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Never losing child's eye for wonderment ; Hooked by Disney's magic as a kid, exec offers innovative insights based on a 40-year career

Tony Baxter sees wisdom in thinking like a 12-year-old. When you're a Disney executive, that's probably a good thing.

Baxter is vice president of creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering, helping develop rides and attractions for the company's theme parks. Take away the lofty title, and Baxter identifies with the Tom Hanks character in the movie "Big," who brings a boy's candid insights to creating toys that kids actually want to play with.

"A 12-year-old is very smart, and those things that really impress you at that time of your life kind of go with you for the rest of whatever you do," Baxter said.

For Baxter, those things were the wonders of the late 1950s Disneyland and the animated film "Sleeping Beauty," featuring a memorable cinematic battle with a dragon.

Baxter was hooked. Within a few years, he got his first job at Disney, starting what has become a 40-year career there. He is the concept designer of top draws such as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain.

Now in his 60s, Baxter has watched various ideas hit and miss over the years. He visited Buffalo on Monday to share his thoughts on innovation at the Creative Problem Solving Institute's annual conference in the Adam's Mark Hotel.

Baxter says that there is no formula for innovation but that he sees several "patterns and personas" that work.

Baxter praised Apple executive Steve Jobs and late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden as "maestros," who inspire people and repeatedly succeed. "Mavericks" such as Henry Ford and Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn altered the public's perceptions about what they wanted in transportation and entertainment, he said.

Another path to innovation comes through "valuable mental real estate" -- taking an everyday object and creating an iconic image, he said. The Pixar movie studio has done that repeatedly, making a clownfish synonymous with Nemo, and turning Lightning McQueen from "Cars" into the popular symbol of a race car, he said. In a different arena, Cirque du Soleil reinvented the concept of a circus.

A "storyteller" such as Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling took the basic idea of a school and made it fantastic, Baxter said. "School will never be the same," he said, "and everyone wants to go to Hogwarts." And in a visual era that emphasizes screens, kids stood in line to buy old-fashioned books as soon as they were published.

A "visionary" such as Mary Minnick persuaded Coca-Cola to diversify its drink lineup beyond its traditional sugary beverages, he said.

Baxter applied the "perfectionist" innovation quality to overseeing an update of the already popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride. And he used the "politician" method to revive a defunct Disney submarine ride he had loved -- after a couple of false starts -- by creating a theme tied to the successful "Finding Nemo" film.

Baxter said he sees Walt Disney, who died 44 years ago, as the embodiment of all the innovation qualities he described.

On the flip side, Baxter said, innovation is squelched by micromanaging, being inflexible, taking a "business as usual" stance and relying on formulas.

He also cited cautionary tales of once-dominant companies that failed to stay current. Montgomery Ward was "stuck in its ways" and didn't keep up with the likes of eBay. Music retail chain Tower Records lost out to iTunes.

While Baxter applies innovation at Disney, an entertainment powerhouse, he said the concepts can apply to smaller companies, as well.

"A high school could employ the same things," he said after his presentation. "It's all about not allowing the politics and the formalities of becoming sophisticated get in the way of doing the inherent right things.

"A big organization like Pixar has managed to break all that down, where they have complete honest dialogue, where they never let anything out that's not right.

"And yet I see smaller companies where we all have a cocktail and talk nice to everybody, but in the end you don't do anything that moves the bar because you've been too polite, perhaps, rather than saying, 'Do any of us really want this?' "

More than 320 people from 26 countries are taking part in the Creative Problem Solving Institute's conference this week, according to organizers. The institute is run by the Massachusetts-based Creative Education Foundation.

The conference has a local tie-in. The foundation's founder, the late Alex F. Osborn, was a Buffalo advertising executive credited with the concept of "brainstorming" and the creative problem-solving method. And Buffalo State College is home to the International Center for Studies in Creativity.


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