A Bevy of Baxter – Disneyland Expansion during the Bicentennial

By EPCOT Explorer

At WED Enterprises, the 1970s were marked with an unmistakable drive of creativity that produced some of the most well known and iconic Disney experiences that still are held dear, today. This was the decade of Walt Disney World’s opening and all of the efforts to bring the fledgling resort up to operational and thematic speed. This is also the heady decade in which Walt Disney Productions would finally act upon Walt Disney’s idea for an urban community of tomorrow and produce a theme park, EPCOT Center, out of those ideas and plans. Additionally, this is also the decade when Disney looked beyond America and saw potential in building magic kingdoms around the world. Tokyo Disneyland’s creative nexus came about during EPCOT’s formal creation as a unified theme park and would go on to be a thematic entity based in the best parts of her Floridian and Californian sisters. But what of Disneyland, the original Magic Kingdom? Disneyland, too, was also the product of the driving spirit of WED’s enterprise during the mid 1970s and although what was built was slightly less than all of the plans and ideas fostered for the park, the process is astounding and a hallmark of the breadth of WED’s vision and skill. Under closer observation, Tony Baxter was instrumental in the creation of Disneyland’s efforts to expand. Join us today as we look back at Tony Baxter’s development and influence on Imagineering’s way forward in perfecting the art of the theme park experience…

Tony Baxter can be considered a product of WED’s first generation of Imagineers. Beginning his career at Disneyland as a front line cast member and working his way into Imagineering, Tony Baxter was lucky enough to be under the tutelage of Claude Coats, Marc Davis, and John Hench and absorbed their pioneering spirit into his own outlook and work for WED Enterprises. This philosophy of early WED’s character is easily seen in Baxter’s ideas for how to expand Disneyland and served as a standard of quality for how he exacted and executed his craft in all his projects. But, for the purpose of today’s article, I would like to delve into three projects. Two that never left the drawing board and one that has been build, cherished, and absorbed into the pantheon of Disney’s brand of experiences and attractions: Discovery Bay, Dumbo’s Circusland, and finally, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Discovery Bay was conceptualized to be an extension of Frontierland and to be evocative of San Francisco during the age of the gold rush. Rooted in the spirit and idea of manifest destiny and spurned on by the scientific progress made in the mid 19th century, Baxter’s version of San Francisco would have had a heavy dose of fantasy injected into it so as to feel connected to Disneyland’s other realms. As it always is with settings in a magic kingdom setting, realism gives way to idealism and fantasy lurking behind façades and just out of sight. As discussed here before, I am of the thought that Marc Davis, a senior colleague of Baxter’s, was a great proponent of this Imagineering method. Though intended to be the modus operandi of Discovery Bay, especially with its both physical and philosophical links to Frontierland, Baxter’s plans for the bay were interspersed with fantastical, yet scientifically believable, structures and environments. Realism was to be blended with fantasy to create the illusion of a working scientific vision of the 1800’s. In retrospect, the style of Discovery Bay might have been or might even be considered by our standards to be “steampunk”. Discovery Bay was, after all, to include references to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Harper Goff’s brilliantly designed Nautilus. Guests would even be given the opportunity to dine in Captain Nemo’s Grand Salon on the submarine, beneath the waves and surrounded by the plush aesthetic of wrought iron, velvet, and rivets and iron works. In addition to this, the dirigible from “Island At The Top Of The World” would be given a home in Discovery Bay and serve as one of the other visual standpoints in the area.

Further attractions in Discovery Bay would have been original and drawn from genres instead of films previously released by Disney. One with the deepest and richest conceptual past is Professor Marvel and his Gallery. Modeled after Rolly Crump’s Museum of the Weird, the eccentric and dragon breeding Professor Marvel would have hosted a revolving theater show (not unlike the Carousel of Progress) that showed off curios and antiquities and oddities from around the world over in a typical Victorian “fair and exhibition” setting. Concept art shows that the façade would have boasted an idealized seaside amusement park aesthetic…. But later concepts for the same show illustrate that the attraction was given a towering and crystalline shape. In a grand working of irony, these plans for Discovery Bay, while the most detailed out of any in the previous line of succeeding concepts and ideas for the expansion, were mothballed when Kodak signed on to sponsor EPCOT Center’s Journey into Imagination pavilion in 1977. So, not wanting to lose any of their characters or ideas, Baxter and Steve Kirk, another member of the WED team tasked with Discovery Bay, reused their rudimentary ideas for the Imagination pavilion. Professor Marvel became Dreamfinder, his roving show became a romp through the realms of abstract thought, and the score of dragons he bred coalesced around Figment, the impish and reptilian spirit of imagination. The architectural ideas for the land weren’t lost either. At this point in EPCOT Center’s development, a ecology pavilion was planned to be built of glass and steel, much in the same vein as Disocovery Bay’s crystalline tower. These ideas evolved into the design for both The Land and Journey into Imagination, along with the other idealist remnants of Discovery Bay. Though separated by space age aesthetics and EPCOT Center’s driving intent to illustrate and exhibit, the experience of Dreamfinder and Figment can be tied to the conceptual history of Disneyland’s attempt to expand Frontierland with the whimsy of fantastical place making.

Discovery Bay’s ancillary attractions would have contributed to the breadth of this land mixed with both fantasy and steampunk “realism”.  A shooting gallery themed to a pyrotechnic market would have aptly been named “The Fireworks Factory”.  A traditional Chinatown, as found in San Francisco, would have been situated along the Rivers of America. And a roller coaster, “The Spark Gap Electric Loop”, would have rounded out the land’s thematic attractions. A lighthouse would have been located at the entrance to Discovery Bay, heralding the spirit of discovery to grace the land and to mark serve as a visual “weenie” to draw guests into the northeastern half of Disneyland.

Although extravagant enough to warrant a lone position in Disneyland’s plans to expand in the 1970s, Discovery Island was paired with Dumbo’s Circusland to help flesh out the original Magic Kingdom on the eve of her 25th anniversary. Another thematic venture lead by the creative efforts of Tony Baxter, this land would serve as a bridge from Fantasyland and to the northwest portion of the Rivers of America…. Right where Discovery Bay was to turn up. An extension, but almost “subland” of Fantasyland, Circusland would have a recreation of a turn of the century circus, based on Dumbo’s adventures in the film of the same name.  Moving the Dumbo spinner out of its home in Fantasyland to be the focal point of this new land, Circusland would have recreated the excitement and attractions of the circus come to town. The Dumbo spinner itself would have been set on an elevated platform and given prominence, while a Pinocchio dark ride and Stromboli puppet show graced the plot behind the iconic spinning sky ride. Out of all these plans, the Pinocchio ride would be the only thematic entity come to pass, and would be built in Disneyland’s New Fantasyland in 1983. This part of the Circusland complex would have also been serviced by the “clown restaurant”, serving up carnival faire and offering a energetic and banner strewn experience.

Adjacent to this portion of Circusland, Mickey’s Madhouse, another dark ride, would have dominated the attraction roster. Themed to the heady days of the Disney Bros. Studio in the 1930s, this ride would have been madcap in nature and featured the 1930’s black-and-white aesthetic of Mickey Mouse shorts and been underscored by raucous ragtime melodies.

The entirety of Circusland would have been anchored by “Circus Disney” a massive E Ticket ride through of a myriad of Disney characters, music, and stories, all brought to exacting and detail driven life through advanced Audio Animatronics. Not dissimilar to the Mickey Mouse Revue in Florida’s Magic Kingdom, this musical journey would have only been enhanced by augmenting the show to progress along a track and have thrilling encounters with the characters. Press material released in the 1970s seems to indicate that the ride would have featured a new system of motion for guests. While details of this are murky, specifics about the ride are not. Guests would have been whisked through the wild animal menagerie, with the cast of the Jungle Book and then flown down the circus midway with Dumbo himself. Here, in the big top, we would have found ourselves part of the three-ring show and subject to the madcap acts and daredevil antics of The Flying Goofys.

As mentioned before, the Circusland concept was never built in Disneyland, save for the lone Pinocchio ride in 1983. However, Walt Disney World opened Storybook Circus in 2013, using much of the same thematic drive to guide the aesthetic choices made in the land. While not featuring any of the zany thematic dark rides planned for Circusland, Storybook Circus does give prominence to Dumbo, and doubles the spinning, iconic ride, while providing for the environment of the carnival in a thematic waiting area. Located where the Magic Kingdom’s Toontown used to reside, Storybook Circus repurposed “The Barnstormer”, a small kiddie coaster themed to Goofy’s farm, to a rollicking stunt show with “The Great Goofini”. While not totally echoing the spirit of Circus Disney, at least the thematic and genre sensibilities are echoed.

And finally, that brings us to the wild west and the only Baxter lead expansion initiative that was conceptualized and built during the bicentennial decade: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Born of Walt Disney World’s need to flesh out her thematic attractions during her heady first decade, and spurned on by the totally separate efforts of Marc Davis, Big Thunder’s creative history is a convoluted myriad of situations and executive decisions. Originally planned to be built in Florida, first, Tony Baxter’s wild mountain thrill ride was thematically tied to an attraction that  Marc Davis dreamed up: Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition. Davis’ plan was to construct a massive rock plateau and weave attractions through the scenery. Primarily, two rides were developed for this concept: a slow Audio Animatronic heavy show attraction and a thrilling mine train idea.  Davis, one of the key Imagineers behind Pirates of the Caribbean and the “characters as scenery” driven second act of the Haunted Mansion, planned to bring his brand of memorable characters and sight gags west, to Frontierland. The Western River Expedition was planned to be a meandering river voyage through the American southwest and would have played upon the western genre with a cast of Audio Animatronic cowboys, Native Americans, animals, and even cacti. But this wasn’t to come to pass. Disney World, intent on diversifying her thematic experiences quickly green lit a Space Mountain to attract thrill seekers, and also approved of a plan to bring over a version of Davis’ Pirates of the Caribbean to waylay guest complaints surrounding the fact that The Magic Kingdom lacked the highly popular and publicized Pirates ride upon opening.

With funds diverted to the Space Mountain project in Florida (and soon to be so, too, in California) and an altered facsimile of Pirates of the Caribbean,  Davis’ plan for his western river attraction faltered. However, the plans for Thunder Mesa and a runway mine train stayed in the mind of his fellow Imagineer, Tony Baxter.  While given the go ahead to develop the mine train ride for Florida, California was desperate to expand and bolster their own attraction roster. Compounding this, Frontierland’s Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland was aging and forcing a extremely high cost of maintenance. To help bring this cost down and in an attempt to keep Disneyland fresh and new, management had no trouble in persuading Tony Baxter to design Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for both coasts. Disneyland opened her version in 1979 with rockwork based off of Brice Canyon in Colorado, while Walt Disney World debuted a taller and wider rock formation in 1980. Both mountains share the same track, though aesthetic differences populate each version. For example, Tony Baxter ensured that Disneyland’s Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland would have a lasting tribute in Big Thunder with the preservation of Rainbow Ridge,  the original mining town from the 1956 attraction. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad has since gone on to have been added to Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris where the Thunder Mesa concept was reevaluated to fit the whole of Frontierland and give the area a unifying backstory and aesthetic.

By dint of the creative organization that they are, Imagineering will always produce more concepts than physical products and more physical products that combine and interact and are influenced by all of the concepts that have come before them. Although an article like this can read as a winsome and wishful litany of “things we wished happened”, the importance and relevance of conceptual history lies in the details and trajectory of the ideas discussed here. Though not fully built to potential, each of Disneyland’s attempts to expand in the 1970s were all harbingers of other iconic and beloved attractions. Tony Baxter’s influence on these thematic entities is also vital as his tenure as an Imagineer was just beginning and would prove crucial to his own development and Imagineering’s way forward in perfecting the art of the theme park and thematic experience. Therefore, it can be seen that this decade was a watershed moment for all of Disney as their best ideas, both built and unbuilt, would continue to influence Disney’s products and artful creations for years to come.

EPCOT Explorer has been visiting the Walt Disney World Resort since he was 2 years old and has recently just made his first visit to Disneyland. EPCOT Explorer’s first ‘Disney’ interest is the history of EPCOT Center of his youth and the brand of optimism, futurism, and culture that was originally found in the park. Other interests include the thematic interplay of design elements in Disneyland and the Magic Kingdoms that make these theme parks repositories of culture and Americana. EPCOT Explorer is also interested in the World’s Fairs for their connections to EPCOT and tiki culture, since the return of the Enchanted Tiki Room to Walt Disney World in 2011. EE’s writings often focus on the minutia of Disney’s enterprises and attempt to uncover how and why the parks function in the manner that they do. EPCOT Explorer is currently a graduate student and Teaching Assistant in History at Florida International University. EPCOTEXPLORER.TUMBLR.COM

You can find all of EPCOT Explorer’s articles here.

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Making of: Splash Mountain

By Keith Mahne

Believe it or not the Los Angeles freeway, George Lucas, and a children’s book about a squirrel all had a lot to do with the creation of America’s favorite flume ride. It was the summer of 1983, when a variety of projects were circulating through Imagineer Tony Baxter’s mind. “I can’t say I actually thought of Splash Mountain on the freeway,” says Baxter, “but I did ponder it on more than a couple of rides to and from work. I would say that I definitely had time to think about it while sitting in traffic.” Dick Nunis, President of Walt Disney Attractions at this time, was very instrumental in getting a flume type ride in the parks. Nunis wanted something similar to Pirates of the Caribbean, but more exciting. This all lead to one of my favorite Disney attractions, Splash Mountain. Let’s take a look at the Making of this park favorite in today’s featured article…

Mickey and Dick Nunis

Tony Baxter and his fellow Imagineers were in the Blue Sky stage of development when the idea came to Baxter. “I thought about it a long time, but the idea really came to fruition when we were discussing ideas for Tomorrowland with George Lucas. One of our concepts called for tearing down America Sings, but I kept thinking, ‘What a terrible waste of all those Audio-Animatronics characters. Isn’t there something we can do with them?’” Finally, one morning after going over ideas for days and many traffic jams later, Tony Baxter had the perfect formula. Splash Mountain show producer Bruce Gordon explains, “Tony came in and told us what he wanted to do. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea!’ So I got together with John Stone, the project designer, and a bunch of other guys and we took all the scenes from “Song of the South” and began visualizing how we could turn them into a ride.”

Concept Art

Concept Art

When Baxter was four he owned a book about a squirrel and he vaguely remembered being very impressed by the illustrations. As he got older his parents gave the book to Goodwill and Baxter had no idea if the book existed anymore. This didn’t stop Bruce Gordon, who began searching high and low for this children’s book. Gordon finally found it at the Library of Congress. Fortunately, the pictures in the book did look as good as Tony Baxter remembered and, in fact, the pictures looked so good that Stone used them as inspiration for the interior show scenes for the ride.

Bruce Gordon

While work began to progress on the project, everyone knew it would be a hit. Shortly after Baxter and the others built a 1/20th scale model, several people in the WDI building would stop by and say how great it looked. The project came together flawlessly and within four weeks the Imagineers had the storyboard and model done. It’s a great sign while designing an attraction when everything falls into place. The result of that design was a flume ride based on “Song of the South” that featured not just Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear, but also over 100 characters that once performed in America Sings.

The creation of Splash Mountain caused for several changes to occur inside Disneyland. One such change was to what was known as Bear Country, now called Critter Country; the Imagineers wanting something to draw guests back into Bear Country. It was becoming a much underutilized area and there was a perceived need for a new Disney attraction. During this time the Imagineers created and completed Captain EO and Star Tours, which are great attractions, but it had been awhile since they did a ride based on classic Disney characters from the films and Splash Mountain gave them that chance.


Even though everything fell into place in the development stages of the ride, it still took five years for the attraction to be built. This was due to the fact that Disney had a flood, or traffic jam, of other projects in the works and Splash Mountain had to wait its turn in line. In 1986 the ride was finally given the go-ahead and everyone involved was extremely excited by the idea of building a really thrilling and unique attraction based on classic Disney characters.

Splash Mountain is a 10 minute ride that is half a mile long that features five drops, including a astonishing final drop that plunges over 52 feet at a 45-degree angle. Ride vehicles made to look like logs reach top speeds of 40 mph while going down the final drop, making the ride one of the fastest at Disneyland, WDW and Tokyo Disneyland.


One of the best parts of Pirates of the Caribbean, besides the drops, is the Blue Bayou section in the beginning of the ride because it gives the rider a chance to get in the mood before the ride actually starts. The Imagineers used the same tactics here by allowing riders that round Chick-a-Pin Hill to see other logs hurtling down the final drop. This gets the juices flowing as the rider keeps in mind throughout the ride that they will eventually be going down that huge drop. In theory, the first part of the ride is suppose to be relaxing, then, slowly but surely, starts to build up some anxiety of what’s to come. After the first drop, guest suddenly fined themselves in the fascinating world of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear. One unique thing about the ride is that absolutely no walls are used to divide show scenes. Instead, the ride is separated by set pieces so guests may look all the way to the other end of the bayou without giving away the story. Also, unlike Pirates of the Caribbean, where most of the action is far away from the rider, Splash Mountain is right on top of you. Imagineers wanted the riders to feel as if they are part of the attraction and very much a part of what’s happening.

Close to the end of the ride, when the rider goes down the final drop, all you can see at the bottom is a spiky, thorny Briar Patch coming at you. Once you reach the bottom a series of 12 water cannons spray water. As the log ride vehicle goes by, it seems like it goes under water but there is actually bubblers out in the middle of the lagoon that continues that effect. While building the ride and using characters from America Sings throughout, Baxter and Gordon had a bunch of Audio-Animatronics characters left over. They eventually came up with the idea to place all the left over characters on an old Mississippi Paddle-Wheeler that rocks back and forth for the grand finale. So as guests bank out they head to this extravagant scene with all the characters singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”   

Tony Baxter, John Stone and Bruce Gordon

And now for the Grand Opening of Splash Mountain:

Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four.

Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.

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Tour WDW Haunted Mansion with Tony Baxter

By Keith Mahne

The WDW Haunted Mansion and Tony Baxter are two Disney Icons. Today we’ll see what happens when you put them both together. Watch and enjoy as Tony talks about Disney history and the attraction. Continue after the page break for your very own 48 minute personal tour of Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion featuring our favorite tour guide Tony Baxter…

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