In October, we announced that The Henry Ford has acquired a functioning Apple-1, a major milestone in the history of computing. However, in September, we acquired another significant computer, and we’ve just added it to our collections website. When Pixar began as a department within Lucasfilm in 1979, it started developing its own computer system to support graphics and visualization. The Pixar Imaging Computer became commercially available in 1986, and was adopted by other organizations with intensive graphic arts and animation needs, such as the Walt Disney Company and the United States Departments of Defense and Forestry. Curator of Communication & Information Technology Kristen Gallerneaux notes about the P-II: “One of our goals at The Henry Ford is to document computing as applied to creative and expressive activities. The Pixar Image Computer II (P-II) is of particular interest not only as a graphics rendering tool … but also as a hugely significant element in the thread that connects the Apple-1 computer to the finely designed and engineered computing devices we all carry with us every day.” See the P-II, as well as the rest of our digital collections related to computers, on our collections website.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Riders began their journey on the Magic Skyway by passing through a glass tunnel around the outside of the Ford pavilion (lower left), affording a unique bird's-eye view of the fairground. (THF201987)
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 withMr. Lincoln for the State of Illinois; and it’s a small world for Pepsi-Cola.)
Using this detailed model, Walt Disney shows Ford Motor Company CEO and Chairman of the Board Henry Ford II some of the features that he and his Imagineers had dreamed up for the Ford pavilion. (THF114505)
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.
This page from a souvenir brochure shows the two distinct structures that made up the Ford pavilion: the so-called “Wonder Rotunda,” inspired by previous Ford world’s fair buildings, and the building that housed most of the Magic Skyway ride. (THF114832)
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.
Representing Ford Motor Company’s global reach, the Disney-designed International Gardens display featured miniature buildings, landscapes, and settings of 12 countries. (THF114465)
The “Auto Parts Harmonic Orchestra”—comprised of Ford automobile parts—really played music! (THF115025)
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.
Twin tracks can be seen here in the loading area of the Magic Skyway ride, where friendly attendants helped guests quickly and efficiently get into the next available convertible. Story has it that the Ford Mustang was so popular that guests would wait out their turn until a Mustang came along. (THF114475)
Guests enter the glass tunnel overlooking the fairgrounds in anticipation of their “Adventure through Time and Space.” (THF67946)
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.
Riders on the Magic Skyway intently watch this primeval scene from the comfort of their Ford convertible. (THF114507)
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 its sporty look, reasonable price, and endless number of options, the Mustang hit a sweet spot in the market—appealing to a wide range of buyers. Ford was able to boast that it was a “show stopper” at the New York World’s Fair in this August 14, 1964 Time magazine advertisement. (THF77007)
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.
Walt Disney World in Florida is certainly a fun place to visit. It opened in 1971, after Walt Disney realized the huge potential of an East Coast market at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. But if you want to experience the place where it all began, then go to Disneyland. Considered America’s first theme park, Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, in Anaheim, California.
To really “get” Disneyland, you must take a trip back in time to Walt Disney’s boyhood. Walt grew up during the rapidly changing years of the early 1900s. His boyhood experiences in Marceline and Kansas City, Miss., especially, inspired his later work in filmmaking and television, as well as his creation of the Disneyland park. Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. is, in fact, a microcosm (albeit a cleaned-up one) of Walt’s boyhood memories of Marceline.
As Walt Disney relates it, his first interest in creating Disneyland dates back to the days he spent watching his daughters ride the carousel at Griffith Park, in Los Angeles, Calif. His wife credits the idea for Disneyland to Walt’s long-time fascination with the steam-powered trains that passed through Missouri when he was a boy.
Whichever legendary “origin story” you want to believe, both of these strongly influenced the several-year evolution of his plan for the park. One of his early inspirations even included a visit to Greenfield Village.
While most Hollywood moviemakers thought television was a passing fad, Walt Disney used it to his advantage. Disneyland the television show, which premiered in October 1954, helped fund Disneyland the park. The show featured live and animated features from each of four lands, with periodic peaks at the park construction. While tuning in to weekly episodes of Disneyland, American families were assured that Disneyland the park was going to be safe, wholesome, and predictable.
Special guests and the media were invited to Disneyland’s Opening Day on July 17, 1955. But things didn’t go quite as Walt Disney had planned. There were so many problems, in fact, that Walt later called it “Black Sunday.” Freeways were gridlocked, tickets were counterfeited, rides broke down, restaurants ran out of food, drinking fountains broke down. It was so hot that women’s high heels sank in the melting asphalt. Finally, a gas link almost shut down Fantasyland, the land in which most of the 22 attractions had been completed. On the next day, when the park opened to the public, things didn’t go much better.
Needless to say, the first reviews were quite negative. But Walt was determined to fix the glitches and by the end of the seventh week, more than a million guests had passed through Disneyland’s entrance. Visitation continued to exceed estimates from that time on.
With the consummate skill of a filmmaker, Walt’s vision for Disneyland was to have guests actually walk through popular American themes and stories. To accomplish this, he inspired his staff—Imagineers, he called them—to reduce these themes and stories to their essence.
For each land and attraction, the stories were unified through architecture, landscaping, signs, characters, food, merchandise, costuming, and even trash cans. This later came to be called “theming.”
Today, every themed environment—from theme parks to restaurants to retail stores—owes a debt to Walt Disney. And although The Henry Ford engages visitors through authentic artifacts and historically accurate stories, we can’t help but appreciate Walt Disney’s far-reaching vision, persistence in the face of obstacles, and genius for storytelling.
Good job, Walt! And happy 58th anniversary, Disneyland!
Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, is looking forward to her family’s trip to Disneyland later this summer.