Walt Disney's greatest contribution to the world of world's fairs was at an event that wasn't officially recognized by the BIE, but nonetheless has gone on to become an important celebration and beloved memory for many in the United States: the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair.
Because the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair wasn't officially recognized by the BIE, participation by foreign countries was greatly reduced. To remedy that gap in content, the organizers chose to rely on corporations and US states more than would typically be done. At the same time, Walt Disney was looking for opportunities to connect with American corporations and let them "foot the bill" for his own artistic and technological experimentation.
These dual needs resulted in four particularly noteworthy pavilions at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair: the Pepsi Pavilion, the Ford Pavilion, the General Electric Pavilion, and the Illinois State pavilion. Elements of all four of these pavilions can still be seen in Disney Parks nearly 50 years later.
The Pepsi Pavilion is perhaps the best known pavilion of the four. Created as a benefit for UNICEF, it is better known by its other name: "it's a small world" (all lower case, I might add!). Originally, the pavilion's concept was to feature the children of the world singing their various national anthems. Tests showed what many diplomats could have told them: The result was a lot of disjointed noise as you took the boat from room to room. The Sherman Brothers, the composers tasked with the music, had a solution. They created one iconic song that would be performed in different styles as you visited each continent. Today is is perhaps the most beloved (and otherwise) attraction at Disneyland. Versions of the attraction were also created at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland.
The Ford Pavilion featured the Ford "Magic Skyway," an indoor ride with 50 tracked vehicles designed to mimic the company's cars at the time. Included among the scenes in the pavilion was Earth in prehistoric times compete with audio-animatronic dinosaurs. After the exposition closed, the track system was used to create Disneyland's PeopleMover and parts of the exhibits were re-used as Primeval Word, a diorama viewed from the Disneyland Railroad.
The General Electric Pavilion was named "Progressland." The circular pavilion featured a series of stages in the center like pie pieces depicting America in the 1890's, the 1920's, the 1940's and "present day." Rotating around these stages were seated audience areas. After each scene, the audience would rotate to the next showing America's progress through the decades. The stages, however, featured no live actors. Audio-animatronic actors, instead, performed with a central character that extolled the virtues of progress. Not surprisingly, this progress was mostly brought to you by the fine folks at General Electric. When the fair ended, the attraction was brought to Disneyland and re-named the Carousel of Progress. In the 1970's, it was relocated to Walt Disney World. It now boasts being the longest running stage show in America having been updated a few times in nearly 50 years. Its future, however, is in doubt as its most recent incarnation, developed in the early 1990's, is sparsely attended. Perhaps the promise of ubiquitous car phones isn't as fantastic as it once was.
The Illinois State Pavilion also offered Walt Disney the opportunity to develop audio-animatronics. It's attraction, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, featured the president in an almost lifelike way, speaking to the audience and delivering the Gettysburg Address. This attraction was also relocated to Disneyland after the fair closed and has also been updated over the years.
These four pavilions were obviously important in the development of Disney parks but have also proved their influence on theme attractions in general and future world's fairs specifically. Echos of "it's a small world" could be seen in the Germany Pavilion at Zarargoza's Expo 2008 and the China Pavilion at Shanghai's Expo 2010 had elements that were reminiscent of both "it's a small world" as well as the Carousel of Progress. As I saw the mostly Chinese audience walk past diorama's of Chinese life in 1978, 1988, 1998, and 2008, I could help but hear the Sherman brothers' lyrics in my head: "It's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow!"
Sadly, Walt Disney passed away in 1966, but the company he founded would still have connections to the world of internationally-themed entertainment.
Epcot naturally comes to mind. I've been assured that world's fairs were not specifically in the minds of the designers when it originally opened in 1982. However, the mix of corporate and national pavilions does make it at least a distant cousin of expos.
The Walt Disney Company would later be tasked with creating a film for Telecom Canada at Vancouver's Expo '86 called "Portraits of Canada/Images du Canada." At the end of the exposition, the film was shown, for a time, at Epcot's Canada Pavilion.
The company would return to assisting a United States Pavilion: This time at Shanghai's Expo 2010. It didn't provide any of the content, but was one of many corporate sponsors.
As Expo 2015's organizers continue planning and building, they announced just this past month that they have tasked The Walt Disney Company Italia to create the event's official mascot.
Perhaps this latest Disney collaboration will yield some attention in the United States and let Americans know that world's fairs do indeed still happen!