April 12th 2012 was Disneyland Paris’ 20th birthday with special events and celebrations during the day. One of these special events was meeting Tony Baxter (Senior Vice President, Creative Development, Walt Disney Imagineering) who would talk in front of an audience of devoted Disney fans about Disneyland Paris and his big participation into creating it. It will be to nobody’s surprise that the whole audience was captured for this hour long masterclass with Tony.
The masterclass was being hosted by the two Disneyland Paris Ambassadors, Régis Alart and Osvaldo del Mistero, who both did a fantastic job. Not only did they get the questions to Tony, they also had to translate everything in French and sometimes those where very long sequences. Great job. But for those that could not be there, here is an almost full transcript of Tony Baxter’s Masterclass.
Tony started of with some explanation of the name Imagineers and how it put artists together with engineers and how this results in all the amazing things that they do and that work most of the time. After a first translation to French Tony asked “What did I say”, making the public laugh.
Before Tony took on the role of executive producer for Disneyland Paris he already worked on many other projects as Imagineer. The question to Tony was to talk a little bit about these projects. “I got to play a few years before tackling this project. First there was Big Thunder Mountain. It was designed for Walt Disney World but the first one got build in Disneyland but the best one of all is here in Paris. We all know what it does it, it goes under the river and back under the river and it is totally awesome.” Then he worked on Star Tour and after that he mentioned Indiana Jones and the Temple of the forbidden eye. Tony already said wouldn’t it be great if that would be our movie and years later they could indeed build attractions related to the franchise.
Tony mentioned how Disneyland Paris has somehow a duplicate Fantasyland compared to Disneyland abut how our Castle is spectacular. Tony went on mentioning Splash mountain, quickly saying that the best one is in Tokyo, but there are very good once in the US parks.
The next questions asked by the Ambassadors was how did he feel when they announced they where going to create Euro Disney (As it was know before changing its name to Disneyland Paris) and he would be in charge of it. “well it wasn’t like being the person being in charge as I couldn’t do this alone. I had five friends who grow up with Disneyland as children and all of knew on how to make it right. It wasn’t as being in charge of it but we get one more chance to do this. We know all the things about Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland and let’s put all these things together and put it right creating the most beautiful Disneyland and it still is. That being said Disneyland is still the most charming, Walt Disney World the most spectacular, and DisneySea is amazing.”
A picture of a Disneyland Main street Picture was showing up on the screen. “I see my friends, Jeff Burke Frontierland, Tim Delaney Discoveryland, Tom Morris fantasyland, Eddie Sotto Main Street and Chris tietz for Adventureland. Chris is still working with us on Princess Fantasy Faire for Disneyland.
Next question was how did he take an American concept and adapt it to European audiences and made it relevant for them since they didn’t have the Disney park experience before. “It started with a wonderful trip to Europe. It started with a trip trough England, we went to Denmark, of course Germany and visited all the great sites tourists do. I went to visit book shops in small communities, so not in the center with the tourist, but to see what people would think about the rest of the world. Look at coffee table books to see what sells and look at what people are interested in.”
“Frontierland was easy because the French and Europeans are very interested and intrigued in the wild west. Adventureland, there where a lot of theme parks that copied the original Jungle Cruise from Disneyland. In fact, one I remember, had viking boats going past the guys that where going past the pool with the men going up. So we decided not to do that. We rethought Adventureland in more of an Arabian Nights fantasy because stories like Aladdin where very popular here in the same way the fairy tales from France where popular in America, so there was a shift.”
“Sometimes things where very exited for us. We knew pirates where going to be exited for the Europeans so we build a whole island based on Pirates of the Caribbean and strengthen the pirate ride as you see here. How did we know so many years later pirates was going to be such a huge franchise for the Disney company so it was fortunate that we made it such a big part of Adventureland.”
“The big question was of course Fantasyland and the castle.” Europe already had a lot of real castle so the Disney believed a replica of such a castle would not work in Euro Disney. “So we decided to go much more to the fairy tales and the story books and particular the art designed by Eyvind Earle”
“And finally here we are in Discoveryland. Part of the contract that we signed with the government in France was to develop an area based on celebrating European culture and when you look at space mountain , that is directly from Jules Verne’s Story from Earth to the Moon, the Orbitron out here could be Leonardo Da Vinci. These are the type of visionaries that really inspired the whole world to go into space to do the things in the future. This was a natural fit.”
(Tony was keeping Main Street for later, when talking about the hotels)
Next question was related how the Imagineers worked together to make this dream come true. “We where close friends, Tom Morris, who was in Fantasyland, came to me when he was in high school and he wanted to write a report on an Imagineer and as he went true college he became on board and we worked together on many projects and I think he was typical of what my relationship was with Jeff Burke and Tim Delaney and everyone else. I knew their specialties. Tim is a genius in doing futuristic imaginative art, Tom loved fairy tales, Chris loved adventures and if you look at Jeff Burke, he is a cowboy.”
“You always hear about Casting in the theme part, but the most important casting we do is at Imagineering and each one of these people was absolutely perfect so that made my job really easy.”
Next question from the Ambassadors was what kind of challenges or problems he encountered when creating Disneyland Paris. “It was very cold” (laughter) “Sometimes it was so cold we had to put plastic covers and put heaters inside to keep the spray from turning to snow instead of landing on the rocks. That was very challenging. Midway trough the construction we had partnered with an English firm to manage the project and it so difficult, so Disney and so not normal, as they where used to with hospitals and hotels. We had to take the management of the project back and create our own staff right in the middle of construction and I think our management group at Imagineering did an incredible job of that switch over midway in the project”
“We had the same amount of money as Tokyo did to build that park and so the challenge for each of our designers was to find a way to get more of that money out where guests could enjoy it and I think they did a fantastic job. In Tokyo you find that the street is covered, and that cost a lot. We where able to put the arcades, and if you haven’t walked trough them, they are beautiful, they where a lot less money and with the remainder we put more beautiful details in the rest of Main Street.”
Tony said that Disneyland Paris is the most beautiful park in the world so the next question was to find out why he thinks so. “It is a combination of things. The climate, which can be harsh, also allows you to grow things we cannot in California and Florida, so as you walk into the park, especially now during spring time, the landscaping is spectacular. Our hardwood forest in Frontierland is more beautiful then in California or Florida and is the youngest. It already looks fantastic. Landscaping is a big part of it.”
“The Orbitron was placed on the ground so the extra money saved was used to put all the great ornaments on it so it became a gorgeous sculpture. Those kinds of way of thinking of the park was ways to make it more spectacular. We are next to the most beautiful city in the world, so we had to live up to that.”
Tony is now in charge of Disneyland California and the question now is how it feels to go back to the one that started it all. “I grew up with Disneyland, so it is my backyard and to get to play in your backyard is the best thing a kid can ever do.”
The first question was about him meeting Walt Disney in person and to tell us about the experience. “I was working in Disneyland as an ice cream vendor, scooping ice cream, and Walt would come to the park every Friday, staying at an apartment above the fire station on Mainstreet and then on Saturday he would fire up one of the cars and drive over Mainstreet. I never thought he would visit a humble ice cream vendor but the word went out that he was coming so we had to work very hard to clean the area up. Then I saw him moving towards me and I had all these ideas that I wanted to share with him. I was going to tell him all these things we could do and I wanted to be part of it and then I felt his hand on my shoulder and he said – how are things going with you here – and I said just fine”. (big laughter in the room). “missed opportunity”
“My sister got to ride small world with him, she was younger, she was twelve. She saw him going to small world and she ask if she could ride it with him and he said of course you can. She and her girlfriend, one on either (of Walt’s) side went through and at the end he asked if the wanted to go trough again and they said of course. But you would have to sing this time. They sang the song and then he gave them a picture, an autograph and tickets. She still has those today.” The Ambassadors said they where jealous and Tony answered he was too.
“I had to work at Disneyland, scooping ice cream and my sister went to the big football game on new years day and Walt Disney was the grand marshal that year of the ball game. So she went down, she is 12 years old, she went up to him and said my brother had to work at Disneyland today and couldn’t come down to the game would you sign the program for him. So I have a signed program saying; Tony I thank you for working at Disneyland and I am sorry you weren’t here to see the football game today, Walt Disney” The audience loved it.
The next facebook question was, what was the best part of creating a Disney park in Europe and how did you came up with the design of Sleepy Beauty Castle. “The best part was getting to come to Europe and I took holidays every weekend to go visit Europe. It is all so beautiful and so different. Each country has its own culture and its charm. Regarding the Castle, I already told a little bit about it, we where very concerned that it would be taken poorly so we convinced management to recreate the castle from scratch. We made it a little bit smaller then Walt Disney World but bigger then Disneyland and the most important think was the shift in making it a fairy tale setting. In all of the other Disney parks the castle is flat on the same level as Main Street and we wanted to try and create that image where the castle is up on a hill side and the prince would ride up to the castle hill sides and dragons would live underneath it. Those where the things that guided us.”
Next question was, what is the best example of detail that went into the creation of this park. “Only one? I love all the thing in the park but the Disneyland hotel was such a challenge in the park and no money to do it. We had to convince Michael Eisner to get rid of one of the hotels out in the village and give us that funding to do that hotel. Everybody at the company said people would be standing in their underwear on the balconies, they’ll be hanging their clothing out to dry, they’ll be bothered by the parades on Main Street. There where million reasons why we shouldn’t do it. But Both Frank (Wells) and Michael agreed it was a beautiful design and Eddie Sotto worked very hard to incorporate that into Main Street. We shrunk the train station so the hotel works as the icon at the end of the street as the train station does for the other parks. It was the hardest thing as it was never been done before and now of course there is one in Tokyo, we have the Grand Californian in California and it has become a Disney thing.”
“The reason we build that hotel, as we studied how people go to resorts, there is a great appreciation in the European community on the scent of arrival. In the US you get processed a lot before you get into the beauty of the parks. It is a great gift to the people who arrive at the RER and train station to see the gardens and the hotel on arrival. We felt it was important to do this.”
Next was a question about all the homages to the original park that can be found in the park. Some of them are obvious but what is the most hidden or mostly overlooked tribute to Disneyland. “You better get the people ready in the Fantasyland restaurant after this. In Pizzeria Bella Notte patio there is a broken china pattern of mosaics in there. When we put in Start Tours in California we had to demolish a portion of Mary blair’s murals. The majority is still there, but a portion was destroyed and Tom Morris picked up all the pieces and if you look at that in Belle Notte and pick out the very orange pieces, that came from the sun from that mural.”
“The other one is mine. In Disneyland we had an exit sign that was off-centered because there was a beam. In Au Chalet de la Marionnette there is a sign that is perfect, in Disneyland I added a Figaro cat pulling the sign to make it look balanced. Here the exit sign was right so they asked what I was going to do this time. So I added a Figaro cat leaning on it showing we got it right this time.”
Another question was if he had the possibility to expand a land, which one would he pick and why? “Discoveryland! If you leave today (the videopolis building) you’ll see two circles on the wall. They are tubes that would bring you to Space Mountain. All attractions would be connected with Space Mountain. It was going to be a land in there. Tubes would take you of to each of the attractions (some artwork was shown with the tubes). And that was how you where going to get to all the attractions. We weren’t able to do that, we couldn’t afford that. So I would love to come back now and spend some more effort and really complete this land. That would be great.”
The next question is about one of many fans favorite attraction. What is the mystery story of Phantom Manor as the whole fan base is torn between two possible explanations. First of all Henry Ravenswood would be the Phantom, or the second one could be the Phantom could be the result of a curse around Thunder Mountain. “You know I am going to be hung on this one” (laughter in the room) “There is probably 400 stories on this. I am going to give you my story. It is not official, it is mine. I love Charles Dickens’ story Great expectations. Miss Havisham (from the book), who is gilded as a bride, grow older and older and the rats came in, the spider webs and everything else and that was the basis that I saw in this (attraction). But I wasn’t the only voice in this. So we see the young beautiful daughter preparing for her marriage at the start. She is in the hall and all the guests are arriving. She is very wealthy, this is her fathers home who made lot’s of money from the gold rush from the mines of Big Thunder. Now she is waiting for her groom. She waits and waits and waits and gets older and older and older in the progress. When he finally comes at the end it is to late and the only place where the celebration can be is down under. So he invites us to descend down beneath the ground into the spirit world where all the residents of Thunder Messa come to celebrate this long, long overdue marriage. And of course she waves goodbye trowing us the flowers at the end. And that’s my version. (big applause). What is so special about Disney stories is that you write the stories. If we scripted the whole thing and give you a book report of a movie (attraction) that we’ve done it is not as exciting as if when you going home and tell your family and friends of what you saw and the different things that happened. It makes it very exciting to go on the attraction again. If it is the same old thing and scene, scene, scene, that’s not any fun.”
Ambassador Régis response that this is why after 20 years we are all still wondering. “And that’s why people keep going”
“And while the picture is up here (picture showing of Phantom Manor exterior building) you can see the importance of making it look readable visually. So instead of a sign telling you that is a haunted house we created a look that looked haunted because of the multiple languages here so it was really important to make it speak visually. The great actor Vincent Price by the way, here comes some trivia, Vincent Price provided the scream at the end of the elevator part. He also did the complete narration but we where warned against using it because the felt it was to American even though it was in French but I think hearing an American accent would have actually been good and if you guys (to the fans) yell enough maybe we can bring that back. (applause) It was the last thing that Vincent Price ever did. And the other trivia thing is, the music was re-orchestrated by a young man who has gone on with fame and fortune, by the name of John Debney who has gone on doing big motion pictures and it was a beautiful score.”
After this the Ambassadors thanked Tony and the fans did the same with a standing ovation. He was going to take some time to meet fans for pictures and autographs. Many fans wanted to meet him but a busy program forced him to stop early before every fan could meet him. He tried his best, even canceling one meeting but at the end he had to apologize and go as more cancellations where not possible. He mentioned he hated doing this and had hoped to meet everybody, but his filled agenda for today just didn’t allow the extra time. It does show how great Tony is and how much he cares to meet and speak to his many, many fans which all had a fantastic time during this incredible masterclass.