Saturday, November 29, 2014

Orlando: Destination D

The 1964 New York World’s Fair has always loomed large in my family’s lore. My uncle Manuel and aunt Eva stopped there on their way to Spain in 1965—a trip almost too exotic to imagine, especially since I had never traveled farther east than Palm Springs. My family, wearing our Sunday best, took them to LAX, where, in those days, we could wave good-bye at the gate. It was the first time I had ever been to an airport. I was 11 years old and completely fascinated by the idea of a World’s Fair that I would never see.

Since then, I’ve learned that Walt Disney had a big hand in contributing to the success of the Fair, designing no less than four major, and wildly popular, attractions—Ford’s Magic Skyway; Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln; the Carousel of Progress  for GE; and Pepsi’s It’s a Small World—all of which became part of Disneyland once the Fair ended. No surprise, then, that I was one of the first members to buy a ticket when D23 announced that it was going to commemorate the Fair’s 50th anniversary at the third Destination D convention, held last weekend in Orlando, FL. It was a wonderful event. Plus, as you can see below, Tim and I got to spend some quality time at two of the Walt Disney World parks.

Souvenir guide to "It's a Small World"

Compared to D23’s every-other-year Expo, which draws thousands and thousands of members and non-members alike, Destination D tends to be an intimate nostalgia-fest for several hundred dedicated Disney fans. The theme of the two-day gathering always relates—subtly or not so—to an historic event and/or new Disney product. Not only did we celebrate the NY Fair’s golden anniversary, we also soon learned that the Fair plays a key role in the upcoming movie Tomorrowland, which was teased in a 10-minute filmclip. Historians, archivists, and long-time employees, such as “Disney legends” Marty Sklar and Bob Gurr, shared memories, photos and artifacts of Disney’s influence on the Fair. And, of course, we saw lots of footage of Walt describing "Mr. Lincoln," etc., on his Wonderful World of Color TV show. Walt was nothing if not brilliant at self-promotion.

Disneyland Goes to the World's Fair video

So here’s some of the more interesting stuff I learned at the convention:

• Walt was all about getting other people to pay for the development of new technology that he then incorporated into Disneyland. He first pitched “Mr. Lincoln” to Coca-Cola, who declined because they couldn’t see how the president related to their product. So Walt eventually connected with Illinois state officials, who loved the idea for their pavilion. Disney’s life-like animatronic Lincoln was quickly acknowledged as the most technologically-advanced marvel at the Fair.

• Pepsi, too, declined Walt’s initial pitch to make “it’s a small world” the centerpiece of its pavilion—that is, until PepsiCo board member Joan Crawford stepped in, leading to the creation of one of the most popular rides in theme park history. Although “small world” was originally designed as a walk-through attraction, Disney’s engineers knew they wouldn’t be able to handle the anticipated 3800 visitors an hour and so decided to transport folks via boat. And that’s how “it’s a small world” became Disneyland’s first flume ride. By the way, it took 48 Global Vanline trucks to transport "small world" to Anaheim once the Fair ended—not so small, after all!

An entire LP of "small world" music (yikes!)

• For the “Magic Skyway” ride, visitors rode actual Ford convertibles through dioramas depicting scenes from world history, starting with the Stone Age. When Ford execs asked Walt what prehistoric creatures had to do with automobiles, he insisted that people would long remember his life-sized dinosaurs, and when they did, they’d remember they saw them while riding in a Ford! Today the dinosaurs are part of Disneyland’s Santa Fe railroad train ride.

Ford video of the Magic Skyway

• Although Walt Disney was already famous as an entertainer and theme park creator, he didn’t gain worldwide renown as a visionary and technological innovator until the 1964 World’s Fair.

In addition to Fair history, the convention also included a segment on Disneyland attractions of yesteryear. Did you know that:

• An exhibit from the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was installed in Tomorrowland in 1955. (Does anyone remember this?) Captain Nemo’s peddle-organ is now part of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride.

• Walt originally intended the Main Street opera house, where “Mr. Lincoln” currently resides, to be a TV studio. However, the only broadcasting done there was when the building served as the international HQ of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1963-65. Two years earlier, the opera house briefly hosted the Mother Goose Storyland set from Babes in Toyland, which park visitors could see for an extra 25 cents. (Does anyone remember this?)

Captain Hook’s long-lamented pirate ship, which was dismantled when Fantasyland was renovated in the early ‘80s, has been recreated at Disneyland Paris. I wonder if they serve Chicken-of-the-Sea tuna. . .

Memories of Disneyland days past: a car from the old
Skyway ride—or as my sister and I used to call them,
the "Barf Buckets"

Miniature of one of my all-time favorite rides:
Monsanto's "Adventure Thru Inner Space"

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