Cutting-Edge Technology: Walt Disney’s Audio Electronics at the NYC World’s Fair, 1964-65

by Kaori Okai

Most people at least recognize the name of Walt Disney and the characters he created. One of the reasons why Disney is widely known is because of his business ability. The other reason is his use of new technology. Disney first showed the world his skills at the New York World’s Fair in 1964-65. Walt Disney used the World’s  Fair as a chance to advertise Disneyland. Walt Disney contributed to the New York World’s Fair by offering his cutting edge technology for pavilions and advertised Disney as well. Disney offered his technological aid to four pavilions: Magic Skyway, Progress Land, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and It’s a Small World.

The 1964 World's Fair in NYC

Walt Disney is famous as an animation producer. When he went to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1939, he was strongly impressed by the cutting-edge technology of exhibits, such as the illumination used for The Tower of Lights. It used incandescent lights invented by Thomas Edison. At that time, he started to form an opinion on expanding technology through his company’s efforts. He was also motivated to set up corporate sponsorship in order to raise money. The Disney Company needed more money to make animations, so they needed sponsors to realize development. In 1960, Disney gathered his staff and suggested the idea of taking part in the New York World’s Fair in 1964-65. He not only wanted to show people something new, such as his unique cutting edge technology, but also to expand the company. He organized Disney’s creative team, called WED Enterprise Company, which was in charge of creating rides and attractions (It is now called Disney Imagineering). WED always felt pressure to meet deadlines. They had to work on creating four attractions at the same time. It was a big challenge for them. All of these pavilions that Disney created used audio-animatronic technology (The Marty Skyar Interview”). Audio animatronics might be an unfamiliar word for most people. It is a coined word which expresses “audio, ” animation” and “electronics” and refers to dolls that move automatically (“Audio-Animatronics”).

Disney created Magic Skyway for the American car company, Ford Motors. Magic Skyway is an experience type attraction. Visitors get in an open car and go through the history of the world from the Stone Age to modern times.  It was used to exhibit Ford’s cars. After the fair, this attraction was moved to Disneyland in California and was used in Disneyland’s Railroads Primeval Diorama (This Day in

Progress Land was created by Disney for American home appliance company, General Electric. It was a show which explained the progress of home appliances. The display was the first to use a rotational system. It had separate auditoriums, each holding 250 people, which circled the various stages set in the middle. In the show, life sized audio-animatronics acted out the story of electric appliances from the 1890s to the present. When it was moved to Disneyland after the fair, the name was changed to “The Carousel of Progress” (This Day in

Great Moments of Mr. Lincoln was made by Disney for the State of Illinois. The exhibit used Disney technology but was not Disney’s design. It was designed by Roger Broggie and Eustace Lycett. One of the special features of this attraction was an audio animatronic figure of American president, Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln doll was able to do more than than 250, 000 combinations of action, such as smiling, speaking, and moving his hands. The mechanics were very simple. First, his voice was made by tape recorders. He moved by air pressure mainly, but water power was also used for the left thigh piston. The piston supported all the weight and helped the doll to stand up,so it needed more strength and power than air pressure. However, this system was very complicated, so the figure often caused trouble for engineers. The wiring was not complete and did not work well. As a result, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln did not meet the deadline and it did not open on time. Fortunately, this trouble excited people’s curiosity and, at the April 20th preview, the 500 seat auditorium was filled to capacity (This Day in

It’s a Small World was made for American soda manufacturer, Pepsi. It was the most successful attraction at the New York World’s Fair. It is a boat ride attraction. People can feel as if they have sailed around the world and have seen famous buildings, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Taj Mahal in India. A boat ride system was a revolutionary idea in the 1965. The boat allowed the ride to handle over 2,000 people an hour. Each boat could hold up to 20 people at one time, and visitors only had to wait for 15 minutes. The attraction used used cutting edge technology. It had a propeller and moved by silent jet streams of water to cut noise (“A Little Boat Ride”). Visitors could steep themselves in the fantastic atmosphere. There were 289 audio-animatronic figures, 147 toys and 36 animated props. Every doll wore a traditional costume and represented different cultures. The major countries represented included Europe, Asia, Africa, Central and South America and the South Pacific Islands. Similar to the audio-animatronic figure of Mr.Lincoln, these dolls were electronically operated. They danced and sang. At the end of the cruise, all the world’s children united and sang “Small World” in English. According to one survey, nearly five million visitors were enchanted by Its a Small World (“Pavilion Guides”). After the fair, it was moved to Disneyland in California. It was also constructed at other Disney theme parks, such as the one in Tokyo. This attraction has become one of the most popular Disney attractions and continues to be loved by everyone from children to elderly people.

Walt Disney had an ideal plan called “Disneyland Design” in which he hoped visitors could experience exhibits, not just watch passively.  He offered his audio-animatronic dolls and rides and his contribution was essential for the success of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.  He made a profit as well. Disney’s profits were only 1.4 million in 1955 when Disneyland opened, but after the fair their profits reached 11 million. The New York World’s Fair was good advertising for the company and the theme park. The profits were used to cover the cost of producing animations. All four pavilions that Walt Disney created for the fair were chosen as most popular and most visited attractions. After the fair, exhibits were moved to Disneyland and we can still experience them today.

Kaori Okai is a third-year student in the Dept. of British and American Cultural Studies.