It was the largest World's Fair to be held in the United States, occupying nearly a square mile (2.6 km²) of land. Hailing itself as a "Universal and International" exposition, the Fair's theme was "Peace Through Understanding," dedicated to "Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe." The theme was symbolized by a twelve-story high, stainless-steel model of the earth called Unisphere. United States corporations dominated the exposition as exhibitors. The Fair is best remembered as a showcase of mid-twentieth century American culture. The nascent Space Age, with its vista of promise was well-covered by the exhibits. More than fifty-one million people attended the Fair, but this was less than the hoped-for seventy million.
Organizers turned to private financing and the sale of bonds to pay the huge costs to stage them. The organizers hired New York's "Master Builder," Robert Moses, to head the corporation established to run the Fair because he was experienced in raising money for vast public projects. Moses had been a formidable figure in the city since coming to power in the 1930s. He was responsible for the construction of much of the city's highway infrastructure and, as Parks Commissioner for decades, the creation of much of the city's park system.
In the mid-1930s, Moses oversaw the conversion of a vast Queens tidal marsh - garbage dump into the glittering fairgrounds that hosted the 1939/1940 World's Fair. Called Flushing Meadows Park, it was Moses' grandest park scheme. He envisioned this vast park, comprising some 1,300 acres (5 km²) of land and located in the center of the city, as a major recreational playground for New Yorkers. When the 1939/1940 World's Fair ended in financial failure, Moses did not have the available funds to complete work on his project. He saw the 1964/1965 Fair as a means to finish what the earlier Fair had begun.
To ensure profits to complete the Park, Fair organizers knew they would have to maximize receipts from the Fair. An attendance of seventy million people would be needed in order to turn a profit and, for an attendance that large to be possible, the Fair would need to be held for two years. The World's Fair Corporation also decided to charge site rental fees to all exhibitors who wished to construct pavilions on the Fairgrounds. This decision caused the Fair to come to terms with the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), the international body headquartered in Paris that sanctions World's Fairs. The United States was not a member of the BIE at the time but Fair organizers understood that a sanction by the BIE would assure that its nearly forty member nations would participate in the Fair.
BIE rules stated that an international exposition may run for one six-month period only, no rent may be charged to exhibitors who wish to participate and only one exposition may be held in any given country within a 10-year period. Both Seattle, Washington and Montreal, Canada had already been sanctioned by the BIE to host World's Fairs in 1962 and 1967 respectively at the time New York put their World's Fair bid before the BIE in 1960. Robert Moses, undaunted by these rules, journeyed to Paris to seek official approval for the New York Fair. When the BIE balked at New York's bid, Moses, used to having his way in New York, angered the BIE delegates by taking his case to the press, publicly stating his disdain for their organization and their rules. The BIE retaliated by taking the action of formally requesting their member nations not to participate in the New York Fair. The 1964/1965 New York World's Fair thus became the only significant World's Fair in history to be held without BIE endorsement.
New York City, in the middle of the 20th century, was at a zenith of economic power and world prestige. Unconcerned by BIE rules, smaller nations saw it as an honor to host an exhibit at the Fair in the world's most prestigious city. Therefore smaller nations and so-called third-world countries made up the majority of the international participation. In the end, only Spain and Vatican City hosted a major national presence at the Fair. Other international participants included Japan, Mexico, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Thailand, Philippines, Greece and Pakistan, to name a few.
One of the Fair's most popular exhibits was the Vatican pavilion where Michelangelo's Pietà was displayed, and a small plaza marking the spot (and Pope Paul VI's visit) remains there. A recreation of a medieval Belgian village proved to be very popular also. There, Fairgoers were treated to a new taste sensation in the form of the "Bel-Gem Waffle" — a combination of waffle, strawberries and whipped cream. As "Belgian Waffles" they continue to be sold in America.
Elsewhere emerging African nations displayed their wares in the Africa Pavilion. Controversy broke out when the Jordanian pavilion displayed a mural emphasizing the plight of the Palestinian people. The Jordanians also donated an ancient column which remains at their site. The city of West Berlin, a Cold War hotspot, hosted a popular display.
At the 1939/1940 World's Fair, industrial exhibitors played a major role by hosting huge, elaborate exhibits. Many of them returned to the 1964/1965 Fair with even more elaborate versions of the shows they had presented twenty-five years earlier. The most notable of these was General Motors Corporation whose Futurama, a show in which visitors seated in moving armchairs glided past detailed scenery showing what life might be like in the "near-future," proved to be the Fair's most popular exhibit. Nearly twenty-six million people took the journey into the future during the Fair's two-year run.
Other popular exhibits included that of the IBM Corporation, where a giant five hundred-seat grandstand was pushed by hydraulic rams high up into a rooftop theater. There, a nine-screen film showed the workings of computer logic. IBM also demostrated hand written recognition on a 350 series mainframe computer running a program to lookup what happened on a particular date that a person wrote down. The first interaction for many on a computer. The Bell System hosted a fifteen-minute ride in moving armchairs depicting the history of communications in dioramas and film. Other Bell exhibits included the picture phone (to go on sale at the time of the fair) as well as a demostration of the computer modem. DuPont presented a musical review by composer Michael Brown called "The Wonderful World of Chemistry." At Parker Pen, a computer would make a match to a world-wide International Penfriend. The Westinghouse Corporation planted a second time capsule next to the 1939 one; today both Westinghouse Time Capsules are marked by a monument southwest of the Unisphere.
The surprise hit of the Fair was a non-commercial movie short presented by the SC Johnson Company (S.C. Johnson Wax) called "To be alive!" The film celebrated the joy of life found worldwide and in all cultures. The movie went on to win an Academy Award in 1966.
After the Fair, there was some discussion of the Disney company retaining these exhibits on-site and converting Flushing Meadows Park into an east coast version of Disneyland, but this idea was abandoned. Instead, Disney relocated several of these exhibits to Disneyland, and subsequently replicated them at other Disney Theme Parks; Walt Disney World is essentially the realization of the original concept of an "east coast Disneyland" with Epcot Center being designed to be a "permanent" worlds fair in 1987.
New York State played host to the Fair at its six million dollar open-air pavilion called the "Tent of Tomorrow." Designed by famed modernist architect Philip Johnson, the pavilion also boasted the Fair's high spot observation towers. The main floor of the pavilion was a large scale design of a Texaco highway map of New York state. An idea floated around after the fair to use the floor for the World Trade Center but it didn't materialize. Once the red ceiling tiles were removed from the pavilion in the late 1970s, the floor was subject to the elemets of weather and is now ruined.
Wisconsin exhibited the "World's Largest Cheese." Florida brought a dolphin show and water skiers to New York. Oklahoma gave weary Fairgoers a restful park to relax in. Missouri displayed the state's space-related industries. Visitors could dine at Hawaii's "Five Volcanoes" restaurant. At the New York City pavilion, a huge scale model of the City of New York was on display complete with a simulated helicopter ride for easy viewing. Left over from the 1939 Fair, this building had also hosted the United Nations from 1946-51.
Like its predecessor, the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair lost money. It was unable to repay its financial backers their investment and it became embroiled in legal disputes with its creditors until 1970, when the books were finally closed and the New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Corporation was dissolved. Most of the pavilions constructed for the Fair were demolished within six months following the Fair's close. While only a handful of pavilions survived, some of them traveled great distances and found reuse following the Fair:
New York City was left with a much improved Flushing Meadows Park following the Fair, taking possession of the Park from the Fair Corporation in June, 1967. It is heavily used for both walking and recreation. The paths and their names remain almost unchanged from the days of the Fair.
At the center of the park stands the symbol of "Man's Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe" – the Fair's Unisphere symbol, depicting our earth of "The Space Age." (The Unisphere later was made famous again in 1997 when it was featured in the film Men in Black.) The Unisphere has become a symbol of Queens, and has appeared on the cover of the county's phone books. Today, with the fountains dry (except during the US Open), it is a popular skateboarding site. The city also received a multi-million dollar Science Museum and Space Park exhibiting the rockets and vehicles used in America's early space exploration projects.
Both the New York State pavilion and the Federal pavilion were retained for future use. No reuse was ever found for the Federal pavilion and it became severely deteriorated and vandalized before being demolished in 1977. The New York State pavilion also found no residual use other than as TV and movie sets, such as an episode of McCloud; for The Wiz; and part of the setting (and the plot) for Men in Black. In the decades after the Fair closed it remains an abandoned and badly neglected relic of the Fair, with its roof gone the once bright floors and walls are almost faded away. In 1994 the Queens Theatre took over the circular Circarama adjacent to the towers and continues to operate there, using the ruined state pavilion as a storage depot.
The Space Park deteriorated due to neglect, but the surviving rockets were restored and placed back on display in 2004. It is presently open again as part of the New York Hall of Science, a portion of which is a remnant of the Fair. The Fair's Heliport has found reuse as a banquet / catering facility called "Terrace on the Park."
In 1978, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, as it is now called, became the home of the United States Tennis Association and the US Open tennis tournament is played there annually. The former Singer Bowl, later renamed Louis Armstrong Stadium, was the tournament's primary venue until the larger Arthur Ashe Stadium was built on the site of the former Federal Pavilion and opened in August 1997. Collectively, the complex is called the USTA National Tennis Center.
The R36 cars built for the IRT 7 subway route that served the 1964 fair ran the route for over 39 years afterwards, with some cars lasting into 2003. Some of them still survive today in work use or storage.
The former New York City building is home to the Queens Museum of Art and continues to display the multi-million dollar model of the city of New York. This historic structure also (as of 2007) has an excellent display of memorabilia from the two Fairs. The section where the early United Nations General Assembly met had now reverted back to its historic role as an ice skating rink.
Shea Stadium, while not part of the Fair grounds proper, was opened at the same time as the fair and was listed in the fair's maps. It remains the home of the New York Mets baseball team, who are building a new stadium (Citi Field) next to Shea that is scheduled to open in 2009.
Commemorative postage stamps were produced for the Fair, souvenir medals were issued, and a lot of memorabilia remains in private hands. There is significant interest in collecting these pieces. Items of all types, many quite inexpensive, frequently appear in sales.
Also, parts of Universal Studios Florida in Orlando, Florida may have been inspired by the 1964 New York World's Fair. The entrance to the park has a globe that resembles the Unisphere with "Universal Studios" on it, and an area of the park called "World Expo" that features worldly music and flags of many nations. In 1999, the World Expo area expanded and opened the Men In Black: Alien Attack attraction with recreations of New York observatory towers in front of the building. The attraction itself is based on a fictional World's Fair pavilion, you enter as a tourist but soon you ride an elevator to the facility and learn that you are trying out to be a part of the Men In Black.
Walt Disney moved most of his attractions from the Fair to Disneyland. Today, "it's a small world" is still active, while Mr. Lincoln is currently on hiatus. Parts of Ford's Magic Skyway are installed along the Disneyland Railroad, while the Carousel of Progress still spins at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. It's a Small World is an attraction at all five Disney Magic Kingdom-style parks, and it's theme song is among the most popular on the planet. Disney used the technologies from the fair to create arguably his greatest attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Epcot Center's original attractions borrowed heavily from the audio-animatronic advances of the Fair and its general ideals.
New York native band They Might Be Giants has paid homage to the fair several times: