4. Claude Coats
Coats, on the other hand, was thoroughly Disney. He was mostly a background artist in his film days, creating intricate and detailed paintings for films like Pinocchio and Fantasia. His backgrounds for Pinocchio, specifically, continue to be highly regarded among animators and Disney historians.
He worked on dozens of films before eventually finding his way to the theme parks. At Disneyland, he was one of the principal voices behind the visual aesthetic of the Haunted Mansion – designing many of the sets used in the final attraction.
Additionally, Coates worked on the 1964 World's Fair attractions, notably Carousel of Progress and the Ford Magic Skyway.
His last major contribution to Disney was in his work on the development of EPCOT Center. He helped conceptualize many of the early pavilions, such as the Universe of Energy, World of Motion, and Horizons. He passed away in 1992.
Coats' greatest skill, according to the next legend on this list, was “turning sketches and paintings into three-dimensional adventures.” And, ultimately, that's what it's all about, isn't it?
5. Marty Sklar
As strange as it is to think about, Walt Disney has been dead for nearly 50 years. His greatest creation, Mickey Mouse, is actually older now than Walt was when he passed. It has literally been a lifetime since Walt last walked the earth.
Yet, the Walt Disney Company still operates, and it still creates new films, TV shows, and, of course, attractions. But someone has to speak for Walt. Someone needs to be there to keep his spirit present. And that's where Marty Sklar comes in.
Sklar's been working for Disney since 1956, and in the years since, he's seen it all. He's been working with Imagineering since before it was even called Imagineering. He helped design and launch the 1964 World's Fair attractions. He wrote copy for Walt to use and read in his presentations to sponsors and to the public. In fact, one of those presentations was the famous EPCOT film – a production largely helped along by Sklar.
He's been there for everything. He's seen it all. He retired from Disney in 2009, but he remains the only person to be at the grand opening of every single Disney park. Someone has to speak for Walt, and at Disney, that person is still Marty Sklar.
6. Tony Baxter
Baxter, on the other hand, never worked with Walt Disney in that way. In fact, his career with the Walt Disney Company began much the same way as millions of others – he signed up to scoop ice cream on Main Street of Disneyland when he was still a teenager.
So the story goes, one day while on lunch break, Baxter went snooping around the backstage areas of the park, trying to catch a glimpse of the still-unfinished Pirates of the Caribbean. As he was doing his sneaking, he happened to run into none other than Claude Coats. Coats admired his gumption and his passion, rewarding the young Baxter with a tour of the ride.
A few years later, Baxter joined the ranks at Imagineering and Coats acted as a mentor to him. Over time, he worked his way through countless assignments, always producing top quality work.
Baxter was responsible for the original version of Journey into Imagination as well as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Star Tours.
His greatest attraction, however, came from an idea that was solely his. He wanted to create a ride based on the Disney film Song of the South, using the music from the film and some well-designed animatronics to tell the story. Eventually, a log flume got added into the mix, and the result was Splash Mountain.
Baxter stepped down from his lead role with Imagineering in 2013; however, he still mentors young Imagineers and designers and spends his time thinking of new and innovative attractions. So, you never know – we still may get another fantastic Baxter ride.
7. Joe Rohde
You probably already know who Joe Rohde is, but it really is about time people start mentioning his name in the same breath as those legends above. That is why I put him here – not necessarily to introduce him to you, but to acknowledge that he has done as much to push Disney forward creatively as anyone.
If you do still need an introduction, it would go something like this:
Rohde joined Imagineering in 1980, where he worked on everything from the development of Epcot to the launch of Pleasure Island. His contributions to both remain beloved today – he worked heavily on the Mexico pavilion at Epcot, which remains one of the most well-themed in the park, and he also helped create the gone-but-never-forgotten Adventurer's Club.
Oh, and he is pretty much responsible for the most beautiful park in Orlando, Disney's Animal Kingdom. If you've ever been left speechless by the attention to detail of the Harambe Village, or stood in awe while looking at Expedition Everest, you've experienced what makes Rohde's work so special.
In many ways, Rohde is the final proof of concept for Walt's vision. He's a generation removed from Walt's time with the company, and yet he still honors and follows those founding principals of story and attention to detail. Walt created something that was so special, it could not only live on without him, but it could thrive. All it needed was a group of extraordinarily talented people to keep moving it forward.
Thankfully, finding such people was one of the things Walt was best at. It seems the only thing he was even better at was teach that skill to others.