Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Importance of the 1964-65 World’s Fair to Disney

By Brittany Bell

Disneyland and Walt Disney World are a place of magic, enchantment and wonder. Their attractions inspire generations new and old, utilizing technologies that even the smartest of visitors can find astonishing. Perhaps one of the biggest technological (and imaginative) breakthroughs for Disney came from the 1964-65 World’s Fair, which gave birth to classic Disney attractions such as “it’s a small world” and The Carousel of Progress. From the first human audio-animatronic to a gathering of nations, join us today and discover why the 1964-65 World’s Fair was so important to Walt Disney and the future of the Disney Parks…

Editor's Note: I highly recommend selecting track number 242 titled There's A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (Instrumental) in the Disney Avenue Music Player above to listen to while you read about the importance of the 1964-65 World’s Fair to Disney.

The 1964-65 World’s Fair was officially opened on April 22, 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson in celebration of the 300th birthday of New York City. The theme of the fair, “Peace Through Understanding”, was the catalyst for many of the ideas that Disney Imagineers (including Walt) would use to inspire their attraction ideas. The Walt Disney Company was sponsored to create four pavilions for the fair by Ford Motor Company, UNICEF, General Electric and the State of Illinois. Each of the pavilions that Disney conceived were all considered Top 10 favorites at the fair and are still considered classic attractions (in some form) at the Disney Parks today.

Photo created by showing Walt Disney's 4 New York World's Fair attractions

The Ford Motor Company approached Disney with the request to present themselves as an international brand while also creating “a bridge from yesterday to tomorrow.” According to Imagineering legend Marty Sklar in his book Dream It! Do It!, “the true stars of the show were the Ford, Lincoln and Mercury automobiles. In his continuous quest to move people in our parks more efficiently, Walt had been developing… a transit system in which there were no moving parts on the vehicles.” Thus, together with Ford’s image for their pavilion, the Ford Magic Skyway was born. The only requests from Ford was that their cars were showcased appropriately and that the actual ride vehicle was to be a Ford car. Though Imagineers were puzzled on how to create a transit system with no moving parts, the solution came with a track-chain with rotating wheels spaced every three feet which would help propel the car via a metal plate installed underneath the ride vehicle.

Seated in Ford convertibles, fairgoers are first taken for a ride through plastic tunnels around the outside of the rotunda for a sweeping view of the grounds, then on to the exhibit building and the fantasyland within.

Guests would enter the Ford Pavilion and find a display of mini-villages around the world, all of which displayed Ford cars (an idea which was based on the Storybook Land canal boat trip at Disneyland). Once they boarded their ride vehicle, they would be taken on a journey that begins in prehistoric times, where dinosaurs still roamed the earth. The next scene showed early man and some of their “discoveries” including the founding of fire and the wheel. The journey ended in a futuristic city of tomorrow. Like Ford had envisioned, this attraction truly brought guests through yesterday and into tomorrow.

Concept art of the Ford Magic Skyway

The Ford Magic Skyway is the only ride from the ’64-’65 World’s Fair that wasn’t taken directly to Disneyland. There wasn’t enough room for the ride in its entirety in the park and Walt wasn’t happy about the appearance and movement of the cavemen. However, this attraction did give way to other omni-mover attractions such as The Haunted Mansion and was the inspiration for the WEDWay PeopleMover. At Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, guests can still ride the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, the “highway in the sky” in Tomorrowland that traces its origins back to Walt’s idea for a transit system and the Ford Pavilion at the Fair.

The UNICEF sponsored pavilion looked to, as the Fair’s theme prompts, “find peace through understanding.” The ride itself was fabricated at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and then shipped to New York. The UNICEF pavilion itself was sponsored by Pepsi, and the executives had a hard time agreeing upon what ride vehicle and method would be best to convey their message—a predicament that left Walt Disney and his Imagineers only 11 months to create the attraction. Disney legend Mary Blair was in charge of the design, and her whimsical flair for the pavilion is reminiscent of that of other projects Mary worked on such as Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella. Marc and Alice Davis and Rolly Crump, all Imagineering legends as well, played a role in developing the attraction’s scenery and dolls. The infamous song that accompanies the attraction was the work of Disney songwriting legends Richard and Robert Sherman. It is speculated that their song, “It’s A Small World (After All)” is one of the most widely translated and performed songs in the world.

Arrow Manufacturing's "test track" for the system that would eventually propel "the happiest cruise that ever sailed."

The Imagineers and Disney delivered in the 11 months that they were given to create “it’s a small world”, and the boat ride attraction was an absolute hit at the Fair. Although the ride was extremely popular, the ride had such a high capacity (higher than any ride at Disneyland at the time), the lines never reached the same lengths as some of its World’s Fair counterparts, making it more appealing to visitors who didn’t want to wait in long lines.

Pepsi-Cola sponsored "It's a Small World," an exhibit saluting UNICEF, which was designed by Walt Disney who also constructed and operated it. Shown with the exhibit model are Walt Disney, Mrs. Guido Pantaleoni, Jr., president of the U. S. Committee for UNICEF, Robert Moses and Herbert L. Barnet, president of The Pepsi-Cola Company. 

“it’s a small world” still enchants guests at every Disney park around the globe. “The Happiest Cruise That Ever Sailed” has withstood the test of time and is a park favorite of many Disney fans. Marty Sklar wrote in Dream It! Do It! that even Walt was incredibly impressed with the work of his Imagineers on the attraction, including Sklar himself.

Walt poses with the model of the Pepsi Pavilion

Next on the Disney slate of World’s Fair pavilions came the GE pavilion. Walt was particularly fond of this project and focused much of his effort on creating the show that would become “Progressland.” The show was to illustrate and discover how technological improvements over the past century changed everyday living for an American family (showing a plethora of GE appliances old and new, of course). The show, however, was quite technologically advanced for its time and presented plenty of challenges for Walt and his Imagineers. Marty Sklar recounts in Dream It! Do It!:

“It was a late morning walkthrough—just Walt and the Imagineers—but it was in preparation for an early evening event that same day: a preview Walt was hosting for the GE board of directors. The show only lasted a few moments; nothing worked—no Father upset that Cousin Orville had taken over the family bathtub; no dog barking in each of the four main acts; no Sherman brothers’ “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” song.”

Whatever difficulties that were faced that morning, however, did not make it to the presentation to GE’s board—the attraction worked beautifully, Progressland was a hit at the World’s Fair and all was well.

The beautiful Progressland Pavilion at night

After the World’s Fair, Progressland was moved to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland and was renamed “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress.” The attraction stayed in Disneyland until 1973, when it was closed and moved back to the East Coast to the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland where it opened in 1975. There the Carousel has remained to this day to remind guests that “there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day!”

(For more info on the Progressland Pavilion including rare photos, be sure to check out our article from June 9, 2015 by clicking HERE)

Lastly, and perhaps the most advanced of the pavilions Disney created, is the State of Illinois Pavilion. Walt had originally conceived an idea for a show that would pay tribute to all U.S. presidents in an area that would be an extension of Main Street, USA (an attraction that eventually found home in Liberty Square in the Magic Kingdom). Instead of creating this full-scale show, Imagineers and Walt opted to do a show that was a tribute to Illinois-native, and childhood hero of Walt, Abraham Lincoln. What became “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” was one of the first ever shows to feature “human figure” audio-animatronics, with the Lincoln figure being the first ever prototype. The show itself was a conversation with the late-president in which he discussed liberty, justice and the meaning of the US Constitution.

Different forms of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln have been premiering at Disneyland since the attraction first made its debut at the World’s Fair in 1964. The version that is appearing today is an update of the original show.

The 1964-65 World’s Fair made a lasting impact on the Walt Disney Company and Disney Parks. Aside from inspiring attractions that are still at the parks today, the technologies that emerged from the Fair helped progress the Disney Parks. One of the biggest advances was perhaps the omni-mover technology that emerged from working on the Skyway attraction. Shortly after the Fair, the Haunted Mansion utilized a similar system in which vehicles were constantly pulled along a track. Omni-mover tech is still used in Disney attractions to this date, with some of the recent being Voyage of the Little Mermaid and The Seas with Nemo and Friends. The human-figure audio-animatronics came to fruition (as mentioned before) through the World’s Fair as well. Lincoln, the Carousel and the Skyway all utilized this type of animatronic, and needless to say, Disney has continually updated and advanced their figures to the most life-like and latest figure for Pandora: The World of Avatar.

Though the 1964-65 World’s Fair was over 50 years ago, the attractions and technologies it inspired still resonate with audiences today. Their concepts are timeless and their themes are important to the global, connected world. The effects of the Fair are surely still felt in the Disney Parks today and their lessons will continue to influence Imagineers and guests alike for generations to come.

And now, if you REALLY want to submerse yourself in the delight that is classic Disney TV specials that we all love so much, be sure to watch this episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in "Disneyland Goes to the World's Fair". It never gets old...

(For your viewing pleasure, please remember to pause the Disney Avenue Music Player at the top of the page prior to watching the video below if you are on a desktop computer.)


Brittany Bell grew up in Lewiston, Maine, about 45 minutes away from Portland. She is currently studying Public Relations and Journalism at Boston University, and hopes to one day work for the Mouse himself. She grew up in a Disney-loving home, and would watch Sleeping Beauty on repeat as a little girl. Her first trip to Walt Disney World was in the summer of 2000, at four years old. Ever since then, Brittany and her family take annual trips to the World, and have no intention of vacationing anywhere else. Her favorite places in Walt Disney World are the Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Grand Floridian, and the Magic Kingdom. She can’t go without seeing Fantasmic! at least once each vacation, even though she chokes up a little at the final scene. Brittany is fascinated by how one man’s dream became an empire—one that makes dreams come true every day.

Before she became obsessed with Frozen and Queen Elsa, her favorite Disney characters were Princess Aurora and Mulan. She loves everything and anything Disney, from the parks, to the movies, to the Broadway musicals. In the near future she hopes to participate in the Disney College Program and work as a “friend of a princess”.

You can find all of Brittany's articles here.

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