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He Built a Temple of Zoom : Picking up where Lucas and Spielberg left off, Tony Baxter is the mastermind behind Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure. It opens Friday, but you might want to get in line now.

February 26, 1995|David Kronke | David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar

'Do not touch the pole," the sign reads; so naturally, you touch the pole. There's a creaking rumble, and that rickety ceiling above you almost collapses upon your head.

Unchastened, you trek deeper into the bowels of the ancient ruin and board a troop transport that takes you on an expedition to receive a blessing from a long-forgotten god.

Of course, these things never work out as planned, so you soon find your vehicle careening madly about the darkened temple, eluding explosions, tumbling rubble, vast, toothy serpents, gauzy webs filled with insect life and other impediments to a long, happy and, above all, mobile life.

If--no, we meant \o7 when\f7 --you make it back to home base safely, there stands Indiana Jones congratulating you on your survival skills with a reassuring smile and wave.

Yes, Indiana Jones is back, but this time, he's not brought to you courtesy of Steven Spielberg or Harrison Ford; even George Lucas is keeping a respectful distance. The intrepid archeologist has been given new life thanks to Tony Baxter.

And, yes, you're forgiven if you can't quite place the name. Baxter is a droll man with the rather dry title of senior vice president, creative development, Disneyland. What that actually means is he has helped design some of the coolest rides in the park. Past accomplishments include Splash Mountain and, with Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, Star Tours, the first major motion simulator ride. He also helped develop New Fantasyland and EuroDisney.

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But the Indiana Jones Adventure, a new ride--Baxter and his colleagues refer to it, not incorrectly, as a "show"--opening Friday, takes the concept of amusement park attraction to a new level. As Baxter himself says, with a smile acknowledging his understatement, "I like creating rides that don't relate to any other ride you've ever been on."

Michael Eisner, chairman and chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Co., is certainly a believer.

"It's always important to exceed guest expectations, to top ourselves each time out, and this time we've clearly done it," he says. "Tony is a fountain of ideas. He's a very creative guy, and I always enjoy working with him."

One tricky part in developing the new attraction, in fact, came in writing the disclaimer warning off pregnant moms, easily frightened kids and folks with weak hearts, bad backs and a predilection for calm.

"It's not a roller coaster, it's not like anything you've ever been on before," Baxter says. "Putting it into words is difficult."

Eventually, it was decided to compare the ride to an off-road vehicle journey. "If you were leaping off the edge of a riverbed, then running over cobblestones in a dried-up wash, then roaring over to the other side, that's exactly what it felt like," he says.

"This is kind of the first performance in this medium. It's a medium that hasn't been explored before. When you write a book or make a film or TV show, you kind of know the dynamics of the camera, or of writing, on whatever scale it may be. But here, you wonder, what is it that will make you wait three hours, two hours, whatever, and not feel like a fool?"

Yes, two to three hours is the projected length of the wait when the ride opens, and about 24,000 people are expected to go on the ride a day. After all, this is the teaming of two success stories: Disneyland and the Indiana Jones movies.

It was back in 1987 that the ride was first suggested. The slow birthing process was due to the fact that much of the technology did not exist until recently.

"You couldn't have built this five years ago," Baxter says. In fact, because of the technical challenges that delayed the Indiana Jones Adventure, Splash Mountain was opened in its stead in 1989.

Part of what makes the new ride--er, show--unique are the number of variations available. There are three ride paths, and in each path, each vehicle may do a number of things at different points. Plus, Indy's dialogue varies from ride to ride, so it's possible, in theory, to go through the ride dozens of times without ever having the exact same experience (although for those who ride that many times, their butts may become so bruised that such subtle differences will seem meaningless).

"If there's an explosion near your car, that may not happen to the car behind you," Baxter explains. "The point of all that was to make it unpredictable, so that the audience is constantly finding different things. If you were to compare the ride with the people riding behind you, you'd say, 'We saw a fountain of youth'; they'd say, 'Oh, really, we saw enormous wealth.' You'd say, 'Wasn't that neat when we broke down in that dark hall'; they'd say, 'We didn't break down.'

"There's a whole series of mechanical mishaps and devices we can do to devise a different kinetic experience. In the past, everything was in a very linear fashion, which kind of corresponded to popular culture," he says.

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