Fifty years ago, in Flushing Meadows, Queens, the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair opened its doors. This grand exposition featured exhibits from around the world in massive mid-century structures; it also included four marquee attractions developed by the Imagineers at WED Enterprises – General Electric’s Progressland, Ford’s Magic Skyway, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and it’s a small world. This, perhaps, has proved to be the Fair’s greatest legacy. Five decades later – hard to believe, but true – those four attractions have paved the way for the modern Disney theme park experience. They each pioneered technologies that came to define what we think of as a “Disney” attraction; before the Fair, Disneyland was a very different park than the one it would be afterwards.
The Fair itself seems to have been the last great American expo to have a major cultural impact. There have been fairs since, true, but none have left the kind of lasting iconography of the 1964 Fair. I was born more than a decade after the Fair ended, but even in my childhood so many of the elements of the Fair – the Unisphere, the Disney shows, key elements of the architecture, and even the general attitude of bygone futurism – remained in the cultural currency. Perhaps it is the idealistic futurism that people still find appealing about the Fair; certainly, the event remains popular today with generations born long after most of the exhibits were bulldozed. The 1964 Fair occurred just as the mid-century shine started to wear off of America; while President Kennedy had already been lost, the country had yet to have its innocence ended with Vietnam, more assassinations, Nixon, the dominance of corporate greed, and everything that has followed. It was a time when even major corporations were still portrayed as innovative, benevolent forces, guaranteeing a “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”.
We’ll be talking about each of these four masterpieces in the days and weeks to come, but I wanted to start with a reminder of this musical treasure which is a must-buy for any fan of the Fair, the Disney attractions it inspired, or just of Walt and the Sherman Brothers. It’s been out for several years now, but I’d advise picking one up before they become difficult to find. It’s a great set of music.
I also wanted to link to this old article of mine, which is my favorite story about the Fair and a fun look at all the logistics that had to go in to operating four major shows on the other side of the continent from Disneyland.