Friday, February 1, 2013

Thanks, Tony

Listen, I know I'm the guy out there that is often snarky and sarcastic. Probably to a fault most of the time. But that's not what I want to do today. In fact, I really don't have it in me. Not after the news of last night and today. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. Tony Baxter, Senior Vice President of Creative at Walt Disney Imagineering and legend in the truest sense of the word, has retired from Imagineering. I know some of you will say he's still a consultant, but let's be honest with ourselves, that means he's retired.

I would be kidding myself if I told myself Tony would have been around for longer anyway. And largely, his talents have been wasted at WDI since the mid 90s. For the past decade it seemed like he couldn't get anywhere near a legitimate blockbuster attraction.

But Tony leaving is still probably the saddest thing that's happened in the Disney world for me as long as I've been alive, or aware, of what was going on. I'm not going to go into what this means for Disney or WDI. This isn't a day for that. Today's a day for celebrating this man's accomplishments.

When I think of Mr. Baxter and his projects, I think of my family. More than any other WED/WDI member, aside from maybe Marc Davis, Tony's projects have given my my family and I our most lasting memories. Whether it was laughing together on Big Thunder Mountain or screaming on Splash Mountain, his rides have always planted smiles on our faces.

Mostly, however, his rides make me think of my dad. Most of you probably don't know this, because I don't like talking about it, but my dad passed away a little over four years ago. The man was my best friend bar none, and losing him was incredibly, incredibly hard.

But after a while, you forget the hard part and remember the good times. And thanks to Mr. Baxter, I have some of the best "good time memories" of my old man than I could have ever hoped for. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was my first "big kid" roller coaster, and I was seated firmly next to him, as I would be each trip after that, even until our last trip together a few months before he passed. I remember our first plunge down Chickapin Hill, and then a few years later having my sister seated safely between us as she took her first splash down. Eventually my sister and I got to big for all three of us to share a seat, but we all continued to ride multiple times every trip, and even managed to sneak my scaredy cat mom on for a few rides.

Most of all, though, I remember Journey Into Imagination. I was first introduced to Figment and Dreamfinder during my first trip when I was almost three years old. Little did my mom and grandmother know then that one ride would become an obsession. For the next 8 years I would want anything and everything Figment that I could get my hands on, and every trip meant going to see my buddy Figment...eight or ten times. My mom would usually peter out around ride three or four, but Dad would stick with me until I had filled my Imagination fixation. He would laugh, sing, and even help me hide during the "scary part" in my early years. The ride and those experiences made me want to become an Imagineer, a dream that wouldn't come true, but would lead me to work at the Magic Kingdom as a Jungle Cruise skipper for a few years. And for all those terrific rides and experiences, I will be eternally grateful.

Since Dad moved on, I've been lucky enough to see more of Baxter's work, including his redo of Disneyland's Fantasyland and his beautiful park sitting in Marne-la-Vallée. But even being in Disneyland Parc Paris, I was still brought back to those days when I was a kid in Magic Kingdom. Even whipping under the Rivers of the Far West in Paris's Big Thunder Mountain made me think of that first plunge into the dark and sitting next to Dad on my first Big Thunder ride all those years ago. That's just something money can't buy.

Now, Mr. Baxter, I'd like to speak directly to you. I know you'll probably never get to read this, and I doubt I'll ever meet you in person to tell you it, but I want to thank you for all you've done for Walt Disney's theme parks these past 47 years. Many people to this day ask me why I continue to go to Walt Disney World and Disneyland as the trips become more expensive or as I grow older, and I just smile because they can't understand. I continue to go back because of the memories I made with my family. Memories that you helped me make with your works. And I know thousands upon thousands of people feel the same way as I do.

So thanks, Tony. Thanks from my family, me, and all those theme park fans who feel the same. Enjoy your time off. You've earned it.

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