Skip to main content

The Decline and Renewal of World's Fairs

Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF Civil Air Patrol.

The Sunsphere in Downtown Knoxville, retained after the fair.

The Sunsphere in Downtown Knoxville, retained after the fair.

The 1982 Knoxville Fair in Tennessee

The 1982 Knoxville World's Fair was somewhat well advertised on television, but poorly organized and disappointing.

Food concessions, were poorly stocked and manned: Many of the waitstaff seemed to be untrained; they stood and stared at you instead of taking your order. After two days at the fair, I found good service and good food only at the Korean Pavilion, where I also saw attractive advertisements for their upcoming turn at hosting a world's fair. Since that time, advertising for the fair dropped off considerably, as did media attention.

The Knoxville fair was dedicated to energy and sustainability, but fell flat, because the uproar of advertising for sustainability in the 1970s and Earth Day, began to wane until the 1990s in this part of the country.

The energy and cultural exhibits seemed unfinished and long lines to gain admission were even more frustrating after a disappointing experience in each venue. In one glaring example, the Panama pavilion was totally unoccupied, although I heard later that Caribbean Islanders took over the space.

As the ExpoMuseum website tells us, the 1982 World's Fair did not even have a mascot.

This was a miss of a good advertising opportunity. Six cartoon-like characters supposedly walked around the fair to pose for photographs, but we don't even know their names today.The rounded red flame that is the logo of the 1982 exposition has been seen on lapel buttons, sporting eyes and a big smile and this leads me to think that perhaps this "Burnie", as he was called, might have been a mascot.

Speaking of walkabouts, the fair was to host several strolling musical acts to entertain the crowds and I never saw a single one of them in two days. Neither did other visitors to the fair with whom I spoke.

The site of the fair covered over 70 acres, but the best thing about it was a trip across the bridge over the Tennessee River to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Thirty years later, that school and its grounds are still one of the best attractions in the city.

Another good thing about the Knoxville exposition is that is required the old rail yards in Downtown Knoxville to be reconstructed as other venues and this began an ongoing thrust toward urban revitalization and sustainability.

Bankruptcy and Prison

Mr. Jake Butcher had the idea for a World's Fair in Knoxville, and he was both CEO of United American Bank and the Chair of the Knoxville International Energy Exposition.

His bank went bankrupt, presumably from financing the fair, and he later went to prison. He was released from servitude on April 30, 1992 and became a car salesman for a time.

Lodging For the Fair

This was the early 1980s, well before the Internet and Price Line with William Shatner as The Negotiator.

Lodging for the millions of visitors to the Knoxville events was not well thought-out in the first month of the fair. Hotels and motels in the suburbs and downtown were booked quickly and the hotel on the fairgrounds itself was packed. In addition, the lobby of the fairgrounds hotel was always full of loitering non-guests, making it impossible to walk through it.

On Mackinac Island, that problem was solved very quickly by charging people $20.00 to come in and enjoy a seat in the lobby of the largest resort hotel or on the wraparound porch for the day.

Telephoning for rooms near Knoxville was an unpleasant chore, because I found many reservation operators rude, giving me completely inappropriate comments and using profanity. I kept calling and found a nice location about an hour away and my stay was quite pleasant there.

Future Advertising

After Knoxville, I never heard or saw another advertisement for a World's Fair. Advertising operated, but not to the extend as formerly promoted for earlier fairs, such as those in Seattle or even earlier in Montreal. Older friends still talk about those great expositions.

In 2005, World's Fair Expositions have concentrated more heavily on sustainability and energy. There were no fairs in 2001, 2002, 2003, or 2004.

Moving Forward with World's Fairs 1982 - 2025

Data from Ohio State University archives.

Scroll to Continue
  • 1982 Knoxville. 72 acres; Energy. Held May 1 (May Day) through October 31 (Halloween), 1982 and accumulated 11,000,000 visitors. I attended this fair during the first week of July.
  • 1984 New Orleans. 81.4 acres; "The World of Rivers - Fresh Water as a Source of Life." Records show 7.3 million guests. The architecture was said to be especially brilliant in its multi-use design and enjoyed by many visitors.
  • 1985 Tsukuba Science City outside Tokyo, Japan. 250 acres of science and technology designed to improve private dwellings in the future. Visitors I have spoken with found this fair very enjoyable and exciting; 20.3 million guests.
  • 1986 Vancouver, BC, Canada. 173 acres; "World in Motion - World in Touch"; 22.1 million guests.
  • 1988 Brisbane, Australia. "Leisure in the Age of Technology"; 11.1 million visitors.
  • 1992 Seville, Spain and Genoa, Italy (simultaneous fairs). "Discovery" and "Ships and the Sea." These fairs celebrated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus having landed in the New World. We know that he was not the first non-native to discover it.
  • 1993 Taejon, South Korea. 62 acres; "The Challenge of a New Road of Development"; August 7 - November 7, 1993. 14,000,000 visitors.
  • 1998 Lisbon, Spain. 123 acres; "The Oceans, A Heritage for the Future"; 11 million guests.
  • 2000 Hanover, Germany. 395 acres. "Man, Nature, Technology"; 18.1 million visitors.
  • Five-Year Gap
  • 2005 Aichi Perfecture, Japan. 460 acres and 37 acres on two sites; "Nature's Wisdom"; 22 million visitors.
  • 2008 Zaragoza, Spain. 62 acres; "Water and Sustainable Development." "Only" 5.1 million guests.
  • 2010 Shanghai, China. 1305 acres. "Better City, Better Life." 73,000,000 visitors.
  • 2012 Yeosu, South Korea. 62 acres; "The Living Ocean and Coast: Diversity of Resources and Sustainable Activities." This fair was held for three months, from May through July. Attendance was 8, 203,956 visitors.
  • 2015 Milan, Italy. 272 acres; "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life." 22,200,000 visitors.
  • 2017 Astana Kazakhstan. The exposition will run three months with the theme "Energy of the Future." June 10 - September 10, 2017.
  • 2019 Beijing, China: Expo 2019
  • 2020, delayed to 2022 because of a pandemic. Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The theme is "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future", sub-themes being Sustainability, Mobility and Opportunity.
  • 2023 Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • 2025 Osaka, Japan

Decided in 2017, a World's Fair will be held every two years for either 3 months or 6 months. Smaller bid-winning cities will host smaller fairs, while large cities winning the fair will host much larger productions.

Korea World's Fair, Summer 2012

Dress Rehearsal, Opening Ceremony; By cmkhkd on Youtube; CC by 2.0

Yeosu, Korea; North of Jeju Island


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Patty Inglish MS


jennyjenny from Somewhere in Michigan on July 31, 2012:

Great Hub! Very informative, yet holds great interest! Thank you for sharing!

InglenookObserver from Southwestern Wisconsin on July 31, 2012:

You are right. I am totally unaware of the fairs that have gone on recently, are in progress and in the planning stages. We need these events and really top of the line marketing for them. Since planners and marketing firms aren't doing the job, we will have to do it with social networking, huh?

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on July 31, 2012:

Larry, I am sorry to hear about the New Orleans Fair and about your wife's uncle. New Orleans is an interesting place to visit and it's sad to think of the loss and waste.

Thanks for asking the Hub Question!

Larry Wall on July 31, 2012:


Thank you for the excellent rundown on the World's Fair issue. I remember when the Knowville Fair was held. I remember hearing some of the same issues you mentioned. The New Orleans World's Fair was interesting, but like most projects in Louisiana went way over budget. My wife's uncle had a very successful swimming pool business in New Orleans and he offered a bid to build the Aquacade in good faith and was awarded the bid. He never received a nickel. I do not know how much money he put into that project but it was a huge pool with an unusual shape, fountains, diving platform, the whole nine yards. He managed to start over, but it was a big blow to him and to the vendors and contractors he had hired. It was claimed at the time, that much of the fair would remain in place for other events. They had a Gondola ride over the Mississippi River that lasted about six months, then the last few restaurants closed down. The site was purchased by someone who I think built a couple of small hotels on the grounds that are decent and doing all right. But those dreams of glory, when projects like that are involved, never seem to materialize.

Thanks for the Hub, very informative.


Related Articles