Making of: Carousel of Progress

The Carousel of Progress was created in a time when hope for the future was stronger than it is today. This wonderful, vintage attraction has Walt Disney written all over it, and, in fact, currently operates under the name Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. Created by both Walt Disney and his WED Enterprises as the prime feature of the General Electric Pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the attraction was moved to Tomorrowland in Disneyland, where it remained from 1967 until 1973. It was replaced in Disneyland by America Sings in 1974, and reopened in its present home at the Magic Kingdom in 1975. Continue after the page break for a look back at the ride Walt loved so dearly, the Carousel of Progress…. 

Steeped in both nostalgia and futurism, the attraction’s premise is an exploration of the joys of living through the advent of electricity and other technological advances during the 20th century via a “typical” American family. To keep it up with the times, the attraction has been updated five times (in 1967, 1975, 1981, 1985, and 1994) and has had two different theme songs, both written by the Sherman Brothers. Various sources say Walt Disney himself proclaimed that the Carousel of Progress was his favorite attraction and that it should never cease operation. This can be somewhat supported by family and friends, who knew of his constant work on the attraction. Of all the attractions he presented at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, Walt seemed especially devoted to the Carousel of Progress. The Carousel of Progress holds the record as the longest-running stage show, with the most performances, in the history of American theater. It is one of the oldest attractions in the whole Walt Disney World Resort  and its also one of the only attractions at Walt Disney World to have been touched by Walt Disney himself.



The basic plot of the Carousel of Progress show has essentially remained unchanged since it debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The show is divided into six scenes, with the audience seating sections located in a ring which mechanically revolves within the outer part of the circular theater building. The scenes are each staged in stationary wedge-shaped spaces at the core of the building. Thus, the audience actually revolves around the stage, stopping to view each scene of a simple narrative of progress. The first and the last scenes are basically identical and involve the loading and unloading of guests. The other four scenes, or “acts”, depict an Audio-Animatronic family, narrated by the father, named John, interacting with the latest technology and innovations during a particular era.

Not much is known about the family: we do not know their last name, where they live (aside from being somewhere in the United States), or if they ever change location. The family does not (nor are they meant to) age 100 years. They age 3–5 years as the show progresses, to demonstrate how slightly older individuals can better enjoy new technology. Each of the four scenes is set during a different season of the year: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, and on the day of a holiday that typifies each season. The progress of the year through the progress of the seasons serves as a metaphor for the progress of the development of the modern age of electricity. Also, each of the scenes features a male dog, who occasionally barks or growls, causing the father to firmly command the canine to stop interrupting his talk. The first act takes place during Valentine’s Day around the beginning of the 20th century, and features the family using the new innovations for that era, including gas lamps, a kitchen pump, a hand-cranked washing machine, and a gramophone. A mention of the St. Louis World’s Fair dates the scene to 1904, alluding to the fact that this show was originally a World’s Fair attraction. The second act features devices such as electric lighting and cookware, radio, a sewing machine, and a homemade cooling device during the 4th of July in the 1920s (the Charles Lindbergh reference makes the most likely year 1927). The third act, set around Halloween in the 1940s, has the family interacting with technologies such as an automatic dishwasher, television, and a homemade paint mixing system.
The final scene is set around Christmas and depicts the family interacting with the technology of the present day. As such, it is the act that has received the most changes since the show debuted in 1964. While the original final act featured the family’s home in the 1960s, the current finale, which was introduced in 1994, shows the home in the first decade of the 21st century with high-definition television, virtual reality games, voice activated appliances, and other recent innovations. A slight refurbishment was made in January 2010, upgrading the outdated Sony CRT television to a larger Samsung flat panel display.

In the late 1950s, after Disneyland Park’s initial success, Walt Disney planned to expand the Main Street, U.S.A. area with two districts: “International Street” and “Edison Square”. In Edison Square, guests would be treated to a show hosted by an “electro-mechanical” man named “Wilbur K. Watt”. The show would chronicle the evolution of electricity in the home, from the late 19th century to the present and beyond — showing how much electrical appliances, specifically GE appliances, have benefited American life. After each time period, or “act”, was over, the audience would get up and walk to the next one. However, the Main Street expansion idea fell by the wayside. One of the reasons for this was that the technology necessary to put on the show just was not up to par with what Walt Disney wanted. The idea, however, stayed in Disney’s mind for the next few years. GE still wanted to work with Disney, but a better outlet was needed.



General Electric approached Walt Disney to develop a show for the company’s pavilion at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Disney leaped at the chance to rekindle his relationship with GE, who would fund the project and the new technology necessary to bring it to life. Reaching back to the Edison Square concept, Walt Disney again pitched the idea of an electrical progress show to General Electric executives and this time they loved it. During the planning phase, Disney’s Imagineers perfected the Audio-Animatronics (AA) technology necessary to operate the “performers” in the show. They were not the most advanced, but it was enough to get the show running. The technology used in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room and another attraction designed by Disney at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, made the Carousel of Progress possible. Besides the AA performers, the Imagineers (led by Disney engineers Roger E. Broggie and Bob Gurr) also devised a “carousel theater”, so that the audience could stay seated and ride around a stationary set of stages, instead of getting up and walking from stage to stage. This technology allowed for the audience to remain comfortably in place during scene changes, and avoided the time-consuming disruption of changing seats repeatedly during a show. Singing cowboy Rex Allen was tapped to voice Father, the host and narrator of the show that replaced the original “Wilbur K. Watt” character. Allen later commented that he did not know exactly what he was getting into. Walt Disney asked Disney songwriters Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman to create a song that could serve as a bridge between the “acts” in the show. Walt explained to the brothers what the show was about, and they wrote a song with his enthusiasm in mind. The song was titled “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”. The Shermans later stated that they believe that the song was Walt’s “theme song,” because he was so optimistic and excited about the future and technology itself.

 The show opened at the Fair as Progressland. It was one of the most-visited pavilions at the Fair. One of the unique features that made the attraction so popular was that a circle of six theaters (all connected by divider walls) revolved clockwise around six fixed stages every four minutes. There were identical load and unload theaters with a dazzling wall of light, the “Kaleidophonic Screen”, and the “performers” appeared in the 1890s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1960s — literally a “Carousel of Progress”! Though more than 200 people entered and exited the attraction every four minutes, it was not uncommon to wait over an hour in line. For the 1965 season of the Fair, a massive covered queue was constructed next to the General Electric Pavilion on an empty lot to protect visitors from New York’s hot summer sun. At the end of the Carousel show, fair goers were invited to journey up to the second floor of the pavilion and see the General Electric “Skydome Spectacular”. The Skydome Spectacular projected images of nature and energy into the domed roof of the GE pavilion, similar to a planetarium. The show demonstrated the many ways that GE was harnessing electricity and the power of the sun for the benefit of its customers.

The Carousel of Progress was re-opened at Disneyland Park on July 2, 1967, as part of the New Tomorrowland. Due to the success of the attractions Disney created for the Fair, General Electric agreed to sponsor the Carousel of Progress at Disneyland. However, the Carousel of Progress was to be a permanent fixture at Disneyland, and it is unknown how many years General Electric would have sponsored the ride had it stayed there (presumably, 10–12 years, as many other sponsors throughout Disneyland Park have historically done). The actual attraction was located on ground level, and a new nearly identical theater system was constructed. The sets and “performers” all came right from the Fair itself and remained nearly original. There were some slight changes: a new voice was recorded for Mother, “Christmas in the Home of the 1960s” was slightly updated in set design and technology, all references to General Electric’s passé “Medallion Home” campaign were dropped, and Father from “The Home of the 1940s” now sat on a bar stool, rather than on the kitchen nook bench.

After the show, guests boarded a speed ramp that would take them to the second level of the building. On the upper level, a 4-minute post show, narrated by Mother and Father, with a few barks and growls from their dog, coincided with guests gazing at an enormous model of Progress City. Progress City was based on Walt Disney’s original concept for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow(EPCOT) and the Walt Disney World property.

As the 1970s rolled in, the Carousel of Progress saw dwindling audiences. GE thought they were not getting the most for their advertising dollars, surmising that 80% of the people that saw the attraction were Californians, and had seen the attraction many times. GE asked Disney to move the show to their new Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. The Disneyland show closed on September 9, 1973 and was packed up for Florida. The Progress City model was disassembled, but only portions of the center of it were re-assembled in Florida. These can be viewed from the People Mover as it travels through the Buzz Lightyear attraction. Disneyland soon incorporated The Carousel Theater into its plans to celebrate America’s Bicentennial. The theater was filled with a new show in 1974 called America Sings, a salute to American music. That show closed in 1988, not to be replaced for ten years. The Disneyland version of Epcot’s popular Innoventions exhibit opened with the New Tomorrowland in 1998, using a stylized rendition of “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” as its theme song.




Carousel of Progress was one of two attractions that opened in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland on January 15, 1975; the other attraction being Space Mountain. General Electric signed a 10-year contract to sponsor Carousel of Progress at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Unlike the small changes that had occurred when the Carousel of Progress moved from the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair to Disneyland Park, extensive changes were made when the attraction moved to Walt Disney World. A new carousel theater building was designed to house the attraction: a one-story pavilion, with a loft above. The loft was created so the Tomorrowland Transit Authority could pass above it. The interior and exterior of the building received new color schemes with blue and white stripes that grew smaller and larger as the building turned. Also, the theaters now rotated counterclockwise, rather than clockwise, like the two former theater systems. The load and unload theaters no longer featured the stunning “Kaleidophonic Screens” that had dazzled guests as they boarded and exited their respective theater. The old screens had stretched from one wall to the other, with the giant GE logo in the center. They lit up in various colors and patterns like a kaleidoscope as the orchestral version of “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” played. Various problems plagued the screens after 1973, so silver curtains with the GE logo in the center took their place in both the load and unload theaters with different colored lights shining on them. The Florida version was planned with no post-show. Guests would load and unload on the first floor. The Progress City/EPCOT model was significantly sized down so it could fit in a window display that could be seen from the Tomorrowland Transit Authority. This display is located on the left hand side of the TTA track inside the north show building. Because of the changing times, a new theme song, written by the Sherman Brothers, was created for the Florida show. GE asked the Shermans to write a new song because they did not want their customers to wait for a “great big beautiful tomorrow;” GE wanted them to buy appliances today, so a song titled “Now is the Time,” also known as “The Best Time Of Your Life,” was created. Although the song was still very peppy and positive, the Shermans still felt that “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” was a better fit. A new cast of voices and “performers” were showcased in the 1975 version, including actor Andrew Duggan as Father. The first three “acts” had some cosmetic and set design changes. The finale was changed to “Christmas in the Home of the 1970s,” and the dog also changed breed.  In 1981, the finale was updated to showcase “Christmas in the Home of the 1980s.” A new script was written for this scene change, but the rest of the show remained the same.

On March 10, 1985, General Electric’s contract expired, and they chose not to renew. The attraction closed shortly thereafter so that all General Electric references could be excluded from the attraction. The GE logo was replaced with a logo that showed a blueprint of the six carousel theaters surrounding the six fixed stages on the signs outside of the attraction and the silver GE curtain was kept but a round sign with the blueprint logo and the name Carousel of Progress hid the GE logo. The GE logo still exists on several household appliances throughout the attraction, like the refrigerator in Act 3, which features the GE logo and the words, “General Electric” on it. This is one of the remaining logos that can still be seen today. In 1993 the attraction closed for refurbishment, to better reflect the theme of the New Tomorrowland: “The Future that Never Was.” Gears and other mechanical symbols were being prominently featured in the other pavilions in the New Tomorrowland, so the Carousel of Progress was redesigned to feature them. The attraction and show were renamed Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. A giant cog sign in the load and unload theaters that says “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress” replaced the blueprint sign. The final scene was updated to “Christmas in the House of 2000” (as envisioned in 1994). A new cast was hired for the narration recordings, with American writer, raconteur, and radio personality Jean Shepherd as the voice of the father (Shepherd also does a pre-show narration about the history behind the attraction). Additionally, Rex Allen, the voice of the father at the original Disneyland attraction, plays the Grandfather in Act 4 of the show. For the first time, names of some of the characters in the attraction were revealed. A 4-minute pre-show about the creation of the attraction was played on monitors while guests waited in line. A contemporary version of “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” returned as the attraction’s theme song. The attraction reopened in 1994, as the New Tomorrowland was unveiled in phases. Since then, the attraction has undergone many slight mechanical and cosmetic changes. Because of a decrease in attendance following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress closed in October 2001. It was reopened soon afterwards on a seasonal basis, causing fans to become concerned for the attraction’s future. Although numerous “permanent closure” rumors still plague the attraction, Disney has consistently said that there are no plans for permanent closure or any closure at all. For various reasons, the attraction has had some minor refurbishments in recent years. Though it is still listed as a seasonal attraction, it has remained open nearly every day of the year and during the Magic Kingdom’s regular park hours.

The Carousel of Progress was also the beginning of life-size audio-animatronics. As stated before, many have cited that the ride was Walt’s favorite attraction. I believe Walt’s Carousel of Progress should be preserved for generations to come and, in fact, every time I enter the ride I feel as if I’m being time warped into the past. I try to imagine what it must have been like as an observer of the ride way back when the ride first opened in 1964. Having never seen something like this before, it must have been so amazing and proof that the future holds unlimited capabilities. Yes, the Carousel of Progress was created in a time when hope for the future was stronger than it is today, but, hopefully we can all get a piece of that hope back because, after all, it truly is a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow!
Watch now as Walt shows us his plans for the Carousel of Progress:
For those of you who miss the attraction here is a great video of the whole show:

 

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