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How One World's Fair Changed Disney Theme Parks Forever

Peace through understanding. The phrase sounds like a social media platform, and that speaks volumes about the timelessness of the concept. Over half a century ago, the erudite wanted to share their knowledge with the rest of the world. The horrors of World War II were almost two decades in the past, and there was unbridled optimism in America. It was the age of Camelot, and even the assassination of John F. Kennedy couldn’t undo the excitement over the country’s place at the forefront of emerging technologies.

A seminal event during this timeframe came five years before man landed on the Moon for the first time. Instead, it was a global celebration of the betterment of mankind. It was also the moment when a company run by a legendary entertainer defined itself as one of the world leaders with regards to innovation. We still feel the ramifications of this international exhibition today.

The theme park industry and Disneyland in particular were still in the early days when company founder Walt Disney delivered a directive to his legendary Imagineers. He wanted them to attend an upcoming event, but showing up wasn’t good enough for his team. No, they had to dominate, stealing attention away from other major corporations. Their assignment was to place their stamp on the future.

The event in question was the New York World’s Fair that began on April 22, 1964, and it lasted for six months that year as well as six more months in 1965. Those 12 months in total fundamentally altered the way that people view major attractions, expecting them to feel event-like in scope. Any fan of theme parks in general and Disney parks in particular owes a great deal of gratitude to the showcase.

Let’s travel back to the past to a time when Walt Disney had already conquered the world multiple times already, but an unprecedented series of events provided him one final opportunity to do so yet again. The New York World’s Fair in 1964 and 1965 stands in time as that critical moment when all the breathtaking new ideas from Walt Disney and his vaunted Imagineers triggered the start of several new types of theme park attractions. You’ve heard about this event and Disney’s importance in it for all your life. Here’s the story of how Imagineers stole the show while the entire world was watching.

Good day for a fair

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

People love to reminisce about their youth. It’s the reason why ‘90s pop culture is so pervasive today, and it’s the explanation for how New York City wound up hosting two different World’s Fair events only a quarter century apart. A few powerful businessmen in the five boroughs shared fond childhood memories of the 1939 World’s Fair, also held in New York City. Two decades later, fate afforded these men the opportunity to bid on the event’s return to their fair city. The residual goodwill from the prior celebration of human endeavor gave New York the edge to host again.

The Bureau of International Expositions wasn’t a fan of all the plans for the 1964 World’s Fair. When they learned that exhibitors must pay fees in order to participate, the BIE admonished the event planner, Robert Moses, owner of one of the coolest nicknames ever, the Master Builder of New York City. Undeterred, Moses took his concerns public, thereby pressuring the BIE to bow to his will. They refused to back down and eventually boycotted the event, wholly removing their presence from their most important global event.

Oddly, the ramifications of this political scrum were largely positive. Liberated from the rules of a governing body, Moses could more easily meet his goals for the World’s Fair. The most important of them was that 70 million people attend the event, something that he deduced would require two different six-month periods of operation to achieve. Major corporations wanting to participate knew that they would have to pay to play. They greedily clasped their hands together in anticipation anyway, because 70 million consumers are otherwise impossible to target, no matter how large an advertising campaign a company musters. The entire world would be watching the 1964/1965 World’s Fair, and a significant portion of the population would also attend.

The planning phase

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

There were 3.26 billion people living in 1964, so 70 million represents two percent of humanity visiting the same event. The stakes were high, and savvy corporate leaders knew that the opportunity could make or break their company. In the case of a 62-year-old cinematic icon, the 1964 event afforded him one last opportunity to leave the world in awe prior to his death in 1966. Even if he didn’t know he was sick yet, Walt Disney still realized that by the average life expectancy of the era for American males, just under 67, he was running out of time. This World’s Fair represented one final golden opportunity to leave his mark on society yet again.

The Disney Brand

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Given his diverse combination of skills, Walt Disney understood that his name and its accompanying brand would always hold appeal to potential corporate sponsors. When he learned in the late 1950s that a new World’s Fair would return to New York City, he knew that his legendary team of Imagineers would be in demand. He saw tremendous business opportunity in this turn of events.

Think of the upcoming World’s Fair from Walt Disney’s perspective. The 1950s and 1960s were the space age, a seminal historical time period when a future of Moon houses and Martian condos seemed only a generation away.

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There are 2 comments.

Excellent piece. Thank you.

I love this story, along worn many others on this site. I am only a little bothered that small world is treated as annoying. The world in a childlike state of peace an bliss is an amazing dream. What could be a better signature experience for Disney?

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