Some of my favorite Attractions of all time are the Audio-Animatronic extravaganzas Disney were producing from the ’60s through the ’80s. They were the type of things you couldn’t find anywhere else. Some of these are still around — Pirates of the Caribbean, Spaceship Earth, and Carousel of Progress, to name a few — but most of them have been replaced by bigger, faster, and oftentimes cheaper thrill rides. Of those remaining, Carousel of Progress is one of the only ones Walt Disney himself saw through to completion.
Debuting at the 1964 New York World’s Fair alongside other A-A classics such as Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Ford Magic Skyway, and of course, “it’s a small world”, the Carousel of Progress was — as the current show describes it — “an immediate smash hit.” The show depicted a “typical American family” as they progressed through the 20th century in four scenes: late-1890s/early 1900s, the ’20s, the ’40s, and the present/not-too-distant future. It was clever, funny, relatable, and educational (and not a bad advertisement for its sponsor, General Electric).
Progress moved to Disneyland after the fair, where it received a new post-show, and continued to draw crowds in the decade that followed. When Walt Disney World needed more Attractions for its barren Tomorrowland, the Carousel was packed up and relocated to the Florida park. During the move, it was given new dialog, an updated last scene, and a whole new theme song to reflect the sponsor’s new focus.
Another decade gave us another new finale, and the loss of GE’s sponsorship. The show received very few changes for a while, save for removing mentions of GE, and the once futuristic final scene became passé as technology met and surpassed what the Carousel depicted. Finally, as part of the Magic Kingdom’s “New Tomorrowland” project in the mid ’90s, a new Carousel was produced for a new generation. Building off of the existing sets and A-A figures, this version was fresher, funnier, and brought back the song from the original World’s Fair and Disneyland. The last scene fit the atmosphere of both the show and New Tomorrowland perfectly, showcasing up-and-coming technologies such as voice-operated appliances, cellular phones — “not to mention ‘laser discs’ and ‘hi-def TVs’.”
That was nearly twenty years ago…
Nowadays, we all carry voice-operated, hi-def, cellular phones everywhere we go, and those laser discs have evolved into DVDs, HD-DVDs, and now Blu-rays. We don’t put recipes “on memory” anymore, we save them to a digital Cloud. Video games look almost lifelike now, you rarely score points, and virtual reality was a flop. And with the internet being a booming market at the time of the last revision, you’d think they might’ve mentioned it, but nope.
But that’s not even the worst offense of the oft-refurbished, never-updated, current version of the Carousel. You see, when the show premiered, it depicted time periods which Walt, and many other Americans at the time, would have remembered. There was the turn of the century for the grandparents, the Roaring Twenties for the parents, the Frantic Forties for the soon-to-be’s, and a glimpse at the future for everyone. Today, there’s hardly a person alive who remembers the ’20s, let alone the aughts. Three-fourths of the show’s story takes place in what is now the distant past. That’s bad enough, but now we have a finale that takes place in the “not-too-distant future” of two decades ago, leaving a fifty-plus year gap in between scenes 3 and 4.
It is well past time the Imagineers addressed these issues. If the Carousel is going to continue turning for future guests, it needs to get up-to-date, and fast. This would be a pricey endeavor for what is generally considered a sleeper of an Attraction, but Progress has a decent-sized and devoted fan base, and introducing a new show to today’s generation of park-goers could only boost its popularity. So what can they do?
Well, fix the time gap problem, for starters. There are two ways they can do this. The first would be to turn the clock ahead a few decades. The last scene should be in the foreseeable future, so set that in the 2020s. In keeping with the twenty-year gap between the scenes, that would set the rest of the show in the ’60s, ’80s, and 2000s. Those are all interesting and groundbreaking time periods, each with their own unique look and sound, and think of the possible references they could make:
In the ’60s, the father could talk about events like the British Invasion, the space program, color TV, and even the World’s Fair. The daughter could reflect the social and cultural changes of the time periods, being depicted here as a tie-dye wearing, peace-sign flashing hippie-chick, maybe getting ready for a rock concert instead of a trolley party. The younger son could show a more innocent side of the era, being a fan of The Osmonds, Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, and maybe (through Disney’s ownership of ABC) even Batman. The mother could be one of those new-fangled working moms, trying to juggle the responsibilities of home and a job outside of the house.
The father of the ’80s could mention new advancements in technology — like the home computer, video cassette recorder, and cellular phones — crack jokes about “that B-movie actor from the forties” being in the White House, and proclaim his pride in America “winning” the Cold War. Might even be worth mentioning that new park Disney built in Florida — can’t remember the name of it, but it sounds like something Walt talked about years ago… some kind of city. The daughter in this scene could be a pop princess, with wild hair and fluorescent clothes, Walkman on her hip, and Michael Jackson poster on her bedroom wall. Star Wars and video games would be the big things for the son these days. That new “Entertainment System” has taken over the den. Mother would be a full-time professional now, leaving the household chores for father to do in his spare time. And then, of course, there’s old Uncle Orville, who has crashed the family’s house to use their new indoor spa tub.
The turn of a new century marks a surprising departure from the home of the future we were shown fifty years ago. Everything is retro now, including the cars. Those huge, bulky cell phones of the ’80s have made way for pocket-sized mobile phones, which everybody seems to have. The internet is now coming into people’s homes, and it’s faster than ever. In fact, the daughter now uses the internet to download all of her music, and she carries it all on something called an MP3 player… but she keeps tying up the phone line! The son is still into Star Wars and video games, but the new ones with all the 3D graphics. And he uses the internet to play games with kids around the world! Mother works from home now, allowing her to help out around the house, while Father has become a stay-at-home dad, something unthinkable in the ’60s.
As for the 2020s and beyond… I’ll leave that for the Imagineers to decide.
Earlier, I mentioned two options for rebuilding the Carousel from scratch. The other would be to keep the first scene in the early 1900s, but space out the scenes by 40-50 years instead of 20. This would allow them to keep some of the pre-electricity gags, while addressing the issue of the timespan from the third to the fourth scene.
Many of these concepts would only require new dialog and redressing existing scenes. A new sponsor (maybe Siemens?) could help pick up the tab for the renovations, but I think Disney’s doing well enough now — especially with Marvel Studios releasing hit after hit and New Fantasyland drawing record crowds — that they could probably afford to set aside a suitable budget for the project. Iger seems more willing to spend money on worthwhile endeavors than Eisner was anyway.
With The Enchanted Tiki Room and Country Bear Jamboree seeing significant cuts to runtimes and operating hours, it would be a shame to lose yet another Disney Park classic to the chopping block, especially one to which Walt Disney himself had devoted so much passion. The Carousel of Progress is a priceless and irreplaceable piece of Disney history that deserves to be treated with the same TLC Disney has put into other staged Audio-Animatronic shows like The Hall of Presidents and The American Adventure. Maybe then, we’ll start to see some real progress.