It’s no secret among Disney fans that the 1964 World’s Fair was a pivotal moment in the company’s history. Its attractions represented new steps forward in Audio-Animatronics and proved that an East Coast park could succeed. It’s a Small World, Carousel of Progress, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln all sprung from the Fair. Their success was also the precursor to classic rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. The Disneyland that we know today came about through Walt’s involvement in the classic New York event. They’re hardly its only story, however.
Joseph Tirella chronicles the events within and surrounding the Fair in his intriguing book Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America. The New York-based writer takes us from the early discussions of the famed event right through its final days. What separates this story from the standard chronicle is Tirella’s interest in what was happening in the culture. Major events in American history like the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the JFK assassination all happened around this time. Tirella paints a larger picture of how the Fair connected to cultural trends and frequently veers away from it. It’s an ambitious book that sometimes feels unwieldy, but I appreciate the attempt to go beyond covering the Fair.
What about the Disney content, you ask? It’s mostly confined to eight pages in a single chapter (six, if you’re interested). A good portion of this section includes a history of Walt’s life that will be very familiar to most fans. Tirella devotes a few paragraphs to the four Disney attractions, with the most time spent on Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Given the “Tomorrow-land” in the title, I expected more emphasis on Disney’s groundbreaking technologies at the Fair. There’s a brief mention of Walt’s plans for the EPCOT project, but it just scratches the surface of the topic.
Despite the limited Disney material, there’s still a lot to like if you’re interested in the Fair. We learn plenty about Robert Moses, the infamous “master builder” of New York City. His vision helped to make the Fair possible, but his restrictive approach hindered the bottom line. Moses was a talented guy who helped to transform the city, but he also tended to bulldoze over any dissension. Tirella spends a lot of time explaining Moses’ personality and how it impacted the Fair. I knew little about Moses before reading this book, so it was intriguing to learn about the powerful figure.
Tomorrow-land isn’t a Disney book, yet there’s still a great story of the Fair and its many challenges. It lost serious money yet is still referenced today. This summer’s Tomorrowland movie recreated the event in a pivotal early scene. Many of us are still intrigued by such a gigantic undertaking, especially because of Disney’s involvement in it. Tirella places the Fair in the context of a tumultuous era, though there are a few surprise omissions. His mention of Walter Keane’s “Tomorrow Forever” painting doesn’t mention that his wife Margaret actually painted it (as shown in the movie Big Eyes). This brief instance makes me wonder if there are other issues within the book. Regardless, it’s an interesting look at an event that’s still finding new fans to this day.