20 Awesome Things People Saw at the 1964 World’s Fair

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It was 50 years ago today that the 1964–'65 World’s Fair opened in New York City, bringing a plethora of innovative exhibits to Flushing Meadows–Corona Park in Queens. But by the time it closed in October 1965, it was considered a massive money pit, losing millions of dollars for New York City. Still, there were plenty of modern marvels for people to see during its two six-month runs. Read on for a glimpse at 20 of the coolest exhibits and rides that were on display.

1. "It’s A Small World"

This beloved attraction debuted along with other popular Disney rides like “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” and “The Carousel of Progress.” The boat ride was part of the UNICEF exhibit, and became a runaway success: More than 10 million visitors gawked at Disney’s audio-animatronic dolls in the two seasons that it was open. (We’re guessing they also left with the iconic theme song stuck in their heads for days to come.)

2. The Unisphere

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Many of the structures erected for the fair were torn down once it closed in October 1965, but this enormous steel sculpture—which has since been featured in Men In Black, Flight of the Conchords, and more—still stands. Fun fact: The globe’s three rings are meant to evoke the first NASA satellites to orbit the earth.

3. The Panorama of the City of New York

Image Credit: Queens Museum

New York City is rendered in miniature in a 9335-square-foot model of the five boroughs, with teeny versions of icons like the Empire State Building. Visitors to the exhibit took a nine-minute simulated “helicopter ride” (which cost 10 cents) that gave them a bird’s-eye view of its scope. After the fair, the model remained in the New York City Building, which eventually became the Queens Museum.

4. World’s Fair “Bluebird” subway car

Visitors to the fair could get there in style: In 1963, the New York City MTA commissioned special turquoise and gray cars to run along the 7 line to Flushing Meadows–Corona Park. A ride from Times Square to Queens in the “Bluebird” cars cost 15 cents.

5. Jet packs

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An exposition that was devoted to showcasing future technologies was bound to get some predictions wrong. Case in point: jet packs. Although fairgoers saw guys zooming around the grounds on the futuristic vehicles, they never quite took off in the mainstream.

6. Belgian waffles

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American audiences were introduced to this sweet treat at the Seattle expo in 1962, but NYC is where they exploded in popularity. The secret to their success: Brussels transplant Maurice Vermersch and his wife Rose treated the waffles like dessert, slathering them in whipped cream and strawberries.

7. Michelangelo’s Pieta

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The Vatican lent Michelangelo’s original 15th-century sculpture so that it could be displayed at the fair, but it came with a barrage of security measures: The piece was surrounded by guards and bulletproof glass, and visitors could only see it by standing on a moving walkway that traveled at about two miles per hour.

8. The Ford Mustang

Sports-car enthusiasts had another roadster to salivate over after the Ford Motor Company introduced the now-iconic Mustang at the fair. Thanks to the model’s novelty and its affordable base price (around $2300), the Mustang went gangbusters, with more than 400,000 sold in its first year.

9. The World Trade Center

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Architect Minoru Yamasaki began dreaming up a concept for the first World Trade Center in 1962, and in 1964, a scale model of his now-iconic Twin Towers was presented at the fair’s Port Authority Building (along with a model of the PATH railway tubes). Construction on the towers began two years later, with the buildings completed in 1973.

10. RCA color TV studio

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During the 1939 World’s Fair, RCA brought TV technology to a mass audience; for the 1964 expo, they topped that experience by debuting color television in an interactive studio. Instead of seeing a familiar program, fairgoers who visited the RCA Pavilion actually saw themselves in living color on TV screens.

11. Futurama II

General Motors debuted this attraction at the 1939 expo, but presented an updated ride for the ’64–’65 fair. This version of a “future of reality” predicted that there would be colonies on the moon and commuter spacecraft, underwater hotels, and covered moving walkways in the not-too-distant future. At least they were optimistic.

12. Picturephone

We take Skype and FaceTime for granted now, but in 1964, the technology that allowed people to see the person on the other end of a phone call was brand new. Bell Laboratories debuted its first picturephone at the fair, and visitors could test the device at calling stations that were connected to similar devices at Disneyland in California.

13. Live animals

In the Africa Pavilion, visitors got up close and personal with native animals like gorillas, giraffes, and lions. Over at the Florida exhibit, meanwhile, dolphins performed tricks during a special show, while seals demonstrated their ability to juggle.

14. Sinclair Dinoland

The Sinclair Oil Corporation sponsored this pavilion, which featured life-size replicas of nine different dinosaurs. Some of them had moving parts; the 20-foot-high Tyrannosaurus Rex model, for instance, opened and closed its fearsome jaws. Visitors could take home a miniature plastic model of a Brontosaurus, which also doubled as Sinclair’s logo, for 50 cents.

15. New York State Pavilion

Architect Philip Johnson’s iconic towers may be in ruins now, but they were among the most dazzling structures when the fair opened. The Tent of Tomorrow was particularly impressive: It had a brightly colored fiberglass roof and an enormous map of New York State, made from more than 500 mosaic panels.

16. Spanish artworks

The Nobleman with the Hand on his Chest, via Wikimedia Commons

Both classic and contemporary pieces by some of Spain’s most famous artists were on display. After much dispute, one of El Greco’s 16th-century masterworks (The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest) was displayed, along with work by Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez. On the modern side, visitors could see paintings by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Joan Miró.

17. Port Authority Heliport

Helicopters actually landed on the roof of this 120-foot-high attraction, where visitors could see a 13-minute film chronicling the history of transportation in New York City. (In fact, the Beatles got to Shea Stadium before their famous 1965 concert by landing here.) The structure also had a restaurant, Top of the Fair, serving lunch and dinner (for $2.95 and $4.95, respectively) alongside panoramic views of the city.

18. U.S. Royal Ferris Wheel

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A giant Ferris Wheel shaped like a tire may not have been as cool as futuristic exhibits or jet packs, but it did prove incredibly popular with visitors. More than two million people took a ride on the 80-foot-tall attraction, including Jackie Kennedy and her children, according to Uniroyal.

19. Shea Stadium

Technically, the New York Mets’ brand-new stadium wasn’t part of the expo, but visitors could check out the 55,000-seat venue as they took the 7 train to the fairgrounds. The Amazin's played the Pittsburgh Pirates during the inaugural game on April 17, 1964, but ended up losing by one run.

20. IBM computer technology

The IBM Pavilion (itself a marvel designed by Charles Eames for Eero Saarinen’s firm) featured several exhibits showcasing state-of-the-art functionality, including a proto-Google that, when given a particular date, could pull up an event that happened on that day. Another installation, the People Wall, used hydraulic lifts to create an immersive theater experience for an audience of 500.

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April 22, 2014 - 7:00am
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