Behind the Attraction: Hall of Presidents
While Walt Disney proved himself as Hollywood as they come, he never abandoned his Illinois roots.
That upbringing allowed his midwestern values to inform his decision-making. And it also came with a side quirk.
Uncle Walt adored one of the state’s favorite sons, Abraham Lincoln. I mean, Disney loved Lincoln so much that he once dressed as Lincoln in grade school.
Yes, I’m talking about the top hat and beard and everything.
For this reason, we shouldn’t be surprised that Uncle Walt loved the idea of an attraction based on Abraham Lincoln.
Today, we’ll talk about how it came to be. Let’s recap Behind the Attraction: Hall of Presidents, which is technically the season finale.
At the 1933 World’s Fair, the former Presidents of the United States couldn’t move. They were wax figures, after all.
However, they could talk, which gave Walt the kernel of an idea that he kept for 30 years.
At this World’s Fair, new audio technology allowed some Presidents to sound like they would have during their lifetimes.
Disney possessed a grander vision for the same concept. He wanted to create a Robot Abe Lincoln, as it were, a life-size version that could talk and move.
That’s not a big deal today, but it proved revolutionary during the 1960s. At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Disney would debut this very innovation.
The episode chronicles how Imagineers got to that point, paying particular attention to the relationship between the Disney brothers.
As the series notes, older brother Roy Disney fit the mold of a savvy businessperson. However, younger brother Walt was more of a creator.
In Hollywood, that dynamic has proven timeless as producers finance films. Meanwhile, directors create them, hopefully in a way that turns a profit.
When Roy learned that his brother wanted to build moving robots, his primary concern wasn’t the end of humanity at the hands of Skynet.
No, he obsessed over something more practical. Unfortunately, nobody had invented technology that would allow robots to move believably.
To Roy Disney, the idea of Robot Abe Lincoln sounded extremely expensive.
For his part, Walt envisioned something more dramatic. His entire career as an illustrator had involved bringing life to something lacking life.
Robots represented the pinnacle of his storytelling ambition. For this reason, his older and probably wiser brother was never talking him out of this idea.
The Pride of Liberty Street
When Walt Disney plotted the attractions at Disneyland, he paired his Robot President with its natural fit, Liberty Street.
Theme park historians understand why this is amusing, as Disney never built its planned themed land, Liberty Street.
The project would have cost $4.4 million, which is the equivalent of $45 million today.
That may not sound like much unless you know about Disneyland’s construction. Walt Disney spent pretty much every penny he owned to build it.
Another $4.4 million for Liberty Street simply wasn’t in the cards. Uncle Walt tried, though.
The entrepreneur failed to entice sponsors for his educational project, The Hall of Presidents, much less Liberty Street as a whole.
Sponsors wanted to spend their money on fun stuff so that guests would associate their brand with Disney. What’s fun about Abe Lincoln?
Walt wouldn’t be deterred. Here’s where the story gets creepy, too.
The Disney team utilized a “secret plans room” for some of its more mysterious projects.
You can see where this is going. Yes, Walt Disney assigned Imagineers to work on robots in a secret lab. It’s the basis of every Killbot sci-fi movie ever made.
These robots were super-creepy, too. They lacked skin or realistic motion. Imagine a garden gnome sans clothing that can lift a shovel up and down, but that’s it.
Seriously, images of those things will haunt my dreams. Unsatisfied with the options, Disney signed off on a unique project.
Imagineers built a single Robot President, the one he really wanted. But, alas, the first attempt at Mr. Lincoln proved sluggish and heavy.
Disney demanded twice as many robotic movements and half the weight. To their credit, Imagineers got the job done.
Walt Disney had his proof of concept.
The Illinois Pavilion
The 1964 New York World’s Fair proved fortuitous to Disney. We briefly discussed this for the It’s a Small World episode.
Corporations happily ponied up lots of dough to have WED Enterprises, the Imagineering company, build their attractions.
A footnote here involves Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Of course, the state of Illinois couldn’t spend that kind of money.
So, the head of the entire World’s Fair came up with the cash, thereby assuring the presence of Robot Lincoln.
As Walt and Roy worked out the financing, the Imagineers worked on Abe Lincoln’s movements.
Disney dressed the dead President in his standard suit, which meant that only his face and hands needed to be uncovered.
That reduced the number of moving pieces that Disney needed to make realistic. Even so, the project proved challenging.
In fact, Lincoln wasn’t ready on opening day of the World’s Fair. Instead, the robot ran amok, breaking chairs and scaring anyone who looked at him.
An Imagineer eventually discovered that the World’s Fair’s grounds were accidentally triggering a feedback loop that caused the machine to rise up and break chairs.
We were this close to a robot rebellion in 1964, y’all! Thankfully, the Imagineer saved us from a real-world version of The Matrix. I don’t want to be a battery.
Anyway, roughly a month later, Imagineers had fixed the problem, allowing Robot Lincoln to take his place on the stage at the Illinois Pavilion.
The success of this moving puppet stunned even Disney executives. People fully believed that he was a real person.
One newspaper praised Disney for its attention to detail in having Lincoln sweat. But, alas, that was a bug, not a feature.
A migratory oil from the power process would leak on Lincoln’s face. Employees had to wipe it off occasionally. So, it looked like dripping sweat.
Lincoln worked well enough that Imagineers duplicated him for Disneyland. So, yes, multiple Robot Lincolns were running around. Scary, right?
The new one resided at Main Street, U.S.A., what with Liberty Street never getting built and all.
Even now, when you walk into this attraction, you’re looking at an updated version of the original robotic creation!
The attraction has resided in the same spot since October of 1965. Randomly, this version opened the day after the World’s Fair closed!
Of course, this episode isn’t called Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, though. Instead, it’s the Hall of Presidents, which refers to the Magic Kingdom attraction.
At this point, the episode references Walt Disney’s death in 1966, noting that older brother Roy helmed the Florida Project afterward.
Yes, Walt Disney never entered Walt Disney World. For that matter, Roy died less than three months after his final passion project opened to the public.
The Disney brothers gave their lives to provide lasting entertainment to your family and mine.
The trick with Magic Kingdom’s Hall of Presidents is that it includes EVERY President, not just Lincoln. That’s a lot of robots.
Remarkably, Imagineers built them with their own strengths and weaknesses. Every President comes with their own story, too!
Of course, the real story involves the creation of 36 “life-sized, realistic Audio-Animatronics Presidents.” That…took a lot of work.
Even now, we’ve never seen anything like it since then. Imagineers update the attraction one POTUS at a time and have at least four years between additions!
Disney had to scale up on the robot prototype that they’d only built twice to date!
Still, the proof is in the pudding, as the Hall of Presidents has anchored Magic Kingdom since opening day! It even gets its own themed land, Liberty Square!
Methinks Walt would love the name of that place. He’d also appreciate that Imagineers have maintained his vision for a Hall of Presidents for 50 years!