It's often said that Walt Disney World's Epcot was designed to be something like a permanent World's Fair – a partnership between countries, corporations, and Disney to create entertainment that could inform and educate. That's all well and good, but it raises a rather big question: Why would Disney, a company known mostly for its theme parks and animated films, be interested in building something in the style of a permanent World's Fair?
The answer is actually rather simple – it worked for them before.
In 1964, New York held what would become one of the most iconic World's Fairs ever, and one of the innovators to give it such an important place in history was Walt Disney. The Fair is remembered, mostly, as a showcase for mid-20th century design – featuring the type of clean, modern lines and theme architecture that has now become a visual shorthand for the era. For Disney fans, however, it's mostly remembered as the proving ground for four Walt Disney-created attractions. In fact, those attractions were so beloved, 91 percent of all attendees to the 1964 World's Fair rode at least one of Walt's attractions (according to the essential Walt Disney Imagineering) -- all of which are still around today in some shape or form.
Let's take a look at those attractions, and remember how they looked back in 1964:
1. It's a Small World
That's right – one of the most iconic attractions in Disney history actually debuted in New York City. In 1964, its full title was “Pepsi Presents Walt Disney's 'It's a Small World' - a Salute to UNICEF and the World's Children.” While the ride was successful, the title was a bit wordy, so when it was eventually transplanted to Disneyland in 1966, it was shortened to its current moniker.
Based on a stunning design from genius imagineer Mary Blair, the original It's a Small World was as colorful and joyful as it is today. And, of course, Disney's trusted Sherman Brothers wrote a song for the attraction that is likely still stuck in your head from your last Disney trip.
Its exterior boasted an enormous moving sculpture called “The Tower of the Four Winds,” designed by imagineer Rolly Crump. The tower echoed Blair's overarching aesthetic design of the attraction and provided an eye-catching landmark for fairgoers looking for one of Disney's creations. It worked, and fairgoers sought out the ride for both its visual appeal and the fact that it rarely had a lengthy wait, despite its high demand.
The ride experience, while different in many ways from the version we enjoy today, has the same sense of mood and feel the original had back in 1964 – owing most to the iconic music of the Sherman Brothers and the gorgeous design of Blair. When the ride was transferred to Disneyland in 1966, the Tower of the Four Winds couldn't come along with it, which prompted Blair to design a new facade – one the Disneyland version of the ride still uses to this day, and which the Walt Disney World version is inspired by.
2. Ford Magic Skyway
The Ford Magic Skyway was, obviously, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, and featured full-sized, driverless Mustangs transporting fairgoers through dioramas depicting scenes throughout Earth's history – most notably, of dinosaurs and cavemen. Its closest relatives today, in terms of story, are probably Spaceship Earth or Universe of Energy – both of which offer a similar ride experience, using animatronics to tell the story of mankind and our planet, from distant past to the future. But, Ford Magic Skyway's modern legacy isn't so much in its storytelling, but rather in its design.
Those driverless ride vehicles were a request from Ford – the company wanted fairgoers to be able to sit in actual, off-the-production-line Mustangs, while still having those cars pilot themselves through the track. Disney's solution to this was ingenious and, ultimately, led a design used by the PeopleMover in Disneyland and Disney World. That design inspired Walt to include it in his plans for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
Much of the original track from the Ford Magic Skyway was moved to Disneyland to host its PeopleMover attraction, and is still in place above Tomorrowland. And those prehistoric animatronics? You can still see many of those in the Primeval World exhibit on Disneyland's Railroad.
3. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln
The Illinois pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair included a tribute to one of the state's greatest individuals – President Abraham Lincoln. Tasked with creating an attraction for the pavilion starring Mr. Lincoln, Walt told his Imagineers to create a truly dignified animatronic version of the President, one which could believably deliver one of Lincoln's speeches to an audience of discerning fairgoers. To that point, most of Disneyland's shows featured audio-animatronics designed as either animals or fairy tale characters, and so creating one which accurately and subtly represented the movements of a historic figure seemed to be a rather daunting task.
And yet, even with those pressures, the Imagineers managed to build one of Disney's most famous and beloved animatronics.
Lincoln's address lasted just over five minutes, and was performed by actor Royal Dano. The speech is actually portions of several Lincoln addresses woven together to create one complete experience. It was so successful, Disney decided to bring the attraction to Disneyland, where (after a brief hiatus) it is still showcased today, complete with Dano's original voice recording. The original Lincoln animatronic has since been replaced many times, but his address is still essentially the same as the one fairgoers would have experienced back in 1964. The success of that attraction at Disneyland ultimately helped launch its sequel down in Orlando – The Hall of Presidents.
While you may not recognize the name “Progressland,” General Electric's pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, you probably would recognize the name of its signature attraction: The Carousel of Progress.
Walt Disney had long wanted to design a show telling the story of technological progress in the United States. When GE approached Walt with plans to sponsor a pavilion at the Fair, Walt jumped at the chance to make his idea a reality.
Walt's original plan called for several show scenes featuring animatronic performers talking about how technology and innovation changed their lives, with each scene featuring the same family years into the future. Eventually, Imagineers designed a mechanism by which the audience would revolve on an exterior wheel around a central stage with six compartments, each compartment showcasing its own scene. All six scenes would be shown simultaneously to guests, with the seats rotating to the next scene, rather than having guests walk from stage to stage. The resulting apparatus evoked a kind of carousel, thus helping give the attraction its name,
The ride was, like all of Disney's pavilions, extremely well-received and, again, was transplanted to Disneyland at the completion of World's Fair. It has since been moved to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, where it still operates today -- making it the only attraction in Orlando that Walt, himself, had a significant hand in designing.
Much of the show is the same today as it was in 1964, including one of Walt Disney's most beloved Sherman Brothers songs: There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.
Those themes – progress, technology, innovation, and the strength of the family – can be found throughout Disney's work and, even after his death, in the work of his successors. It's those same ideas that led to attractions like Test Track, Spaceship Earth, and The American Adventure to open at Epcot.
And so, if you find yourself on one of those four classic Disney rides, or any others like it, just remember it can all be drawn back the crazy New York summers of 1964 and 1965.
And for you Universal Studios/Men in Black fans, yes – these things came from the 1964 World's Fair too: