Beyond the Vacation Kingdom of the World: Walt Disney and the 1964 World's Fair

by Tom Richards, contributing writer

Imagine opening the world's first theme park, stunning all critics who predicted an unmitigated disaster, and building a trusting relationship with the American public in less than five years. Then imagine shifting the focus of your most talented and accomplished artists and designers to four ambitious projects for a temporary World's Fair on the opposite side of the country, basically putting new development at your successful theme park on hold during those years of research and development.

That's exactly the risky path Walt Disney took in the early 1960s as he and his team of Imagineers developed attractions for the 1964/65 World's Fair in New York. In the words of Disney Legend and longtime Imagineer Marty Sklar, Walt Disney—in partnership with his brother Roy—had the uncanny ability to merge extraordinary creative endeavors with the eye of a practical businessman. As it turned out, the unforgettable attractions that Walt and his team devoted for the 1964/65 World's Fair in New York eventually found their way back to Disneyland and set the stage for what was to become Walt Disney World.

As we approach the 50th Anniversary of the World's Fair this spring, let's take a look at a wonderful audio collection commemorating Walt Disney's contributions to the fair, Walt Disney and the 1964 World's Fair released on March 29, 2009. This stunning set of five CDs and an accompanying book, this release offers a tantalizing glimpse into the attractions developed by Walt Disney and his artists.

Peace Through Understanding

The 1964/1965 New York World's Fair was a natural fit for Walt Disney in many significant ways. Just as Disneyland often played the role of American Ambassador to the world, so the fair hoped to foster "universal and international" good will as reflected in its overarching theme: Peace through Understanding. According to Marty Sklar, Walt Disney was an "eternal optimist" when it came to the future, an unusual trait for a futurist in his 1950s America. Thus, the tone of the fair fit well with Walt's personal philosophy and with his—at this point—secret plans for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

Walt Disney contributed four attractions to the fair:

  • Progressland: the Carrousel of Progress
  • Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln
  • "it's a small world"
  • Magic Skyway.

Each of these was developed with input—and most importantly for Disney, financial support—from major American institutions. Walt Disney, however, made certain that he retained the rights to all attractions, a very far-sighted decision on his part as these attractions continue to delight visitors at Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Disc 1: Progressland

General Electric's Progressland, the first of Walt Disney's World's fair exhibits to be featured on this five-disc set, was home to the perennial favorite "The Carousel of Progress" which of course, still resides in the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World. Originally entitled the "Carousel Theater of Progress," this show made extensive use of audio-animatronic actors to depict the role of electricity in the daily lives of a typical family American throughout the 20th Century. The optimism and energy of this show strongly reflect Walt Disney's own personal view of the many possibilities for the future, especially a future that focused on people's needs and on a genuine partnership between individuals, corporations, and government.

The first song on this disc, a memorable version of "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow," captures the theme of the attraction as well as much of Walt's philosophy. In fact, Marty Sklar has noted that Richard and Robert Sherman, the composers of the song, intended that the lyrics and the music for this particular theme song reflect Walt's own optimism and ever-persistent faith in progress. The second track is a wonderfully nostalgic outtake of the Sherman Brothers singing and playing this song, with Walt Disney himself joining in the fun. Walt's comment that "this is exactly the right spirit" for the Carousel of Progress reflects the Sherman Brothers uncanny knack for memorably capturing an idea, a theme, or an emotion in music.

Track 3 features an early reading of the script, while Track 4 features the original show in its entirety. Twelve more tracks follow featuring instrumental music from other parts of the General Electric pavilion such as "The Skydome Spectacular," "The Toucan and the Parrot Electric Utility Show," "Mirror Maze," and my personal favorite, "Music to Buy Toasters By." There's a wonderfully mid-century feel to these selections, an upbeat optimism that is truly infectious. Fans of the original pavilions at EPCOT Center's Future World will encounter a feeling akin to that which was evoked by long-demolished show like "The World of Motion" and "Horizons" as they listen to these tracks.

Tracks 9 through 16 feature myriad takes on "There's A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" performed in a variety of genres: There's the Kaleidoscopic Overture, the 1890s variation, a Dixieland take, a 1920s version, a Swing interpretation, a 1960s adaptation, and—most importantly to long time Walt Disney World fans—the Horizons Variation that was once featured in the much-loved Horizons pavilion at EPCOT Center.

As if all this wonderfulness wasn't enough, there's an additional disc devoted to the Carousel of Progress. Disc 5 is entitled "The Carousel of Progress [Alternate Universe Version]," an early version of the complete show.

A note to fans of early Walt Disney World: At the request of corporate sponsor General Electric, the theme song was changed to "Now is the Time [aka "The Best Time of Your Life"] when the attraction moved east to the Magic Kingdom. An enthusiastic, hummable song—also written by the Sherman brothers—"Now is the Time" is etched in the memories of many Magic Kingdom fans. The original "Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" eventually returned during one of the Carousel's many refurbishments.

Disc 2: Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln

Created for the State of Illinois, the "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" exhibit featured Disney's most advanced, most sophisticated Audio-Animatronic figure to date. Visitors to Disneyland's Main Street can still enjoy a version of this original show, and, of course, Liberty Square's iconic "Hall of Presidents" is the ultimate fruition of Walt's original idea to honor the leaders of America in a serious, dignified presentation

There are seven tracks on this disc, beginning with the original Walt Disney Introduction. There's the Pre-Show (The Illinois Story) and then the entire Main Show (Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln). It's amazing to hear the entire show in its original form and to trace its development over the years in both the Disneyland and Magic Kingdom versions of the Lincoln speeches.

Following the show soundtracks, two tracks feature the score only for the pre-show and the main show. I love that these are included here, and I long for the day when both the show tracks and the score tracks for the original EPCOT attractions find their way to compact disc.

There's an interesting "Dialog Recording Session" (track 7), and a rousing choral version of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" that continues to send shivers down the spines of Liberty Square guests.

Looking Ahead

Both "The Carrousel of Progress" and "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" have, of course, lived on at Disneyland and at the Magic Kingdom. In usual Disney fashion, they also inspired bigger and better attractions in subsequent years, attractions that pushed technology and storytelling to new levels that remain, in many ways, unsurpassed.

In a future column, I'll shine the spotlight on the other two Walt Disney World's Fair attractions: "it's a small world," one that has proven perennially popular, and "Magic Skyway," one that inspired many of the classic EPCOT Center attractions. In a real sense, the spirit of the 1964/65 World's Fair came to fruition during the development of EPCOT Center, an idea that will be explored in part two of this series.

Until next time, remember that "there's a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day."