It’s a big world('s fair)
The New York World’s Fair was a milestone for the Disney parks
Let’s explore a seminal moment in theme parks history. The importance of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair in the evolution of the Disney parks cannot be overstated. The four attractions that the company developed for the fair included Ford’s Magic Skyway, “it’s a small world” presented by Pepsi-Cola and Unicef, General Electric’s Progressland, which featured the Carousel of Progress, and the state of Illinois’ Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.
“Other than Disneyland, nothing else so thoroughly changed the theme park industry than the New York World’s Fair,” said Bob Rogers, founder and chief creative officer of the attraction design firm, BRC Imagination Arts. He made the remark at the IAAPA Expo Legends panel he hosted in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of the fair. In addition to creating four attractions that, in some form, lived on after the fair, Disney’s Imagineers perfected the art of audio animatronics, took E-Ticket rides and thematic storytelling to a new level, and perhaps most significantly, demonstrated that Disneyland-style entertainment had appeal beyond Southern California. Disney’s attractions were wildly popular at the fair.
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Walt Disney had been thinking about expanding his theme park concept to other locations and reportedly saw the fair as a proving ground for East Coast audiences. He must have had confidence in the attractions’ success in New York, however. The same month that the fair opened, April 1964, Walt Disney bought the first piece of land in Florida that eventually became Walt Disney World.
It was a small window for “it’s a small world”
The most enduring and popular Disney attraction to emerge from the New York World’s Fair, “it’s a small world” was something of a last-minute add-on. (By the way, the official name of the attraction uses lower-case initial letters for the title; you know, because it is a small world.) The late Marty Sklar was a legendary Disney Imagineer who worked alongside Walt Disney and helped design the attractions at the fair. He was a panelist at the 50th anniversary event, and shared that representatives from Unicef contacted the Disney company about building an attraction for the fair in early 1963. Because the Imagineers had already committed to the three other projects, executives initially turned down the request. When their boss, Walt Disney, found out about it, he got upset, contacted the children’s fund, and agreed to take on the fourth fair attraction. “At that point, we only had 10 months to design and build it,” Sklar said. “We thought it was crazy.”
Among the Imagineering team that helped craft the attraction were Marc Davis, who developed the doll figures, his wife, Alice Davis, who fashioned the doll’s costumes, and Mary Blair, the artist who was responsible for the overall design and its signature look and feel. As an ode to her contributions, Sklar said the original and all subsequent “it’s a small world” rides include a doll made to look like Mary Blair. Despite the compressed time to plan and build the attraction, it featured 302 dancing dolls and 209 animated toys.
The "it’s a small world" song became an instant classic (and most would say an instant earworm). Richard Sherman, who composed the tune along with his brother Robert, said at the anniversary event that they originally wrote the song as a slow ballad. When he first played it for Walt, the showman suggested that Sherman pick up the pace. The first time the Sherman brothers rode the near-finished attraction with Walt, the audio didn’t work, and no music was playing. To compensate, they belted out the tune live from the boat. “It was a surreal and very memorable moment,” Sherman said.
According to Sklar, Walt understood the importance of music in storytelling and placed a premium on it. When Sklar asked him once why he was spending so much time and energy perfecting a soundtrack for one of the attractions, Walt replied, “People don’t go out of the park whistling the architecture.”
The ride, which cost $2 for adults, generated 10.3 million visitors at the fair and was one of its most popular attractions.
After the fair, “it’s a small world” returned, more or less intact, to Disneyland in California where it opened in a larger show building with some additional and enhanced scenes. Imagineers designed an elaborate facade, which included a fanciful clock. It has since been a feature at five of the Disneyland-inspired parks around the world. Shanghai Disneyland is the only park to forego the attraction. In 2009, Disneyland gave the original “it’s a small world” a makeover and included doll versions of some of its classic animated characters such as Pinocchio and Cinderella.
A great moment in animatronics
Disney’s revolutionary audio-animatronic figures did not debut at the New York World’s Fair. The Enchanted Tiki Room, which opened at Disneyland in 1963, was the first attraction to feature the concept, but its singing birds and flowers were relatively primitive. The Imagineers, at Walt’s behest, took the technology to the next level for the fair. None of the figures were more complex or advanced than the facsimile of the 16th president of the United States that they designed for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.
The project was among Walt’s personal favorites. Lincoln was one of his heroes, and he felt that the storytelling techniques his Imagineers had developed could help bring the president to life in a unique and remarkable way. The attraction is estimated to have cost $1.5 million. Imagineer Blaine Gibson sculpted the figure using an actual life mask of Lincoln from 1860.
Another Imagineer who helped work on the fair attractions and participated in the 50th anniversary presentation was Bob Gurr. He said that animating the robotic character was especially challenging. During one botched attempt in the design process, hydraulic fluid leaked out of the figure’s head. “Upon seeing it, someone said, ‘How dare you re-create the assassination of Lincoln!,’ ” Gurr recalled. “It was nearly impossible to get the thing to work,” he added. “But we kept at it. It taught me a lesson about perseverance.”
The Imagineers created a second Lincoln figure as a backup in case the first one malfunctioned. They installed the second one on Main Street at Disneyland in 1965 where the attraction remains to this day. The fair show inspired the Hall of Presidents at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Lincoln is one of the featured characters in that attraction.
Whereas Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln introduced one, albeit remarkably fluid and advanced, audio animatronic figure, the Carousel of Progress that was part of General Electric's Progressland pavilion at the New York World’s Fair had a slew of human characters. They were part of a show that demonstrated the importance of electricity through different eras. It was presented in a unique revolving theater.
Guests entered one of six 240-seat auditoriums. Arranged in a circle on an an enormous turntable, the theaters revolved around a central stage. (The Chrysler pavilion at the fair used a similar concept at its “Show-Go-Round.” Instead of the audience moving around a fixed series of stages, however, the stage revolved around a stationary audience.) The scenes included the pre-electricity era of the Gay 90s, the dawn of electricity in the 1920s, the post-World War Two 1940s, and the then-near-future of the late 1960s. A family of animatronic characters talked about the role electricity played in their lives from each period.
Gurr said that it was Walt’s idea to include a recurring dog in each scene for continuity. As a bridge between each act, the Sherman brothers-penned “There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” played. With a capacity of 3,600 guests per hour, over 16 million people saw the GE show. It was the third most popular attraction at the fair.
The Carousel of Progress moved to Tomorrowland at Disneyland Park in California and opened in 1967. It closed in 1973 and relocated to the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World where it is still taking guests for a spin through the history of electricity. A different show, America Sings, took up residence in Disneyland’s carousel theater. That show closed in 1988, and many of its animatronic characters migrated to Splash Mountain.
See Dinosaurs–in a Mustang
For the Ford pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, Disney developed the Magic Skyway. It sent passengers in sleek Mustangs and other Ford convertibles back to prehistoric times and the dawn of mankind. If the GE and Lincoln shows presented impressive human figures, the Magic Skyway featured giant lumbering dinosaurs. Sklar said that at the request of the Ford company, Walt Disney provided the narration aboard the ride.
Gurr, whose specialty was designing attraction vehicles including Disney’s monorails and the Autopia cars, said that the attraction’s initial plans called for custom vehicles. “I convinced them that Ford should be using their cars for the ride. It was so obvious to me,” he noted. “It also got me off the hook since I didn't have to create any vehicles.” After the fair, Gurr said that Ford reassembled the 170 cars from the attraction and sold them as used vehicles.
The fourth most popular pavilion at the fair, Magic Skyway generated more than 15 million ticket sales.
Magic Skyway was the only one of Disney’s four World’s Fair attractions that didn’t return to Disneyland in its original form. The Imagineers determined that the cavemen characters weren’t quite up to snuff, but reused the dinosaurs as part of a Fantasia-influenced Primeval World scene that was added along the Disneyland Railroad route in 1966. The beasts still lumber aside the tracks now. (It’s a bit odd to view dinosaurs from a train; then again, it was kind of weird to ogle dinosaurs and cavemen from a Mustang convertible.) The Magic Skyway probably inspired the dinosaurs that were part of the now-defunct Universe of Energy/Ellen’s Energy Adventure at Epcot (as well as countless dinosaur exhibits at non-Disney parks and other locations).
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Some of you will think I am an old fart, but I am proud to say that I visited the New York World’s Fair. (Granted, I was a youngster.) It positively blew my mind, especially the Disney attractions, and helped set me on my crazy theme park journalism path.
How about you? Just between us old farts, did you also attend the New York World’s Fair? Was your mind blown? What do you think about the present-day attractions the fair inspired?
I did not attend the fair. But my wife did with her family and she has vivid memories of the attractions. Decades later we were at Magic Kingdom and took our daughter on Carousel of Progress. Things come full circle!!
Fantastic article. I love hearing the history behind these attractions. I was born about a decade too late to attend that fair, but love hearing the experiences of others.
Sometimes I wonder with my own kids what it takes to bring that same sense of awe - animatronics are old hat to them. When I took them to the Magic Kingdom for the first time, they were rather unimpressed with the classic dark rides after being born in an age of CGI and VR.
I guess the upside of that is that it drives Imagineers to constantly be pushing the envelope of technology to capture the imaginations of new generations. My kids have yet to experience some of the next generation rides such as Rise of the Resistance. I can't wait to see if those have what it takes to leave them surprised.