11 Things You Might Not Have Known About Disney and the 1964 New York World's Fair

November 19, 2014, 9:23 PM · ORLANDO — The 2014 IAAPA Attractions Expo celebrated the 50th anniversary of the New York World's Fair with Bob Rogers' annual Legends panel, which today brought together Disney Legends Marty Sklar and Bob Gurr to talk about Disney's involvement in the event. The Walt Disney Company developed four pavilions for the fair:

"Other than the creation of Disneyland, no other so entertainment event so throughly reinvented our industry as the '64 World's Fair," moderator Bob Rogers said.

Marty Sklar, Bob Gurr, and Tom Fitzgerald
Marty Sklar, Bob Gurr, and Tom Fitzgerald, after the panel

Tom Fitzgerald from Walt Disney Imagineering also joined the panel, taking the place of Disney Legend Alice Davis, who was not able to travel from her home in Southern California for the event, as scheduled. Composer Richard Sherman appeared via a pre-recorded video segment, as well. Here are 11 notable facts and observations that came up during the 1-hour and 45-minute conversation:

The New York World's Fair wasn't really a World's Fair

Tom Fitzgerald: "The project wasn't recognized by the BIE, which is the Bureau of International Expositions. See, Seattle had just had a World's Fair and there are certain rules that the BIE has. One of those is that you could only have one exposition in a given country [in a given time], and [another was that] no rent could be charged for the plots of land which exhibitors would be on, and, of course, the New York businessmen didn't like that one much. And the fair could only run for six months. So they sent [fair organizer] Robert Moses to Paris, and Paris said, 'No, you can't do it.' And Robert Moses, a true New Yorker, said, 'We're going to do it anyway.' And so they did. And as a result of that, 40 members of the BIE (including the United Kingdom and Canada) were absent from the fair. They were asked to abstain from it, and they did. But the good news was that Robert Moses was able to get a lot of other countries to participate, some that had never done a fair before. He was also able to convince Vatican City to bring the Pieta to the World's Fair. It was the number-two attraction at the fair. It was viewed by 78,000 visitors every day. In place of the countries that sat out the fair, Robert Moses turned to American industry, and said that American industry will be the champion of the fair. It will be a showplace for technology and America's leadership in the modern age. And in fact, American companies dominated the fair: US Steel, IBM, Ford, General Motors, General Electric, Chrysler, AT&T, Kodak, the names go on and on and on."

For more about Walt Disney's involvement with the fair and its sponsors, watch this episode of the Disneyland TV show, "Disneyland Goes to the World's Fair." Tom showed excerpts from this episode during his presentation introducing Marty and Bob.

The fair started the same month as Disney started buying land for Walt Disney World

Marty Sklar: "The fair opened in April 1964. In April 1964, Disney bought the first piece of land in Florida. So he was already planning the next how many years, and he knew exactly where he was going."

Disney's Harper Goff drew the initial design for the park's iconic Unisphere

Marty Sklar: "Ron Miller [Walt's son-in-law and the former CEO of the Walt Disney Company] asked me to look at some things. He was thinking about doing a special show about Harper Goff for the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, and one of Harper's relatives had turned over a lot of things that had been passed down from person in the family to another. Ron asked me to take a look at it, and one of the things I found was a drawing of this [shows a photo 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."

The fair included an amusement park, which was located across the freeway from the main fairgrounds... and failed.

Tom Fitzgerald: "If you want to do something that's expensive and completely unsuccessful, be sure to put it across the freeway." [Editor's note: If you don't think this was a shot at Universal and its plans for its Wet n' Wild property, which is located across I-4 from the main Universal Orlando property, you're more trusting of Tom's intentions than I am.] "They were warned not to do that, and of course, did not pay attention, and they all lost their shirts."

The Belgian waffle is actually the "Bel-Gem Waffle"

Bel-Gem Waffles
Photo via Eating the World.

Marty Sklar: "Eating those gooey things was one of the most popular things at the fair. But what as interesting to me was that the people who did this, their names were Bel and Gem, and somehow people got confused and started calling them Belgian waffles."

Bob Gurr almost got arrested by the Secret Service

Bob Gurr: "When Ford got around to building the [Magic Skyway] attraction, they decided to cut the budget and go for the cheapest electrical power possible, which meant that now the vehicles can't be respaced. ...Well, it turned out that there were no car [bumper] standards back in those days, and the Mercury front bumpers would eat the tail lights of the cars in front of them. Every night we had guys coming in, doing body work, repainting cars and putting tail light lenses on them, because the respacing system was nonexistent, because Ford refused to pay for it. Yeah, we saved a lot of money. [Smirks]

"Comes opening day, and these cars are banging and smashing as they go around the corner right near the load area and one of the Ford guys says 'Okay, I got an idea. Send a bunch of guys out and buy all the baseball bats you can get.' And another guy says, 'Let's put yellow ribbons on them.' So here we are, we're getting ready to launch the ride on the day that Lyndon Johnson, the President of the United States, is going to drive by right in front of the place. The idea was that we would casually insert a baseball bat between the bumpers of the cars and that way we wouldn't smash the tail lights. Well, you can't do that all day long, but we did that long enough that all of sudden the Secret Service showed up, wanting to know why I am standing where the President is coming, with a baseball bat."

People thought that the animatronic Lincoln was actually a human actor

Bob Gurr: "There was a ball bearing company next door, and they gave out free ball bearings to everybody. And they'd go next door [to the Illinois pavilion] and they just knew that that Lincoln was impossible. That is an actor, and Walt was cheating. They kept throwing ball bearings at this 'actor,' and Lincoln never flinched. But at night, when you'd go on stage to clean it up, watch out where you walk. There are ball bearings all over the carpet up on the stage."

Pro tip: Know your audience — your real audience

Marty Sklar: "GE had a whole area called Progress City, and one of my assignments was a little show about atomic energy I had to write. When I got to the ninth script, I was so mad at the GE guy I was working with, I finally said to him, 'Okay, who is the audience for this show?' Because I knew it wasn't playing toward the public. And he said, 'My boss, his boss, the vice president those two people report to, and the vice president who heads our division.' I said, 'That's the audience for this show?' And he said, 'Yes, because my job is on the line.' It was terrible to play that show for the public, believe me. This is a lesson you have to learn, working with corporations. You can't let something like that happen and treat the public that way. It's not fair to the public and it makes the company look bad."

On the initial ride-through of the original 'It's a Small World' ride, the music tape broke, so Richard and Robert Sherman sang the song live for riders

Richard Sherman (via video): "I remember the first time [I rode], it was amazing. We were with several of the people who had worked on Small World with us and we were in the boats. It was exciting. The sound was so good and it looked so good. We were really enjoying it for a while, but 35-40 feet into it and for some strange reason, the sound started going backward and then stopped. [Richard's brother and co-composer] Bob was in the boat about two boats ahead of me. I was in the last boat. It was just the click, click, clack — the sound of the animatronic dolls. And I looked at Bob, and I said, okay... (singing) "It's a world of laughter..." We sang the whole thing all the way. It was very memorable to me. We gave a personal performance that first ride."

If Walt asked you a question about your assignment, you still had work to do

Bob Gurr: "Walt's the first guy to find out if something's not right because he gets out of his chair and he wanders around the studio lot and he walks right in to go see what's going on. So he's the first guy to see if it's not right. Well, guess what? He doesn't chew you out and say, 'No, I didn't tell you to do it that way.' He walked up and said, 'Huh, say, what do you think if...' And he'd look at your thing and 'what do you think if' meant, 'well, it's not too good yet.' He would engage you in a conversation, not that he's telling you 'your stuff sucks.' He starts a conversation that says 'What else you got? What else do you think you could do here?' Now, you're not afraid of him anymore. Job after job after job, you're no longer afraid of putting up your best idea."

Bob Gurr has some advice for students

Bob Gurr: "I never had engineering training whatsoever in my life. Here's how you get your engineering [education]: Somebody comes up to you says, 'Say, Bob, we need a...' and then they'll tell you what it is they need, say yes immediately and scurry home and figure, 'Oh, my God, now what do I need to know?' Guess what, you will force yourself into a self-education for that specific project, which might be Sinking Ship 101, which might be followed by Flying Saucer 402. After 20-30 years, you will have the best engineering education you're ever going to get. And, you didn't pay for it!"

Marty Sklar: "If somebody asks you to do something, and you don't know how to do it, say, 'I don't know, but I'll find out,' then go find out. That's what we did, right?"

Bob Gurr: "No! I didn't tell them that I didn't know how!" [Laughter]

Past 'Legends' Panels:

Replies (9)

November 19, 2014 at 9:50 PM · I wish I had been able to go to the New York Worlds Fair.1964 was the year that I was born. That is interesting about the Belgian waffles. I never knew that.
November 20, 2014 at 1:10 AM · Not sure how the freeway comment is a slam against Universal exactly. Universal is acutely aware of the problems associated with the location of Wet 'N Wild. That's why they just filed for permits to begin work on the plot of land south of Cabana Bay that will be the home of a brand new water park that is supposed to open in 2017. For now, Universal plans to keep Wet 'N Wild as is. A sort of separate area intended more for locals and tourists situated on International Drive.
November 20, 2014 at 4:22 AM · I wish I was able to experience this. Unfortunately I wasn't born yet :( . But I did get to experience the 1982 Knoxville TN Worlds Fair. Being 11 years old at the time, I still remember some things from the fair.
November 20, 2014 at 5:09 AM · Very cool information! You are so lucky to be at IAAPA and so lucky to be able to see and hear these three legends talk about an event that very much served to shape the theme park industry we know and love today. Robert, it is for these types of stories that I am forever riveted by this site! Thank you for sharing!
November 20, 2014 at 8:14 AM · Love learning more about the '64 NYC World's Fair from the folks who worked on it. I was lucky to get to the NY State Pavilion earlier this year when they opened it to the public on the Fair's 50th anniversary. They had a Wafels & Dinges cart, too, the popular successor that has sprouted up across NYC in the past 10 years.

Here's a bit more on some legacy achievements from the Fair, including waffles (they were in the Belgian Village, yet were Bel Gum) and nuclear energy:

November 20, 2014 at 12:24 PM · I was 9 at the time of the World's Fair. Living on Long Island, we went all the time. It was great. I still love C.O.P @ Disney World.
November 20, 2014 at 1:36 PM · That advice on engineering education is misleading. Telling that to students can mean "don't pursue your education, just do the job" or "your education is a waste". If you're already working towards your degree, experience tops it off. If you don't have an engineering degree, then you must be in management or have a personal relationship with the boss, because who the heck will trust you.

It is funny how I learned a bit about companies cutting costs. Where's that skyway at Disneyland and Disney World?

November 22, 2014 at 6:44 PM · I spent two days at the NY World's Fair in 1964. Seeing pictures of it brought back a lot of memories.

Am attending D23 Destination today and tomorrow. Today's sessions spent all day talking about Disney and the World's Fair (a very expanded version of the above) including a discussion about the proposed Coke attraction which would have featured what became the Tiki Room. Also got to see footage of the upcoming "Tomorrowland" movie which is set, in part, at the fair.

November 24, 2014 at 2:29 PM · Um, on the Belgian waffles, I feel compelled to point out that the stand is labeled Brussels Waffles and that's exactly what they are. They're served on the street there and quite delicious! So I'm pretty sure fair visitors they knew they were eating Belgian waffles from a stand named Bel-Gem. [Wikipedia says the stand owner's name was Maurice Vermersch, lol, but mad props to Marty Sklar regardless!]

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