Tuesday, August 5, 2014

EPCOT and the 1939 World's Fair

By Keith Mahne

We hear about it all the time, Epcot being described as a permanent world’s fair. And although that description is dead on, it is often forgotten as we walk up to that beautiful centerpiece that is Spaceship Earth. These fairs and expos, constructed to show the public what the future will bring for large corporations and governments, have by and large become a thing of the past these days. People flocked to the fairs to see the wonders of progress and unique cultures from around the world via spectacular pavilions. Sadly, due to the internet and television, world’s fairs have become obsolete. But, if you've ever been to EPCOT, this sounds familiar to you as it was clearly designed and built around these very same ideas and to one World's Fair in particular. While most associate EPCOT to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, it is in fact the wonderful 1939 World's Fair that EPCOT has the most in common with. Especially the EPCOT Center that existed from 1982 through the early 1990s. Continue after the page break and see what I mean...

The 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs both occupied the same location in New York City. It sprawled over 1,216 acres of former marshland adjacent to Flushing Bay. That’s four times the size of Epcot. The map and illustrations below provides an idea of just how large it was:

If you take a close look at these aerial shots you can see how Imagineers likely got their ideas when deciding the layout of EPCOT Center. The Fair’s focal centerpiece, called the Perisphere Theme Center, is of course very similar to Spaceship Earth. Surrounding the icon are seven different zones and exhibitions, each with their own theme: Communication, Transportation, Community, Food, Health, Production, and Science.

The rear portion of the fair was called the Government Zone. In the center was the Lagoon of Nations where over twenty large pavilions featuring the likes of Italy, France, Japan, Great Britain, Brazil and the U.S.S.R. The Hall of Nations surrounded the lagoon and offered slightly smaller scale pavilions representing an additional forty countries and featured pavilions from 22 different states. Much like the American Adventure in World Showcase, centered in the middle of the Lagoon of Nations was the United States Federal Building. Also, in the lagoon each night at 9:00 they would shoot off water streams high in the air, with colored lights on them, music and fireworks....similar to Illuminations. You'll get to see that in a bit.

Just as Disney Imagineers used Spaceship Earth as the icon for EPCOT, the Fair’s promoters spared no opportunity to brand everything they possibly could with representations of the Perisphere Theme Center. Disney established Spaceship Earth as the symbol of EPCOT Center even before its October 1982 opening.  Basically every pre-opening piece of publicity material featured the gigantically beautiful geosphere called Spaceship Earth.

And just like Spaceship Earth, the Perisphere Theme Center also featured an attraction. Embracing the fair’s theme of “The World of Tomorrow”, the name of the attraction was called Democracity. Guests entered on what was then the longest escalator in the world. Once they reached the top, they would quickly find a spot against either one of two revolving balconies that was suspended over the sphere’s enormous interior showcasing Democracity, a utopian city-of-the-future. Below you can see the diagram of the attraction and a picture from inside:

 Something that may strike you by surprise is the miniature city’s resemblance to models and artwork of Walt Disney’s original vision of his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, right down to the single skyscraper that is the centerpiece of the community. There seems to be no "official" documentation that Walt attended the 1939 World's Fair, but the assumption has always been that he did because he loved World's Fairs, loved to see new technology and, most important of all, the Nabisco Pavilion featured a brand new Mickey Mouse cartoon in Technicolor promoting Nabisco products called Mickey's Surprise Party....surely Walt would have attended the fair to see how the cartoon was presented and the reaction from the audience. 

There is no hard evidence that Walt was there on such and such a day that anyone has been able to find in the material in the Disney Archives. However, I've been informed that the Disney Archives are not as well organized as people think and over three-fourths(!) of the material has not been properly cataloged because there is so much of it.
Below is some footage of the fair from 1939. As I mentioned earlier, in the second video below at 4:50 you will see the Illuminations-like grand finale featuring water streams with colored lights on them, music and fireworks. Enjoy!

We would love to hear your opinions on this. Do you think Epcot was modeled after the 1939 World's Fair? Do you think Walt got the idea of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow while visiting the Democracity exhibit?  Let us know in the comments below.

Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true everyday.


  1. Looks like there was a similar structure included as part of the 1933 Chicago worlds fair, perhaps was the inspiration for the 1939?

    1. Thanks very sharing. I'll have to read up on this similarly.