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Wednesdays with Wade: A not-so-beautiful tomorrow for the Carousel of Progress

Wednesdays with Wade: A not-so-beautiful tomorrow for the Carousel of Progress

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I was recently solicited by two charming young college girls.

 

No, it's not want you think.

These two lovely young ladies had contacted me -- along with several other prominent Disney historians like Dave Smith, Jim Korkis and Paul Anderson -- with the hope that we'd then sign their save the "Carousel of Progress" petition.

So why are these college girls (Who weren't even born when the first three versions of "Carousel of Progress" entertained guests) so passionate about saving an attraction that has been rumored to be on the chopping block for the last five years? Perhaps it was Melissa Kratish (Who writes a column at www.mickeynews.com) who best summarized the situation when she wrote:

"Wanting to preserve the magic that I grew up with, I found myself as one of those people always petitioning against the closure of classic attractions such as 'Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,' 'The World of Motion' and 'Dreamflight!' When my all time favorite attraction, 'Horizons,' permanently closed its doors in 1999, I went into a state of shock! Granted, I was only thirteen, but I remember whining like a maniac to my mother, expressing the concern of my future children, my children’s children, and so on and so forth, never being able to experience the magic and wonder of 'Horizons.' "

Why 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," asserted Marty Sklar.

 

"When we were designing the thing, Walt couldn't resist getting up and doing the work himself," explained John Hench. "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% 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 a prominent showcase for 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.

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" with guest walking through four theaters to trace the development and value of electricity located on the other side of Main Street but that never developed further than an intriguing proposal. 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 move d as the carousel theater rotates from scene to scene and amazingly the light patterns on the roof mimic that same movement.

At the entrance to Progressland, a moving walkway takes 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 is a sixty-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 1880 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 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.")

"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 is 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 finishes with fierce electrical storms overhead, leaping flames and a sky full of spinning atoms. The exit ramp takes 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 are changing the world.

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 for the Ford Motor Skyway 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. In fact, the final act of "Carousel of Progress" was re-designed to show the family living in Epcot. (Ever notice the 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.

The Carousel Theater building remained in Disneyland. From 1974 to 1988, the bottom level housed an attraction themed to the Bicentennial entitled "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 model still can be seen if you take the Tomorrowland Transit Authority that us old fogies still refer to as the "PeopleMover.")

Also gone was the song, "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" (which Richard and Robert Sherman actually began 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 "Now is the Best Time of Your Life." (Also, since Rex Allen, the original voice of the father hadn't done anything for Disney for ten years but had narrated Hanna-Barbera's animated feature "Charlotte's Web" 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 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 "Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" could be heard in the show as yet another audio-animatronics family revealed the future to Disney guests.)

It 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, and author Jean Shepherd (of "A Christmas Story" fame) as the father and good ol' Rex Allen brought back to record the voice of the grandfather in the final scene. The final scene of course was updated to sixty years in the future from the 1940s where Grandma can 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 now join Christmas. The show now starts with one turn of the century and ends 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 closed for good. (So much so that John Lasseter dropped by for a private viewing fearing it would be the last time he would see the show.)

Jacob Addison runs one of the best sites devoted to the attraction (www.carouselofprogress.com) and may have been the first person to start a "Save the Carousel" campaign. He 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 1960's television shows and would "zap!" 1960's 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.

Sincerely,

Martin A. Sklar

If you are interested in even more history about the "Carousel of Progress" I would suggest you checking out Dave O'Neal's extinct attractions club. that has just produced several discs devoted to the attraction. Disney fans Kim Eggink and Jerry Edwards just sent me some of the Extinct Attractions DVDs as a gift and one of them was the history of "Carousel of Progress".

I'll be honest and say that in the past I have always been cautious ordering ever since Dave heartbreakingly broke a promise to my now-deceased parents back when he was doing these on videotape and that ordering some of his first DVDs, I did not see much quality control and received DVDS with fingerprints and scratches on the discs and some of the discs being unplayable, constantly freezing. However, watching the history of the "Carousel of Progress" DVD, I will say that I am impressed that he is preserving the stories of some of the still surviving Disney Legends, that the production quality is high, that the research is accurate and that the DVD had no problems playing on my machine. I can see why Imagineers and even the Disney Archives are grabbing copies of the DVDs he is currently producing.

As for Kat and Ellen's petition, I signed it willingly although I believe that the "Carousel of Progress" is due for another "re-imagining" to really make it a tribute to Walt's original vision. However, I did tell the ladies that in my personal experience that petitions have less effect than individual letters written in a professional and polite manner. The rule of thumb at the Disney Company is that every letter they receive means that there might be a hundred more people who feel the same way but didn't take the time or know where to send the letter. I was much older than Melissa when "Horizons" closed and I now regret I didn't send a letter letting Disney know I would have preferred them keeping that attraction open than installing one that makes me ill.

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