Remembering the Magic: Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress

by Jonathan Heigl, contributing writer
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With this article, I will attempt to guide you through the history of Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. We’ll start out at the inception of the attraction and progress through time until today’s version. Please find a seat, moving all the way across your row to make room for everyone, and please remain seated for the duration of our trip through the history of Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress!

Progressland (1964–1965)

General Electric wanted to have an attraction at the New York World’s Fair (1964–1965). GE came to Walt Disney and WED Enterprises to create the attraction. Walt Disney (in the 1950s) had previously had the idea of this attraction that would take guests through the evolution and progress of electricity in the home and how it has made life easier throughout the decades, which he wanted to put in an expanded Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland. However, at the time of the concept, the technology was not satisfactory enough for Walt.

When GE came to WED Enterprises to pitch an idea for their pavilion, Walt presented the idea of the progress of electricity and how it enhances our day to day lives. The executives loved it and decided they would fund the project.

During this time, Imagineers were working on developing Audio-Animatronics. This was one of the first attractions to use this new technology. These Audio-Animatronics were used as the performers in the show. Also during this time, the Imagineers developed the carousel theater, in which the seats in the theater (each area in front of a stage separated by dividers) would rotate every four minutes around the main stage, which was made up of six stationary stages. This was important for two reasons: guests could stay comfortably seated and not have to get up and move to the next scene (which helped cut down on ride time, since the audience didn’t have to get up and move to the next section, find another seat, and sit down), and also because the scenes could all be set up on the stage at the same time (on different sections of the stage), so there was no down time for the audience, as they did not need to wait for the scene to be set up by stage hands.

The famous Sherman Brothers were chosen to write a song that would be played during the rotation of the theater. After being told what the attraction was all about, they created “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”.

When the show opened in Progressland’s Carousel Theater at the New York’s World Fair, it was named "Progressland." It was one of the most visited attractions at the World’s Fair, entertaining as many as 4,500 people per day, for a total of almost 16 million over the course of the run. Roughly 200 people entered (and conversely exited) the attraction every four minutes. The line for the show was typically over an hour long. The show was set in the 1890s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1960s. At the end, guests could go upstairs in the pavilion to view Progress City, which was Walt Disney’s model for EPCOT (not the theme park, but the “working city of tomorrow, ”a portion of which can now be viewed during the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover’s trip around Tomorrowland).

The GE Carousel of Progress (1967–1973)

After the closing of the New York World’s Fair, GE and Disney wanted to extend the show in a permanent place, so GE sponsored the ride and brought it to Disneyland. The show was renamed to "The GE Carousel of Progress" and opened on July 2, 1967. The attraction was in a two-level pavilion, with the main show on the ground floor, and the second level, again, hosted Progress City. Most of the scenes stayed the same, with a few slight changes, such as some new voices, slight updates to scenes, and some other minor tweaks. After the final scene, guests could step onto the “speed ramp,” which would bring them to the second level to view Progress City.

In the early 1970s, GE began to think that most of the audience that were repeatedly seeing the show were local Californians, as the attraction experienced attendance dwindling as time went on. GE was very interested in the idea of having this show in the new Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World in Florida, so they asked Disney to move it there. The show closed in Disneyland on September 9, 1973, but boasted 31 million visitors during its run there.

The GE Carousel of Progress (1975–1985; Magic Kingdom)

On January 15, 1975, the attraction re-opened at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. and GE signed a 10-year contract to sponsor the attraction. There were some changes done on the show once again. The theater now rotated counter-clockwise instead of clockwise. There was a new theme song written by the Sherman Brothers; “The Best Time of Your Life” had replaced “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” The theme song was changed because GE felt that the original song was telling people to wait until the next big thing to buy instead of portraying that “now is the best time” to buy new appliances and such. The pavilion was redesigned to be one floor for the attraction with a loft above so the PeopleMover could go above it. The load and unload theaters did not have the “Kaleidophonic Screens” anymore and were replaced by silver curtains with the GE logo in the middle. The voices of the characters changed, as did their appearance. There were some minor changes to the scenes, and the final scene was changed to a Christmas scene.

The Carousel of Progress (1985–1993)

When General Electric’s sponsorship expired on March 10, 1985, it chose not to renew the sponsorship. For a brief time, the attraction was closed to remove GE from the attraction’s scenes and signage. No other changes to the show were made. The attraction would remain this way, until August 1993.

Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress (1993 – Current)

On August 16, 1993, the attraction closed again, but this time, for a refurbishment to fit the new theme of the New Tomorrowland: “The Future that Never Was.” During this time, the attraction was renamed "Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress," and an updated version of “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” returned. The final scene was updated to “Christmas in the House of 2000” (which is still in the attraction today). Another new cast was hired for the voices. A new four-minute pre-show about how the attraction was made was shown on monitors while people waited in line. The attraction reopened on November 23, 1993, and was the first attraction to reopen in the New Tomorrowland. There have been various mechanical and cosmetic changes to the attraction since, but the current show is the same show as it was when it reopened in 1993. The current scenes are as follows (as stated on Walt Disney World’s website):

  • Act 1: Spring, Turn of the 20th Century – See how advances like gas lamps, the hand-cranked washing machine and a gramophone made the pre-electric era a breeze.
  • Act 2: Summer, 1920s – Behold modern conveniences like the electric iron, the radio, the sewing machine and the light bulb— brought to life through the power of electricity.
  • Act 3: Autumn, 1940s – The automatic dishwasher, an electric exercise machine and the introduction of the television are just some of the wonders that made life in suburbia even easier.
  • Act 4: Winter, The Present – Today's high-tech marvels include virtual-reality games, high-definition televisions and voice-activated household appliances.

Jonathan's verdict – revert, update, leave alone, or re-imagine?

This was a tough decision, but in my opinion, I would have to go with “update it.”

I would want leave it alone primarily because this is one of the last attractions remaining that Walt had personally been involved with during creation. I love the renaming to Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” is also a better theme song than “The Best Time of Your Life,” in my opinion.

However, the technology could use some updating, as well as the “Christmas in the House of 2000” scene. I believe the spirit of the attraction is in its current iteration, but updating the Christmas scene would give it a huge lift, in my opinion, as it would be more meaningful to the future it is intended to showcase. To me, it just wouldn’t be the same if they were to completely re-imagine the attraction, but an update wouldn’t be the worst idea to me.

Now it's your turn! Let us know your verdict in the comments! Also, feel free to discuss the attraction as well; your favorite parts, warm memories, anything! Comments about the article and suggestions are always welcome as well! I hope you enjoyed our tour through the history of Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress!

Comments

  1. By Goodnplenty

    Very nice article! Thank you!
    When I am actually watching the show I keep thinking that COP needs a major face lift or re-work. But when I am just sitting and thinking about COP I don't feel like changing anything because it is one of Walt's originals. Perhaps we could have a compromise. Could COP be re-purposed showing the changes in Disney technology? Perhaps keep one of the COP scenes or AA's and show how they were made/operated and then show today. Maybe they could use the Dad AA and update him in each scene to move more smoothly, etc to show how technology has advanced?

    Just some thoughts.
    GnP

  2. By mkelm44

    I too am in favor of leaving the Carousel the way it is today, albeit for different reasons than you. I am not one to lean on the crutch of "Walt was involved so it can never be changed" for the simple reason itself that Walt thought nothing should be stagnant (see his views on Fantasia for example). I do however think that it should stay the same because it does show how the American family has evolved as well as the "retro-future" look that the rest of Tomorrowland has. Maybe a little more background during the pre-show of how the show has evolved from NYWF 64 to today, but otherwise let it be.

  3. By spectromen

    thanks for the great article!

    I never had the privilege of seeing the show at DL, so I'm unfamilar with the Kaleidoscopic Screens. The opening and closing rooms could use some sort of plussing, though.
    The middle scenes really just need new speakers, lighting and next generation animatronics. The script can largely stay the same. I'd trim about 30 seconds off each scene to keep today's antsy guests more focused.
    The final scene, I like the Christmas idea but it needs major changes to become a future we'll never reach.
    The exterior needs a fancy retheme more in line with the fronts of Stitch and Monsters (i.e. lots of metal and neon) to draw attention to that back corner. With that, I think we'd have a CoP worthy of another 20-30 years.

  4. By sasmmb

    I like CoP but I do think it's silly that the 1st 3 scenes jump 20 years, and then the last scene is a 60 year jump. And even now that looks outdated. Given the reduction in the number of guest that attend, I wonder if they could rework it to break it into 8 sections and add a 1970's scene and then a 2020 scene.

  5. By LtPowers

    I say gut it and start over. Remove the focus on electrical appliances and switch to more generic technological developments. Switch the time frames to the 1900s, 1950s, 2000s, and 2050s, perhaps incorporating some ideas from Horizons for the last scene.


    Powers &8^]

  6. By danyoung

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane. This has always been and continues to be a favorite attraction.

    I do need to point out a math error, though. You said -

    Roughly 200 people entered (and conversely exited) the attraction every four minutes.
    ...which would give it a ridership of 3000 people an hour. But you also said -

    It was one of the most visited attractions at the World’s Fair, entertaining as many as 4,500 people per day....

    With a rate of 3000 people an hour, I'm sure the ridership was way more than 4,500 people per day.

    Other than that, great article - thanks!

  7. By bochnikm

    I think a compromise would be the best. Two scenes close to the original; one old update and one brand new re-imagined section.

    Use what is close to the original for the first two scenes. The first being the 1920ís but move the 1960ís scene to the second scene. Use the newer but now dated 2000 scene as the third stage. Letís face it Ė to twenty-somethings; bringing their toddlers to WDW; this would be their nostalgic scene. Then update the last scene will all new technology with a look at what might be possible in the future in the 2040ís

  8. By jheigl

    Thanks for your responses everyone! I'm glad to see that people are enjoying this series!

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    Thanks for the walk down memory lane. This has always been and continues to be a favorite attraction.

    I do need to point out a math error, though. You said -



    ...which would give it a ridership of 3000 people an hour. But you also said -



    With a rate of 3000 people an hour, I'm sure the ridership was way more than 4,500 people per day.

    Other than that, great article - thanks!

    Yes, this was a poor mis-statement on my part. I apologize. However, your math is figuring that the ride was at 100% capacity from open to close. You are right though, that figure of 4,500 per day does not seem right.

  9. By danyoung

    Well, I'm sure the ride wasn't at capacity from open to close. But with hour long waits, I'm also sure the ride was viewed by more than 4,500 people a day. I'd love to find out how many people really saw the show on a daily basis.

  10. By jheigl

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    Well, I'm sure the ride wasn't at capacity from open to close. But with hour long waits, I'm also sure the ride was viewed by more than 4,500 people a day. I'd love to find out how many people really saw the show on a daily basis.

    Absolutely! No doubt about it that it was more! I'll try to do some more research on that and get back to you.

  11. By scottolsen

    Nice article, but a minor correction--the last scene in the Disneyland version was a Christmas scene from day one, it was not "added" to the WDW version.

    One thing you didn't mention was that "Progress City" could also be seen from the Peoplemover at Disneyland.

    Thanks!

  12. By Ron Schneider

    Some nice stuff here, but the second floor of the NY World's Fair show did not contain a model of EPCOT... that was added in Anaheim.

    "Inside the (second floor of the) pavilion was the first demonstration of controlled thermonuclear fusion to be witnessed by a large general audience. A magnetic field squeezed a plasma of deuterium gas for a few millionths of a second at a temperature of 20 million degrees Fahrenheit. There was a vivid flash and a loud report as atoms collided, creating free energy (evidenced on nearby instruments)."

    A little more research might be called for...

  13. By pegomyheart

    There are a couple of things in the Christmas scene that I would change. There are six stockings hanging on the mantle and six places set at the dinner table. I would hang another stocking on the mantle and set another place at the dinner table. Santa might bring a gift for Orville, and considering the amount of time Orville spends in the bathroom, he must eat something. He should feel welcome to join the family at the dinner table.

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