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How a prehistoric Disneyland attraction created futuristic technologies at the park

The groundbreaking 1964 New York World’s Fair was a creative playground for Walt Disney and his Imagineers, a chance for the greatest visionaries of the time to experiment before a global audience.

Three of Disney park’s most iconic attractions came from the event: It’s a Small World, Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. A fourth Disney exhibit at the fair never fully made it to parks, but millions have passed by one of its most impressive elements every year at Disneyland.

Primeval World, a diorama that is part of the historic Disneyland Railroad, is something that many casual guests pass by without a second thought. You can’t miss the staggering heights and breathtaking size of these three-dimensional, audio-animatronic dinosaurs, but many overlook their historical significance.

It all goes back to the 1964 World’s Fair held in Queens, New York — a hotbed of inspiration and a promising peek at the future where technology merged with creativity and passion. Fueled by some of the biggest corporations at the time, it was also a pivotal moment for Disney as it was his first big reach to the East Coast, years before Walt Disney World was built, and a chance to flex his creative muscles.

At the Fair, Disney spearheaded the creation and design of four exhibits that would lay the groundwork for much of what Disney parks offer today. This ultimately set the trajectory for theme park innovation as we know it.

During the planning stages of the World’s Fair, Ford Motor Company was looking to partner with a pioneering visionary for a unique exhibit that would showcase its new automobiles. Naturally, they thought of Walt Disney and his Imagineers at WED Enterprises, who were making waves at the time for the technologies used at Disneyland.

Primeval World was taken from the 1964 World’s Fair attraction Ford Magic Skyway.

Julie Tremain

“They really wanted something to show off their cars particularly,” said Ted Linhart, a Disney and World’s Fair expert behind Disney Docs. This exhibit would also be the debut of the highly-anticipated Ford Mustang, which further solidified the pressure to make a big splash.

“They needed a showman,” Linhart added. “Something to really make a pop.”

The result was Ford Magic Skyway, an attraction narrated by Disney himself, that would transport guests aboard current Ford motor vehicles as they “time traveled” to different periods, including the era of the dinosaur.

The partnership at the World’s Fair would not only prove to be beneficial for Ford, but for Disney as well. He used the opportunity for his Imagineers to research new technologies and never-before-seen storytelling methods, on the dime of the mega-corporation. “It was a big undertaking for Disney, but allowed them to expand their Imagineer technology and audio-animatronic technology,” Linhart said.

His grandest display of showmanship? Forty-six towering dinosaurs, marking one of the earliest and grandest displays of audio-animatronics.

Some 15 million people attended the show during its two-year run. For many, this was the first time they saw audio-animatronics with their own eyes. This new and groundbreaking entertainment medium showed guests the most life-like dinosaurs they had ever seen before, which moved and even grunted.

Walt Disney reportedly referred to these brontosauri as Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Walt Disney reportedly referred to these brontosauri as Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Julie Tremain

“Walt realized that the World’s Fair would be a great place to expand that technology, expose it to many more people, enhance it and get it more out there,” added Linhart. The dinosaurs would revolutionize theme park technology as we know it, setting a precedent and introducing guests to figures on the grand scale that they would come to expect from Disney parks’ attractions.

The use of synchronized movement and sound was first on display, although to a much smaller degree, with Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. The total immersion of the senses displayed in the dinosaur scenes on Ford Magic Skyway, though, was a new level of storytelling that would soon be used at forthcoming Disneyland attractions, like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.

“The dinosaurs were a big hit,” Linhart said. “They seemed realistic to people. The whole pavilion was a huge smash.” Documents show that guests would wait hours to ride the attraction for a glimpse of the dinosaurs.

Industry standards were also set beyond the dinosaurs. Disney and Ford were tasked with learning how to manage the flow of people, marrying ride capacity with guests’ demands. A new ride vehicle system was developed that would later be used at Disney parks.

“One of the technologies they created for the Fair would allow the car to move at the same speed as the track it was on so that people getting in it could get in the car without having injuries,” shares Linhart. This vehicle propelling technology, developed for the Ford Magic Skyway, would be used with the now iconic PeopleMover attraction first at Disneyland and now at Walt Disney World.

The success of Disney’s dinosaurs and all of his exhibits collectively boded new confidence for the company’s expansion to Florida and provided the groundwork for beloved attractions seen today. While the three other exhibits made their way to Disney parks fully intact, only Walt’s popular dinosaurs were rescued from the Ford exhibit.

The diorama culminates in a fight between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Stegosaurus.

The diorama culminates in a fight between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Stegosaurus.

Julie Tremain

They were brought to Disneyland in 1966, where they have entertained millions for the last 56 years. Guests experience these dinosaurs aboard the Disneyland railroad between the Tomorrowland and Main Street, USA stations.

On this journey, the train passes through the Grand Canyon before coming face to face with these figures in the multi-set Primeval World diorama. The cavernous scenes were inspired by the classic film Fantasia with a soundtrack provided by the roaring dinosaurs and the “Primeval World Suite.”

During the ride, guests can spot a brontosaurus and three babies; Walt playfully called them Huey, Dewey and Louie. After appearances by pteranodons and triceratops, the final scene finds two dinosaurs, a tyrannosaurus rex and a stegosaurus, battling it out before an erupting volcano.

Today, paleontologists have questioned Disney for discrepancies found within the attraction, like the physical attributes of the dinosaurs and conflicting eating habits. What can’t be disputed is their impact on theme park innovation and technology.

While Primeval World never made it to Walt Disney World, it was reimagined at Tokyo Disneyland and similar life-like dinosaurs seemingly roam the earth — or attractions — in popular Universal Studios park rides today. It also the now-defunct opening day inspired Epcot attraction, Universe of Energy and Primeval Whirl, another defunct ride in the Dinoland area of ​​Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando. (That park made much more realistic dinos on its Dinosaur ride, which uses the same ride track as Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland, although riders are escaping extinction, and not a giant stone ball.)

“The Ford show was designed as a time machine to immerse you in different parts of the past and the future,” Linhart added. “It does seem like there’s a very strong connection from that ride to the iconic rides of today.”

For now, the dinosaurs are safe and sound, remaining a beloved part of Disneyland’s colorful fabric. Only time will tell if they, like so many attractions of yesteryear, will one day roar into extinction.

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