Beyond the Magic Skyway

Posted on Fri, 06/16/2017 - 10:08

Walt's foray into the "World's Fair Business" has a section all to itself in gallery 9. Between sketches for "it's a small world" and a diorama of the Carousel of Progress, pick up a phone and hit the button labeled "Walt's Tour of Ford’s Magic Skyway". Don’t be alarmed to hear a klaxon go off in your ear! The phone is fine, but you've just stepped through a time tunnel, and are about to take an eight-and-a-half-minute journey into the recording booth with Walt Disney himself.

In early 1965, Walt’s Herculean task of delivering not one, but four unique, cutting-edge World’s Fair attractions had been a resounding success, yet his work wasn’t finished. With one last season of the Fair set to open in April, no one at WED Enterprises was resting on their laurels: Walt’s massive Magic Skyway ride for the Ford Pavilion was being serviced, repaired and updated to more prominently feature its creator… whether he liked it or not! Having reluctantly agreed to narrate the full ride himself, this look behind the scenes reveals a Walt that is frustrated, endearing, and utterly human.

Directing him is a young Marty Sklar, whose personal account of the session (in Dream It! Do It! My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms) doesn’t sugarcoat Walt’s difficulty getting through the script. This would be the only ride to benefit from the inclusion of Walt as host, but that’s not all that made the Magic Skyway unique. Disney's vision for the attraction, "an adventure so realistic that visitors will feel they have lived through a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience," would prove sadly prophetic. Among the four projects WED engineered for the fair, the Magic Skyway stands alone with one sad distinction: the show did not go on. The Magic Skyway is the one ride that wouldn't make it home.

The story of the Ford Pavilion and Disney's involvement begins with a rivalry. As American corporations vied for exposure at the fair, General Motors saw money as no object. Without limit, an estimated fifty-five million dollars would be spent to attain the greatest attendance. Henry Ford II, competitive but quite budget conscious, wanted General Motors’ numbers at half the price. Ford was well aware of Disney and Disneyland’s own enviable numbers, and when Walt approached Ford for his Hall of Presidents project, another deal was soon struck: plans were made for a new "Wonder Rotunda" in Flushing Meadows. This would be a direct descendent of the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn, which had premiered as part of the 1934 World’s Fair, and had recently burned down.

Well-known architect (and Walt's personal friend) Welton Becket designed the glamorous pavilion, constructing the Rotunda from sixty-four pylons, each one-hundred feet tall. Per Imagineer John Hench's suggestion, Ford motor vehicles were propelled through high rising glass tubes that circled the Rotunda. These "Skyways" gave passengers a glimpse of the fair from above as they entered the main ride, and served to lure in curious fairgoers below. Shooting out from the Rotunda was a building that housed most of the Magic Skyway proper, which at its heart was an immersive “dark ride” taken in from the comfort of a real Ford automobile, with Walt guiding visitors over the radio.

“A parable of man’s journey through time from his primordial beginnings to an unknown tomorrow,” the Magic Skyway was a precursor to the animated tableaux later perfected in Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. Audio-Animatronics® technology came into its own at the Fair, with the first human figures populating the Magic Skyway, the Carousel of Progress, and, of course, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. As many as 64 figures (a good number of them duplicates) brought the Magic Skyway to life, beginning with monumental dinosaurs against a backdrop of prehistoric Earth. Brontosauri, Pteranodons and Triceratops gave way to the stars of the show: a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Stegosaurus towering over Skyway riders, locked in a “fight to the finish.”

Time races on "toward the shadow of a new arrival… man." Cavemen engage in a plethora of gags alongside the track: the discovery of fire, a wooly mammoth hunt, early experiments by the inventor of the wheel. This is our segue to the "threshold of tomorrow," as time skips ahead once more and we glimpse a future not only of wheels, but of rockets and highways in the sky. A testament not to man, but to man's infinite ingenuity. Riders disembark, and are invited to tour special exhibits on Ford's latest and greatest scientific advances.

The ride was a testament to WED's ingenuity, certainly.  The use of real cars was a challenge set forth by the Ford company, the attitude being that if they "could get people in their cars, they would make a sale," according to Imagineer John Hench. WED's rise to meet the challenge resulted in a triumph of "marketing one-upmanship” over GM, says Sklar, that company’s own attraction featuring only a "chair-ride." Walt himself suggested the use of booster brakes in order to automate the driverless cars, with Bob Gurr and Roger Broggie adapting the system used on Disneyland's Matterhorn Bobsleds to make it a reality. The pavilion even allowed for two simultaneous shows, doubling the maximum attendance: it was possible to take one of two tracks through the ride.

Despite these efforts, no one could have predicted the show's queuing would be so problematic, with wait times of up to three hours. Compound the scale of the attraction with one important detail, the debut of the Mustang, to understand its immense popularity with fairgoers. Including 12 Mustangs in the original fleet of 178 ride vehicles was an eleventh-hour decision by Ford, one that provided a definite boost to attendance. Some patrons were said to wait out their turn until a Mustang rolled down the track: to them the car was the attraction, the Disney show was just complementary.

Other difficulties surrounding the ride resulted in an unfortunately rocky relationship between Disney and Henry Ford II. Ford's concern was success on a budget, and that put him at odds with the creative team. Bob Gurr blamed Ford budget cuts for the vehicles’ lack of a basic spacing system, resulting in frequent collisions. On opening day, Ford quipped to an entire crowd, with Walt standing next to him, that the project hadn't come in under budget. Perhaps most personally vexing was Ford's refusal to license the use of Walt’s name, essentially a down payment for future business with the company, and a commitment Walt valued. Ford seemed dismissive, according to Sklar, of Disney's potential usefulness to his company after the Fair. Therein lies the fate of the Magic Skyway: it had lost its sponsor.

When the Fair was over, the Pavilion was torn down. The Ford company kept one artifact from the fair: a novelty band of musical Audio-Animatronics car parts that had welcomed visitors as the "Auto Parts Harmonic Orchestra," designed by Rolly Crump. The cars were shipped to an employee resale lot, and Magic Skyway vehicles, Mustangs especially, remain highly sought after. For everything else, The Walt Disney Company would have to find a home or discard. The ingenious track used to propel Ford vehicles would live on in Tomorrowland's WEDWay PeopleMover, with a Disney division, "Community Transportation Services," opening in 1974 to commercialize the system. The most conspicuous survivors of the Magic Skyway can be found in Disneyland's Primeval World, along the Disneyland Railroad. Here we find our dinosaurs far from extinct: since their west coast debut on July 1, 1966, they've been as alive as ever.

The remaining figures are shrouded in legend, save one documented appearance come Christmas 1965. With the Fair's two-year run having come to a close that October, there was ample time for not only the cavemen to return to Glendale, but to put on one last show. Posed and dressed for the season, the cast of the Magic Skyway (along with a few of their Audio-Animatronics siblings) helped spread Christmas cheer at the WED Enterprises holiday party. The inventor of the wheel put on his cap and beard while the Mammoth donned a simple placard: "Christmas Turkey." Beyond this, little can be said for certain. The cast of prehistoric days was a unique, primitive stepping stone on the road to Walt's vision for Audio-Animatronics technology. Their limited movement already seemed antiquated alongside the sophisticated Mr. Lincoln, and they never had the universal appeal of the child-like dolls in “it’s a small world.” Now, they were homeless. Scrapped, recycled, or simply lost to the mists of time, it's perhaps best to imagine them "evolving" into the Audio-Animatronics figures yet to come, the primordial ancestors of some of Disneyland's most timeless attractions.

The Magic Skyway may be gone, but its legacy lives quietly on. In Disney history, it had a uniquely short life, nevertheless rife with challenges and creative victories all its own. As you return to the present, and hang up your receiver in gallery 9, don't dwell on what could have been. Instead, remember the Magic Skyway the way Walt always imagined it: truly, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Timothy DuBay has been a volunteer at The Walt Disney Family Museum since 2016. He has a B.A. in Cinema from San Francisco State University.