Carousel of Progress

tomorrowland

The Carousel of Progress is an attraction located at the Disney Magic Kingdom Park in Orlando. Created by both Walt Disney and 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 at Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California, remaining there from 1967 until 1973. It was replaced in Disneyland by America Sings in 1974, and reopened in its present home in 1975.

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 (Disney’s Academy Award-winning songwriting team).

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, Disney 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 the oldest attraction not only in the Magic Kingdom, but the entire Walt Disney World Resort. It is the only attraction in Walt Disney World to have a direct physical tie to Walt Disney.

The basic plot of the Carousel of Progress show has essentially remained unchanged since it debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It is divided into six scenes, with the audience seats rotating between each scene around the stage mechanically within the outer part of the theater building.

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 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 their 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, recalling that this was originally a World’s Fair attraction.

The second act features devices such as 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 2010, upgrading the outdated CRT Sony 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.

General Electric approached Walt Disney to develop a show for the company’s pavilion at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Walt 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 Edison Square, Walt Disney again pitched the idea of an electrical progress show to General Electric executives.

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 the dazzling wall of light, the ‘Kaleidophonic Screen,’ and the ‘performers’ appeared in the 1890s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1960s.

At the end of the Carousel show, fairgoers 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 ride opened mostly unchanged at Disneyland in 1967. But, after the show, guests boarded a speedramp 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 in 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. The Carousel of Progress opened in Walt Disney World on the same day in 1975 as Space Mountain.

The Carousel of Progress is an elaboration and trivialization of some industrial films that American appliance manufacturers funded, to demonstrate how their products would change the pattern of domestic chores and improve life. The desire to sell during the Great Depression and the rural electrification projects of the New Deal were two of the motivating forces behind these films. Also, there are the remnants of an exhibition from the 1933 ‘Century of Progress’ exposition in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry that feature four typical rooms of Chicago houses in various decades prior to the exhibition.

From 1983 – 1999 an attraction known as Horizons existed at Epcot at the Walt Disney World Resort. It was more or less a sequel to the Carousel of Progress, depicting the host family living and working in technologically-enhanced environments in the near future. It was also presented by General Electric. In that attraction, there was a scene where a robot was ‘working’ in the kitchen, making quite a mess, among other things. In the background, the song ‘There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow’ could be heard.

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