Like The American Adventure, The Hall of Presidents is a theatrical presentation that combines moving video, audio, and life-like Audio-Animatronic figures to tell the story of America. Where the two shows are distinctly different, is the perspective of which our nation’s story is told. The Hall of Presidents takes you the viewer through a historical journey of what has faced our nation’s leaders.
Before the show begins, you are treated to the beautifully designed exterior and interior of Colonial Hall. The building was modeled after Independence Hall in Philadelphia and features many of the same elements found in the colonial design of The American Adventure. It does not boast the same size, but does proudly display a peaked tower on the outside and a gorgeous rotunda on the inside. Beneath the rotunda lies the gold and blue Presidential Seal surrounded by royal blue carpet. Also inside are portraits of some of our Presidents, as well their real life artifacts. You can study a collection of George Washington’s dental instruments, stare at Abraham Lincoln’s leather portfolio, or admire the dress worn by Mrs. McKinley on the day of her husband’s Inauguration! How cool is that?! These are the genuine items handled by hand, some over 200 years old.
When the time comes for the next show to begin, you will be allowed into the 700 seat theater. Behind the blue curtains lies a massive stage and 3 giant projection screens. If you want to tell the story of our Presidents, you better go big! As the music begins, the curtains rise and soon a chorus of Americans can be heard reciting part of the Declaration of Independence. When this concludes, the 3 large screens are filled with a video and the voice of Morgan Freeman begins narrating this story. The majority of the current Hall of Presidents is experienced through film. It is not until several minutes into the show that you are introduced to the first Audio-Animatronic figure, Abraham Lincoln.
To understand how fitting it is that President Lincoln is the first figure we see, we need to go back into the show’s history. You see, Walt had an idea to showcase all of the U.S. Presidents way back in the 1950’s. That show was going to be called “One Nation Under God”, and at the end of the production, the audience would see all the nation’s Presidents stand on stage together. Well, like many of Walt’s ideas, this one was ahead of the technology of the day. Audio-Animatronics had not been realized yet. If you go back and listen to Episode 011 of our podcast you will hear how Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room was the first step in creating Audio-Animatronics. A year after the Tiki birds opened the door for AA figures, Walt was able to realize part of his dream at the 1964 World’s Fair.
Walt accepted the job of creating a show for the Illinois Pavilion which he titled “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” Rather than create an AA figure for all the Presidents, Walt just had to figure out how to do one. He and his team were able to bring Abraham Lincoln to life and the show was such a hit at the World’s Fair they decided to bring it to Disneyland. Back in 1965, paying to get into Disneyland did not mean you could ride whatever you wanted. Most of the rides required that you pay for an additional ticket. However, Walt being the passionate American he was, he decided to make “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” free to everyone. He wanted to be sure there was no excuse to miss this creation that was so dear to his own heart. Audiences gladly took in the free offering, and the show was a continued success.
When it came time for the Magic Kingdom to open in 1971, the Audio-Animatronic technology had advanced significantly. In addition, the park in Florida offered a lot more working space. The Disney Imagineers decided to not just recreate “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” but to fully realize Walt’s dream of showcasing every President in our history. The new show was named The Hall of Presidents and became one of the few opening day rides unique to Disney World.
Since opening day there have been 3 versions of the show. The first incarnation of The Hall of Presidents ran from 1971-1993. During this time Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush were the Presidents added to the show. Much like “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” this version of the show concluded with President Lincoln standing to give the final speech.
The second version of the show ran from 1993-2009. This show received a complete overhaul from the original version. A new script was written and the show was narrated by poet Maya Angelo. The second version of The Hall of Presidents focused more on the role of slavery and the fight for civil rights in our nation’s history. President Bill Clinton was also added to the role during this period and was given a speech that took place before President Lincoln closed the show. In 2001, the show received a slight update as President George W. Bush was added and J.D. Hall took over narration duties.
In 2009 the show again received a significant update. It was decided to once again shift the focus of the show. While the same basic story would be told, we would now see that our President is part of “we the people”. Our President is one of us. That brings us up to today, and back to President Abraham Lincoln. When we first see President Lincoln he stands and delivers his Gettysburg Address. The lone spotlight on this historical figure come to life is striking. After his moving speech, the film continues and Morgan Freeman moves the story forward with his distinctive narration. At the end of the current version, The Hall of Presidents again showcases every President, starting with George Washington and ending with Barack Obama. The show concludes with these two men as President Washington delivers a speech and then gives the floor to President Obama. During this time President Lincoln remains silent but sits in his chair at the center of the stage. Like every version of the show, audiences leave the theater to the sound of the Battle Hymn of The Republic.
So, let’s talk about you joining the audience. The Hall of Presidents may be one of the most controversial experiences you can have at Walt Disney World due to the divisive nature of politics in America. It is common to hear both cheers and boos as the Presidents are introduced one by one. I have always found this phenomenon a little laughable as we are cheering or booing an Audio-Animatronic and not the man himself. Nevertheless, it is entertaining to watch fellow vacationeers express their political opinions in this way.
Regardless of your political slant, I believe The Hall of Presidents is a show worth viewing. The current version of the show serves as a good reminder that each person elected to this, our highest office, has a tremendous responsibility to bear. Whether they are Democrat or Republican, they are a real person born from “we the people.” In many ways each President is just like you and me. They may each enter the White House for their own reasons, but history has proved that they each leave a changed individual. None of our Presidents could know the challenges that would await them as they started their service. Those that we have come to know the best are those that have seen us through our most difficult times.
Just as Walt himself believed, I think The Hall of Presidents is a show you should share with the kids in your family. Combining this show with The American Adventure over in EPCOT is a great way to introduce them to the history of America. This is not a show you will likely want to see every time you visit the Magic Kingdom, but if you have never been, or if it’s been a while it is worth it. For me, I saw this show many years ago and skipped it on several subsequent vacations. Once we launched the WDW Ride Guide Podcast it was time to visit once again. As an adult who manages a small team of people in my day job, I was struck by the thought of leading an entire nation. I know the weight of responsibility I feel for those I oversee, and I can barely imagine what a President like Abraham Lincoln must have felt in the face of a Civil War. The Hall of Presidents really helps put that sobering burden in perspective. No matter how much or how little you care about politics and policy, I feel this show helps us all empathize with our Presidents. Love them or hate them, they have an incredibly challenging job.
All politics aside, the realization of Walt’s dream to have a stage filled with life like Audio-Animatronic people is worth your time. The newest AA figures have such an impressive range of motion and expression. The artistic and talented imagineers that brought these historical figures to life deserve a standing ovation. Still, if the patriotic or artistic elements of this show fail to impress don’t worry. At the very least this show will give you a nice cool chance to sit down and take a break from the exhausting pace of a Disney vacation!
Well, that is going to wrap up our look at The Hall of Presidents today, and wrap up our celebration of America in Walt Disney World. If you would like to give us feedback on today’s episode or our look at patriotism in the parks, we would love to hear from you. You can comment below, come by our Facebook page, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week we will be moving the podcast onto a different track with another great ride. I hope you will come back and join us. Until then, make each day a ride worth taking!