The New York World’s Fair of 1964/1965, held in Flushing Meadows park in New York City, looms large in the history of the Walt Disney Company and the Disney Parks. It’s there that, after opening Disneyland and successfully operating it for the better part of a decade, Walt Disney and his hand-picked team of Imagineers set their sites on the next generation of attractions.
Though Disney’s Audio-Animatronics were first used in The Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, it was at the World’s Fair – thanks to sponsorship from mega-corporations and other organizations that were footing the bill for his work – that Walt saw the opportunity to create more than just a handful of talking birds, plants, and tiki idols. Now, he wanted to move on to full human animatronics, continuing to push the boundaries of just how lifelike the technology could become.
As a result, the 1964 World’s Fair saw the debut of four brand new attractions that featured Disney’s Audio-Animatronics – it’s a small world (sponsored by Pepsi/UNICEF), the Carousel of Progress (hosted by General Electric), Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (at the State of Illinois pavilion), and Ford Motor Company’s Magic Skyway.
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The first three would go on to become classic attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, with Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln evolving into the Hall of Presidents at the Magic Kingdom. The Magic Skyway, however, was never recreated, thanks to strained relations between Ford and Disney, but lent its animatronic dinosaurs to the Primeval World diorama that guests could see when riding the Disneyland Railroad.
But that’s what eventually became of these four Disney attractions at the 1964 World’s Fair. What, though, was being said about them at the time? Let’s dive into The Official Guide to the New York World’s Fair 1964/195 (“by the editors of Time-Life Books”!) and see how these innovative, now-legendary experiences were first being sold to the public.
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it’s a small world
Possibly the most famous of the Disney attractions that arose from the 1964 New York World’s Fair was “it’s a small world,” sponsored by Pepsi-Cola in conjunction with UNICEF.
The Guide’s official description explains that Pepsi-Cola’s pavilion “brings a small-scale Disneyland to the Fair in a salute to the children of the world. A series of ingenious Walt Disney animations is the main show. . . . a nine-minute boat ride [that] takes visitors through miniature settings from many countries, where Disney-made figures of children, animals and birds sing and dance.”
It goes on to explain that “The boat ride, called ‘It’s a Small World—A Salute to UNICEF,’ carries spectators past such familiar scenes as France’s Eiffel Tower, a Dutch windmill and India’s Taj Mahal. The animated figures dance, cavort with droll animals, and in their various languages sing a song called ‘It’s a Small World,’ composed especially for the exhibit.”
An ad for the exhibit is a bit livelier, showcasing pictures of the animatronics (as well as a photo of Walt Disney, smiling, next to the Pepsi-Cola logo) and text that notes how, “Pepsi & Walt Disney present ‘It’s a Small World’ – Disneyland fun at the Fair! Take a magical Disneyland boat ride at the Pepsi Pavilion. See a dazzling world! More than 300 amazingly lifelike figures—the children of UNICEF lands—spring alive in full size to entertain you with delightful songs and dances.”
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Today you can find versions of “it’s a small world” all over the globe, including at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom.
Carousel of Progress
The original iteration of the Carousel of Progress also debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, as a part of “General Electric Progressland,” where – an ad in the Guide promises – “You’ll love Walt Disney’s magic touch.” The same ad touts the “Delightful Carousel of Progress—where the audience moves and electronic figures enact a warm, whimsical play in the wonderful Walt Disney style.”
The official description of the attraction in the Guide goes into further detail:
In the first part of the program, separate auditoriums, each holding 250 people, circle into position and are carried past stages on which life-sized, three-dimensional, animated human figures move, talk, laugh and act out the story of electricity in the home from the Gay ‘90s to the present.
A late 19th century home is shown. Its inhabitants struggle with all the latest luxuries: telephone, gas lamps, gramophone, kitchen pump, a hand-cranked clothes washer and a hand-pumped, air-suction vacuum cleaner.
A home of the ‘20s comes next, with coffeemakers and sewing machines, “monitor”-topped refrigerators and a homemade cooling device for hot weather: an electric fan that circulates air over a cake of ice.
The ‘40s are recalled with the little, round television screen, enlarged a bit by a water-filled lens, plus some odd applications of electricity: e.g., housewives mixing wallpaper paste with cake mixers.
The glories of today glitter in a living room at Christmastime, a glass-enclosed, electrically heated patio, a kitchen that all but runs itself.
It’s remarkable just how much this description of the final scene still applies to the Carousel of Progress as it exists today in the Magic Kingdom, albeit with updated (though, as of 2022, still far out-of-date) technology.
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Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln
Unlike Pepsi or General Electric, the state of Illinois does not seem to have purchased in ad in the Guide, so the only description of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln comes from the official notes on the state’s pavilion:
Walt Disney has created a life-sized animated figure that looks, acts and speaks like Lincoln. It performs in the 500-seat Lincoln Theater . . . With mannerisms characteristic of the great Civil War President, the animated figure recites excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches on liberty, civil rights and freedom. Dimensions for the figure duplicate the physical statistics found in biographies; the facial features were taken from Lincoln’s life mask. The figure is capable of more than 250,000 combinations of action, including smiles, frowns and gestures.
Possibly reflecting the spending habits and interest of a state government rather than a private corporation, this attraction comes across as the least flashy out of the four, even though the Abraham Lincoln Audio-Animatronic – which was able to stand up and sit down – was perhaps the most advanced in the Fair.
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The Ford Magic Skyway, a great lost Disney attraction, sat visitors directly inside Ford convertibles that were whisked along a track overlooking a variety of dioramas and animatronics attempting to tell the entire history of man, from primeval times to a glimpse of the possible future.
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Neither Disney nor Ford were afraid to drum that idea up for the all the hyperbole it was worth, as seen in the text of an ad for the exhibit within the guidebook:
TAKE A FUN-FILLED RIDE ON WALT DISNEY’S MAGIC SKYWAY
Ride the Magic Skyway in the comfort of new Ford Motor Company convertibles. Zoom through the Time Tunnel to prehistoric times—see cavemen, battling beasts and erupting volcanoes.
Travel the Magic Skyway into the fabulous future. Visit the breathtaking Space City.
Discover why Tomorrow Beings Today, the story of scientific research from the laser beam to radio telescopes.
Inspect Henry Ford’s Quadricycle . . . Ford Motor Company winners on the raceways of today, from Monaco to Daytona . . . and the idea cars of the future like the Allegro, the Cougar II.
Hear the “Auto Parts Harmonic Orchestra.” See the Magic Mirror and much, much more. Come be our guest at the Wonder Rotunda . . . enjoy seven acres of Disney-delightful fun.
Though this particular “Disney-delightful” fun never made its way to Disneyland, nor was it recreated at Walt Disney World in later decades, its impact on the trajectory of Disney Imagineering technology was nevertheless a vital and important part of Disney Park history.