Walt Disney and World's Fairs, Part 1

I’ve written before about how many Americans are unaware that expos (or “world’s fairs,” as we tend to call them here) still happen. Similarly, the millions of people who live in countries that have hosted expos in the last couple of decades are sometimes unaware of America’s contributions to the medium throughout history. Walt Disney’s story is emblematic about how 20th Century United States history and world’s fair history are intertwined.

I see it as part of my mission to keep world’s fairs and the United States from drifting apart. Fortunately, working at the Walt Disney Family Museum, I have the privilege of interacting regularly with other folks who are also passionate about the power of places.

Gallery 9 of our museum features exhibits about Disneyland, the 1964-1965 World’s Fair (which, for the record, wasn’t recognized by the BIE), and Walt Disney’s original scheme for EPCOT. Spending time in this gallery, it usually doesn’t take long before guests will talk about the power of simply being in a physical space. It has the power to transport and inspire. Most guests of the museum, I find, have been to Disneyland before. Some guests were there in New York in 1964 or 1965. Some imagine what EPCOT would have been like if it had been created as the experimental community Walt Disney had originally intended.

Most guests, however, have absolutely no idea that world’s fairs still happen, albeit on other continents.

Walt Disney was, quite literally, born into the world of expos. His father, Elias Disney, worked as a carpenter at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. That same year, Elias built the family’s home, where Walt was born in 1901. The 1893 World’s Fair had a huge impact on American culture which reverberates even into the present. We can have no doubt that a young Walt heard many stories about that magnificent exposition.

In 1928, Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse and its image would emblazon hundreds of items, including the 1933-1934 Century of Progress Exposition pocketknife on display in the museum. It’s said that the fair’s Belgium Village provided inspiration to Disney years later during the creation of Disneyland.

At the 1935 Brussels International Exposition, some of Walt Disney’s films were honored as part of that expo’s film festival. That same site would later host Expo ’58 where Walt Disney’s first themed attraction outside of a Disney park was featured. The Disney film “America the Beautiful,” a 360-degree film, was shown in the United States Pavilion.

Walt Disney personally attended the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition. Among the exhibits he visited was the “Miniature Rooms of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.” It would inspire him to collect miniatures himself, an element that would later be prevalent in Disney Parks. He also attended the 1962 Century 21 Exposition in Seattle where he studied the successes of that expo. He was quoted as saying that he thought there would be “Space Needles cropping up all over after the success of this one.”

Walt Disney’s greatest contributions to the world of expos would come just three years later. More of that in my next post.


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