Upon entry to the “Carousel of Progress” in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom theme park, guests believe they will be sitting down to witness a theater display that rotates before their eyes. In the early 1960s, Imagineers at the newly-founded WED Enterprises had something different in mind. Designed to be the central attraction at General Electric’s (GE) Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, “Progressland” (as it was then called) introduced a revolutionary concept: the seated audience would rotate around the show. Marty Sklar of WED Enterprises reasoned that the six million dollars’ worth of machinery behind the scenes was too complex to move. Equally awe-inspiring was the fact that this show was performed by humanoid robots. Cutting edge inventions and innovations traditionally debuted at these World’s Fairs. “Progressland” was no exception.
Disney’s corporate sponsor, GE, was intent on showing how society had progressed through past and present with electricity. With GE appliances on display, the attraction would specifically highlight the evolution of electricity in the home. Circular in form and divided into six equal segments, the carousel in which this show took place functioned as a giant donut that wheeled like a railroad car around a central, stationary stage. The six segments comprised an entry loading dock, a four-act show, and an exit dock.
The show depicted a traditional American family living in their home in four different eras: the Gay 90s—the world just before electricity was introduced—the Roaring 20s, the Fabulous 40s, and finally, present-day—the 1960s. The show was hosted by the father, originally narrated by the iconic voice of Rex Allen. The audience would transition between acts to the tune of “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” composed by the Sherman Brothers as a personal ode to the eternal optimist, Walt Disney. In an era filled with fears of atomic warfare and the Cuban Missile Crisis just two years before, Walt’s optimistic outlook, as embodied by the “Carousel of Progress,” gave people hope for the future.
Each act (including the loading docks) was synchronized with the next, giving this attraction incredible guest flow. A different set of guests would experience each of the six segments simultaneously. In its two season stint at the World’s Fair and its brief tenure at Disneyland from 1967-1973, the “Carousel of Progress” was seen by more than 50 million viewers. The New York World’s Fair averaged 41,000 guests a day through its two seasons. 99% of these guests rated Disney’s GE attraction as the best show of the fair. Today, in Disney World, the numbers continue to grow.
In the early 1960s, emboldened and motivated by the technological breakthroughs of the “Enchanted Tiki Room” attraction, which opened in 1963 with a host of Audio-Animatronic birds, Walt ambitiously set in motion a plan for researching and developing the Audio-Animatronic scheme to fit human beings. The “Carousel of Progress” marked its first use on a human scale. How he achieved this ambitious plan is indelibly tied to what was, at the time, an even larger phenomenon than Disneyland: the World’s Fair.
Using acute business acumen, Walt relied on corporate sponsorships to provide the necessary capital to produce not only GE’s Progressland, but three other attractions. Pepsi’s “It’s a Small World” attraction, Ford Motor Company’s “Ford’s Magic Skyway,” and the State of Illinois Pavilion’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” rounded out Disney’s hefty contribution to the New York World’s Fair.
The corporate capital permitted Disney to nurture and expand an Imagineering department that was still in its infant stages. This act provided a path forward and laid the technological foundation for the design and development arm of the Walt Disney Company responsible for the creation of Disney’s theme parks. It is easy to forget that the initial capital to instigate a first theme park was borne out Disney’s success as a film studio. Heavy merchandising of the films helped enable a transition to theme parks, but the transition, let alone the concept of a theme park itself, was still entirely unprecedented when Walt first opened Disneyland on July 17, 1955.
It is no coincidence that each of these four World’s Fair attractions found a permanent home in one of the Disney theme parks. After its brief tenure at Disneyland, the “Carousel of Progress” moved east at GE’s behest, to the burgeoning resort in central Florida opened on October 1, 1971. In California,“America Sings”—a salute to American music—has taken over, but remains within the original carousel schematic. “It’s a Small World” has a presence at the Fantasyland in every Disney resort worldwide. “Ford’s Magic Skyway” served as an early prototype for what would become the “PeopleMover” system, known in Disney World today as the “Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover.” Finally, “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” still exists today in Disneyland, and its concept has grown to embody “The Hall of Presidents” in Disney World.
Walt’s forward-thinking enthusiasm for technological advancement, realized through these foundational attractions, was ironically rooted in a sense of history. To propel his parks into the future, Walt looked back for inspiration. WED Enterprise’s John Hench claimed that Walt rejected stylized versions of human robots. He wanted something that could live and breathe, so realistic that it would take people’s breath away. Walt himself had no shame in admitting his personal motive: “I felt that there must be some way . . . perhaps some new art form . . . that could combine the best of traditional media to capture the real countenance, the warm sincerity and the contagious dedication of Abraham Lincoln.” Thus, an Audio-Animatronic Abe—Disney’s boyhood hero—recited several famous speeches in the Illinois Pavilion’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
Disney’s other three World’s Fair attractions had no less of an historical foundation. Fifty convertible Ford vehicles in “Ford’s Magic Skyway” drove guests through the prehistoric age of dinosaurs and cavemen. Pepsi’s “It’s a Small World” celebrated international unity and global peace through the display of numerous world cultures. And finally, GE’s “Progressland” allowed its audience to progress “through progress” as it reflected on the history of electricity’s impact in the American home.
This emphasis on the past provided Walt with the visceral connection his audience would need to embrace the unparalleled and magnificent display of Audio-Animatronic beings. Walt also instilled a sense of participatory motion in his attractions, an important element that embodies his parks today. The first monorail system introduced in the Western hemisphere was not in a major city, but in Disneyland. Ever at the forefront of technological innovation, and with his pulse on the American psyche, Walt Disney used the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair—itself a cultural forerunner—to propel his theme park initiative to the next level. In doing so, he expanded his theme park system for free, and enabled his Imagineering department to gain crucial technological expertise in the process.
In a way, the history embodied in Disney’s four attractions at the World’s Fair has come to represent the lost history of the fairs itself. New York 1964-65 was the last of the great fairs. In Disney World today, Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) is designed not as Walt’s vision for a utopian community, but as a permanent World’s Fair. Perhaps this is a not-so-subtle nod to the impact New York had on his parks’ success. The famous Epcot utopian model of Disney lore could be viewed in the background of the carousel show during its time in Disneyland. After the show guests would take a speed ramp to a second level where they could view the model in its entirety. Today, in Disney World a portion of that same model can be viewed by guests as they fly by on the “Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover.” Opened in Disneyland on June 2, 1967, the first Tomorrowland showed to the world Walt’s vision for an optimistic future. Never, though, did one of America’s greatest storytellers forget that for any great society to forge ahead, it must first understand its past.
“There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”
Enjoy the Sherman Brothers’ original theme song for the “Carousel of Progress” attraction by clicking here!
James H. Bierman, “Disney’s ‘America Sings,’” in The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 20, no. 2 [American Theatre Issue] (Jun., 1976): 63-72.
Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, New York: Vintage Books, 2006.
Richard A. Schwartz, “Yeat’s High Modernism and Disney’s Postmodernism: A Contrast in Ideal Worlds,” in Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 29, no. 1 (Spring, 1995): 79-84.