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Remembering the 1964-65 World's Fair

Updated on April 18, 2014
The Unisphere.dominates the 1964-1965 World’s Fair landscape. At the top left is the U.S. Pavilion, just in front of Shea Stadium.
The Unisphere.dominates the 1964-1965 World’s Fair landscape. At the top left is the U.S. Pavilion, just in front of Shea Stadium. | Source

Video: Views of the 1964-65 Fair

World's fairs are events that celebrate the present, look forward to the future and leave us with life-long memories. Such is the case with the 1964 and 1965 New York World’s Fair:

  • It was the largest world's fair ever to be held in the United States, occupying nearly a square mile in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
  • “Peace Through Understanding” was its motto and the 12-story Unisphere was its symbol.
  • The Ford Mustang, one of America’s premier sports cars, was launched at the fair.
  • Skype and its technology wasn’t a reality 50 years ago, when the fair predicted picture phones.
  • 51 million people enjoyed the New York World’s Fair, which opened on April 22, 1964.
  • It cost $1 billion to construct.
  • The fair is celebrating its 50th anniversary and the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair marks its 75th anniversary this year.

More than 1,500 photos of the 1964-1965 World's Fair will be displayed this year at the Queens Museum. This is one of 30 functions that will mark the fair's anniversary.

Check the list of 50th anniversary World's Fair events.

Although the fair was unsanctioned it still was filled with great exhibits

Since the late 19th century, nations regularly gathered together to showcase their products, arts, scientific advancements, culture and countries. These events allowed people to explore the world outside of their everyday experience. In 1928, a sanctioning body – the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) – was formed. It establishes policies for world fairs and expos.

The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair was not sanctioned by BIE because it was held too soon after another American world’s fair.

Undeterred, New York City, under the leadership of "master builder" Robert Moses, went ahead with its plans for a fair. Since it was not sanctioned many major nations did not participate. As a result, the 1964-65 World’s Fair was dominated by American corporation exhibits, along with a handful of exhibitions by smaller nations and various U.S. states and federal agencies.

The biggest corporations of the day spared no expense in their exhibits, such as General Motors’ massive “Futurama” building, which had the largest attendance. GM visitors boarded moving chairs and witnessed a view of the future. Nearly 26 million people took the journey into the future during the fair's two-year run.

Bell Systems also utilized similar single-passenger vehicles to transport guests through a series of dioramas that depicted innovations in communications. In another section of building, visitors tried out the futuristic video phone.

Click on the ▼ photo to enlarge

A Sinclair dinosaur faces the Ferris wheel from US Royal..
A Sinclair dinosaur faces the Ferris wheel from US Royal.. | Source

Another type of transportation was celebrated by U.S. Royal and its 80-foot-tall tire-shaped Ferris wheel. After the fair the 12-ton structure was rebranded "Uniroyal" and moved alongside I-94, near the Detroit airport.

Sinclair featured its dinosaur logo enlarged to life size. This petroleum company displayed nine life-size, life-like dinosaurs. The crowd-pleasing Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops and other fiberglass giants were equipped with the latest animatronics that brought the prehistoric beasts to life.

(After the fair, the dinosaurs were exhibited throughout the U.S., including in the 1966 Macy's Thanksgivingday Parade. Eventually, they all found separate homes in various U.S. museums and zoos.)

A new Mustang sits in front Ford's exhibit.
A new Mustang sits in front Ford's exhibit. | Source

Walt Disney Productions designed 4 unique exhibits

Speaking of animatronics, several companies utilized the talents of one of America’s great showmen, Walt Disney and his talented crew of engineers and designers.

Walt Disney Productions designed and created four shows at the fair that used a system of "Audio-Animatronics," in which computers and electro-mechanics controlled lifelike robots:

  • Ford Motor Company’s “Magic Skyway” was the second most popular exhibit at the fair. It featured 50 actual convertible Ford automobiles, including the newly introduced Mustangs, Once you boarded your car it traveled through the exhibit featuring audio-animatronic dinosaurs, cavemen and visions of the future.
  • Pepsi presented a salute to UNICEF and the world's children with Walt Disney's “It's a Small World.” By the way, once you begin singing or humming “It's a Small World” it will remain in your head for two to six hours.
  • General Electric’s "Progressland” featured the audience seated in a revolving auditorium that presented the electrical progress in a typical American home.
  • The Illinois pavilion featured an audio-animatronic President Abraham Lincoln reciting some of his famous speeches.

After the fair closed many of these exhibits were be moved to Disneyland. In 1971, they were replicated for Disney World and shipped to Florida.

Michelangelo’s Pietà, which was displayed at the Vatican Pavilion, has returned to St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.. .
Michelangelo’s Pietà, which was displayed at the Vatican Pavilion, has returned to St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.. . | Source

A sculpture and a special waffle were international hits

The Vatican’s display of the Pietà had the largest attendance of all non-commercial exhibits. Michelangelo’s Pietà is a sculptor of Mary holding Jesus’ body after he was taken down off the cross.

The Pietà was exhibited in a sea of blue lights, behind bullet-proof floor-to-ceiling plexiglass. Millions admired the classic sculpture while standing on one of three slow moving-walkways each slightly higher than the one in front of it. Pope Paul VI was among those who visited the Vatican pavilion.

Other international participants included Austria, Denmark, Japan, Greece, Mexico, Sweden, Thailand, Philippines and Belgium, which erected a Belgian Village. Here fair-goers enjoyed a new taste sensation, Belgium waffles – a combination of waffle, strawberries and whipped cream. The sweet treat made its U.S. debut at Seattle's 1962 World's Fair, but they exploded nationally after their appearance in Flushing Meadows.

The stars of the fair were the corporate exhibits that cost millions of dollars. Among them were:

Parker Pen where fair-goers, who wanted a pen pal, filled out questionnaires. Then using computer technology each individual was matched up with a pen pal.

At the RCA Pavilion 7,000 visitors each day got to see themselves on color television. The pavilion also helped reunite families by showing lost children on over 200 TVs throughout the grounds.

IBM offered visitors a unique view of the operation of computers. The audience sat in a 500-seat grandstand that was pushed by hydraulic arms into an oval-shaped rooftop theater.

DuPont presented a musical review by composer Michael Brown called "The Wonderful World of Chemistry.”

Click on the ▼ photo to enlarge

The Gemini capsule was the superstar at NASA's Space Park.
The Gemini capsule was the superstar at NASA's Space Park. | Source

The World’s Fair site was divided into five color-coded areas: Industrial (orange), International (pink), State and Federal (yellow), Transportation (red) and Amusement (blue). Most exhibitors were located in the corresponding area (i.e. RCA in Industrial, Sinclair in Transportation and the Belgian Village in International).

The favorite Federal exhibit was NASA’s “Space Park” which displayed various command modules, booster rockets, space stations and moon domes.

The moon dome was the site of one of two weddings held at the far. The other ceremony was in a family phone booth.

--=-=-- --==-- --=-=-- --=-=-- --==-- --=-=-- --=-=-- --==-- --=-=-- --=-=-- --==-- --=-=--

Just a Few Fun Fair Facts:

Nearly 30 million tickets were sold before Opening Day.

Admission: $2 for adults in 1964 and $2.50 in 1965 (respectively $15 and $18.80 in today’s money) and $1 for children ($7.50 today). There were 25¢ children days.

The fair was open for 360 days between April and October each year.

The fair had:

  • 3 family phone booths
  • 4 public restrooms
  • 5 sculptures
  • 7 newsstands
  • 10 Swiss clock towers
  • 35 bus stops
  • 60 mailboxes
  • 114 restaurants
  • 275 live animals
  • 1,400 pay phones
  • 1,500 benches
  • 2,500 public lockers
  • 30,000 employees.

It would take you over 30 days to see everything.

NYC is left with a great park

Financially the fair was a failure – attracting 51 million visitors instead of the projected 70 million. The people who attended were left in awe. The fair successfully triggered a sense of wonder and inspiration in millions of young minds.

The space ships, the 12-story Unisphere and a few buildings are all that’s remains from the fair. The $2 million Unisphere, was presented by United States Steel to the city as a permanent gift.

In 1997, the Unisphere, in the center of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, regained its fame when it was featured in the film Men in Black. It also has become a symbol of Queens, appearing on the cover of the borough's telephone directories.

The city also inherited a multi-million dollar Science Museum and Space Park exhibiting the rockets and vehicles used in America's early space exploration projects. The Space Park deteriorated due to neglect, but in 2004 the surviving rockets were restored and put back on display.

A portion of the Flushing Meadows site was set aside as the home of the U.S. Tennis Open. The 18,000 seat Louis Armstrong Stadium (known as the Singer Bowl during the fair) was pressed into service as the U.S. Open's primary venue for years. In 1997, the $254 million, 23,200 seat Arthur Ashe Stadium opened and has served as the primary venue for the tournament. At the same time, Armstrong Stadium was reduced in size to 10,200 seats.

In total, the 46½ acre USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center features 12 indoor synthetic surface courts, 19 field courts (including four feature courts), four climate-controlled clay bubbled courts and three stadium courts.

The "T" shaped building stood for "Transportation" during the World's Fair. Today it stands for "Terrace" on the Park.
The "T" shaped building stood for "Transportation" during the World's Fair. Today it stands for "Terrace" on the Park. | Source

Another major World’s Fair structure that avoided the wrecking ball is the large “T” shaped building that served as the fair’s heliport. ► It was renamed Terrace on the Park and now serves as a wedding and banquet hall.

People attending the private parties held in the 120-feet tall structure appreciate the great panoramic views of the New York City skyline seen through the rug to ceiling windows on the top floor.

The sprawling chain of parks also includes a zoo, a farm, a carousel, a botanical garden, boat rentals, a golf course, a miniature golf course and a $66 million aquatic center complete with an Olympic-sized indoor pool and an ice skating rink. –TDowling


Looking for More? Check...

National Geographic’s 25 page photo spread on the World’s Fair.

New York Daily News’ fair photos.

1964 World’s Fair website. This site is packed with info and photos.

Continue the story- 1939: Turning a nasty dump into a marvelous fair.

© 2014 Thomas Dowling


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    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      4 years ago from Florida

      You're right, Larry. The 1984 Louisiana World Exposition was the last world's fair on American soil, according to Wikipedia and some other websites I checked. [Search for "List of World Fairs" in Wikipedia.]

      Chicago planned to hold a fair in 1992 to mark the 500-year anniversary of Columbus arrival in the new world. The fair was cancelled because of political squabbling over funding.

      Many world's fairs, like both the 64-65 and 39-40 NYC fairs, have lost money. New Orleans was the first fair to declare bankruptcy while it was still operating.

      BTW, the next world's fair is set for 2015 in Milan Italy.


    • profile image

      Larry Wall 

      4 years ago

      The last World's Fair I remember was in New Orleans (I live in Louisiana) and that was about 1987 or 1988. I have not heard of a World's Fair since then. Does anyone know if they have been any and if they were profitable.

      In the New Orlean's fair they had an large swimming complex built. My wife's uncle sold swimming pools and got the contract. The fair went bankrupt, my wife's uncle was not paid and he lost his business. Somebody missed the mark on expected earnings.

      So, I would like to know if there have been any World's Fairs in the U.S. since that fiasco.

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      4 years ago from Florida

      Thanks very much, GreenPrince.

      Have a great day. -TD

    • GreenPrince profile image

      Prince Edike 

      4 years ago from Philippines

      Yet another informative hub. Well done tdowling.


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