Meet the Rossville, Georgia, native who brought Wizarding World and Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge parks to life

Contributed photo by Eric Baker / Former Disney Imagineer Eric Baker visits Skywalker Ranch to assure the quality of props he and his team created for Disney's Galaxy's Edge theme park mirrors those used in the "Star Wars" films.
Contributed photo by Eric Baker / Former Disney Imagineer Eric Baker visits Skywalker Ranch to assure the quality of props he and his team created for Disney's Galaxy's Edge theme park mirrors those used in the "Star Wars" films.

Former Disney Imagineer Eric Baker is hush-hush about the top-secret projects he's working on.

However, Baker, who started his latest job at Universal Creative as a show design director in February, can talk about his now-declassified projects - like the years-long shopping expeditions around the globe to create Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter park, and the time he stepped onto the Millennium Falcon as research for Disney World's brand-new Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge addition.

Baker, a Rossville, Georgia native, was hired out of school into Disney's CareerStart Program, working for little money and living in a massive apartment complex with other recent graduates helping with the Orlando park's operation: ticket window clerks, restaurant workers, sanitation patrol. Baker's job was giving tours of the Animation Studio. He longed to work in the

film industry. He soon got that chance when, on a whim at a party, he showed some of his designs to a prop master at Nickelodeon. They were good enough to land him a job as a prop fabricator working on shows like "Clarissa Explains it All," "Gullah Gullah Island," "Double Dare" and "Guts."

His projects grew with time - "Bad Boys 2" with Will Smith and the Tom Hanks-produced miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon," for which Baker's special effects team was nominated for an Emmy.

But the film market began to change with neighboring states offering incentives for crews to move their productions. "For about 25 years, the film industry prospered before it started to die in Florida," Baker says. "Everything started to move to Georgia and Louisiana. It literally killed the film industry in Florida."

So he leaned into theme parks by taking an entry-level model builder position at Universal Creative to work on a park in Shanghai. The project was eventually scrapped, and he was laid off.

We need a castle built

Baker was between jobs in 2006 when a former Universal co-worker called to ask if he could come in.

"They didn't tell me what it was. They just said, 'We need a castle built,'" Baker says. "And so I went in, and turns out it was Harry Potter."

For two years, Baker built miniature tabletop concept models of Hogwarts Castle, then larger-scale models. "We still build practical models because the 3-D world still isn't at a point where you can fully realize it," he says. "Disney and Universal both have massive model shops that build and build these giant models of all their attractions that have a lot of formatting, to help visualize the sitelines and stuff like that."

Once the castle was built, Universal needed somebody to decorate it. Baker raised his hand.

"I never decorated anything for a theme park. At the time, I think all of us were too naive to even realize that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was going to change the whole theme park landscape," he says. "Because of Harry Potter, everybody wants fully immersive worlds."

To bring that world to life, Baker was sent to the sets of the "Harry Potter" movies. He took note of the moving portraits along the walls, the hundreds of candles in the dining hall. He and his team then spent about three years traveling the world shopping for antiques and working with vendors all over Florida to build what they couldn't find.

"I never had confidence that it was going to work," Baker admits.

But it did.

"The very first time we ever had guests into the Wizarding World, I went and stood in a dark corner of the Portrait Hall of Hogwarts Castle and just watched," he recalls. "There were two girls who came in wearing the Hogwarts robes and carrying their wands. They walked into the Portrait Hall, and they dropped to their knees and cried."

photo Contributed photo by Eric Baker / While working on the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge theme parks, Eric Baker finds some downtime to toy around at work with a stormtrooper blaster.

His job done, Baker was laid off once again, a common occurrence when work is contract- or project-based, he says. That very same day, he was recruited by Disney to work as a decorator on various projects, including creating props and building out a sort of mini attraction to entertain guests in the expanded queue line for Haunted Mansion and designing the "Pirates of the Caribbean"-themed restaurant Tortuga Tavern.

In 2011, Universal came calling again, this time with hopes to build out more of J.K. Rowling's mythical wizarding world with the shop-filled wonders of Diagon Alley. Baker and a team of fellow artists created most every detail.

"People book their entire vacations just to come stay in that world," he says. "They never go to the rest of the park; they just want to come live in the Harry Potter world for two or three days."

Is it Star Wars?

Beaming with the success of Diagon Alley and working on Universal's other Harry Potter park in California, Baker received a call from an executive producer at Disney Imagineering. They were looking for somebody who could reimagine fantasy worlds and bring them to life.

"Is it Star Wars?" Baker asked. The producer told him she'd get back to him and hung up.

Six months later, she called back.

"'Star Wars' was my 'Harry Potter.' It was what I grew up on and, you know, it held a very special place in my heart," Baker says. "I negotiated for two years, almost, with Disney before I decided to jump ship and go back, go back to Imagineering."

For the next four years, he immersed himself in the blockbuster's intergalactic worlds. Disney flew him out to spend time on the sets of "Rogue One," "The Last Jedi" and "Solo."

When Baker hopped onto the Millennium Falcon his first week on the job, he almost cried.

"I was with this group of Disney executives that I had just met, trying to hold it together in front of them and not look like some geeky kid," he says. "I would have never thought a kid from Rossville, Georgia, would get to spend time on the 'Star Wars' film set."

Then Baker took a look around and recognized some of the same crew members who had been on the set of the "Harry Potter" films. As he began to research for Galaxy's Edge, he leaned on the crew. Leading a team of artists, he pored over concept art and took trips to Skywalker Ranch, the 4,700-acre hub where the Lucasfilm archives are housed. The ranch, just north of San Francisco, gave Baker unfettered access to hundreds of props and costumes used in the films.

Back at the park, he and his team translated all that they had seen. Everything that isn't a physical building, Baker led the team that made it, he says.

"The biggest difference between building for theme park and building for film is when you build something for a film, that has to last a day or two on camera and then they throw it away," Baker says. "When you build something for a theme park, it has to last 40 or 50 years with thousands of people looking and touching it and photographing it every day."

The Star Wars parks at Disney World and Disneyland were built simultaneously, and the constant trips between Florida and California took a toll on him, but that work got Baker featured in Disney's documentary and accompanying book, "One Day at Disney." His work on Galaxy's Edge earned him a place among other notable Disney members including newscaster Robin Roberts, Marvel Studio's head of visual development Ryan Meinerding, and animator Eric Goldberg, who has worked on "Aladdin," "Hercules" and "Pocahontas."

The Fabulous Baker Boys

One of the first sets Baker remembers building was a scene from "Battle of Endor" on a ping pong table when he was in grade school.

The son of a building contractor and artist, Baker's upbringing fostered his natural intuition for creation. When he was a kid, he and his late brother, David, would design and sew their own G.I. Joe costumes and piece puppets together. Later in life, they were known in Florida as "the fabulous Baker boys" for their knack for theatrical design, with Eric doing work for Universal and Disney and David doing work for Nickelodeon, "The Muppets" and as a sculptor for Disney.

"Our imaginations always wanted more," says Baker, 52, from his home in Orlando, Florida. "We were always building more and making things better than we thought we could buy off the shelf."

Turning that into a career was always his dream, but he had to climb the ladder to get there. Baker got his first job at a local cable television station in Athens, Georgia. Studying a mix of film production, journalism and theater at the University of Georgia, he drove to the station, knocked on the door and asked if they were hiring.

They were, but for a makeup artist. Baker said he could do that, and ended up as the Tuesday night makeup artist for Larry Munson, the voice of the University of Georgia Bulldogs.

"I spent every waking moment I had at the TV station either learning to operate cameras or lighting or editing," he says. "I just loved being there, and they taught me how to build sets."

Baker has now switched between Disney and Universal his fair share of times, but says he's hoping to stay at Universal for good.

"I'm 52 and I want to retire by the time I'm 65, so I think I may hang out for a while," he says with a laugh.

And he hints that his latest project may be his biggest and best yet.

"I have to be actively interested in and engaged in what I'm doing. I do my best work if I'm passionate or at least interested in it," Baker says.

New and coming attractions

Disney WorldMickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railroad, opened early March 2020 at Hollywood StudiosThe train-themed ride is the first in any Disney park to feature Mickey Mouse and the gang, taking guests through a brand-new multidimensional cartoon.HarmonioUS, opening spring 2020 at EpcotThis water, pyrotechnic, laser and fireworks show — one of the biggest shows ever created for a Disney park — is replacing “Epcot Forever.”Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, opening summer 2020 at EpcotThis 4-D ride will make guests part of the action as they race through Gusteau’s restaurant and the streets of Paris alongside Chef Remy.Guardians of the Galaxy, opening by 2021 at EpcotNot much is out about this Marvel-themed coaster — except that it will be one of the world’s longest enclosed roller coasters and include a new, innovative ride system that’s guaranteed to wow guests, according to the park’s blog.TRON coaster, opening by 2021 at Magic KingdomModeled after Shanghai Disneyland’s TRON Lightcycle Power Run, this futuristic coaster will take guests on a ride for their lives through an illuminated computer interface known as “The Grid” aboard their own motorbike.Universal StudiosHagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, opened mid-June 2019 at Islands of AdventureThis “story coaster” is the longest roller coaster in Florida and features the most launches (seven) of any in the world, immersing guests on a journey through the Forbidden Forest, for which over 1,000 trees were planted.“Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle,” opened mid-September 2019 at Islands of AdventureThis nighttime spectacle, illuminated on the side of Hogwarts, features stunning visual effects, a stellar musical score and live pyrotechnics as those involved with the dark arts try to take over the castle.“The Bourne Stuntacular,” opening spring 2020 at Universal StudiosThis live action show will put you in the middle of a “Bourne” adventure that blends high-tech stagecraft and film.Epic Universe, opening in 2023This entirely new Universal theme park will feature four distinct and immersive lands (think Wizarding World of Harry Potter but with themes including Super Nintendo World) and a massive dining, shopping and entertainment complex.Being built down the road from Universal’s existing Orlando parks, it will be “the biggest, the best, the best [park guests] have ever seen,” according to Universal Parks CEO Tom Williams.

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