Welcome back to our series on the 1964-65 World’s Fair and Disney’s involvement in it. Last week, we looked at the background behind the Fair and the factors that led Walt Disney to take part in some of the pavilions. Today we’re diving into one of those pavilions where Walt and the Imagineers lent their touch – the Magic Skyway, presented by Ford Motor Company.
When Walt began to seek out corporate partners for the New York World’s Fair, General Motors was near the top of the list. Their Futurama pavilion turned into the hit of the 1939 Fair, which raised the stakes for GM at the sequel of sorts to that earlier event. GM was already in talks with Disney to sponsor a new attraction at Disneyland. GM chose instead to create a sequel to Futurama and put the kibosh on the Disneyland attraction, suggesting to Walt that he reach out to Ford.
Disney’s wonderful 2009 box set Walt Disney and the 1964 World’s Fair contains not only a terrific selection of music from the fair – including early concepts, behind-the-scenes recordings, and unused pieces, but its liner notes also tell an extensive tale about each pavilion that Disney developed. Stacia Martin’s essay on The Magic Skyway tells the story well.
By 1960, Disney and Ford agreed to work together, and the auto maker secured a seven acre site. The next year, Disney pitched its first concept: The Symphony Of America, a ride across the country (in Ford vehicles, naturally) demonstrating “the land, its contrasting moods and its industry.” Ford nixed the idea, informing shocked Imagineers that the company wanted “something bigger” and was afraid that the concept was too close to Chevrolet’s “See The USA In Your Chevrolet” ad campaign.
After going back to the drawing board, Disney came up with concepts that Ford could accept. The attractions sat within the impressive Ford Wonder Rotunda, a 235-foot-in-diameter atrium which led to a seven-story show building. Inside the Wonder Rotunda, guests could visit the International Gardens, scale models of scenes from 11 countries in which Ford had manufacturing facilities. These scenes reflected Walt’s love of miniature dioramas, of course.
Along the wall next to the ramps to the floors above, a 96 panel mural by Imagineer extraordinaire John Hench depicted advancements in science, architecture, and engineering. The whimsical Auto Parts Harmonic featured an orchestra made of car parts performing music by Disney composer George Bruns. Imagineers Rolly Crump and Bob Gurr created the instruments.
According to the official guidebook to the Fair, the Fields of Science attraction demonstrated:
… some of the advanced research projects now engaging scientists at Ford and its subsidiary, Philco. Included are demonstrations of laser light, the sound of stars as picked up by radio telescope, and displays of new auto materials.
Of course, guests would find the pavilion’s most exciting attraction inside the show building – the Magic Skyway. In this attraction, guests experienced time travel, from the dawn of mankind to the future. Of the Magic Skyway, Walt said:
What we want to provide guess at the Ford Pavilion is an entirely original experience, something no one has ever seen or done before.
Ford initially suggested that drivers take guests through the ride in 1964 Ford production cars, but the Imagineers preferred the control of an automatic system. Disney took 160 Ford convertibles – including the Mustang, which Ford would debut at the fair – removed the engines, and placed the cars on tracks which would take guests on the journey. The ride system Disney developed suggested both the Omnimover technology used at The Haunted Mansion and Horizons and linear induction systems like the WEDWay PeopleMover/Tomorrowland Transit Authority and Rock ‘n Roller Coaster.
Inside the cars, a six-track audio system would narrate the story. Initially, Disney television announcer Dick Wesson provided the narration, but Henry Ford II suggested that Walt himself narrate, and he did for the 1965 run of the Magic Skyway.
Once guests boarded their convertibles, the cars would take them through a glass tube through the outside of the pavilion, giving them an impressive view of the Fair. The Magic Skyway then wowed guests with another new Disney innovation – Audio Animatronics. Dinosaurs roamed the prehistoric tableau, moving of their own accord. Hapless cavemen tried to endure their harsh lives. The cutting edge effects left a lasting impression.
After man made his life easier by inventing the wheel, of course, the Magic Skyway took riders to the future. A gleaming City of Tomorrow created a beautiful space age vista, and the cars drove guests into one of the city’s buildings, where pavilions dedicated to new innovations awaited.
Automotive author Margery Krevsky shared her memories on her site, Sirens of Chrome:
I still remember the excitement of the modern building, and the anticipation of riding in a car through the display. It was my first experience with entertainment architecture and a Ford and Disney experience. Before you reached “the ride” Ford kept you enrapt with creative displays of international villages, always with a few cars. The villages were fascinating with great details. We thought it couldn’t get any better.
My brother grabbed the driver’s seat position, and my folks rode in style in the back seat. We moved along waiting to experience something new and great. We were first taken through plastic tunnels around the outside of the rotunda for a sweeping view of the grounds, then onto the exhibit building and the fantasy land within. You toured the earth’s past from the dawn of time, through the age of the dinosaurs to the world of the caveman. Monster dinosaurs engaged in combat while primitive creatures soared over head. The highlight was the creation of fire and the wheel; and how men built carts to move around.
The future came fast as our car glided on a super skyway over the City of Tomorrow with its towering metal spires and glittering glass of bubble-shaped buildings. After the ride ended you toured the Hall of Science which demonstrated laser lights, the sound of stars picked up by a radio telescope, and displays of new material to be used in future Ford automobiles. Finally, there was an exhibit of Ford –built cars of all kinds –antique, new, experimental and foreign made – a paradise for automobile enthusiasts. My Dad was in Heaven and gave us his own private tour.
Ford’s pavilion became one of the Fair’s biggest hits, and Disney took pride in its accomplishments in its teamwork with the auto manufacturer. But, as we’ll see next week, the Magic Skyway was just the beginning.