Every year, my favorite panel of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) trade show is the Disney Legends Panel hosted by Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination Arts. For those unfamiliar, Bob was inducted into the IAAPA Hall of Fame in 2010 and has worked on various projects, from Disney to Coca-Cola.
Also on the panel were former Vice Chairman of Walt Disney Imagineering Marty Sklar, Bob Gurr, who became a Disney Legend in 2004 for creating most of the ride vehicles used at Disneyland, and current Senior Creative Executive Vice President of WDI Tom Fitzgerald. While Marty and Bob worked personally on developing all four of the attractions of the 1964 World’s Fair, Tom is a little too young for that distinction. However, he kicked off the presentation by giving a brief history lesson on how the Fair came about and ultimately Walt got involved.
Even though Tom wasn’t working for Disney at the time, he did attend the fair at the age of 11. He showed the crowd this photo of him (far right, in white) at the World’s Fair in New York with his family. Simply attending gave him the spark of wanting to pursue being in themed entertainment at a young age and Marty echoed the same sentiment, as many people have approached him over the years stating what a huge impact it had on their life.
The 1964 World’s Fair in New York was not only a major turning point for Disney, but the country as well. During the planning stages, there was a huge amount of American optimism and how we were an unstoppable force. Even JFK promised us that Americans would go to the moon. However, just a few months before the Fair opened, JFK was shot, boots were on the ground in Vietnam and even The Beatles made their first appearance on “Ed Sullivan.”
There were a lot of American companies represented at the World’s Fair that year, with IBM with their “World of the Computers” attraction featuring the Information Machine, for example. Guests sat in a giant grandstand that was hoisted up into an oblong sphere every 15 minutes for a movie in the round projected inside the walls of the dome. It was one of the most talked about attractions that year.
Walt Disney was approached to ultimately create four unique attractions of the 1964 World’s Fair: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, it’s a small world, Magic Skyway and Carousel of Progress. It was a huge undertaking for not only Imagineering, but the entire Disney organization. However, Marty was quick to point out that even amongst all that chaos going on, Walt quietly bought the land in April of 1964 for Walt Disney World, the same month the Fair opened to the public. Even back then, Walt was always planning for the next big thing and was steps ahead of nearly everyone else.
The reason why I love these Legends panels at IAAPA is how unfiltered they are. Usually the panel is made of people like Marty and Bob who are no longer on the Disney payroll, meaning they can be more truthful and honest about their roles with the Mouse. For example, Marty was quick to point out that the Unisphere (the symbol of the 1964 World’s Fair, still found in Queens, New York today) was originally designed by Disney Legend Harper Goff. However, Harper put in his plans that the sphere be made from aluminum. As time went on, US Steel became involved in the project and built the Unisphere, of course, from steel and not aluminum. As a result, Harper never got any credit for his design.
Another thing Disney fans rarely hear is how forward Walt was at times. For those unfamiliar, Harrison “Buzz” Price was an integral part of not only the Fair, but also Disneyland and Walt Disney World, as he was the one who developed the site plan for those projects. As an aside, Marty told the group at IAAPA the story that one time Walt told Buzz he could no longer fly in his private plane until he lost 30 pounds. Walt wasn’t kidding and apparently Buzz did lose some weight over the comment.
Speaking of Walt’s imperfections, Marty also made mention of a recording Walt made for the Magic Skyway with a few curse words thrown in. Ford sponsored the Magic Skyway and thus, guests rode through the attraction in Ford convertibles. Walt recorded the narration himself and the morning they went into the studio to lay down the tracks, he wasn’t feeling so hot. He would get halfway through a line and have to cough a few times and after knowing he would have to redo the line he would often end the cough with “damn it” or “shit.” Walt made Marty promise him that the tracks of him cursing would never see the light of day and indeed Marty gave him his word. However, I can tell you that someone slipped me those outtakes years ago and they are quite funny. For the record, the person who gave me the tracks does not work for the Disney Company, nor do I know the original source they came from.
Bob Gurr also had his fair share of funny anecdotes from working at the 1964 World’s Fair. The picture above shows Walt Disney along with Lyndon Johnson and a very young Bob Gurr holding a baseball bat. You see, Ford wanted to cut corners to save a few bucks when the attraction was built and thus the ride didn’t have a spacing system built in so the cars wouldn’t bump into each other when they returned to unload. If it took too long for the guests to get out, the next car would come in and bump the car ahead of it, often smashing the tail lights and ruining the bumper.
The “solution” was to go out and buy as many baseball bats as they could find in the Queens area to wedge between the cars as they came into unload to prevent as many accidents and broken car parts as possible. Bob was quick to point out that while Ford may have saved money in the spacing system, they spent even more money replacing broken bumpers and lights throughout the run. Also, the United States Secret Service had a good laugh when they questioned him as to why Bob was holding a baseball bat so closely around the President.
A few firsts were tried out at the Fair that had never been used at Disneyland, including having a separate loading and unloading area for the Magic Skyway which helped them increase efficiency and capacity. In addition, wait time signs were installed since the Fair averaged 185,000 guests per day. This practice was also brought back to Disneyland once the Fair ended and is now seen in most parks around the world.
Bob also noted that after the Fair closed, Ford took the 160 Ford and Mustangs, rebuilt them with the proper engines and sold them at used car lots. However, a few keen observers noticed that there were welds on the bottom of the car where they were attached to the old ride system, for the Magic Skyway. Collectors hung on to them and now they are worth a fortune, thanks to their tie with Disney and the 1964 World’s Fair!
The other project Gurr worked on was Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which was sponsored by the state of Illinois. A human animatronic had never been done before, but Walt was convinced that it needed to be a part of the Fair, so he assigned Bob to the task of making it work. As many of you know, the figure wasn’t ready in time and the early stories were disastrous. A ball bearing shop was right next to where they were doing the programming and they would invite some of the workers to see Lincoln as sort of a test audience at the end of their shift. They were so convinced that it wasn’t a robot, they would throw their ball bearings at him during the show. Bob said he often slipped on those bearings at the end of the night because there were so many.
Another early viewing was when Walt took a young lady (I believe she was a reporter) through to see Lincoln in his early stages. Halfway through, one of his hydraulic tubes broke in his chest, covering his white shirt in red liquid. The reporter thought it was in horribly bad taste that Walt would recreate the shooting of Lincoln in his new animatronic show. Mortified, Walt turned to Bob and had him focus on only the Lincoln figure for several months until they got the bugs worked out.
I am sure many of you have seen the video of Walt Disney at the Carousel of Progress while Wathel Rogers sits in a control harness (referred to as a Waldo) offstage, while he was programming the father figure. Hardcore fans will also note that it has never been used since. Essentially while it worked well enough for the figure to mimic the movements on stage, the tape recording system at the time couldn’t compress all that movement data onto the audio track in real time. Instead, they came up with a board with knobs on it so a programmer could go through the show one function at a time (such as a head nod or an elbow bend) and only focus on that function and go back to record the next one again. That process with the programming board was used for years, right up until around 2000.
My other favorite anecdote from the Carousel of Progress early days was this promotional shot of Walt with the grandma. For a press conference, they flew the current Disneyland Ambassador into New York to play the voice of Grandma while an engineer created all the movements for her behind-the-scenes. Even today, it’s not easy to have an animatronic character perform “live” and this must have blown the minds of those reporters, even with Grannie’s limited movements.
Then there was it’s a small world, which was designed and built in less than one year, thanks to Pepsi approaching Walt so late in the game. By this time, WED Enterprises (currently known as WDI) was swamped and they had very little time to do much of anything. Not surprisingly, Marty Sklar said that nearly everything you see in the ride was “off the shelf,” meaning it wasn’t completely crafted by Imagineering, but rather modified. Regardless, it’s a small world is a staple in every Disney park around the world and seems to stand the test of time.
Marty mentioned a great story about Walt’s leadership during this point of the presentation. Walt wanted a “weenie” for the fair and ultimately, while ideas for an orchestra perched atop a platform were discussed, they decided on creating an art piece of windmills and pinwheels that would move with the winds. Walt remembered that Imagineer Rolly Crump used to create little spinning pinwheels out of the metal of his pencils as a time killer and they were all around his office, thus Crump was assigned to create the Tower of the Four Winds.
All in all, the panel was fascinating as always. If you ever get the chance to attend IAAPA, I highly recommend sitting in on the Legends Panel. Even a hardcore Disney fan like myself can walk away with these great little nuggets you can’t hear anywhere else and that’s worth its weight in gold. For more stories on themed entertainment, make sure to follow Theme Park University on Twitter by clicking here and like our Facebook page by clicking this!