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What’s a World’s Fair?


urso chappell worlds fairs expo theme parksby Urso Chappell

Sadly, there hasn’t been a world’s fair in the United States since the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans and there hasn’t been one on this continent since Vancouver’s Expo ’86. It’s my hope that this North American “expo drought” will end in 2022 or 2025.

Many in our industry will know about Expo 2010, Shanghai’s record-breaking world’s fair, but fewer know that a world’s fair is being held this year in the small city of Yeosu, South Korea. The smaller version of the international event, I sometimes draw parallels between these “recognized” (as opposed to “sanctioned”) expos with the Winter Olympics.

Related: World’s Fairs: Expo Beginnings (part 1)World’s Fairs: Expo Beginnings (part 2) Aspects of EXPO 2010 -an Audiovisual Review

Even those who might know about world’s fairs might still not know exactly what they are – how they’re organized and enjoyed.nylon publicity worlds fair new york 1939 urso chappell expo

In some ways, expos are like the Olympics in that they’re international events that bring people from around world. Unlike the Olympics, though, anyone can participate. An Olympics might bring one million or so folks to a city for less than three weeks, but a world’s fair can bring anywhere from 8 million (Expo 2012’s projection) to 73 million (Expo 2010’s number) to a city for three or six months.

In other ways, expos are very much like a theme park. After all, the modern amusement park can be said to trace its roots to the Midway Plaisance at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian World Exposition. World’s fairs sometimes offer the same types of entertainment, with ferris wheels and other amusements, but in recent decades, this has been less so. More contemporary world’s fairs rely more on exhibits, multimedia shows, and live entertainment.

So, are world’s fairs purely entertainment venues then? Well, mostly, but not completely. The pavilions at world’s fairs can sometimes function as museums (or aquariums), but they sometimes double as diplomatic and trade venues.

A world’s fair, then, is a world’s fair… or an expo… or a world expo… or an international exposition… or a universal exposition. But, that’s another story.

Image: Nylon publicity photo, New York World’s Fair, 1939. © Bridgeman Art Library / Hagley Museum & Library, Wilmington, Delaware, USA

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Rachel Reed

Rachel Read

Rachel is Finance Director. She has a degree in engineering from Cambridge University and qualified as a Chartered Accountant at Deloittes in London. She worked in finance in industry for twenty years. She oversees our news and also manages our events.

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