Tuesday, August 15, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Tony Baxter: First of the Second Generation of Walt Disney Imagineers

By Tim O'Brien
Casa Flamingo Literary Arts (October 30, 2015)

Tony Baxter: First of the Second Generation of Walt Disney Imagineers is mostly a list of Tony Baxter's accomplishments during his long career as a Disney Imagineer. Among his many well-known projects, Baxter was took the creative lead on designing attractions like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Journey into Imagination, and the Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland, while also re-designing Disneyland's Fantasyland and developing the look of the entire EuroDisneyland park. The book is an honest, at times insightful look into Baxter's character, at what made him successful, what challenges he faced, and a taste of what it was like for others to work such a powerful creative force. All of this is laid out in a sensible structure, outlining Baxter's career, and then attempting to draw some conclusions.

The book starts right away, wasting no space with title pages or other filler, only a brief foreword and then Chapter One. The publisher describes the Legends & Legacies series, of which this book is a part, as "a quick and easy read," and that is an accurate description of this work. At only 90 pages of text, no topic in Baxter's life is covered in much detail. Events are presented mostly in chronological order, with little thought given to transition between items, which are presented in short segments within each of the three chapters. It would be easy to pick up where you left off if you put the book down, but if you read a chapter straight through there isn't a whole lot of flow from one topic to the next.

One thing that stood out when I first opened the book is the inclusion of color photographs, however, as I read the book I noticed these images appear randomly interspersed throughout the written words, with little or no connection to surrounding text. For example, early in the book we are introduced to Maxine Merlino, a college professor described as a mentor to Baxter, and she appears in photos with Baxter a few times later in the book, but nowhere in the text is any explanation of how she mentored Baxter in first place or how he kept in touch with her. There are a few exceptions where these photographs add to what was written, like Baxter standing outside in front of his property holding a model he used to design and build that house, but for the most part the photos are just images from Baxter's life that would be been better placed together in the center of the book or just left out.

The text also includes some minor errors, including several typos, such as misspelling Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn's name (as Steve Wynne) or sentences with extraneous words added, like this quote attributed to Baxter about the Abraham Lincoln animatronic in Disneyland, "I had hoped, with the all the advancements in technology..." Other items were presented in an (unintentionally, I suspect) misleading manner, including describing Journey into Imagination in EPCOT Center as opening on October 1, 1982, then shortly afterwards, noting the "ride premiered later on March, 5, 1983." While, technically, the Imagination pavilion may have opened (with just a 3D movie) on the same date (October 1) as the rest of EPCOT Center, it is generally accepted that the opening date for the Journey into Imagination attraction, five months after the park opening, is the relevant date. The author also presents some facts out of order, like a reference to the death of Disney President Frank Wells two pages before the author explains, "Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter accident on April 3, 1994." Some of these errors may be nitpicking, but suggest an overall lack of attention to detail.

The book draws primarily on previously published interviews (notably with The Season Pass Podcast), but supplements these with the author's own conversations with Baxter and a few people who worked with him, mostly his one-time bosses Marty Sklar and Mickey Steinberg, and his Imagineering colleague Tim Delaney. The result is very little new information on Baxter's well-documented career.

In addition to outlining Baxter's professional accomplishments, the does book touch on his personal life. From his "early introversion", frustration with cancelled projects, rejuvenation while redeveloping and building Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Disneyland, to confidence following the renovation of Fantasyland in Disneyland that "literally anything was possible," readers get a glimpse into who Baxter is as a person. One of the more striking comments on a topic I had never heard Baxter talk about was his admission, "It’s really hard for me to make space for others in my life. It’s never been an urgent issue with me." Although the author generally doesn't attempt to offer his explanation of what was shared in interviews, readers can gain some insight into how Baxter thinks after reading his thoughts throughout the book.

Despite the narrative being primarily driven by Baxter's own account of his life, the author doesn't shy away from controversy. That includes: enthusiasm over the start of Michael Eisner's tenure as leader of Disney to a frank assessment of the former CEO's later years with the company, the reason the company chose not build Westcot in Anaheim, cost-cutting measures in Disneyland, and even Baxter's own reputation for being difficult to work with, accusations that he took too much credit for projects were all discussed, and his status as a "celebrity" Imagineer. With these topics, the author generally generally lets the subjects he interviewed speak for themselves.

Overall, the book is a useful collection of often-repeated stories from the career of Tony Baxter, with some new information coming from the new interviews the author conducted. I learned more about Tony Baxter the man than I had in the past and gained a little insight into some of the challenges he faced. By seldom interjecting his own opinions, the book neither attempts to glorify Baxter's distinguished career, nor does it try to exploit his weaknesses. It is a fair presentation facts, which Baxter has described by saying, "everything in it is accurate." At less than 100 pages, the book doesn't aspire to be the definitive account of Tony Baxter's life and career, but it is a great place to start for someone unfamiliar with Baxter's career, and even avid Disney history fans will likely learn something new. Tony Baxter: First of the Second Generation of Walt Disney Imagineers is a useful biography to read, though you will have to decide if the relatively high retail price makes this a book you wish to own.

If you wish to purchase Tony Baxter: First of the Second Generation of Walt Disney Imagineers, then please use this link to amazon.com. NOTE: Using this link will help support this web site, as amazon will offer (at no additional cost to you) a small portion of the purchase price of the book to our site.

If you wish to learn more about Tony Baxter or hear his words firsthand, the search for his name in the archives of The Season Pass Podcast. There are hours of conversations with Baxter, over the course of several years.

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