The past couple of weeks we have looked at the strengths of both Walt Disney World and Disneyland when it comes to the same or similar ride. Those episodes got me thinking a lot about Walt Disney and the unbelievable progress made from opening day at Disneyland until now. You know, Walt loved progress. Had he lived longer, it would be fascinating to see how his touch would have shaped Walt Disney World. Sadly, we didn’t get to see his unique dream come to life exactly as it was in his mind. However, there have been countless others that have taken up his dream and carried it through with their own unique talents and abilities.
With that said, the rides and shows that Walt helped directly develop are that much more special as time goes on. That was one of the main reasons I was so excited about my first trip to Disneyland. The original park is the only one where you can physically walk where Walt walked. You can catch glimpses of the man behind the mouse throughout his park. The second story apartment of the Firehouse on Main Street still displays the light used to signify Walt was staying in the park that night. You can actually see the park bench where Walt sat and watched his girls play, dreaming up the idea for Disneyland. That same building houses an early model for Disneyland and a tribute to one of Walt’s heroes, Abraham Lincoln. These and many others are wonderful reminders of the man behind the magic.
Still, weeks after returning home from Walt’s first park I couldn’t help but think there was something missing. Something that park should’ve had, but didn’t. That something was the thing I have come to identify with Walt above all other things in Disney parks. I’m talking about Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. For me, this show has come to represent so many of the aspects of Walt Disney that I hold dear today. I’m so glad it is still going at Walt Disney World, and I’m very pleased to share its story with you. Without further ado, let’s get started with our…
Know Before You Go Essential Facts
- The ride is located in the Magic Kingdom in Tomorrowland
- There is no height requirement
- Fastpass + is NOT available
- The fright factor is 0 out of 5
- Guests may remain in a wheelchair/ECV
- Audio description, assistive listening, video captioning and handheld captioning are available
- The show is 20 minutes long
- The ride opened on January 15, 1975. It has been refurbished multiple times, most recently in 1994.
Those are the facts. Now, for a special introduction, let’s hear from the man himself, Walt Disney.
What a perfect way to introduce this special show. Hopefully, you could hear the joy and excitement in Walt’s voice as he first walked viewers through the Carousel of Progress. This four part play chronicling the history of electricity in American culture was near and dear to Walt. Like another Disney classic, It’s a Small World, the Carousel of Progress was developed for the 1964 World’s Fair. Also, like the boat ride, this show was an overwhelming success. Today, we are going to look at the show’s beginning and see how it has progressed to where it is now. By the time we finish, hopefully you will feel like there is a great big beautiful tomorrow just for you!
Using state-of-the art Audio Animatronics and a never before seen rotating theater, the Carousel of Progress was a cutting edge experience that fascinated viewers in 1964. By today’s special effects standards the show seems rather pedestrian and even outdated in spots. However, it was so popular at the World’s Fair that it was held over into the 1965 World’s Fair to give more people a chance to see the show. It could welcome a new audience of over 200 people every 4 minutes, so that is really saying something. It is estimated the show played to almost 40,000 people every single day it was open! Crowds waited for more than an hour to see the GE sponsored Carousel of Progress in the Progressland portion of the fair. When the show was brought back in 1965, the outdoor queue had covering added to help make the wait more comfortable. Even after running for two years, the show was just as popular when the fair concluded as it was when it began.
Because of it’s popularity, it was an easy decision by GE to continue sponsoring the Carousel of Progress for another 10 years in its new home at Disneyland. On July 2, 1967, the show opened to a whole new west coast audience in the Happiest Place on Earth. The show itself remained pretty much the same, with a few minor changes. The biggest difference came after the show. During its World’s Fair run, the second floor of the show building welcomed guests to an elaborate “Skydome Spectacular.” Disney artists created paintings of nature and energy which were then projected onto the domed roof. I wish I had been alive to see that sight. Unfortunately, the Skydome was not recreated in Disneyland. Instead, the second floor of the new building showcased a new model called Progress City. This model was developed by Disney as part of a plan for creating his newest dream in Florida. That dream would come to be known as the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or as we now call it, Epcot!
This would turn out to be a fitting spot for the model representing part of the Florida project, as the Carousel itself soon moved to Florida. Once the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971 it quickly became clear that Florida was the new hot spot for tourists. By this point in time, GE had determined the vast majority of audiences viewing the Carousel show were repeat locals from California. It was time for a venue change to get a better return on their sponsorship dollars, and the Magic Kingdom was ripe with new east coast viewers. GE asked Disney to move the Carousel to Walt Disney World and thus the show was closed at Disneyland in 1973.
Unlike the first move which involved only minor changes to the show, the move to Florida saw significant changes to the Carousel of Progress. For starters, a new building was constructed in Tomorrowland and the new theater ran the show counterclockwise. Both the World’s Fair and Disneyland versions had run the show clockwise. Having only seen the show in the counterclockwise orientation, it seems strange to me to think about it moving the other direction! In addition to the new direction, new voice actors were cast to bring the AA figures to life. Some of the scenes underwent changes as the 60’s scene became the 70’s scene, and the final scene was updated. The loading and unloading scenes were also simplified.
The original version of the show had audiences looking at Kaleidophonic Screens, a dazzling display of colors which changed with the fluctuating pitch of the audio. Think of a kaleidoscope the size of a movie screen that changed with the music and you can imagine how fascinating it would have been to sit there waiting for the show to start. Sadly, the screens had begun to malfunction more and more as time went on, so the decision was made to replace them with simple curtains when the show was recreated at the Magic Kingdom.
Without a doubt though, the most significant change was that of the theme song. “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” was the original song created by the award winning Sherman Brothers specifically for the ride. You should remember these guys by now, but just in case you are new, think Mary Poppins and It’s a Small World. One of my favorite stories behind the Carousel of Progress is that of the theme song. The Carousel of Progress was one of many projects Walt had committed to at the 1964 World’s Fair. His resources were stretched and time was short, so he turned to the trusty duo of Robert and Richard Sherman. The brothers knew Walt wanted something upbeat, positive, and representative of progress. In their minds, that sounded a lot like Walt himself. So, they started by asking themselves how Walt brought something to life. They thought, “Walt has a dream and that’s the start, Walt follows his dream with mind and heart, and when it becomes a reality it’s a dream come true for you and me.” After this all that was left was to substitute “Man” for “Walt” and then add they chorus. Bingo! They had another classic Sherman Brothers anthem for the show inspired by Walt Disney himself.
As the story goes, GE was tired of waiting for that great big beautiful tomorrow. They wanted customers to buy their products today! So, they told the Sherman Brothers they wanted a new song that reinforced a new theme for the Florida version of the Carousel of Progress. The brothers delivered again, creating a song entitled “The Best Time of Your Life.” Many refer to this song as “Now is the time.” The song was catchy and kept the upbeat character of the show alive, albeit with a slightly different focus.
This new version of the Carousel of Progress opened on January 15, 1975 in the Magic Kingdom. It ran for the next 10 years under the continued sponsorship of GE. When the contract ran up in 1985, GE decided not to renew and the show was closed to remove all GE logos. After this the show reopened and continued to run without change until 1993. At that time it was rumored the Carousel of Progress would close permanently to make way for a new ride. Fortunately, the decision was made to keep it open and instead of closing, it received a refurbishment along with the rest of Tomorrowland. The show’s final scene was updated to take place in the year 2000, and once again, a new voice cast recorded an updated version of the show. Each of the 4 scenes received a specific holiday overlay, including Valentine’s Day, the 4th of July, Halloween, and Christmas. Rex Allen, who had provided the original voice of the father, was brought back in to voice the grandfather in the new version as a nice touch to honor the show’s origins. The callbacks didn’t stop there though. The original Sherman Brothers theme song was reinstated and even highlighted as part of a four minute pre-show starring Walt and the boys. This little four minute show is one of the things I love about the Carousel today, and why I associate it so much with Walt. Be sure to watch this show before entering the theater. Last but not least, the name was officially changed to Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress.
So, that is the coast to coast to coast history of the Carousel of Progress. What can you expect when you take a seat today? Check out our podcast this week for a walk through of today’s show.
Walt’s touch can be felt from the moment you watch the pre-show film, to the final line, “Tomorrow is just a dream away.” I’ve always loved the message “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow.” The optimism and hope associated with this phrase seem to fit Walt’s personality to a tee. Yet, I have discovered there is a companion message inherent in the show that also describes Walt Disney. That message, equally positive, is that now is the best time of our lives. In each scene, John the father, talks about how things have never been better. The life of the family is easier than ever before, and they are truly thankful for the conveniences provided by progress. The show’s host lives in this rarified air of contentment, excitement, and hope for what comes next. If that doesn’t describe Walt Disney I don’t know what does. Walt lived in a unique state of celebrating the accomplishments of the day, while dreaming about the possibilities of tomorrow. Doesn’t that sound like a message you want to share with your children?
Well, I hope it does. Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress is a great show for the whole family. With its high capacity there is almost never a wait. This is a great place to beat the heat or get a break from the crowds.
There are lots of little hidden jewels in the show as well. I will leave those for you to discover in your own time. Just keep an eye out for those hidden Mickeys in the final scene.
I hope I have done a good job of conveying the rich history and personal connection to Walt Disney found in this show. Next time you’re in Walt Disney World, do me a favor and check out Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. Then when you’re done, send me a message to tell me what you thought.
As always, thank you so much for joining me! Have a great week, and I hope to hear from you soon. Until then, make each day a ride worth taking!
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