Re-Living Walt Disney’s Past: Exploring the Grounds of the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair

Re-Living Walt Disney’s Past: Exploring the Grounds of the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair
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As a New York native and massive Epcot fan, I can’t help but think Disney when hearing about the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair. During a recent trip back to New York, I had the opportunity to wander the grounds where it once stood in an effort to find remnants of its lasting legacy.

Background of the 1964/65 Fair

The idea for a fair in New York was conceived by a group of businessmen who held a nostalgic fondness for their childhood visits to the city’s 1939 fair. Approaching the 25th anniversary, the group brought the idea to mayor Wagner who conducted a feasibility study. Upon favorable results, the mayor hired master planner Robert Moses to take the reigns.

The fair’s theme of “Peace through Understanding” was brought to life on 646 acres of Queen’s Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the very same grounds of the1939 one. Amidst a cold war, the public was given a beacon of hope when the fair opened in April of ’64, during a time when we were still grieving a lost president. 140 pavilions set the stage for the event, being exhibited by 80 nations, 24 US States, and 45 corporations.

Walt’s Involvement

Moses enlisted Walt Disney, along with a coalition of several other world-renowned architects, artists, and engineers to lead the project. Walt’s decision to participate in a World’s Fair was a no brainer for him:

  • It was in his genes. Walt’s father Elias shared fond memories of his time at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he was enlisted as a carpenter during its construction.
  • He’s seen the first-hand impact of an event like this. In 1939, Walt visited San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition. During a time when the Carolwood Pacific and Disneyland were just brewing in his head, Walt became captivated by the exposition’s miniature room exhibit by artist Mrs. James Ward Thorne.
  • In the early 1960s, Disneyland’s success was exploding and Walt wanted to not only experiment with new theme park technologies using corporate sponsor funding, but also to witness the east coast reaction to his attractions as a Florida Project was imminent.

Walt and his team came up with four unique attractions for the fair, besides assisting with the overall layout and conceptualization:

  • It’s a Small World

    With just eleven months until the fair’s opening, Pepsi-Cola and UNICEF approached Disney to create a salute to UNICEF and all the world’s children. The Mary Blair designed dolls, 12-story tall Tower of the Four Winds designed by Disney Legend Rolly Crump, and an earworm of a song proved to be incredibly popular.

    Today, the original attraction was relocated to and still operates in Disneyland with duplicate versions existing in the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. A scale model of the Tower of the Four Winds can be found on display in Walt Disney Presents.

    A scale model of the Tower of the Four Winds, on display in Walt Disney Presents.

  • Carousel Theater

    The centerpiece of General Electric’s Progressland pavilion was the Carousel Theater of Progress which told the story of man’s technological progress in the home through ground-breaking audio-animatronic actors.

    Touted as Walt’s own idea from beginning to end, the show was brought to Disneyland after the fair ended, where it performed until 1973 (today, the former show’s building houses Star Wars Launch Bay, hence the round shape). In 1975, the show once again moved to the Magic Kingdom, where it lives on today as Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress and boasts having had more performances than any other stage show in American theater.

    A replica of an original poster, on display in the Magic Kingdom

  • Magic Skyway

    Ford’s Magic Skyway was a dark-ride style attraction which took visitors through dioramas described by Walt as a drama of prehistoric days. Guests rode in real Ford convertibles in an early version of a WEDway Peoplemover, the predecessor to today’s modern systems like the one used on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover.

    In the ride, a variety of dinosaurs can be seen, some recreating The Rite of Spring segment from 1940’s Fantasia. After the fair, the original dinosaurs animatronics were brought to Disneyland where they can still be seen on display in the Primeval World, the tunnel between Tomorrowland and Main Street Stations while riding the Disneyland Railroad. A duplicate of this scene can be found in Tokyo’s Western River Railroad.

    A battle to the death in Disneyland’s Primeval World

  • Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln

    President Lincoln had always been a role model for Walt. During the 5th-grade, he crafted a stovepipe hat, donned a fake beard, and memorized the Gettysburg Address for a class presentation.

    “Ever since I was a small boy growing up in Illinois, I’ve had a great personal admiration for Abraham Lincoln”
    – Walt Disney

    Walt had longed to include a Hall of Presidents in Disneyland and had tinkered with life-sized, human animatronics. It wasn’t until Robert Moses caught a demonstration of a prototype Lincoln figure, that Walt’s dream started coming to fruition. With sponsorship from his home state of Illinois, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln was born.

    Walt enlisted his master sculptor Blaine Gibson to craft the 16th President’s face, based on a cast from an 1860 life-mask (the original of which is currently in the Smithsonian) and one of his most talented Imagineers, Bob Gurr to develop the most advanced animatronic figure to date. The robot was so lifelike that when it rose on stage, the crowd would throw ball bearings (apparently given out at the fair as a souvenir) at it to see if Abe would flinch.

    Today, the actual World’s Fair animatronic of Mr. Lincoln can be found on display in Walt Disney Presents, One Man’s Dream. An even more advanced figure was created for The Disneyland Story presenting Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln which serves as a living tribute to the original show. Finally, you can catch all of the Presidents gathered together in Magic Kingdom’s The Hall of Presidents, which is as close as we’ll get to Walt’s original vision for his park.

The original World’s Fair Lincoln stripped down for all to see in Walt Disney Presents.

The Fairgrounds

Visiting the original site of the 1964/65 World’s Fair as a Disney fan may feel like a let-down, but there are still a few remnants of the past that conjure some Disney feels.

Getting There

Reaching Flushing Meadows Corona Park is fairly easy by public transit: just take the NYC Subway’s 7 line to Mets-Willets Point station and follow signs to the park – you’ll walk across a bridge and enter on the North side of the park. It is also possible to take the Long Island Railroad to the same station, but note that this train only runs on Mets home game and USTA event days.

Getting there by car is also incredibly easy (bearing traffic) since three major arteries literally intersect in the park: the Grand Central Parkway, Long Island Expressway, and the Van Wyck Expressway. The Queens Museum offers free parking in a lot on the north and south sides of the building, but note that spaces are limited. As a backup, you can try parking at the New York Hall of Science (though fees apply) or try your luck at street parking in the areas surrounding the park.

The Queens Museum

During my last visit, I decided to drive and found parking here in the late afternoon on a Tuesday during the summer with no issue. The Queens Museum was home base for my visit. At the time of this publishing, admission is “suggested contribution” of $8 for adults, $4 for seniors, and free for children under 18. If you’re not sure how long you plan to stay, feel free to let the ticket booth know that you plan to pay on your way out (just remember to actually do it).

The Queens Museum with what’s left of the World’s Fair observation deck in the background

The museum itself is housed in the former New York City Pavilion, the only surviving building from both the 1939 and 1964/65 World’s Fair, and boasts over 10,000 items in its permanent collection plus hundreds more in rotating, temporary exhibits. The permanent collection is broken into four parts: the Panorama of the City of New York, the Relief Map of the New York City Water Supply System, the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, and (the one we all really came here for) the World’s Fair Visual Storage and Gallery.

Inside the Queens Museum

While each of these exhibits is pretty interesting in their own right, my visit was focused on finding Disney.

Panorama of the City of New York

A Panorama of the City of New York

On my way to the World’s Fair gallery, I did, however, take in the NYC Panorama, which was really neat. It’s a super detailed, miniature 3D map of the city as it appeared when the model first debuted at the World’s Fair in 1964. The room is dark and quiet, with glass floors allowing you to walk over certain areas of the map for a better look. Buildings light up and an invisible wire guides a miniature airplane to take off and land in LaGuardia Airport every few seconds – it kind of reminds me of the map of London in Peter Pan’s Flight or the model of Disneyland at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

World’s Fair Visual Storage and Gallery

The upper walkway of the Panorama leads you directly to the World’s Fair Visual Storage and Gallery. Here, shelves of memorabilia, mostly souvenirs & giveaways from the event, are on display from both the 1939 and the 1964/65 fairs. Unfortunately, there is not much organization to these items and minimal explanation of what we’re looking at. A large scale model in the middle of the floor beckons to have you press your nose against its clear bubble top display.

Part of the World’s Fair collection

A view of the model on display

Based on the label containing a 1961 copyright by U.S. Steel, builders of the Unisphere, it appears that this model was built to help conceptualize, or even sell the pavilions to potential sponsors. Regardless, it looks like all four of the Disney attractions are represented (which sort-of contradicts that 1961 copyright since the “small world” pavilion wasn’t solidified until ’63 – again, no explanations on the displays themselves here so if anyone knows the deal, please feel free to chime in via the comments below or contact me).

It’s a Small World above and the Carousel of Progress below.

Moving on to the shelving, I spy a model of a building with “F-O-R-D” spelled out on the side and the unique “Ford Wonder Rotunda” on one end. It’s indeed the Ford Pavilion, home to Disney’s Magic Skyway. The actual building was 275,000 square feet, the largest structure at the fair and the rotunda was not only the ride’ entrance but also served as a showcase for Ford’s vehicles including the Mustang, which made its world debut at the fair. I’m sure that this pavilion was studied during the conceptualization of Epcot’s Test Track, some 30 years later.

A model of the Ford Pavilion, home to Disney’s Ford Magic Skyway

Not too far from the Ford model, I found a similar scale miniature of General Electric’s Progressland pavilion. Its distinct round shape housed the Carousel Theater where visitors were constantly reminded that there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day. A label on the edge of the model features Walt’s famous signature logo.

A model of General Electric’s Progressland, the pavilion that housed the original version of Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress.

The rest of the items in this room were tchotchke type of things: plates, glasses, toys, souvenir coins, and the like. Items of interest here are the toy versions Greyhound’s “Glide-a-Ride” vehicles used to shuttle visitors around the fair – one of which can be seen during Frank’s arrival to the fair during the 2015 Disney film, Tomorrowland (2015). Check out a clip of it on YouTube.

Also along the wall are several of the dinosaur figures from Mold-A-Rama machines. These “on-demand” toys gained popularity at the 1964/65 fair and some even made their way to Disneyland for a period of time. You can still find some of these machines operating today in various zoos and museums around the country.

Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Exiting the museum from the east side of the building will take you directly into the sprawling Flushing Meadow Corona Park.

The Unisphere

In front of you stands an iconic armillary sphere: the Unisphere. This was the centerpiece and icon of the fair in 1964/65, as you can see its image on nearly every souvenir artifact in the museum.

A view of the Unisphere

According to a signpost nearby, the structure was “designed by landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke… (and) further refined by industrial designers at Peter Muller-Munk Associates”. There’s a bit of controversy over this story in the Disney community though. As we know, Walt had a huge part in the overall design and layout of the fair, as did his Imagineers including the very talented Harper Goff. As described by Disney Legend Marty Sklar:

One of Harper’s relatives had turned over a lot of things that had been passed down… One of the things I found was a drawing of [the Unisphere] for the New York World’s Fair Corporation. Harper had done the original, and down in the corner it said, ‘To be made out of alumninum.’ Well, I think what happened was that they sold the idea to US Steel, and it was built out of steel, and Harper got kicked out of any credit for it.

Could Goff have been the original designer of the Unisphere? Take a look at this auction lot of Goff’s notes and personal photographs from the World’s Fair, and decide for yourself. The Unisphere is even featured in a mural depicting Goff’s life in his hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado – so it’s gotta be true!

The fountain is a popular summer spot for locals

On hot days, you’ll find the recently restored fountains of the Unisphere filled with families looking to beat the heat, despite warnings posted about high-pressure jets that can cause personal injury. Who cares about signs though, this is America!

Depiction in Film

Anyway, seeing the Unisphere up close is quite a sight. You have likely seen it many times in film and TV, with the most famous being the Men in Black series, as the park played a crucial role. Bringing it back to Disney, you catch a quick glimpse of it from the highway during Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) as Peter narrates his homemade film. Cue gravely voice: Queens. It’s a rough borough, but hey, it’s home.

If you’re curious about what the park may have looked like in its heyday of the fair, check out its detailed recreation in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (2015) – clip below. If you’ve seen the film, you know that we also get to see a depiction of It’s a Small World, which was actually filmed in Disneyland (which as you know is the original World’s Fair version of the ride) – how meta is that?  The rest of the movie sort of gets lost on me, but it might be worth a watch for any Disney fan.

Other depictions of similar fairs take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger shows us the fictional 1943 Stark Expo, presumably having taken place in the park, complete with its own Unisphere (though in real life, it wouldn’t have been built for another 15 years or so).

Stark Expo 1943, as seen during Captain America: The First Avenger. Image ©Disney/Marvel Studios

In 2010, the Stark Expo once again returns to Queens as the epic opening scene to Iron Man 2. Tony, as Iron Man, arrives to greet the crowd as AC/DC’s Shoot to Thrill blasts.

Stark Expo 2010 as seen during Iron Man 2 (2010). Image ©Disney/Marvel Studios

Etched Granite Pavement

Back to reality and continuing around the Unisphere, on the direct opposite side as the museum, we find ourselves on top of 464 tiles of artwork etched into the granite pavement, depicting scenes from both World’s Fairs. Installed in 1995, artist Matt Mullican displays his unique pictograph style in artwork that is so very thoughtfully titled: Etched Granite PavementI was able to find three of the Disney exhibits represented here, but the Illinois pavilion was difficult to spot as it’s facade wasn’t as distinct as the others.

The etched pavement in front of the Unisphere

A depiction of Disney Legend Rolly Crump’s Tower of the Four Winds

Sites of the former Disney attractions

Not much else remains of Disney’s legacy, or of the fairs in general on these grounds. I made my way towards where the Carousel of Progress once stood, using Google Maps and a vintage map of the fair as my guide. I found the rounded edge of land where the exhibit’s entrance used to be. You can see this area in the photos of models found in the Queens Museum, above.

The area of the former entrance to the GE Pavilion

Not much is here except for a mound of worn grass, used as a soccer field. Nearby water fountains and park benches, some apparently the original ones built for the fair, show signs of age.

Maybe Walt Disney’s DNA is still lingering?

Continuing south on the “Avenue of Commerce” towards where It’s a Small World once stood. Again, nothing but grassy knolls and picnic areas here – not worth even snapping a photo of. On the way, though, you do cross the “Avenue of Progress”, marked by a pretty cool etched stone.

That’s progress, dear

As for the rest of Disney’s attractions: The Illinois Pavilion was where the Tennis complex now stands, so not much to see there as the ground as completely torn up and built on. The Ford Pavilion was on the opposite side of the Grand Central Parkway – nothing there now but a patch of grass where the Queens Night Market sets up shop over the summer.

If you’re really desperate to take a ride, the Flushing Meadows Carousel still exists – it’s the same exact one that was created for and opened with the 1964/65 Fair, though moved to its current location in 1968 where it has been operating ever since.

Wrap-Up

Taking a trip out to the park, especially on a sunny day, might be worth a visit if any of the above interests you. Being on the actual ground and seeing remnants of its past in person while walking in Walt’s footsteps outside of Disneyland brings some magic to this otherwise not-so-magical place.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this tribute to Walt’s version of the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair. Please gather all your personal belongings and exit through the links located at the end of this blog post. Have a great big beautiful day, and remember, tomorrow is just a dream away!

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Curating a database of Disney locations from around the world - come #WanderDisney with me!