(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises.)

The concept of what a theme park is, or can be, came firmly into being with the opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955 in Anaheim, California. But the park that existed on Opening Day was vastly different from what Disneyland and the other Disney theme parks have become over the past six-plus decades. In many ways, the second-generation update of what Disneyland and its descendants would turn into was made a reality to the general populace 65 years ago today, with the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair.

The Audio-Animatronic Era

A year-round World’s Fair is now a relic of the Baby Boomer generation, but back in the 1960s, it was a consistent event. The World’s Fair that took place in New York City through the mid-1960s first opened its doors on April 22, 1964. The purpose of a World’s Fair was to be both an exposition of current and upcoming trends in technology, living, and society, as well as an all-encompassing amusement park that would appeal to the whole family. The U.S. government had pavilions, as did many major corporations, to showcase in a fun way to the public what they were working on that might one day be in all of our lives.

Just as it was common for major corporations, such as IBM, Bell Systems, Westinghouse, and more, to show off at the World’s Fair, it made perfect sense for Walt Disney and his Imagineers to use the World’s Fair as a way to preview what was to come at Disneyland. This specific World’s Fair ended up being a testing ground for four of the most important attractions in Disney history, all of which first premiered in NYC and not at Disneyland: Ford’s Magic Skyway, the General Electric Carousel of Progress, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and It’s A Small World. Each of these attractions still has a place in some way within at least one of the Disney theme parks. Moreover, they all represented the beginning of a new era of Disney theme-park attraction design: the Audio-Animatronic era.

The quartet of World’s Fair attractions were, to note, not the first example of Disney showcasing Audio-Animatronic technology. A year prior to the opening of the World’s Fair, Walt Disney and his team unveiled a show that’s still running strong at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World today: Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. This 16-minute show has always been an audience favorite, odd though it may be. Audience members watch a series of birds talk and sing, along with tiki gods, flowers, and more performing with them on a series of a tropically themed songs. (It usually helps to get yourself a Dole Whip outside the attraction.) This technology brought both the inanimate and the non-human to life, avoiding the uncanny valley from the get-go.


For the four attractions premiering at the World’s Fair, Disney and his Imagineers pushed themselves further. (This same year, another Audio-Animatronic example appeared on film in Mary Poppins. In the “A Spoonful of Sugar” sequence, the bird Mary sings along with is Audio-Animatronic, ensuring that it would “perform” in the right rhythm with Julie Andrews.) For the Skyway, a progenitor of the still-running and underrated Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover at Walt Disney World, the Audio-Animatronic technology was meant to approximate a series of dinosaurs. It’s the kind of technology you can now find when riding the Disneyland Railroad and exploring the “Primeval World” section between Tomorrowland and Main Street, U.S.A.

The Carousel of Progress (then dubbed “Progressland”) utilized Audio-Animatronic technology to create four different sets of human characters, a family we visit at different points of time throughout the 20th century as technologies change around them. The now-ubiquitous It’s A Small World, initially designed as a salute to UNICEF, features the technology in every one of its show scenes, as hundreds of childlike dolls sing about togetherness and kindness. And with Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, there was only one figure to design with Audio-Animatronics: the country’s best president. So, no pressure.

The Skyway was an ambitious attraction — at the time, it was the longest ride Disney had ever conceived — that didn’t end up making the same transition to the theme parks the way the other World’s Fair attractions did. This is largely due to a lack of interest on Ford’s part. Each of the attractions was heavily funded by its sponsor pavilion, and its future was dependent on that sponsor’s willingness to continue the sponsorship in the theme parks. (Ford took back some of the parts of the attraction to one of its own museums.)

But the premise of the Magic Skyway, in which audiences would ride on a vehicle meant to approximate a Ford, traveling through time from the age of the dinosaurs to the possible future of humans living in a “Space City”, has found life in other attractions over time. Where the PeopleMover and the Magic Skyway share their DNA is the constantly moving track system. Aside from the aforementioned dinosaurs in the Disneyland Railroad, what’s most present now that was initially part of the Magic Skyway is its tone. The basic notion of an optimistic future was an underpinning of Disney’s 60s-era personality, and an equally important foundational part of Epcot Center when it opened in 1982.

Unwavering Patriotism

The other three attractions have miraculously survived, on and off, for 55 years in the continental Disney theme parks. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln has been featured on Main Street, U.S.A. for years at Disneyland in the Opera House that greets you as you walk underneath the railroad bridge from the ticket booth. Over time, the technology used to bring Abraham Lincoln to life, as he recites a speech (as performed by actor and Lincoln impersonator Royal Dano), has been tweaked and perfected. But even in 1964, it had to be groundbreaking to see a human figure, much like the long-dead Lincoln, stand up and deliver an amalgam of the great president and orator’s speeches. The World’s Fair version lasted through the second World’s Fair season in the fall of 1965, but it was installed at Disneyland in July of 1965 as well.

Great Moments hasn’t run uninterrupted at Disney, though thanks to outcries from fans, it’s still around even now. There was a brief period in the mid-2000s, after the park celebrated its 50th anniversary, when Great Moments was taken out in favor of a look back at Disneyland hosted by Steve Martin and Donald Duck. (That movie, Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years, is still playing in the pre-show for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.) But since December of 2009, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln has played to fans around the world. Both the show itself and the beautifully designed pre-show area are a testament to Disney’s unwavering patriotism; the show’s Audio-Animatronic design has inspired so many of the other full-body characters you can see in attractions like The Hall of Presidents, Spaceship Earth, and the Disney characters themselves in Splash Mountain.

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