A Guided Tour with Tony Baxter - A Dream Come True

April 8, 2017

On March 31, 2017 at 2.00 pm i had the amazing opportunity to meet Tony Baxter and be part of a one hour tour with him and a few other fans through the park. Being very interested in the design of the Disney parks and Imagineering for so many years this was a dream come true. And as the only European female on the tour, i felt honoured to be representing so many women.

In this article i'll try to share as much as possible of what Tony Baxter told us during this tour. And together with that i'll share a little bit of my own knowledge too.
I hope that will make it a fun and interesting article to read.

Tony Baxter began his career when he was 17 as a host, servering icecream at Disneyland. He started as an Imagineer in 1970. Some of his well-known attractions are Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Star Tours, Journey Into Imagination, Splash Mountain, The Indiana Jones Adventure. He worked as an executive producer of Disneyland Paris. In 2013 he stepped down as senior vice president of creative development. Now he serves as a mentor and creative advisor to the younger generation of Imagineers.

Construction Photo of Town Square at Disneyland Paris by Eddie Sotto (Disneyandmore) - Summer 1991

Town Square

The tour starts near the Gazebo at Town Square. There we meet Tony Baxter.
I feel quite nervous just before the tour but as soon as he arrives, shakes my hand and starts talking full of passion about Disneyland Paris, my nerves are gone very soon.
The band is playing at the Gazebo, music is playing on Main Street U.S.A., vehicles drive by and people who are curious about this small group of people stop to see what this is all about. I notice it all for only a short moment until i only hear and see Tony Baxter.

* * *

When you enter Main Street U.S.A. you leave the real world, you come back to peace and quiet and enter a world of fantasy. It sets you up for something you don't see in your normal everyday life.
Because Disneyland Paris is near Paris (with the Louvre and the Tuileries in front, Versailles with the gardens) they needed something that was wonderful before you enter the park. They decided to create a building emulating a real hotel. Because of the money they decided to build a real hotel that participates in the park, which had never happened before. Tony Baxter is very proud of this hotel that was designed by Imagineer Eddie Sotto. Tony Baxter helped to make sure that it would happen.

Construction Photo of Disneyland Paris (disneylandparis-news)

Walt Disney wanted a Gazebo right in the middle of Town Square but the flagpole for the American flag was placed at that spot, so he had to take out that plan.
When the Imagineers arrived in France they decided to bring back Walt Disney's idea and build the Gazebo here. According to Tony Baxter it is the only park that has what Walt Disney had originally thought up for the centre of Town Square.
Because of the weather in France there was the idea of covering Main Street U.S.A. But they also knew that visitors in France like to be outside, on the streets, dining in cafés. So by covering it up Main Street U.S.A. would lose its vitality. There could not be any parades, horses and automobiles with gas either because this wouldn't work indoors. So they came up with the plan to design the Liberty Arcade and Discovery Arcade instead on both sides of Main Street U.S.A. Which also cost less than covering Main Street U.S.A.

 Concept Art of Liberty Arcade (left) - Photo from Liberty Arcade (right) (From Sketch To Reality)

I am very glad they came up with this plan. These Arcades with their beautiful design and details share so much information and history. These are very nice places to be.

Tony Baxter explains why Town Square Photography was turned into Flora's Boutique.

Concept Art of Town Square Photography by Eddie Sotto

He misses it too but they had a shop that didn't work anymore, there was nothing that could be sold there. Not many people use film anymore and even SD cards have so much capacity these days that there was no reason to have that store. He also mentions that Disneyland is not a museum, it has to be relevant to new children too. They are aware that it still has to be comfortable for the generations who grew up with it. But the younger kids have to find their childhood in the park too.

Main Street U.S.A.

From Town Square we walk slowly to Main Street U.S.A.
Who can say they "walked right down the middle of Main Street U.S.A." with Tony Baxter! That moment felt quite special to me.

As you walk on Main Street U.S.A. you might notice that the windows on the second or third floor of the buildings contain names of people who were involved in building the parks.
Tony Baxter tells us that having a window on Main Street U.S.A in Disneyland is his favourite reward instead of the Disney Legend Award. He likes those other things too, but the thought of being part of the people who guided his career up there, Marc Davis, Claude Coats and other people, was amazing.

Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were the closest he ever came to working with a Walt Disney.

Michael Eisner being the Walt and Frank Wells being the Roy, they guided the company into some of the greatest things. In film from the Little Mermaid through The Lion King and Animal Kingdom and Disneyland Paris were built in that period.
Tony Baxter mentions what an unfortunate day it was in his career when he got a phonecall that Frank Wells had been killed in an accident. And that it changed the company.

We walk towards Walt's Restaurant. Each room is based on the art that was used to create the different lands of Disneyland. That means you can dine in the Adventureland room, the Frontierland room, the Fantasyland room, the Discoveryland room. But also in the Disneyland Hotel room and Grand Canyon room.
You're surrounded by the art that guided the designers and got management excited about what the imagineers were going to do.

Then he shows us the Main Street Gazette window which has his name on it.
And he mentions how nice it was to be partnered with Marty Sklar, the lead of Imagineering, on this window.

This building, the Main Street Gazette, is one of the examples that shows that these buildings were designed to give you the sense that people live in Disneyland.
Castmembers created their own Main Street Gazette, because they liked the idea and publish their own paper about what goes on and what different employees are doing.

Central Plaza

We arrive at Central Plaza and stop next to the popcorn cart near the Frontierland entrance.
Tony Baxter tells us that he can't think of a better way to orient the guests as to where they are. The guests come in here neutral and have all these different choices of lands with very different adventures. The names 'Adventureland', 'Frontierland', 'Fantasyland' are very clear of what to expect in there as a guest. The names were also very clear for the designers what they needed to design. The land is a reflection of what the word says. When people hear 'Fantasyland' they know it is all about fairytales.

Concept Art by Frank Armitage

Bringing back Walt's stories to Europe where they began wasn't really a challenge, it was fun. The castle is a lot more fairytale-like than the castles in California and Florida. California's castle is based on Neuschwanstein, King Ludwig's Castle in Bavaria. And the castle in Florida is based on several pieces of great French castles.
There was no way that they could take the pieces of the French castle, put them together and place them in Marne-la-Vallée. So they went back to the artwork and got their inspiration from Disney because of Sleeping Beauty and La Belle au Bois Dormant that this castle is based on. Also books and tapestries in France inspired them all.
The tree columns that can be seen at La Galerie de la Belle au Bois Dormant were inspired by a twisted pillar at the Saint-Severin Church in Paris.

 Photo left: construction tree columns (Tom Morris) - Photo right: twister pillar at Saint-Severin Church (Arnaud Frich)

In the dungeon of the castle there is a fire-breathing dragon. It is a 27 metres long Audio-Animatronic and was the largest Animatronic figure ever built when the park opened in April 1992. This dragon is definately one of my favourites and it was lovely to see and hear how proud Tony Baxter is of this dragon.
He saw the movie Sleeping Beauty when he was twelve and fell in love with it. In college, when he was 19 years old, he did a concept for an attraction with a fire-breathing dragon at the end of it. He showed the picture several times in presentations and to groups and it looks very close to what they did in the castle.


All the stories in Fantasyland belong in Europe. To honor these countries they took bits of architecture reflecting Italy, Germany, England, France, The Netherlands and Belgium.


Concept Art of Discoveryland by Tim Delaney

Discoveryland was a challenge. They wanted to develop an area, a land that was celebrating the French and European culture. Many people in the world have been influenced and inspired by the dreams that were written about by great minds like Jules Vernes, H.G. Wells and Leonardo da Vinci. George Lucas fits in too because if you were living 150 years ago, Jules Vernes would be your George Lucas, Tony Baxter tells us.
All of our lives have been changed by people like this. So the idea was to keep evolving Discoveryland to include and celebrate all the great dreamers that caused all of us in the current generation to dream things and create a better world.
When you create something that is about dreams, it's immune for getting old and it becomes something that always looks good when we're here.
Tony Baxter mentions how spectular it is seeing Space Mountain lit up at night, he is always blown away by it.


The Imagineers had a lot of fun with creating Adventureland. It is all based on Arabian Nights, the stories of Aladdin. At the time they were building this land, they were in production on the film Aladdin. Which was coincidental.
There are a lot of fairytales about the Middle East, so the front entrance of the land is designed a lot around creating a place where a giant Roc bird's egg (mythological bird, which appears in the 1001 nights tales) could nest on the roof and where you can walk through a hallway and meet Genie and Aladdin.

The Imagineers chose not to build Tom Sawyer Island and created Adventure Isle instead. People were more excited about going to a pirate island and finding buried treasures. And they added Ben Gunn's Cave, Skull Rock and the Pirate Ship.
Because they were all building this on opening day instead of adding little by little like in Disneyland and Walt Disney World they decided to move Peter Pan's Flight in Fantasyland very close to all the pirate activities in Adventureland. So they got the advantage of Captain Hook and Never Never Land being very close to all the pirate activities.

Model of Pirates of the Caribbean

My expectations for the new refurbished Pirates of the Caribbean have raised after what Tony Baxter told us. He said that in the new version we will see a lot of new things that will bring both the movie and the ride closer together.
Later on in the tour during a Q&A session he mentions how he remembers the attraction from when he was there for the 20th anniversary. He went into the attraction this week and there was nothing there. The figures are gone, the sets are all repainted, the trees are being replaced etc. He thought they were just going to clean the place a bit, but they are literally rebuilding the ride and adding new things. So now he understands why it's taking so much time, they are doing so much work. He says it is going to be beautiful.

It wasn't the same feeling for him as going on the Pirates ride for the first time in Disneyland he mentions during the Q&A session. He got to ride it the day that Walt Disney died. The ride wasn't ready, he had never seen a Pirates ride, there were no figures in it, no songs being played. They were just moving the boats through. Tony Baxter was in the park because he didn't know what to do with his life. His hero had just died that day. He asked an employee if he could ride it and he could. So he was on the ride for the first time in his life, nobody had ever seen a Pirates ride before and he just kept thinking "Walt Disney just died today." That was such a shock for him.
Telling us this during this tour was for me a special and emotional moment.


The idea of a kind of mythic American West is very exciting for people that live so far away from it. Getting a real taste of it in Frontierland was something that ran at the top of the charts, in terms of the interest level to see this.

In California and Florida they added Big Thunder Mountain when the land was already built. So there they had to decide where to place it between the other attractions. At Disneyland Paris they were building everything on opening day, so they had the opportunity to decide beforehand where to put it. Because it was the best ride in this land according to the Imagineers, they wanted to place it in the middle. By putting it on an island they could dive all the way down the river, getting from a very high point all the way down, which makes it probably the fastest Disney coaster anywhere around the world.
It's the centerpiece of the land and what is great about the location is that it is not just fun to ride, but it is also really fun to look at.

We have to pick one land where we will go to and there he will talk a little bit more in detail. Most of us want to go to Frontierland so that is where we go.

Tony Baxter tells us that this opening scene, the Indian Village, was built before the movie Pocahontas came out. What you see is kind of the moment in time, where the Native Americans had the nature. He loves the song 'Colors of the Wind' from the movie Pocahontas and mentions how this song describes this. You see John Smith's desire to exploit the land and develop it, versus Pocahontas' desire to love and appreciate the wonders of the land.

They were aware that Europeans might not have all the knowledge about the type of people that live in a space like this. People who are interested can go to the Legends of the Wild West, with great detail. Every land has details upon detals, that probably are richer than they were able to do before.
In this fort you can see a lot of characters that are part of the Western story. It can strengthen people's feelings for what it might have been to live in such an environment.
They decided to build just one, but bigger, fort than they did in Disneyland and Florida and have an attraction within it. Which gives you some storytelling ánd a great view of Big Thunder Mountain.
A tip from Tony Baxter is to go there at nine in the morning and take a photo. It is really spectacular when the sun hits the mountain.

We walk to the Rivers of the Far West with a view on Big Thunder Mountain. Tony Baxter mentions that it isn't based on one real river in particular.

Big Thunder Mountain had a major reconstruction to bring it back and improve it from when they opened. He also mentions that it is better than when it opened, technologies are refined. All trees were replaced, so they're in scale with a mountain like that.
Full size trees would make you realise that the mountain is only a little over a 100 feet tall when they want you to think it is 1000 feet tall for example.
This technique is called 'Forced Perspective'. With Forced Perspective they can make buildings and objects look taller than they actually are.

Something that Walt Disney had taught the Imagineers was that he wanted lots of movement so the lands would be alive. To do this they place the most kinetic piece in the centre. Here in Frontierland that's the splashdown effect on Big Thunder Mountain for people to see from the Molly Brown and Phantom Manor.

Much of the American West in the other Frontierlands looks a lot like Europe. So they left out the parts that reflect green forests and things like that and they decided to make it look like an authentic American Western Desert. That was a very difficult task in a country where it can rain every day and the ground becomes green because of the weather. The plants and cactus that add to the atmosphere of the place are being kept in a greenhouse all winter long, to keep them from being frostbitten by the cold in the winter.

An early model of Phantom Manor (disneyandmore)

Phantom Manor is just about in the same place at Disneyland. Only there it is New Orleans Square, which is part of the West when America was moving. Because it is not what comes in mind when you think of cowboys and native Americans, they decided not to do New Orleans Square and took it out here in Frontierland.
The look of Phantom Manor is different than the colonial and elegant style of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. They wanted people to recognise it immediately as a scary building, because of the many different languages being spoken in the park.
They also changed the name to Phantom Manor, which is very close in all languages, instead of changing it into something that is less easy to understand in some of the languages.
Being visual was a very important part of this park, that is what makes the lands very distinctive from eachother. The Imagineers wanted to tell a story, so decided to make it very clear. And because of that it is more powerful.

Concept Art of Frontierland by Dan Goozee

I loved those moments when Tony Baxter shared some more personal things/memories, what he likes and loves. One of those moments was when he told us how he loves watching the people's faces when they come by at the end of the ride, after having gone through the fastest part of the experience. There is a great place where you can stand along the fence and get some good views of the people.
Disneyland Paris has the only Big Thunder Mountain where Tom Sawyer Island is in all the other parks. All the activities of Tom Sawyer Island are on Adventure Isle, with a new theme.

Then it seems that Tony Baxter wants to walk to Phantom Manor. It's one of my most favourite attractions so i would love to have heard more about this attraction. But because of the time we move the other way instead.
Luckily he talks a bit more about the attraction while we walk to the entrance of Big Thunder Mountain.
He mentions that Phantom Manor is a different show from anything they've done before. Some of the things are a little more scary than in California. And Phantom Manor doesn't have the narration which they rely on in California.
And then he mentions the recording by the famous actor Vincent Price!! And how he would like to bring it back someday to Phantom Manor. My heart jumped!

Vincent Price with Imagineers at the recording studio (From Sketch To Reality)

Because Vincent Price speaks with an American accent in French, a lot of people felt that they shouldn't use this recording. Later Tony Baxter thought about why he let himself talk out of it. Because if it was an American gold baron he would have an American accent. People love seeing films with French, because the language is romantic. He thinks having an American accent would have a similar feeling for the French. He was told he was wrong, but he thinks it would be really good.
He mentions that the ride was technically ahead of its time and now that technologies are coming in to being, they are going to allow the Imagineers to fulfil some of the dreams they had for it.
All of this sounds very exciting! During a shareholders Presentation in September 2016, which i attended, they announced that Phantom Manor will be completely refurbished inside and outside after the 25th anniversary. I'm very curious what the result will be after what Tony Baxter told us.

Construction Photo of Phantom Manor and Big Thunder Mountain

Earlier during the tour, Tony Baxter said that Disneyland is not a museum. But in Frontierland you are surrounded with authentic mining equipment that was collected from all over the South West (from Colorado to New Mexico), that you could say it ís a museum.
Imagineer Pat Burke was the one who did all this on his own. With a fixed budget and not mentioning it was for Disney, he managed to get a lot more things for the amount of money than the other Imagineers expected. Everything in this area was actually used about 150 years ago. Pat Burke was able to expend the budget in the best way possible and you can say that it is the best museum of Western artifacts anywhere in the world. Because Pat Burke knew how these were used, he put all the scenes together. Everything is exactly how the miners would have had it in operation when it was working. The artifacts are integrated with the attraction to continue the theme of having a real chance to go on a wild mining ride through the West.

Blacksmith - real artifacts collected by Pat Burke (Ravenswood Manor)

The tour ends with a Q&A session and one of the questions is what Tony Baxter would do differently if he has to rebuild the park today, regarding the design.
Tony Baxter mentions that so many things are different now than 25 years ago (PC's weren't a big part of our lives for example) that they probably would do things just differently now, time has moved on. To make Fantasyland more attractive for the kids today would mean they should pick movies like 'Beauty and the Beast', 'The Lion King', 'Tangled', 'Frozen', instead of movies like 'Snow White' and 'Pinocchio'.
Another personal note from Tony Baxter is how much he loves the movie 'Tangled' and how great it would be to have a Tangled ride. I would be all up for that too. I love the idea!
Time is a factor in building the parks, it is not that Tony Baxter would do it differently he says. He thinks this is the most beautiful park and even if you don't go on rides you can have a wonderful time looking at it. Which i totally agree with.
He mentions that the rides are the part that need to change as time goes on. Which means that they will disappoint fans in every Disney park. He was disappointed too when they took out 'Adventure through Inner Space' which he grew up with in California. He can still do the entire spiel of this attraction. But he understood how more people would be interested in Star Tours.
So one of the challenges for the Imagineers is that they have to look at the parks and the attractions and decide if it is still relevant for the parks.
It made me laugh when he mentioned his dragon again and how nobody is ever going to take out his dragon. I also hope they'll never do that.

La Tanière du Dragon (Kris van de Sande)

Another question is about which parts of the parks are his favourites, where he wants to come back to again and again. He tells us that his most favourite things are Big Thunder Mountain, the castle because it was such a challenge (ánd he got his dragon). Discovery Mountain and the Nautilus because one is aggressive and scary and the other one absorbs you into the fantasy of Jules Verne and Imagineer Harper Goff, who designed the boat.
And he also loves the Disneyland hotel, because it was a challenge. He also loves the fact that the hotel has become a product for Disney. They wouldn't have built the MiraCosta and the Disneyland Hotel in Tokyo and the Grand Californian in California if this Disneyland Hotel in Disneyland Paris hadn't proved to be something that was a wise decision.

After the tour there are a few minutes left and so we get the opportunity to take a photo together with Tony Baxter. We walk back to Videopolis and that is where this amazing tour ends. I could have listened to Tony Baxter's stories all day!


Many thanks to Tony Baxter and Disneyland Paris for this amazing experience.
A special thanks to Kristof Thijs for this opportunity!
Also check out the videos by Mousesteps and ED92/CuriousAxel, the very interesting article by Parcorama and the amazing transcript by CafeFantasia and his tweets during the tour.