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. inally, 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.
Earlier this year in June, The Henry Ford acquired an original kiosk designed by Charles and Ray Eames for use in the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The kiosk, one of two known to survive, was designed to resemble a colorful tent-like structure, complete with pennants.
Constructed of iron, walnut and plastic laminate, it originally housed interactive exhibit elements that were part of a huge program created by the Eames office to explain the impact and uses of IBM’s computing technology. The kiosk was saved by the contractor who had been awarded the task of demolishing the pavilion at the fair’s end. Another example is known to have survived—used by the Eames Office to explore installation options but never used at the fair itself. It was acquired by Vitra in 2006.
The kiosk is currently with our conservation department being conserved and will be coming to the floor of Henry Ford Museum next year.
To get an idea of how the kiosks were used in the IBM Pavilion, take a look at this video from Eames Office. You'll miss it if you blink, but you can catch a very small glimpse of our kiosk at the 1:45 mark in the right corner of the video.
Make sure to check back to the blog and our Facebook page for kiosk updates.
Donna Braden, Curator of Public Life, had the pleasure of delving into our vast collections to develop the “Ford at the Fair” display, our complement to the traveling exhibition “Designing Tomorrow” that is currently in Henry Ford Museum. Take a trip back in time with her in today's blog post as we head to to the fair.
Welcome to the Ford Building at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition here in the year 1934! We hope that our exhibits will inform and inspire you, along with the millions of other visitors we expect to attend the fair and see our exhibits this year. Henry Ford has a passion for world’s fairs and he is always enthusiastic about showing the public how we do things at Ford Motor Company.
How far we’ve come since Mr. Ford invented his first car, the Quadricycle. And although we are currently deep in an economic depression, our exhibits will surely impress upon you how busy we are developing new products for your current and future enjoyment.
We are proud to boast the largest corporate exhibition at the Century of Progress Exposition this year—11 acres in all! Our stunning Exposition Building was designed by Albert Kahn, who has designed many buildings for us, including the exceptional Ford River Rouge Plant. Mr. Kahn cleverly planned the circular court in the center of our Exposition Building to simulate a graduated cluster of gears.
Now come inside for a closer look at how our exhibits present the fascinating story of the Ford motor car.
First off, you’ll see our centerpiece exhibit, “Ford Industries Cover the World.” This huge rotating globe identifies the locations of our company’s production plants around the world. Our company is truly international in its reach.
Circling the outer edge of the center court we present “The Drama of Transportation,” showing the evolution of horse-drawn and horseless carriages leading all the way up to our modern 1934 Ford V-8.
Now let’s turn left and enter the smaller wing of the building. Here you’ll find the “Henry Ford Century Room,” celebrating 100 years of mechanical progress. This room includes early electric generators brought here from Mr. Ford’s growing collection at his museum in Dearborn, Mich., along with his first workshop and his first car.
Beyond this room you’ll see exhibits reflecting Mr. Ford’s interest in bringing together agriculture and industry, particularly his passion for growing and processing soybeans for car manufacturing. Mr. Ford even staged an all-soybean meal here recently, where he invited 30 reporters to partake of several specially made dishes. The reporters were not so sure about soybeans in their food but they had to admit that the future of soybean-based plastics, paint, and oil looks bright!
Now let’s head over to the large wing on the other side of our Exposition Building. Here we have many exhibits that showcase our modern industrial practices.
For example, inspired by Mr. Ford’s passionate interest in using natural materials to manufacture car parts, our “Out of the Earth” exhibit demonstrates how natural resources—like iron, aluminum, rubber, asbestos, and of course soybeans—go into the making of specific parts of the Ford V-8, mounted on top as a cutaway view.
Farther down this wing, you can see the amazing “Proof of Safety” exhibit. Here three Ford V-8’s are suspended from the rim of a welded steel wheel of the type used on all our Ford V-8 cars. This should assure you of the strength and dependability of the modern cars we are producing.
While you’re touring the many exhibits and demonstrations at the Ford Exposition building today, be sure to visit our impressive “Roads of the World” display outside. This large oval track features 100-foot-long sections that resemble 19 world-famous thoroughfares, ranging from the earliest Roman roads to the smooth paved highways of today.
Alas, our time is up. We hope you enjoyed your brief tour today, and are as excited as we are about the bright future we all have ahead of us.