Ford Meets Disney at the Magic Skyway
Some people called the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair the greatest fair ever, while others denounced it as a nostalgic look backward. Either way, no one could miss the mega-attractions that were staged by American corporations. Among these display “giants” was Ford Motor Company, who brought in Walt Disney to ensure that its corporate pavilion would be a blockbuster hit at the fair.
A Partnership is Formed
Ford and Disney both had their reasons for making a big splash at the New York World’s Fair.
Ford Motor Company executives wanted to tell their corporate story, showcase their products—including a special highlight on the new Ford Mustang—and provide a “unique and memorable entertainment adventure” that would outshine their competitors at the fair.
Walt Disney, by now internationally recognized for his success at Disneyland, was planning for the future. He looked to the fair as a place to try out new ideas and refine new technologies, obtain corporate funding to create new attractions, and test the receptiveness of East Coast audiences to his most recent dream—building a spacious new theme park in Florida. The Ford pavilion was one of four major attractions that Disney and his Imagineers at WED Enterprises would produce for the New York World’s Fair. (The other three attractions were Progressland for General Electric; Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln for the State of Illinois; and it’s a small world for Pepsi-Cola.)
Ford recognized that Disney represented not only “the greatest pool of creative talent available” but also had years of experience with crowd movement and control. Indeed, when Walt Disney brought in architect Welton Becket from Los Angeles to design the Ford pavilion, he directed Becket to provide space for two simultaneous shows, queuing areas, and product displays—allowing for a capacity of 4,000 guests per hour. Ford Motor Company executives were particularly interested in their pavilion taking on a rotunda form, in keeping with their previous structures at world’s fairs and to commemorate the loss of their beloved, recently-burned-down Ford Rotunda in Dearborn.
A Ride on the Magic Skyway
Disney Imagineers brought to the Ford pavilion all the experience they had gained in developing attractions at Disneyland.
As guests entered the Ford pavilion through the monumental Rotunda building, they encountered a series of colorful exhibits focusing on Ford’s history, global influence, and current products. The topics were Ford-related, but the treatment of virtually every element had the unique Disney touch. For example, the miniature villages of the International Gardens display were reminiscent of the miniscule settings at the Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction in Disneyland. Great moments in Ford Motor Company history were represented by several humorous, Disney-designed dioramas as guests took moving “speed ramps” to the upper level for the Magic Skyway ride. Near the ride queue, a Disney-created “animated orchestra” was comprised of ingeniously rigged Ford automobile parts.
The climax of the Ford pavilion was, of course, the Magic Skyway ride—billed as “an exciting ride in a Company-built convertible through a fantasy of the past and future in 12 minutes.” It is quite possible that the idea of using real cars for the ride was Ford Motor Company’s, inspired by the “Road of Tomorrow” feature at its 1939 New York World’s Fair pavilion. There, guests had ridden in current car models along a “highway of the future.” But, this time, the cars were fixed in place, attached to a track that moved them along at evenly spaced intervals. Perfecting this ride track technology was, in fact, a major goal for Disney and his Imagineers at the fair.
Convertibles were chosen for the ride because they were easy to climb into and out of and because they afforded the greatest visibility for the show. Through most of the planning process, the choice of convertibles had included examples from all the regular Ford and Lincoln-Mercury lines—Falcon, Ford, Comet, Mercury, Lincoln-Continental, and Thunderbird. But, with mere months to spare before the fair’s opening on April 22, Ford realized the marketing potential in adding several of its new Ford Mustangs to the ride track as well.
Once settled inside their cars, guests used the push buttons of their car’s radio to hear sounds, music, and—after a brief welcome from Henry Ford II—the narration for the show in a choice of four different languages.
The ride began with the cars slowly gliding along outside the Rotunda building through a transparent glass tunnel. This idea, conceived by legendary Disney Imagineer John Hench, both afforded riders a perfect view of the fairground from the upper level of the pavilion and allowed fairgoers to glimpse the new Ford models from below.
Back inside the pavilion, the cars picked up speed and the ride truly began. Rainbow-hued strobe lights flashed past while sound effects created the illusion that riders were hurtling through a “time tunnel,” racing across millions of years toward a far distant past.
Emerging from this time tunnel, guests found themselves in “a dim primeval place of strange sounds and sights.” Their cars moved past several gatherings of “prehistoric monsters”—some engaged in mortal combat, others combing the rugged and swampy terrain for food. But, within moments, climate and plant life shifted and Man made his appearance. Groups of cavemen could be seen discovering fire, painting on cave walls, fighting off vicious beasts, using stone as a tool, and—in a final vignette—using the wheel.
For the scenes of the primeval past, Walt Disney had wanted to create an adventure “so realistic that guests will feel they have lived through a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience.” To accomplish this, Disney Imagineers “brought to life” both the prehistoric creatures and the cavemen with their newest storytelling technology, Audio-Animatronics®. They had introduced this technology only recently—at the Enchanted Tiki Room in Disneyland in 1963, and they had much they wanted to refine on its details here at the fair.
Guests left these scenes behind and entered a second time tunnel, speeding past flashing, spinning, and twirling wheels that symbolized the progress of thousands of years. After their journey through time and space on a “Highway in the Sky,” they were dropped off at “Space City”—a “spectacular, impressionistic city of tomorrow.” Guests disembarked here, as the voice of Walt Disney—speaking through the car radio—invited them to enter a world “where tomorrow is created today.”
Returning to the real world of corporate exhibits, guests encountered five “Adventures in Science” displays, which highlighted Ford’s and Philco’s (a Ford subsidiary at the time) current research in the fields of space, electronics, power sources, fuel, and new materials.
Taking moving “speed ramps” back down to the first level, guests were encouraged to explore on their own the many Ford products and presentations on display in the elegant Product Salon. A final Disney-produced exhibit—featuring moving scenes of city and countryside—provided the backdrop for a Ford “Product Parade”—an “endless stream” of current Ford-built cars, trucks, and tractors.
After the Fair
The Ford pavilion and its Magic Skyway ride were, as hoped, a huge hit with the public and an unqualified success for both Ford and Disney.
For Ford Motor Company, millions of people riding the Magic Skyway experienced a ride in a Ford car for the first time. In addition, Ford’s idea to introduce the Mustang at the fair was a stroke of marketing genius, as the Ford Mustang would go on to become one of the best-selling automobiles in American history.
With four top-ten attractions at the New York World’s Fair, Walt Disney established an impressive record working with large corporations. His Imagineers achieved in record time what might have otherwise taken years to accomplish. Their experiments with ride track technology would be further refined at Disneyland to become the WEDway People Mover, while their refinements with Audio-Animatronics® would find their way into many new attractions. Finally, Disney knew that his dream for a new theme park in Florida could proceed as planned. But for now he was happy to bring back all three non-Ford attractions from the New York World’s Fair back to Disneyland.
The Ford pavilion almost came back to Disneyland too. Walt Disney proposed to Ford Motor Company a re-envisioned attraction that would house a 1,000-seat theatre with a new, product-oriented stage show employing Audio-Animatronics® techniques, as well as a showroom for corporate products. The real cars of the Magic Skyway ride would be replaced by the new WEDway People Mover, circulating through the interior of the pavilion on its route around Tomorrowland. Ford Motor Company debated the pros and cons of Disney’s proposal but, in the end, declined his offer.
Ironically, only the dinosaurs of the Magic Skyway ride survived “extinction,” taking up residence in the Primeval World diorama along the Disneyland Railroad in July 1966.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Mustangs, cars, by Donna R. Braden, world's fairs, popular culture, Ford Motor Company, Disney