Widen Your World – The Hall of Presidents

The Hall of Presidents
1971 – present
written by Eric Paddon (special contributor to WYW)

See this dramatic presentation of our nation’s history as all the American presidents ‘come-to-life’ on stage
Complete Guide to the Walt Disney World Vacation Kingdom, 1979



    When Disney World opened on October 1, 1971, the intent was to provide a mixture of old attractions carried over from Disneyland, and new ones that would be distinctive to the Florida park. The Hall Of Presidents, situated in Liberty Square, was a case of an old concept intended originally for Disneyland that only became a practical reality at Disney World, thanks to advancements in audio-animatronic technology since the early 1960s.

     As early as 1958, Walt Disney had begun experimenting with the idea of a Hall Of Presidents concept for Disneyland, to be built in a new theme area called “Liberty Street.”  James Algar, director of the “True-Life Adventure Series” for the Disneyland TV show, was commissioned to research and write the main program for Liberty Street, “One Nation Under God”, which would tell the story of America through a filmed presentation of narration and paintings that would culminate with all of the Presidents appearing on-stage in the finale.  From the beginning, a speech from the Abraham Lincoln figure would be the highlight of this finale.

     The main stumbling blocks to Disney’s vision at the time though, were a lack of sponsorship and the fact that audio-animatronic technology was in its infancy.  Disney’s Imagineers had yet to develop one fully-functional audio-animatronic human figure, let alone the 35 that would be needed to make a Hall Of Presidents practical.  By 1962, the scope of the program had been scaled back to concentrate on developing a single Abraham Lincoln figure.  Disney sculptor Blaine Gibson, using historical photographs and an actual life mask of Lincoln, went to work on making it a reality.  It was during this development stage that Robert Moses, organizer of the upcoming 1964 New York World’s Fair, learned about the Lincoln project while visiting Walt to discuss the Disney-designed General Electric and Ford Pavilions.  Upon seeing the Lincoln figure, Moses was immediately determined to get the “One Nation Under God” program to the Fair as well.  

     Time pressures made the idea of doing the full “One Nation Under God” program featuring a Hall Of Presidents completely impractical for the Fair. What ultimately emerged in New York at the Illinois Pavilion, was “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln.”  A six minute pre-show, was followed by

guests stepping into a theater to see how, as narrator Paul Frees intoned, “the skills of the sculptor and the talents of the artist will let us relive great moments with Mr. Lincoln.”  Audiences were then awed as they saw a life-like Lincoln figure rise from his seat and deliver a five minute speech (voiced by actor Royal Dano) that combined excerpts from various Lincoln speeches. The excerpts chosen were not familiar quotations like the Gettysburg Address, but rather remarks about the theme of liberty that could be seen by contemporary audiences as having a timely relevance to the challenges America faced in the present age.

     “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln,” like the other three Disney pavilions at the Fair, was a smash hit and became the first Fair attraction installed at Disneyland in 1965, in the Main Street Opera House.  The program was largely the same, and proved popular with Anaheim audiences as well.

       By the late 1960s, with more elaborate audio-animatronic shows like Pirates Of The Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion being developed, it seemed logical that when Disney World opened in 1971, it would have not a duplicate of “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln,” but the original Hall Of Presidents program that Walt had envisioned.  The Imagineers went into overdrive to get the attraction ready for opening day, so that viewers would see life-like depictions of all thirty-six Presidents from George Washington to Richard M. Nixon, with historical accuracy serving as a guideline for how each President would be depicted and dressed.


          The Hall Of Presidents building itself, as the centerpiece of Liberty Square, was the first attraction one encountered upon taking the hub in front of Cinderella Castle toward Liberty Square and Frontierland.  An E Ticket (at 90 cents the most expensive of the park’s A-E ticket system, which was retired in 1980) was required to gain admittance to the handsome structure that incorporated the design of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and other facets of Colonial American architecture.  One then entered a large rotunda area with benches lining the walls.  Above the benches were paintings used in the movie portion of the attraction, including 1787 Philadelphia and the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. The sound system played, as background music, Buddy Baker’s underscore for the movie. Because the building offered a refuge from the Florida heat, those waiting for the next show could do so in general comfort.      Once a cast member informed guests that it was time to enter the theater, the audience flowed in through several sets of wide doors that led to a spacious theater which seated more than 500.  Blue curtains covered three large-sized screens that took up the full width of the theater area.  After the routine cast spiel about no eating, drinking, smoking or flash photography of any kind, the sound of a drumroll signaled the start of the program.      The drumroll built into a majestic fanfare of trumpets and brass while through the blue curtains, one could see the Presidential seal projected onto the main screen. As the fanfare died down, we could see the silhouettes of men and women in Colonial attire as they recited the preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union; establish justice, insure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America (Before “Schoolhouse Rock” popularized these words in song in the mid-1970s, this opening was perhaps the ideal way to remember the Preamble.)

     With the recitation complete, the image of the Preamble just spoken flashed on the screen (still partly obscured by the blue curtains) and the lofty voice of actor Lawrence Dobkin intoned, “These immortal words when first they were written, proclaimed to the world a new idea among men. They expressed a shining wish for a better way of life.  This was the American dream.  But that golden goal was not to be had without cost. It was born in adversity, tested by time, perfected and proven only after long experience and trial.”

     With that, the tone for The Hall Of Presidents was established.  This would be a serious and reverential look at the past, celebrating themes of American greatness that dated back to our beginnings as a nation.  It was a positive approach that had guided “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” and, in a larger sense, characterized Walt Disney’s approach toward American history – heralding moments of accomplishment, idealistically, as defining marks in our shared experience as a people.  Any negative facets of American history were to be dealt with only within an overall positive context of celebration of the past.

     Muted brass sounded as the curtains finally pulled back and a wide panorama of 1787 Philadelphia filled all three screens (the same painting that could be seen in the waiting room rotunda) The camera trailed in on Independence Hall at the center, and we now found ourselves in the Consitutional Convention debate. There was no mention of the driving issues that had kept most of the delegates apart (small state power vs. large state power etc.), but there was a recognition that the Constitution, while perhaps not the most perfect of documents, at least provided a basis for a sound beginning to a new framework of American government. George Washington (voiced by Paul Frees), noted that “there is a constitutional door open for change. I think the people can decide on the alterations and amendments which time may prove necessary. Besides, they will have the advantage of experience on their side.” Benjamin Franklin (voiced by narrator Dobkin), expressed the thought that those who had problems with the Constitution, could “doubt a little of his own infallibility” and give it a chance to succeed. The solemn roll call of states signing the document took place (sharp history buffs would have noted that Rhode Island was not mentioned as the call was made; an accurate reflection of how Rhode Island was ultimately the only state to not ratify the Constitution), and Dobkin posed the question that all people in the audience were expected to know the answer to: “This newly created government was unique. In a world of kings and emperors, would it actually work?”

     Profiled as “the first test” to the authority established by the Constitution was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, where Pennsylvania farmers objected to federal taxes levied on whiskey (which the program defended because it was transported across state lines and subject to federal taxation). Once unrest broke out, Washington was shown rebuking the governor of Pennsylvania for not maintaining order, and citing legal authority to give him as President, the right to use force to “insure domestic tranquility” in keeping with the intent of the Preamble. As the program noted, “Fortunately, the rebellion ended without bloodshed” as the sight of Washington leading forces on horseback was more than enough to defuse the crisis.


     An ominous chord signaled the advance to 1833 as President Andrew Jackson found himself dealing with another threat to domestic tranquility: South Carolina’s “Nullification” campaign to declare Federal tariff laws null and void in South Carolina, and that any effort to enforce them would lead to South Carolina’s secession from the Union.

     After these bold declarations, the voice of Andrew Jackson (Dal McKennon) then re-emphasized the need for strong Presidential leadership to insure domestic tranquility, and the supremacy of Federal law: “Tell them from me that they can talk and write resolutions and print threats till their heart’s content. But if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find!”

The program then advanced to 1858 “when the cause of sectionalism had grown stronger.” The debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were now dealt with in-depth. (Interestingly, this part of the program had been originally recorded in 1965 for an expanded LP record of “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln.”) Lincoln (Royal Dano, reprising his “Great Moments” performance) attacked the silliness of Douglas’ “popular sovereignty” approach to slavery, in which Douglas “didn’t care whether slavery is voted up or down.” As Lincoln took in stride the taunts of hecklers, he argued that “this government can not endure permanently half slave and half free. A house divided against itself can not stand!” Douglas (Frees again) responded to this by declaring Lincoln’s view of “men being created equal by the Declaration of Independence and Divine Providence” to be a “monstrous heresy!”

     Lincoln then delivered his bold challenge to the audience that perfectly summarized why the Declaration of Independence, and the principles that America had been founded upon could not be reconciled with slavery.

     “…If you have been taught doctrines conflicting with those great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence, if you have listened to suggestions which would take away its grandeur, if you are inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated by our chart of liberty, let me entreat you to come back… If that Declaration is not the truth, let us get the statute book in which we find it and tear it out. Who among us is so bold?” A nervous murmur from the crowd indicated no one was. “Then let us stick to it then! And let us stand firmly by it!”

     This was the only time slavery was dealt with in any depth during the program, and a later generation of social critics would say that the Hall Of Presidents had paid insufficient attention to the issue. In point of fact, the program had wisely avoided focusing on slavery for the earlier segments because it was accurate to note that as an issue that threatened to tear the nation apart, slavery did not become part of a national debate until Lincoln’s time. To have focused on slavery in the earlier segments would not have been a whitewashing of the unresolved issue left over from the Constitutional Convention, but rather an accurate reflection of when it was that America was first willing to confront the issue directly.

     As Dobkin then stated, “Abraham Lincoln lost that election of 1858, but in losing he won. For the people couldn’t forget this plain-spoken man from the prairie, and two years later they sent him to the White House.”
     Perhaps the most effective image of the entire movie segment then appeared, showing Lincoln, now president, contemplating the horror of what is about to befall America.  Dano’s vocal delivery, done in a quiet, prayerful whisper, helped elevate this sequence into a moving, artistic triumph (even though most of the quote used is one that some Lincoln scholars have challenged the authenticity of).

     “Without a Union, the Constitution is only a piece of paper. I know there is a God, and that He hates injustice and slavery.  I see the storm coming.  I know His hand is in it.  If He has a place and work for me, and I think He has, I believe I am ready.  I am nothing, but truth is everything, and with God’s help, I shall not fail.”




     If anyone had been foolishly taking a nap at this point (as certain characters from a revamped Tiki Room might have been doing), they would have been immediately roused by the sounds of cannon blasting, and a bold burst of new underscore, courtesy of Buddy Baker.  Paintings displayed the Civil War, with alternating close-ups and quick cuts creating the illusion of an on-going battle.  In many respects, this technique of alternating cuts on the same images foreshadowed the manner in which documentary filmmaker Ken Burns would use photographs to convey a similar mood in his 1991 PBS documentary “The Civil War.”  As strains of “Dixie” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” occasionally intruded on Baker’s bombastic score, it finally came to a climax with an image of Lee surrendering to Grant at Appomattox marking the end of the Civil War.

       The contrast between the way Walt Disney’s generation viewed this point in history, and the common viewpoint of Americans of 1970s, came into conflict at this point of the program.  To an earlier generation, the Civil War’s conclusion was both the end of a nightmare and the beginning of an uninterrupted golden age of progress and advancements for America. Such lingering issues as the failure of Reconstruction to provide full racial equality and the struggle that still awaited women in their efforts to get the vote were secondary to the things that helped boost America from the more rural, isolated society of the nineteenth century to the industrial world power of the 20th.  And so, the next part of the program noted the accomplishments of Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and the inventions of the automobile and motion pictures, among other things as part of the “century of change.”

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     Dobkin’s narration continued this up-tone that perfectly captured the so-called “Age of Consensus” of the mid-20th century where Americans took for granted their greatness, particularly after the experience of defeating Nazism in World War II and challenging communist totalitarianism in the early Cold War. “The fundamental philosophy of freedom, the belief in the rights of the individual and the dignity of man remained unaltered. The Constitution was still the rock. Under its guarantees, men were free to speak, free to worship as they pleased, free to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and free to explore new dimensions of their universe.”

     The first and only filmed images of the entire program then filled the three screens as we saw a Saturn V rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral for a flight to the moon.  As the smoke from the launch filled our field of vision, the screens began to rise up into the ceiling as Dobkin segued into the finale by noting that for the future, America needed to continue perpetuating its ideals of self-government, based on the Constitution, to the entire world.  And that “the leaders of tomorrow must be as dedicated to its preservation as were the leaders of yesterday, as are the leaders of today.”

     A brass fanfare sounded as the lights went up to reveal what the audience had been waiting to see: all of the Presidents assembled on-stage in what at that time was a triumph of Disney Imagineering.  To the strains of “Hail To The Chief,” the roll-call of each President began in chronological order.  A spotlight shone on each President when his name was called, and the figure would seemingly nod his head in acknowledgment (and no, Grover Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms, was not mentioned twice!).  Once the roll-call was complete, George Washington sat down in his chair (a replica of the chair he used at the Constitutional Convention), and Abraham Lincoln stood up to deliver his oratory.

     The Lincoln speech drew heavily from the one in “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln,” but with some key modifications.  First, Royal Dano’s delivery was more quiet and somber, as opposed to the bold delivery of the “Great Moments” speech.  It was as if in this setting, surrounded by his colleagues, Lincoln felt the need to sound the most dignified tone possible, and not inject the inflections of a lone speaker from the stump, as was the case with “Great Moments.”  Second, the introduction and closing sentences were different, sounding a note of how the American government, based on its principles of liberty “must endure in spite of the acts of any man or set of men.”  After reprising the same speech from “Great Moments” about “shall we expect some trans-Atlantic giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow?  Never!”, and the warnings as to how “if destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author,” Lincoln closed with an optimistic note for both America and mankind in general.  “Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite to exist only for a day.  No… no… Man was made for immortality.”


     And then to a choral accompaniment of “Battle Hymn Of The Republic,” the lights dimmed and the back curtains behind the Presidents opened to reveal the U.S. Capitol building silhouetted against blackness.  As the song progressed, the sky surrounding the Capitol took on the red, white and blue aura of the American flag.  A round of applause usually came up as the curtain descended and the 22 minute program ended.

     The Hall Of Presidents was one of three new Disney World attractions to be spotlighted on the October 29, 1971 NBC special The Grand Opening Of Walt Disney World (the others being the Country Bear Jamboree and the Mickey Mouse Revue), and during the park’s first few years it was one of the most popular attractions.  Eventually, attendance slackened off as attention spans of the average customer grew shorter, and the program grew under increasing criticism from social critics (especially Stephen Fjellman in his book Vinyl Leaves).  Still, the program maintained enough of a following over the years and received periodic updates with each new change in Presidential administrations, with the addition of a Gerald Ford audio-animatronic figure in 1974, Jimmy Carter in 1977,  Ronald Reagan in 1981 and George Bush in 1989.  With each new upgrade, Lawrence Dobkin would return to add the new President to the roll-call list.  The only other modifications that ever took place in the original program during its 22 years of operation was a revised choral arrangment of “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” that ended on a higher, more soaring note, and the elimination of a random Mission Control voice during the Apollo launch sequence saying “there’s fire” that evidently confused some viewers.

     But in the fall of 1993, the new Bill Clinton presidency brought more than just a new audio-animatronic figure to The Hall Of Presidents.  It was also used as the occasion for an overhaul of the attraction at the personal direction of Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, who had listened to some complaints made about The Hall by a Columbia University history instructor named Eric Foner.  Foner had complained that slavery was not sufficiently addressed in the program, and that the closing Lincoln speech represented a “dated” view of America from the 1950s with it’s appeal to the strength of national unity, and its warnings about how the real danger to America came not from abroad but ultimately from within.  Perhaps Foner had visions of people leaving The Hall Of Presidents, having listened to words from a real 1838 Lincoln speech, motivated to call for the crushing of any dissent whatsoever against the Federal government.

     Such views were not representative of what all historians felt about the program.  If it could be argued that the Hall Of Presidents did not sufficiently address the negative facets of America’s development as a nation, it could be argued in response that a comprehensive view of American history was never the intent of the attraction or of “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” in the first place.  Walt Disney had simply wanted a program that touched on the themes that unified Americans of all political perspectives and what gave them the ability to live in a free society and be justly proud of that fact.  Going to the Hall Of Presidents and coming away with a good feeling about the American experiment in government was ultimately no different then indulging in patriotic platitudes that often frame Fourth of July celebrations.  When Americans mark July 4th, they want to hear about the good that has come from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and not the fact that many American patriots in the Revolutionary war did things one can not be proud of, like pillaging and plundering Loyalist property etc.

  America’s “civil religion” ethic, which is rooted in the symbols of American greatness that Americans have celebrated ever since John Winthrop described America as the “shining city on a hill” in the 1630s, has long been part of the American tradition; For whatever flaws it may have had, The Hall Of Presidents’ original program fit neatly into that tradition.

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   The new Hall Of Presidents program that debuted in October 1993, narrated by poet Maya Angelou, projected a very different tone.  This time, it seemed as if the purpose was to focus principally on slavery and race as the sole issues that guided the American experience.  In the process, this led to some very inaccurate depictions of history, which the original program could never have been accused of.  In the new program, the Constitutional Convention debate contains a curious moment where we hear a cacaphony of voices arguing about the slavery issue.  One voice says, “can we not agree that these constitutional liberties must extend to those Americans purchased and raised as slaves?”  Another voice then responds by saying, “If this convention fails to insert some security to the southern states against an emancipation of slaves, we can never receive the plan.”

   The only problem with this though, is that slavery was never an issue under debate at the Constitutional Convention, because even those delegates from the non-slave states regarded the issue as too hot to handle, and that it was best to put the matter off for another generation in order to achieve broader unity on the matter of what form of government would best suit the new nation (just as the issue was deemed too controversial to tackle during the Revolutionary War).  It is legitimate for scholars to fault the framers for not dealing with this issue in a more effective manner, but the revised program ultimately left a wrong impression of what the Constitutional Convention debate was all about.  And this was only further driven home when the George Washington and Benjamin Franklin quotes from the original program followed this historically bogus slavery debate, and left the impression that men like Washington and Franklin chickened out in the end, which is not an accurate representation of what took place at Philadelphia.

   Inaccurate history cropped up again in the Nullification Debate, when once again random voices talking about slavery were injected into the mix, which downplays the fact that the Nullification crisis stemmed over tariff policy.  Once again, an effort to be more politically correct by showing a more heightened concern about slavery in the earlier days of American history, ultimately led to a poor history lesson (in keeping with this theme, the Whiskey Rebellion was zapped from the revised program, because evidently there was no way to shoehorn slavery into that issue.)

   Even more perplexing was how the post-Civil War sequence represented omission of another kind from the original program.  If the original program was excessively celebratory in describing the post-Civil War experience, the revised program found it necessary to speak only of continuing “prejudices and injustices” in America.  As for the accomplishments of Edison, the Wright Brothers etc., these too had been zapped from the program content as being somehow irrelevant to an understanding of American history, which hardly makes for an improved program content if one is to replace a 100 percent positive tone with a 100 percent negative tone that isn’t willing to acknowledge the remarkable accomplishments that took place even as American blacks and women were fighting to achieve greater equality (by contrast, EPCOT’s American Adventure program had taken a balanced approach to this subject by having Susan B. Anthony calling for women’s suffrage, while sharing the same platform with Andrew Carnegie and Alexander Graham Bell in the 1876 exposition segment).

   With the revised script came the elimination of all of Royal Dano’s vocal contributions to the program.  Veteran Disney voice Pete Renoudet was brought in to do a new Lincoln speech, and the results were far less effective.  While Renoudet had done stellar work over the years in creating memorable characters at Disney World such as Henry in the Country Bear Jamboree and Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the problem is that Renoudet had to do a comical sounding imitation to do Lincoln, which managed to sap whatever meaning the revised speech had to impart.  Royal Dano by contrast, was an actor giving a Lincoln performance in his own, natural speaking voice because Walt Disney had felt he best resembled the contemporary descriptions of what Lincoln sounded like.  It is still not easy to get used to any voice other than Dano’s as the Great Emancipator (Dano’s vocals would continue to be used at Disneyland in “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” until that program too received a modern upgrade in 2001).

   With Bill Clinton’s addition to the Hall came a new practice of having the current President deliver a speech prior to Lincoln’s, in the President’s own voice.  It seemed like a novel idea, but again the problem was that the words chosen for President Clinton had to come from a Disney speechwriter, in this case the non-American songwriter Tim Rice, and could never pretend to achieve the same kind of eloquence that the actual words of Lincoln could.  Like the decision to change the script and vocals, the Hall Of Presidents was transformed from a program that had been flawed in spots but artistically successful into a more flawed, less artistically successful program.

   A change in Presidencies in 2001 led to another significant revision of the Hall Of Presidents.  The 1993 script was retained, but was now narrated by the unknown J.D. Hall instead of Maya Angelou (the change supposedly done because of her strong ties to the Clinton Presidency).  This time, George W. Bush delivered a speech, again written by the Disney staff, prior to the Lincoln’s speech.  About the only people who would have considered the program improved would have been die-hard Republicans.  From an aesthetic standpoint, the flaws in the program remained the same and only demonstrated that Republican or Democrat, having the current President’s voice come out of an audio-animatronic figure is just not the same as hearing a voice from the distant past like Lincoln’s come to life.


filmstripiconHall of Presidents holding area & show video
From 1993 taping, .wmv file, low-resolution, 11.67mb, 24:52





lpiconHall of Presidents show audio
From souvenir soundtrack album, 1972, mp3 file, stereo, 13.2mb, 22:33

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