The Carousel of Progress was originally built by Disney for the World’s Fair in New York in 1964. Sponsored by the General Electric Company, the Carousel consisted of a groundbreaking revolving theatre featuring an audio-animatronic show that celebrates the evolution of technology. When the World’s Fair was complete, Disney spent several years installing the attraction in Tomorrowland at Disneyland Park. After a seven year run in California, the attraction moved to Magic Kingdom at Disney World, and has now been entertaining Florida visitors for decades.
History of the Carousel
Walt Disney and General Electric had previously discussed an electricity-based attraction to be added to Main Street at Disneyland, but that project never came to fruition. Instead, General Electric approached Disney about collaborating on an exhibit for the World’s Fair. The result was one of the finest early efforts in audio animatronics as well as a revolving theater that was nearly as progressive as much of the technology that the show celebrates.
For previous audio animatronic attractions such as the Enchanted Tiki Room, a single set was sufficient for the entire show. But for the Carousel of Progress, Disney needed multiple sets in which to portray several acts. Since audio animatronic actors can‘t exit the stage and change the scenery, Disney knew that they needed to create separate stages for each of their acts as we view scenes from different time periods.
Innovative Rotating Theater
This meant that either the audience or the stage needed to move in order to reveal different parts of the stage. They realized that it would be cumbersome to have the audience move and re-seat themselves at the end of each act. They also felt that have the audience stand during the performance and walk to the different stages would be uncomfortable for guests during the long show. To solve these challenges, Disney Imagineers decided to seat the audience in a revolving auditorium. Not only did this allow the audience to transition effortlessly form stage to stage, it also allowed the attraction to constantly load and unload the theatre as different sections of the audience reached the end of the show.
The unique Carousel Of Progress building houses the rotating theater.
Walt Was Personally Involved
Walt Disney was closely involved with each stage of the planning and realization of the Carousel of Progress, and the attraction was reputedly one of his favorites at Disneyland. The show suffered from low attendance in the early 1970s, and Disney and General Electric decided to move the show to Florida where it could play for a new population.
Claims To Fame
As a result of this history, the Carousel of Progress has several claims to fame that make it stand out from the rest of the Walt Disney World fare. It is the oldest Disney built attraction at Disney World, and is also the only Disney World attraction to which Walt Disney himself personally contributed. Finally, the Carousel of Progress has become the longest running stage show in history.
The original version of the Carousel of Progress showcased an American family and their home throughout various decades spanning the 1890s to the 1960s. Four different acts showed the family in different parts of the century as they adjusted to the arrival of new technology. The show is narrated by the character of the father, and features a theme song composed by the legendary Sherman brothers. Since the attraction was sponsored by General Electric for many years, the technology products featured throughout the show were from the GE brand.
The first act takes place in the late 1890s on Valentine’s day. The father sits in the living room talking about the new innovations that are changing their lives. Thomas Edison is working on electric lights to power every home, the Wright Brothers are trying to invent a flying machine (the father is convinced it will never work), and the daughter is about to leave to meet her boyfriend on one of the new horseless trolleys.
The story follows an American family across time.
In the 1920’s, we see the mother sewing 4th of July costumes by the light of a new electric lamp on the porch. The father talks about the new electric starter in his car, and how steam trains now allow you to get from New York to Los Angeles in only three days. We see their brand new fridge and freezer, and the son listens to music on their new radio. The first talking motion picture is about to be released, and Charles Lindbergh is going to attempt his solo flight across the Atlantic (the father is convinced he will never make it).
The show then moves to the 1940s, where father talks about joining the “rat race” and commuting to work, after which he can enjoy watching television. He is also a big fan of their new automatic dishwasher that gives him free time to walk the dog. The daughter tries to talk one of her friends into attending college, while the mother paints the new “rumpus” room.
In the final act we have jumped all the way to Christmastime in the year 2000, as it was imagined by Disney Imagineers in 1994. The son is teaching grandma how to play is new virtual reality game, while the mother programs all of their electronic devices to obey voice commands. Grandpas reminisces about the way things used to be, while the rest of the family wonders what will come next.
The show has appeared in the Worlds Fair, Disneyland, and Disney World.
Changes Over Time
Disney has never explained the exact chronology and identity of the family portrayed in the show. Over the years the characters age very little in spite of the decades that pass. It is unclear whether the family shown is meant to be different in each act, or whether they represent a kind of prototypical American family that exists in an ageless bubble. For many years, Disney did not even reveal the names of the characters in the show.
The show has been updated many times throughout the years to reflect the passage of time. The final scene in particular has been redone repeatedly to show the family in the most current decade. Currently, this means the family takes a huge jump forward in time from 1940 to 2000. However, there is no way to add in additional decades to the Carousel of Progress without completely redesigning the theatre.