Connecting with Walt: Magic Kingdom’s Hall of Presidents

“Ever since I was a small boy in Illinois, I have had a great personal admiration for Abraham Lincoln,” said Walt Disney on the December 18, 1966, episode of his Wonderful World of Color television show. On a recent episode of Connecting with Walt, Craig and I explored how Walt’s patriotism and admiration of Abraham Lincoln influenced his theme parks and led to the creation of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland and The Hall of Presidents in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

Abraham Lincoln was an influence on Walt Disney from his early years. On Lincoln’s birthday, when Walt was in 5th Grade, he used cardboard and black shoe polish to transform his father’s derby hat into a stovepipe hat, borrowed his father’s church-deacon black coat, added crepe hair to his chin and a wart on his cheek. Walt had memorized the Gettysburg address and, dressed as President Lincoln, recited it perfectly to his class. Principal James Cottingham was so impressed with Walt’s performance he had Walt recite the Gettysburg Address in every classroom. Walt repeated this on Lincoln’s Birthday each year until his graduation five years later.

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Walt Disney (right) dressed as Abraham Lincoln with this pal Walter Pfeiffer (left). Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Walt brought the ideals of American culture and nostalgia to life at Disneyland on Main Street, USA and Frontierland for guests to experience and appreciate where American had come from, and Tomorrowland where Walt’s optimistic vision of America’s future potential could be experienced.

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Disneyland Main Street, USA (1955). Image courtesy of Disney Parks.

Shortly after Disneyland opened, Walt began planning several additions to his park including Liberty Street. Liberty Street was to be themed to the original 13 colonies of the United States in 1776. Walt believed an increasing number of Americans, especially children, did not understand nor appreciate their patriotic heritage. The purpose of Liberty Street would be to provide guests with a better understanding and greater pride for their country. The central attraction of Liberty Street would be the Hall of Presidents of the United States featuring the show “One Nation Under God” in which narrations by U.S. Presidents would tell the history of the United States as guests viewed a Circarama film of significant events in our history. This attraction would be heavily dependent on the new audio-animatronic figure technology, which was in very early development at this time. Walt ultimately decided to use his funds for expanding the park by adding the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, and Monorail.

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Concept art for Disneyland’s Liberty Street. Image courtesy of Disney Parks.

For the Illinois Pavillion of the 1964-65 World’s Fair, Walt and his Imagineers created a technologically groundbreaking audio-animatronic figure of Abraham Lincoln in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. It was a sensation, and Walt would soon debut Mr. Lincoln in the Disneyland Opera House on Main Street, USA.

Although Liberty Street never did come to California, in 1971 the new Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom debuted Liberty Square. Its central attraction? The Hall of Presidents featuring an oration by Abraham Lincoln. With Walt’s unexpected passing in 1966, plans were still in the concept phase for Walt Disney World. Without Walt to guide them, the Disney Studio staff, artists, and Imagineers had the enormous task of master planning more than 27,000 acres into a world-destination vacation wonderland.

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Walt Disney and Card Walker review the layout of the Florida Project. Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Company.

As the plans developed for a Disneyland-style theme park, Imagineers wanted this Magic Kingdom to differ from Walt’s original kingdom. One of the Disneyland realms they believed would not work at the Magic Kingdom was New Orleans Square due to its proximity to the real New Orleans. The Imagineers went back to look at some of Walt’s ideas for Disneyland, including Edison Square and Liberty Street that could serve as alternative lands.

The Imagineers discovered that much of the pre-work for Liberty Street had been completed back in the 1960s. So, it was decided to include Liberty Square as a unique land to the Magic Kingdom. It would also open well in advance of the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial celebration. The Imagineers regarded this land as a follow-up to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, where they could finally create Walt Disney’s dream of “One Nation Under God”, and build his Hall of Presidents.

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Concept art for the Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square. Image courtesy of Disney Parks.

For their preliminary research, the Imagineers referenced hundreds of paintings, thousands of photographs, over 300 periodicals and more than 600 books to make sure they achieved an accurate level of detail. To get a feel for where our nation’s presidents lived and worked, the writers, designers, and painters made several trips to Washington, D.C., Williamsburg and other historical sites to ensure authenticity in their work.

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Liberty Square under construction with The Hall of Presidents (right) and the Haunted Mansion in the distance. Image courtesy of Disney Parks.

For the attraction’s film portion, more than a dozen WED Imagineering artists worked under the supervision of three-time Academy Award winner John DeCuir. They painted more than 85 works, some more than 40 feet long, in the styles of the periods in which the depicted actions took place. Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney’s first partner and the original animator of Mickey Mouse, developed a new system to capture the specially-made paintings onto 70mm film.

Then there was the challenge of creating the presidents. Again, the Imagineers conducted thorough research to determine their proper height and weight. This information helped them to establish the presidents’ body-positioning and placement onstage. Imagineer Blaine Gibson, who had so accurately sculpted President Lincoln a few years earlier, was tasked to create all the figures down to the finest detail. Blaine learned as much as he could about our nation’s leaders so he could reflect the feeling of each president’s personality. When decorating the set and adding personal details to the figures, the Imagineers continued their research to ensure authenticity in the furniture and in the clothing worn by each president.

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Blaine Gibson sculpting President Ronald Reagan. Image courtesy of Disney Parks.

Unlike Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland, Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents did not have a corporate sponsor when it opened on October 1, 1971. The Hall of Presidents required an E-coupon, a value of 90 cents. One of the first things guests see when entering the lobby area is the “Great Seal of the United States” crafted out of 100 percent wool carpet. It took two acts of Congress for The Great Seal of the United States to be placed in the Hall of Presidents. At the time the attraction opened in 1971, the roll call of presidents ended with Richard M. Nixon. Each president responds to their name with a nod, wave, or other sign of acknowledgment. During the presentation, the presidents fidget, talk to each other, and look around; which provides realism to the presentation. With each new inauguration, Blaine Gibson was tasked to create a likeness of our nation’s newest president to add into the show. For the President Obama figure, Blaine – then 90 years old – passed on his sculpting tradition to his apprentice Valerie Edwards.

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Magic Kingdom E-Coupon listing the Hall of Presidents. Image courtesy of Disney Parks.

With the addition of each new presidential figure, Imagineers have introduced the latest advances in audio-animatronic technology producing more lifelike movements. There is now an exhibit in the rotunda lobby, Walt Disney: An American Original, featuring Walt Disney and the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction which served as the basis for The Hall of Presidents. The presentation and the presidents’ speeches have been changed several times over the years, but I believe The Hall of Presidents has always remained true to Walt’s vision.

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The Hall of Presidents featuring President George Washington.

If you want to learn more about the incredible detail the Imagineers put into The Hall of Presidents, listen to Connecting with Walt: Episode 46 – History of the Hall of Presidents.

Is The Hall of Presidents on your must-see list of attractions at the Magic Kingdom? Do you think attractions like Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and The Hall of Presidents still have a place in a modern Disney theme park or have attractions that educate and entertain lost their relevance with modern generations?