Taking a Spin on the Carousel of Progressby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
On December 8, I am doing a presentation at Disney's Contemporary Resort for more than 200 Disney fans on the creation and evolution of “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress” attraction as part of a larger Disney fan event that is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Magic Kingdom. Afterward, we are all walking into the Magic Kingdom to ride the attraction, hopefully seeing it through a new perspective and with greater appreciation. Since there is already a lengthy waiting list for the sold out event, I have to suspect that there are many Disney fans still very interested in this classic attraction and not just the exclusive giveaways that will be handed out.
In preparation for the event, I have ridden the attraction countless times in the last few weeks to discover new things to share with the eager audience. I rode it many times in the late 1960s and early 1970s at Disneyland and it has gone through many changes both minor and major since my first experiences.
I have also talked recently with several knowledgeable friends about the attraction, including my good friend Werner Weiss, famed writer and owner of the website Yesterland. We specifically got into a discussion about what should be done with the attraction.
Today, in the final scene, on the bulletin board seen on the far right wall is a big note posted in the middle: “Marty Called—Wants Changes.” That reference to Imagineering Legend Marty Sklar who worked on every version of this attraction seems to suggest that now is the time, in fact now is the best time, to make some changes. There are several options to consider:
- Close the attraction permanently and put it out of its misery. Obviously, the attraction is only being casually maintained at best. Check out the coloring on father’s face which is unnatural at best and sloppy at worst. Instead of the delicate detailing that once gave audiences pause that it might be an actual person, today’s makeup on the ever hardening skin looks like it was slathered on with a paint roller using the cheapest paint that could be found at Home Depot. Check out the dust bunnies and wear and tear on the scrims. Does this attraction still offer any entertainment value at all to any Disney guest other than the nostalgic old Disney fans? (My personal opinion is that it can. When I rode it several times on October 1, 2011, I was delighted when, in one show, a child who wasn’t born until four decades after the show premiered in New York was constantly delighted at Rover the dog every time he did something. There was pure excited joy in her reaction, proving yet again that one of the things that made Walt such a great showman was his commitment to a timeless experience for guests of all ages. I think that just like the wonderful rehab that has been done to the Enchanted Tiki Room on both coasts, that a classic attraction can be entertaining for today’s audiences by retaining the spirit of the original version.)
- Update the attraction. The original attraction was specifically designed so that there would be approximately a 20-year jump between scenes. (Now, there is at least a 70-year gap between the third scene and the final scene.) Perhaps it is time to lengthen each of the jumps to about 40 years with the first scene starting at the turn of the 20th Century, then a leap to the end of the 1940s/beginning of the 1950s, then another jump to the late 1980s and finally jumping to just the time beyond the day after tomorrow. (Remember Walt was always intrigued by the immediate future, the future that would happen “just around the corner” in the next 10 years, not centuries from now.) Since General Electric is no longer the sponsor, the updates can focus on more than just electricity. The last scene could even include a tribute to Steve Jobs.
- Rehab the attraction to exactly as it was when it opened at Disneyland with that final scene reflecting what the world of the late 1960s was supposed to be, with the towering spire of the Cosmopolitan Hotel of Walt’s Epcot just outside the window. Since Walt Disney World’s Tomorrowland is supposed to reflect the “retro-future,” the future that was predicted in films and magazines, this would theme in well and only need a major overhaul of the final scene. Make the last scene truly a tribute to Walt’s vision of the future in 1966. Bring back Rex Allen’s warm and amusing vocal performance as the father throughout the entire attraction.
- Let it continue to limp on as it has for the last decade or more, a quaint, decaying memory forgotten and avoided by those guests more concerned about getting a FastPass for Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin or Space Mountain. Let it remain in operation for the handful of the faithful who prefer not to be buffeted by the jerks and shakes of the modern rides and who look at the attraction though the eyes of affection for what it once was rather than what it has become. Let this one little treasure from Walt’s past survive quietly in an unused corner of Tomorrowland.
- Use the space for an entirely new show. Obviously, the well loved America Sings has long been cannibalized to create Splash Mountain and is not an option. (Besides, I always thought that America Sings would be a great attraction in the Liberty Square/Frontierland area of Magic Kingdom with its emphasis on the growth of America through music.) The carousel theater at Disneyland was once going to be the domain of George Lucas where a crashed space saucer loaded with entertainers from other worlds would be performing while they waited for repairs to be made. Unfortunately, the carousel theater at Disneyland had been severely damaged when it was unwisely converted into a space for Innoventions. However, the unique theater that stands still while the audience moves around still exists at Walt Disney World and could inspire some interesting possibilities for entertainment based on Disney projects.
Perhaps readers of this column have some other suggestions for this Disney classic but it seems that the situation needs to be addressed.
Does "Carousel of Progress" generate such loyalty from Disneyphiles?
"There was more of Walt in the Carousel of Progress show than in anything else we've done," remarked Admiral Joe Fowler in an interview with Disney historian Paul Anderson.
"Walt was really 'into' the Carousel of Progress show, and the characters in the show. He was really excited with what was happening with Audio-Animatronics. It enabled him to do things that he had never done before. I think that for its time, there was more of Walt in the characters of that show than anything done," Marty Sklar said.
"When we were designing the thing, Walt couldn't resist getting up and doing the work himself," Imagineer John Hench explained. "He jumped in the bathtub for the cousin that was visiting—the guy who invented air conditioning with the fan and block of ice. And he'd say, `What would Cousin Orville do if he were in here?' Walt turned the tub around to face the audience, and he took off his shoes and wiggled his toes to show us. He went through the whole bit. He did several of the acts and even invented dialogue as he went. He was the best storyman, particularly on the small bits of business, and it's the small individual things that you never forget."
Most Disney fans know that the show originated at the 1964 New York World's Fair. For the fair (which wasn't officially a World's Fair because it lasted for two years instead of one), the Disney Company produced four attractions. Surveys showed that 91 percent of the fair's guests attended at least one of the Disney shows, most of which were later installed at Disneyland. The fair was literally the proving ground for Disney's newest innovation, Audio-Animatronics, and Carousel of Progress for General Electric was a prominent showcase of this new technology.
As Disney Legend Harriet Burns points out, "Not only was this the first time we did human figures for Audio-Animatronics, but also dogs and cats."
Previously, only simple figures like the Tiki Birds had been created. The tikis, flowers, and birds only had to snap open and shut in an exaggerated action, not mimic the more subtle aspects of a human being including blinking and lip movements.
General Electric first approached Walt in 1958 with the challenge to "showcase the electrical industry and tell how it has helped the nation to grow and prosper." The result was a planned "Edison Square" in Disneyland with guests walking through four theaters to trace the development and value of electricity. It was to be located just off of Main Street but that show never developed further than an intriguing proposal and some concept artwork. However, some of those story concepts resulted in the "Progressland" pavilion for GE at the fair.
At night, Progressland's domed roof (designed by Walt's friend, architect Welton Beckett) was aglow with thousands of GE light bulbs, all flashing in breathtaking patterns of color and motion. In fact, the second floor of the three story building moved as the carousel theater rotated from scene to scene and amazingly the light patterns on the roof mimicked that same movement.
At the entrance to Progressland, a moving walkway took the guests upward for not only a great aerial view of the fair, but also the entrance to the "Carousel of Progress." Inside the theater, the first scene was a 60-foot long "Kaleidophonic" display of starburst lights synchronized to the music as the narrator intones:
"Now, most carousels just go 'round and 'round without getting anywhere. But on this one, at every turn, we'll be making progress...dreaming and working and making a better way of life!"
The first scene introduces the audience to the family in 1890, who are enjoying a wonderful life thanks to a man named Tom Edison and a new company called General Electric. The next scene moves the audience to the 1920s, and then the late 1940s and, finally, 1964 with the all-electric "Gold Medallion Home" where television shows the same programs but now they are in color.
The show was quite clearly a living commercial for GE and one of my earliest memories of the attraction when it was at Disneyland was father warning the barking dog, "Don't bark at him, Rover. He might be a good customer of General Electric."
Of course, I was sitting directly in front of the dog and my eyes grew as big as saucers thinking the characters were interacting directly with just me.
"Progress is something you can't take for granted. It takes a lot of people wanting it and willing to work for it. And now, a new springtime of Progress awaits you…so get your packages, coats, hats, purses and 'spring up' out of your seats and head for the doorway to the future! And please keep moving…don't stand in the way of Progress!"
A moving walkway took the guests upstairs to the "Skydome Spectacular." Standing beneath a 200-foot planetarium dome, the audience was shown the story of man's search for energy from the caveman's first fire all the way to the exploration of nuclear power (without the assistance of Ellen DeGeneres or Bill Nye who tell the same story at Epcot today) and finished with fierce electrical storms overhead, leaping flames and a sky full of spinning atoms.
The exit ramp took the audience to an actual demonstration of nuclear fusion and a glimpse of "Medallion City," a collection of stylized facades of intriguing homes, stores, and civil and industrial buildings that all showcase the electrical products that were changing the world.
The show was so popular that it was not unusual to have a minimum of an hour and a half wait for guests to get a chance to see it, and this was in a theater that was designed to accommodate more than 200 people at a time, approximately 3,600 people an hour.
When the Fair ended, Walt Disney had cleverly arranged for many of the attractions to be transported to Disneyland. So "it's a small world," Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the transportation system concept for the Ford Motor Skyway that became the PeopleMover and Carousel of Progress made the cross-country relocation. Sadly, Walt Disney died in December 1966 and never saw the July 1967 opening of Disneyland's New Tomorrowland with its transplanted General Electric Carousel of Progress.
In Disneyland, the show concluded not with a "Skydome Spectacular" but with a detailed model for Epcot that was 115-feet wide, 60-feet deep. It had 2,500 moving vehicles, 20,000 trees, 4,500 structures (Walt insisted the interior of the buildings be finished, furnished and lit) and it all came alive as the audiences moved from one side of the room to the other. The world of tomorrow made possible with the technology of today. In fact, the final act of Carousel of Progress was re-designed to show the family living in Epcot. (Ever notice the towering Cosmopolitan Hotel, the centerpiece of Walt's Epcot, seen from the window behind the family at Christmas?)
After running six years in Disneyland, the Carousel of Progress show closed permanently in 1973 when General Electric felt that only repeat visitors were seeing their commercial message and that the new Disney theme park in Florida would be a better billboard. After all, surveys had shown that less than 8 percent of Disneyland’s attendance came from east of the Mississippi.
The Carousel Theater building remained in Disneyland. From 1974 to 1988, the bottom level housed an attraction themed to the Bicentennial titled America Sings. Today, the theater houses the disappointing Innoventions.
In January 1975, the Carousel of Progress show found a new home in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. However, it now revolved in an opposite direction than its West Coast counterpart because guests no longer went upstairs to see Walt's Epcot. (A very, very small portion of that 6,900 square foot Epcot model still can be seen if you take the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover.)
Also gone was the song, "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" written by Disney legends Richard and Robert Sherman that actually began its life as a song that went "Walt had a dream and that's the start. We followed along…" Since General Electric wanted people to buy things now instead of waiting for something better in the future, the Sherman Brothers composed "The Best Time of Your Life" (often mistakenly referred to as "Now Is The Time", the opening lyric). In addition, since Rex Allen, the original voice of the father hadn't done anything for Disney for 10 years, but had narrated Hanna-Barbera's animated feature Charlotte's Web in the interim which the Disney Company was upset about, the father's voice was recorded by actor Andrew Duggan. By the way, did you know that actor Preston Hanson was the live-action reference model for the audio-animatronics father?
On March 10, 1985, General Electric dropped its sponsorship and the show dropped all references to GE and was slightly revised to keep it up to date. (In 1983, "Horizons" opened at Epcot sponsored by General Electric and a snippet of "There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" could be heard in the show as yet another Audio-Animatronic family revealed the future to Disney guests.)
Carousel of Progress closed again in 1993 for a more substantial revision. It reopened in 1994 as "Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress" and included the restoration of "There's A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" as the theme song. In addition, author and humorist Jean Shepherd (of "A Christmas Story" fame) voiced the role of the father, and good ol' Rex Allen was brought back to record the voice of the grandfather in the final scene. The final scene, of course, was updated to more than 60 years in the future from the 1940s where Grandma could now enjoy her virtual-reality helmet.
The show was "re-imagined" so that every scene was now a holiday instead of just the final one. Valentine's Day, Fourth of July and Halloween joined Christmas. The show started with one turn-of-the-century and ended with another turn-of-the-century.
With its continuous showings, the Carousel of Progress has become the most performed show in the history of American theater, as well as the most-seen stage show in America even though, as early as 2000, the show was rumored to be closing for good. (That was such a serious prospect that John Lasseter dropped by for a private viewing fearing it would be the last time he would see the show.)
Jacob Addison and Tom Ortalano created one of the best sites devoted to the attraction and might have been the first people to start a "Save the Carousel" petition campaign when news leaked out about the attraction closing. Addison received this letter from Imagineering Ambassador Marty Sklar February 10, 2000:
Dear Mr. Addison:
I have received your letter regarding your "Save the Carousel" campaign, and am also aware that you have written Paul Pressler and others about the same subject.
On the one hand—having written material for every version of the Carousel of Progress and supervised the recordings of Rex Allen for his role as "Father"—I can appreciate your sentimentality. On the other hand, I am also well aware that attendance at the Carousel has been in a constant decline for a number of years. The fact is that today's guests at our Disney Parks prefer other forms of storytelling, and not all of them are "thrill rides."
Although we have looked at other options for use of the Carousel building (as we have at Disneyland), we have no plans at the moment to replace or close the Carousel at the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom.
However, I must underscore the fact that we are following history begun in the earliest days of Disneyland by Walt Disney when we evaluate replacing attractions. Walt started doing that almost immediately, and not all the attractions he replaced were "unpopular," or did not work for one reason or another. In fact, attractions like the Viewliner train and Midget Autopia were very popular, especially with young visitors. (Walt also tore down one of my personal favorites, The Chicken Plantation Restaraunt along the Rivers of America in Frontierland, to build New Orleans Square in Disneyland; and later we removed the popular Rainbow Caverns Mine Train to build Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.)
Forms of entertainment change, sometimes dramatically, over time. What appealed and communicated to an audience in the 1960's does not necessarily work in the year 2000. For example, most of us would be bored to tears with the pace of 1960s television shows and would "zap!" 1960s style commercials even faster today than we did 30-some years ago. Our shows and storytelling devices must be as relevant in the 21st century as Walt's were in the 20th century.
I apologize for being so long-winded with this response. No one, except my colleague John Hench, now in his 62nd year at Disney—he designed the Carousel buildings for both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom—has a longer and more involving connection with the Carousel. I was responsible for "selling" G.E. on moving the show from the New York World's fair to Disneyland, and then to Walt Disney World; and working with Dick and Bob Sherman on the music; Marc Davis and John Hench on the scene vignettes; Claude Coats on the layout and production; and Wathel Rogers on the figure programming was like spending everyday at a Disney Legends convention.
But, Mr. Addison, if the time comes when we have the need, a "better idea," and the funding, I will be the first in line to change out the Carousel. And I will shed many tears at its demise.
Martin A. Sklar
As I mentioned, I uncovered a lot of new information about the attraction researching my upcoming presentation and I may share some of those stories in a future column if readers are interested. By the way, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is if the robin from the film Mary Poppins was re-used in the Carousel of Progress and the answer is “yes.” That creation by the talented Imagineer Harriet Burns for the popular movie now chirps along to a different Sherman Brothers tune.