The Modern Theme Park Was Born At The 1964 World's Fair – Here's How It Happened

(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.

Progressland

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.

A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

The same optimistic futurism of Ford's Magic Skyway was represented at Progressland, sponsored by General Electric. Before it became known as the Carousel of Progress, this unique show — housed in a large, circular building where guests entered to sit in theater-like seats that would rotate around a stage and its four setpieces — was designed to both remind audiences of how far technology had come just in the first 60-plus years of the 20th century, and how much further it could go.

The Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard, came up with a song that served as a particularly satisfying earworm, "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow", and represented the hope of the attraction. As with Great Moments, the Audio-Animatronic figures are all human, talking and moving to approximate human movement as they delivered expository dialogue about what it was like to live in the 1900s, or 1920s, or 1940s.

The Carousel of Progress, as it's now known, is no longer sponsored by General Electric, and its original home is no more. After being rebuilt at Disneyland, opening a few months after Walt Disney's death, the Carousel of Progress eventually moved to Walt Disney World in 1975, both to placate GE and to help welcome in a refurbished version of Tomorrowland. The attraction has gone through notable, understandable refurbishments over time — the final show scene, in which the family we follow now lives in the present day, looks more like a 1990s version of the future — but continues to appeal to anyone with a love for a brighter future. And the Audio-Animatronic designs here, too, inspired future Disney attractions.

The Purest Earworm of All

And then, of course, there is It's A Small World. The attractions mentioned here have all had some kind of a foothold in popular culture of the last 55 years. The basic concept of Audio-Animatronics has been referenced in movies as big as Jurassic Park (though without using the phrase, as a lawyer confuses it with "auto-erotica"). But it's hard to think of a ride more recognizable, and more divisive, than It's A Small World, so much so that The Lion King name-drops the attraction song simply to mock it.

This ride first came into being fairly quickly — Disney's early Imagineers were only given 11 months to create and build the pavilion, sponsored by Pepsi. The whimsical, colorful and bright design of the attraction was led by art director Mary Blair, whose work had been a major part of Disney's 50s-era animated features. Other iconic figures like Marc Davis (one of the Nine Old Men of Disney Animation) designed show scenes and characters, though they all amounted to the same basic idea: traveling through different countries of the world by boat and seeing children singing...the same song. Over and over.

"It's A Small World" is perhaps the purest earworm of Disney music, a song that you've heard even if you hate it, even if you've never been on the attraction, even if you've never even heard of the ride. The song is short, but it can repeat unendingly; it can be slowed down or re-arranged, and it's as familiar to people as the Audio-Animatronic dolls in the ride itself. Those dolls and that song, though it may seem hard to imagine now, made for a wildly popular ride at the New York World's Fair.

In the two seasons of this particular World's Fair, the attraction sold 10 million tickets between children and adults, with all proceeds going to UNICEF. This is one of the strange appeals of Disney theme-park attractions — some of them seem truly baffling on paper, but still work for the majority of guests. It's A Small World is the rarest of attractions, too, appearing at five of the six Disney theme parks worldwide and given a holiday makeover every October. Only the truly iconic Disney attractions can be found basically everywhere around the world.

Paving the Way of the Future

Today, of course, Audio-Animatronic technology is not the be-all and end-all of what you can find at a theme park. In 2019, Audio-Animatronics represent something more antiquated, a sign of the times. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios and Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom both have introduced a more immersive sense of guests being in the themed environment, leaving aside characters themselves.

And many attractions in all sorts of theme parks incorporate 3-D and 4-D technology on large screens to give you a sense of being inside a given world. But that kind of technology was predicated on the success of what came before. If we're now in a larger, more expansive third-generation revival of theme-park technology, Audio-Animatronics were the second generation. The ultra-immersive theme-park environments of today only exist because Audio-Animatronics suggested a way to replicate the real world to entertain guests of all ages. 55 years ago, Walt Disney and his Imagineers unveiled the results of their imaginations, having paved the way of the future. At the 1964 World's Fair, the Disney team opened up a world of possibilities with a ripple effect that isn't over yet.