Be Our Guest: Disney and the 1964 New York World’s Fair

THP is happy to (finally!) introduce Stephen (who you have already heard about in a few past posts)!

In 1955 the Walt Disney Company opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Touted as the world’s first theme park, it reinvented the amusement industry and has gone on to inspire countless visitors. If  we went back in time to visit Disneyland on its opening day we would find it to be an unfamiliar place. Classic attractions like The Hall of Presidents, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion and It’s a Small World did not exist. While some of these concepts were on the drawing board during these early years, finding the resources to create them was difficult. Disney began seeking corporate sponsorships to aid in the cost of new attractions at Disneyland. However, an event was taking shape that would turn the tables on this strategy, an opportunity to build attractions outside of Disneyland on an international stage. That event was The 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

New York World's Fair

What is a World’s Fair? Let’s consider a modern day analogy: trade shows. Inside a trade show you’ll find a map of ‘booths’ where different exhibitors are demonstrating and sharing information about their  products. Auto shows are common examples, where auto makers from around the world show off their cars and technology. Trade shows are a novel marketing concept because they allow consumers to experience a brand in a very physical and memorable way. A World’s Fair is a similar concept but on a bigger scale. Instead of companies from one industry participating, whole countries, religions, corporations, and other entities come to educate visitors about their brand, beliefs, or culture. And these participants don’t just have a ‘booth’, they have a ‘pavilion’. A piece of land where they can promote their cause with presentations, attractions, rides, artifacts, anything they can imagine. Does this terminology sound familiar? It should. Many of these concepts became the foundation of our modern day theme parks, Disney parks especially.

Given the early success of Disneyland several corporations and organizations turned to Disney to create their attractions for the New York World’s Fair. These included General Electric, the Ford Motor Company, the state of Illinois and Pepsi/UNICEF. The attractions Disney delivered are remembered as the highlights of the Fair. The ride systems and concepts they introduced would serve as the foundation for many of their future attractions as well. Let’s take a quick look at these 4 attractions.

General Electric: Progressland

The General Electric Pavilion was a three-story domed building featuring several attractions promoting the positive influence electricity has had on our lives. The main attraction of the pavilion was The Carousel of Progress, an innovative theatrical experience where visitors viewed the show from an auditorium that rotated around a central stage. On the stage itself, another innovative technology was employed: Audio-Animitronics (AA). With AA, live actors were replaced by something in between a mannequin and a robot, human figures programmed to move, speak, and blink just like real people. With this technology, which was also used to create non-human characters, the figures were able to follow a pre-recorded show and perform it identically every time. Due to the unique design of the theater, each of the 4 acts of the show could be performed simultaneously as the audience rotated from one act to the next, resulting in high rider capacity.

New York World's Fair

(from a postcard)

The show itself followed a middle American family through several decades and examined how electricity was changing their lives. Naturally GE appliances were featured prominently. An original song written by the Sherman brothers eased the transition between acts and reminded the audience “there’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow and tomorrow’s just a dream away”.

The pavilion also featured several other attractions including the skydome spectacular: an enormous video projection on the inside of the domed roof of the pavilion, a demonstration of nuclear fusion, and The Toucan and Parrot Electric Utility Show.


Ford Motor Company: The Magic Skyway

Of all the Disney attractions at the Fair, Ford’s Magic Skyway is the least known, yet its influence on the technology and format of many future Disney rides is far reaching. At the previous New York World’s Fair in 1939, GM stole the show with their “Futurama” attraction, and with GM preparing to present an updated version at the ‘64 Fair, Ford needed something to rival it. They turned to Disney to make it happen. The attraction they created took travelers in Ford Mustangs back in time through scenes featuring dinosaurs, cavemen and visions of a future metropolis.

New York World's Fair

(from a postcard)

The concepts of AA representations of history, like those of Magic Skyway, have been re-imagined in several of Disney’s attractions. More importantly the ride system developed for this attraction is the basis for the people-mover and omni-mover ride systems that are used throughout Disney parks.

New York World's Fair

(From World’s Fair CD booklet, released by Disney)

The State of Illinois: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln

Walt Disney’s love of history is evident in many of the attractions he created. One such concept that was in development for Disneyland at the time was a “Hall of Presidents” that would honor every U.S. president with a life-like AA figure. The level of realism that was required to create convincing animatronic figures of these real-life men made this a very ambitious undertaking.

New York World's Fair

New York World's Fair


A few years before the Fair, Robert Moses, the president of the Fair, was given a demonstration of the Abraham Lincoln AA that was in development. Upon seeing this he insisted, “I will not open the Fair without that exhibit.” Moses searched for someone to sponsor the attraction while Disney struggled to perfect the movements of their most complex AA figure to date. The state of Illinois agreed to sponsor this attraction given the historical ties Lincoln had with their state.

The main show began with Abraham Lincoln sitting in a chair. He then stood up to address the audience with a speech that combined parts from several speeches he had delivered throughout his life. Royal Dano provided the voice of Lincoln over a moving score composed by Buddy Baker. The final product managed to bring Lincoln back to life in a respectful and inspiring way.

Pepsi and UNICEF: It’s a Small World

With Disney already inundated with work for the other 3 pavilions, the Disney Company originally turned down the request from Pepsi-Cola to build a fourth attraction to benefit The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Walt quickly overturned that decision and got to work on the project. He called on the talents of several familiar individuals to bring his idea of “a little boat ride around the world” to life. Mary Blair, an artist and illustrator who had worked with Disney in the past, was enlisted to create the imagery and characters for the ride. The Sherman brothers were also brought in to create the soundtrack, an unforgettable song (for better or worse) that reminds us “it’s a small world after all”. It went on to become one of the most memorable attractions of all time. Visitors boarded boats that traveled through AA representations of children from all over the world, singing harmoniously in their native languages. The ride and its message have continued to inspire guests through the years. Today there are five incarnations of “It’s a Small World” operating at Disney parks around the globe.

New York World's Fair


New York World's Fair


In many ways, Disney’s contributions to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair represent the beginning of what we have come to define as Disney attractions. However, for Walt himself these attractions represent the end. Before his untimely death in December 1966, Walt was consumed with creating a new destination that would rival Disneyland in every way: The Disney World Resort in Florida. Unfortunately he never saw this dream realised. Instead, these World’s Fair attractions were the last he brought to completion, but his legacy and attention to detail lives on in all of them. The Fair was Walt’s final masterpiece.

* * *

Disney and the 1964 New York World’s Fair is part of our September I Heart NY series.

2 thoughts on “Be Our Guest: Disney and the 1964 New York World’s Fair

  1. wow he did all this and then died that is so tragic and sad that hapen to the man who created the hapiest place on earth disne world in florida and disney land in annahime california.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s