The Rail Fair had a layout with a full-sized train. They had an Indian settlement and went to a little town. It had the rumblings of some of the elements of Disneyland. There was a place called Green Felt Village that Henry Ford and Edison had built and, again, they had a train that took you down to a Mississippi River sort of area, and had all these other great sites. I think Walt came back with that and was convinced that his little backyard railroad wasn't gonna cut it.

Laughs

Tony Baxter: He had to find a way to make something really big. He combined that fascination he had with trains with his skill sets that were at the studio to build all sorts of set designs, and places on the backlot at the studio. The scenic work they could do with forced perspectives and backdrops. I think he had those two things combined, having the talent and having the incredible passion to create a place where you could actually ride things, rather than sitting in a theater chair and viewing a performance, was the genesis of Disneyland. That being said, whether it was luck or if it was just an incredibly talented group of Imagineers at that time that came up with the layout, which to this day is so perfect, going down Main Street to the Hub. It just makes Disneyland so clear in your mind as a concept. Of course, he was a great marketeer. He had a television show, and much of what has come into being into this disc, probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for keeping all that footage to use on that televison show. I think today, Walt, with the history of his film career as well as the park, was always evolving things, never really satisfied. Moving from mono sound to black and white to color to stereo to the Cinemascope. And then kind of moving on, interest-wise, to the theme park and then finally, his dream was to build Epcot in Florida. I think, that he would probably be all over us that we didn't change more. Part of the dillema, I think, in working at Disneyland, for all of them in Imagineering, is the balance between keeping that innocence and foundation of what Walt established, and, at the same time, keeping it relevant to a more sophisticated audience that's enjoying it 50 years later. I think he might be on us and say, "OK, why haven't you changed that by now?" (Laughs) It's hard to predict what a man who hasn't been around for 40 years would think, but I do think of him as a progressive person in every aspect of his life. I think he would expect Disneyland to evolve. There are countless sayings where he said, "Even the trains will beome more beautiful with the years."

What do you see coming for Disneyland and for the whole theme park industry in the future?

Tony Baxter: Wow. Well, it's a little bit extracting on what I just said, is finding ways to make it relevant. When I was growning up we had the Mickey Mouse Club and Swiss Family Robinson and Third Man on the Mountain, which was the genesis of The Matterhorn, and of course the classic Disney animated cartoons were the foundation for the initial Disneyland. When you see things like Finding Nemo (Submarine Voyage), that's a great attraction for us. It hits home with the older generation that's thrilled to get the submarine ride back open at Disneyland, and for a younger generation that grew up on Pixar's Finding Nemo motion picture, it's a great chance to meet all these characters in a real environment. I think the future is, one, finding new technologies that keeps Disneyland amazing. That's hard in a CG world where you can go to the theater and see amazing three-dimensional things, we've got to constantly challenge ourselves to get out in front of technology. And then find a way of making that relevant emotionally. Two very important ends of the scale, the people that love the conditions, and the heart and warmth of Disneyland, and the new generation that want to find what's relevant to their age group in Disneyland, and feeling a part of the tapestry of years that appeals to everyone from grandparents to 10-year olds. So that's our challenge and that's our task. It's two-fold: be technically brilliant, and emotionally relevant and, believe me, it is no small task.

Walt Disney Treasures: Disneyland - Secrets, Stories and Magic will be on the DVD shelves on December 11.