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Wednesdays with Wade: Do Disneyland's roots really lie in the Chicago Railroad Fair?

Wednesdays with Wade: Do Disneyland's roots really lie in the Chicago Railroad Fair?

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The Chicago Railroad Fair was an event organized to celebrate and commemorate a hundred years of railroad history west of Chicago. It was held in Chicago, Illinois (the birthplace of Walt Disney) in 1948 and 1949 with Lake Michigan as a backdrop for all the activities. It is often referred to as "the last great railroad fair" with thirty-nine railroad companies participating. In addition to being the last great assembly of some classic original (and replica) railroad equipment and technology by participating railroad companies, the Fair holds an important role in Disneyland history.

Walt Disney and animator Ward Kimball attended the fair. They not only got to enjoy all of the Fair, but they were also allowed to operate some of the steam locomotives that were at the fair. Walt even got a chance to perform in one of the performances of "Wheels A Rolling." As part of their trip, they also visited Greenfield Village which was another influence on the design of Disneyland.

Walt and Ward's adventures with the railroad show at the fair, "Wheels A Rolling" are recounted in Michael Broggie's excellent book, "Walt Disney's Railroad Story." Broggie even devotes a chapter to their adventures in Greenfield Village. However, while Michael concentrates on the railroad aspect, he missed some of the other influences at the Chicago Railroad Fair that may have impacted Disneyland.

I pulled from my personal archives, the program book for the Chicago Railroad Fair (which originally cost only thirty-five cents but cost me considerably more to add to my collection). "The Fair's 50 acres of stirring spectacles is an opportunity to relive again in vivid realism those dramatic moments of the past when an infant people was fighting its way to its present position in the world."

What most people seem to remember about the Fair was the twelve scene plus prologue and epilogue live action extravaganza that depicted the history of railroading from 1673 to 1949. Staged and directed by Helen Tieken Geraghty (adapted from a pageant play by Edward Hungerford) in front of a six thousand seat theater with Lake Michigan as a backdrop. This epic included everything from a restaging of Abraham Lincoln's funeral coach to the U.S. Cavalry racing alongside a classic steam engine barreling westward to the Burlington's Pioneer Zephyr (that raced non-stop 1015 miles from Denver to Chicago in 13 hours, 4 minutes--a record set in 1934 that still stood over a decade later).

However, this show was just one part of the "50 acres of thrills, drama, action."

I've always assumed that Walt was adamant that the time period of Main Street at Disneyland be "1890-1910" because it was a transition period from gas lighting to electric lighting, from horse drawn vehicles to motorized vehicles, etc. However, I notice in the program book, there is a section devoted to "Horse Drawn and Man Drawn Equipment (all originals) 1890-1910 Period" that includes such vehicles like a three horse fire engine, a steam calliope, a popcorn wagon and many others that all popped up the first year Disneyland opened.

And every night was a "Free firework display...unless weather or special circumstances prevent, free fireworks displays are staged nightly at 10:30 pm, following the last daily performance of 'Wheels A Rolling.' Location--north end of Fair Grounds." A wonderful way to end a long day of amusements to see the night sky come alive with color and music.

New Orleans Square? "The old New Orleans exhibit with its typical French Quarter street and flagstone courtyard, takes the visitor back to the gracious living of the early 1800s. Strolling musicians sing the melodies of the Old South in keeping with the hospitality offered by youthful hostesses in dainty Dixie costumes." There was even a Cafe St. Louis. How many folks remember that Walt actually included a taste of New Orleans in the original Frontierland and it was prominently mentioned in the opening day broadcast, "Dateline: Disneyland"?

Audio-animatronics or at least the simple "electro-mechanicals" figures that first appeared at Disneyland in Adventureland or the art demonstrations in the Disneyland Art Corner? "Meet Paul Bunyan! A 35 foot robot of the mythical superman of the North Woods, complete to his size 69 boots and 80 neck size shirt. Paul talks, moves, shakes hands and gets a real kick, recounting his famous feats. Babe, the Blue Ox is here too. Approximately ten times daily, the Northwestern also present a free 30 minute chalk talk by well known artists. Spectators, guessing what the final drawings will be, receive cash awards. Wrong guesses mean a bigger pot for the next show. In addition, the finished drawings go by lot to members of the audience."

3-D movies or CircleVision 360? "Vitarama, a new 3-dimension picture discovery which has thrilled and mystified private audiences, is brought to the public for the first time as a feature attraction at the joint exhibit of the nine Eastern Railroads. Only machine of its kind in the United States today, the Vitarama uses simultaneously five different screens to depict the part played by the Railroads in the growth of America. Vitarama Hall holds 650 spectators."

Frontierland? "Gold Gulch--Frontier Town of Gold Rush Days. From its action filled Main Street and wooden sidewalks to the bearded gun toting old timers working its gold mine. You will like its 'Grubstake' eating place, 'Dutch Annie's' waffle shop, 'Pierette's' 1870 barbershop, 'Silver Dollar' saloon, 'Gazette' newspaper, Western bank, Mexican store, assay office, 'Old Daguerreotype' picture gallery, 'Law and Outlaw' show, gambling house and jail, sheriff's 'offis', shooting gallery, 'Boot Hill' cemetery and the Gold Gulch Opera House with its stirring melodramas at 4:00 pm and continuously form 7:00 pm."

Remember that when Disneyland first opened, it had two trains. One boarded at the main entrance and went around the entire park while the other boarded at the main entrance and stopped at Frontierland before journeying back to Main Street. Well, at the Fair, "The Deadwood Central" railroad (two trains) operated between the main entrance at 23rd Street and "Gold Gulch". These trains had "quaint open sided sight seeing cars" so that visitors could see most of the site.

Ever wonder why Walt picked Florida for his second location? Could it have been that the Fair recreated the Florida of the past with "its 25 foot scale replica of the famous Bok singing tower, the reflection pool of the picturesque bird sanctuary at Lake Wales, Florida, with the walk ways lined as an avenue of palms. More than 2,000 varieties of semi-tropical flowers and fruits supply an exotic background for the lake front lounge where visitors are invited to relax in true Florida style under brilliantly-hued beach umbrellas. Sip cooling orange juice served by beautiful Southern hostesses."

And that's not all. One of the shows at the Fair was the "Cypress Gardens Water Thrill Show--the world's foremost water ski, aquaplane and water toboggan champions skim over the blue water of Lake Michigan at 40 miles an hour while performing unbelievable feats of skill and daring. There are spectacular routines by the lovely Aqua Belles from Florida's famed Cypress Gardens -- the same lithe beauties you have seen many times in motion pictures and the newsreels. Their 'Parade of Beach Fashions' features the newest and smartest in feminine bathing garb. And the amazing Aqua Clowns rollick through one of the funniest comedy routines ever staged. Seating capacity: 4,700."

So there was a lot more going on at the Chicago Railroad Fair to inspire Walt than just some classic locomotives. There are pages of exhibits and shows I haven't listed from an outdoor ice skating show to Old Faithful Geyser spouting to Bronco Busting to "Genial Joe" (a giant robot railroad fireman for the kids to interact with) to even an authentic Indian village "where dancers of more than a dozen famous tribes in their colorful religious dances perform several times a day".... just like at early Disneyland.

When the story of the creation of Disneyland is written, it is important to remember that the Chicago Railroad Fair helped springboard several ideas for Walt and not just the idea of having a steam train running around the park.

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