Narratives in Cyclical Movement:

Anti-Escapism and the Unintentional Brilliance of the Carousel of Progress

“The great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Sometime in the late 1950’s eminent Disney Imagineer John Hench was in New York City. He found himself genuinely inspired after seeing the Broadway production of Thornton Wilder’s award winning stage play Our Town1. Impressed by the anecdotal dialogue and how the story flowed in absence of props or scenery, Hench became entranced with the musings of the play’s protagonist: the Stage Manager, a character who is aware of his relationship with the audience, often breaking the fourth wall. Hench saw Our Town twice more on Broadway to latch onto the charming small-town narratives, simply portrayed in front of a brick wall.

Hench suggested the play to his friend and superior Walt Disney, who attended a showing in Los Angeles. Disney enjoyed the production and was indubitably assessing the practical applications of a similar show for Disneyland. With Disneyland in its nascent stages, and still occupying the forefront of Walt Disney’s inner conscious, expansion was eminent and a plethora of new projects were being considered. Around 1958, plans were announced that Disneyland would soon be receiving a new themed area: Edison Square. Edison Square would exist as a suburb-like accessory to Main St. U.S.A. Architectural motifs from major American cities would adorn the exteriors of the building facades, creating a more accurate representation of an American Main St., expanding the scope from Walt Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri to a broader depiction of the country at the turn of the century. “Edison Square in Disneyland will dramatically present the story of the way in which one invention by Thomas A. Edison has influenced the growth and development of America…Edison Square is the story of that era: the birth, growth, development and future of electricity and General Electric products1” read Disney’s proposal to General Electric. Guests would travel through side streets positioned between Main Street U.S.A and Tomorrowland to experience the advent of electricity.

The showcase of Edison Square was to be a walk through attraction highlighted by audio-animatronic dioramas. Guests would travel from show scene to show scene on foot in groups of 125. “Harnessing the Lightning” would have featured four acts, as well as a prologue and epilogue. The show would elucidate on General Electric’s contributions to the American family, past and present, through the use of innovation. However, Edison Square never came into fruition. In 1961, General Electric was convicted along with Westinghouse, for the price fixing of electrical generators2. Two million dollars in damages were assessed and thirty G.E. officials were either put on probation or imprisoned. Along the way Edison Square was put on the shelf, but both the General Electric and Disney companies looked to forge a mutual relationship in the future.

That chance would come sooner than later with the billion-dollar enterprise that was the 1964 World’s Fair.  Flushing Meadows, New York was chosen to play host to exhibitions regarding “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” Symbolized by the now iconic, twelve story stainless steel sculpture of Earth, the Unisphere; the Fair personified the Space Age optimism of the sixties. General Electric view the far as the perfect opportunity to rebuild and rebrand their image to the public, as well as renew their partnership with the Walt Disney Company.

Disney already had invested in the fair, coupling with Ford, Pepsi, and the State of Illinois, but regarded the General Electric proposal as an opportunity. G.E. recruited Disney to show the American public how their lives have been bettered by General Electric appliances, under the guise of American history. The show would feature Disney’s state of the art audio animatronics and classic storytelling, reflecting the fair’s motif of human achievement. The pavilion would be entitled Progressland, and it would feature electricity’s role in the progression of society. The Walt Disney Company had much to gain from their involvement at the fair. Already co-branding with companies such as Pepsi and Ford, as well as the State of Illinois, Disney brilliantly used the fair as a vehicle to build public awareness about the quality of Disneyland attractions. Good corporate relationships were important to Walt Disney’s vision of an experimental city, with the understanding that funding could never derive solely from the company. Also forward thinking; the company utilized the fair to evaluate how a second park would resonate with east coast audiences. Note the cultural disconnect between the two coasts at this time: a testament to the fair’s theme of progressing in a shrinking world.

Progressland, along with the other Disney-based pavilions, proved to be very popular at the fair. It’s free admittance and its capacity of 250 per four minutes contributed to its universal approval.The Sherman Brothers-penned tune “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” became an attribute to the spirit of the fair. After the fair’s closing in 1965, plans were made to introduce the Carousel to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland revamp. General Electric’s Carousel of Progress made its debut in Disneyland in July 1967. Disneyland’s iteration capitalized on John Hench’s design for a revolving show building and the attraction continued to be well received.

The show format stayed consistent. The buildings’ six sections (four show scenes as well as a load/unload section) allowed for easy and expediency in loading guests into an intimate theater setting. The revolving ring around the show building revolutionized how a theater attraction could increase capacity and decrease wait times. When Walt Disney’s “Florida Project” was finally realized with the opening of Walt Disney World, the Carousel of Progress was uprooted from Disneyland to make way for the audio-animatronics show “America Sings” and placed in the Magic Kingdom, opening in tandem with Space Mountain.

With the move came perhaps the most changes to the Carousel show. General Electric requested a change in song to move the emphasis away from futuristic optimism, inviting guests to embrace the innovations and product offerings of today. Again, the Sherman Brothers were able to produce “Now is the Time/The Best Time of Your Life” for the show, subtly encouraging General Electric consumers to buy products today, not tomorrow.

When General Electric’s sponsorship of the attraction ended in 1985 a vast majority of the references to the company were removed. The attraction idled for almost a decade until it was refurbished to better reflect the theme and ideals of New Tomorrowland in 1994.  Renamed “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress” the 1994 update was based heavily on sentimentalism. Given the 1994 refurbishment is the most current and recognizable version of the Carousel, this is where we will limit the scope of analysis.

Guests enter the theater only to find that not much has changed since the 1964 World’s Fair. A vague flair of sixties corporatism exists with the carpeted floor and walls. Hues of blues, greens, and greys titivate the small enclosures of the Carousel theater. The lights dim and the green curtains reveal the attraction signage while out narrator, American humorist Jean Shepherd, introduces the story of the attraction. Walt Disney’s role in the attraction’s development is underscored while Shepherd boasts the show’s proud history and the overarching theme of progress.

“There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” has made its return to the attraction in tribute to the essences of Walt Disney and the 1964 edition. The virtuosity of the piece is demonstrated throughout the attraction in terms of its adaptability. The Carousel begins to spin the theater and we are greeted with a familiar show set. The father figure, voiced by Shepherd, joins in the melody as the theater locks into place. The first act has now begun, depicting a warm early spring day.

Without much prompt, save the overheard call of robins, the Father begins to speak directly to the audience. He explains the time (right around the turn of the century) and the setting (his immediate household). The Meta-commentary in place is less Jean Piaget’s “la praise de conscience,” or becoming aware of one’s consciousness, but more exhibitory in nature: such as the opening monologue in Annie Hall. The breaking of the fourth wall is the initial intermediary between the audience and the father figure. The viewer is welcomed into the family’s household and the invitation is extended from act to act.

Act One introduces most of the characters as well as the reoccurring family dynamics. The banter between family members is lighthearted, yet sometimes deviates from its guilelessness. The daughter is shocked to be revealed in her undergarments, very modest and appropriate by today’s standards, while the son is found observing a stereoscope image of the Norwegian dancer at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Yet the elementariness of the time is echoed through props like newspapers, smoking jackets, gas lamps, and iceboxes. The father concludes the scene on an anecdote about the name change from sarsaparilla to root beer, laughably attributing the change to progress.

Act Two builds on the family dynamic, changing the holiday season and the year. The act marks the meridian of the show’s Americanism, showcased by allusions to baseball, jazz music, and of course the family’s preparing for the Fourth of July parade. The dialogue finds humor with the audience through its benighted skepticism. The Father’s cynical perception about Charles Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic mirrors the previous scene in which the Father doubts the possibility of a “flying contraption.”

Act Three probably maintains the most resonance with today’s audiences, especially older audiences, given its opportunity for the recollection of memory. Fall in the forties introduces most of the appliances that grace households today. The automatic dishwasher, for example, propels the Carousel family into the age of “push button living.” Changes in entertainment mediums such as the spectacle of television are embraced yet lightly discarded as “fluff.” Opportunities for more traditional recreations like walking the dog are bred from time saved through innovation. Importantly, the family dynamic has not changed. Patricia, the daughter who craves greater freedom and self-expression, has gone and embraced the institution of college. Jimmy, the son, continues to exhibit juvenile, yet mostly endearing behavior. Sarah, the mother figure, continues to involve herself by participating in a DIY home renovation.

The fourth act of the Carousel of Progress requires special consideration. As the link between the attraction and the land, the fourth act has experienced many of the same issues that have plagued the overall effectiveness of Tomorrowland: the ability to present a futuristic setting that will not become dated. Yet the Carousel itself has to be grounded in reality for the concept to work and the sequences to mesh. On top of its thematic predicament, the Carousel has never meshed with Tomorrowland 1994’s mantra of “The Future that Never Was.”

Can a mixture between a fantastical future while grounded in reality exist in the Carousel’s fourth act? Perhaps the fourth act can mirror the 1964 World’s Fair ending with the Carousel family living in Walt Disney’s Progress City. While times have changed and there have been advancements in urban planning, Disney’s vision of a progressive city of the future has yet to fully come into fruition. Disney can join the ranks of Verne and Wells as visionaries ahead of their time. This, of course, implies that the Magic Kingdom hasn’t fully abandoned “The Future that Never Was” for Tomorrowland’s doctrine. Of which it very well could have already. Showing a city of the future set in Progress City would be a good intermediary between the progression of real life cities and the innovations (desert farming, colonies in sea and space) set by the Carousel’s “sequel:” EPCOT Center’s Horizons.

What makes the Carousel an interesting fit into the Disneyland model is its conventions against escapism. Disney’s revolutionary concept was successful because he was able to take patrons of his media and place them in immersive settings of adventure and fantasy. The Carousel of Progress doesn’t embrace this concept. In fact, it argues against it. Acceptance of “the now” and the appreciation of family values endured the attraction to Walt Disney and the millions of visitors who have experienced it.

Although technology and innovation stand in the forefront of the Carousel show, the narrative is the backbone of the attraction. The fourth act drives the theme home by featuring all of the characters (save the unseen Uncle Orville) together in a single setting, instead of only appearing when lit behind shim cloth. Reaffirming traditional family values, such as the holiday celebration is the show’s reoccurring theme. A heavy emphasis on old-school American conservatism shines through the narrative, clear evidence of Walt Disney’s influence. The Carousel family has always had a conventional family unit. There are no single mothers or fathers, stepparents, or divorces. No diversity has existed in the show either. While the Carousel does paint an American depiction, it is through a narrow lens. Not to say the optimism is blind or wrong, Theme Parks must continue to inspire and reaffirm their visitors; societal problems cannot be pushed aside.

The Carousel of Progress plays to an assured nostalgia. The 1994 iteration builds on this sentimentalism by straying away from an appliance showcase, instead filling the dialogue with reflections on shifts in culture. Advertences to World’s Fairs, Suburbanization, and civic exhibitions of patriotism reflect sentimental, yet distinctly American portraits. The Carousel script is carefully treated so the dialogue never paints the time in a negative light or tarnishes the values and themes demonstrated. This selective retention excludes World War II from the “fabulous forties.” The time periods are irrefutably viewed under the lens of nostalgia. Faulkner in Light in August describes this phenomenon: “Memory believes before knowing remembers.”

Without Walt Disney’s heavy influence on the attraction’s development it is probably safe to say that the Carousel would probably be a defunct entity. Shepherd’s introduction recollects Walt Disney’s love for the attraction, watching the American family progress through the years under the vehicle of innovation. It is not difficult to determine why Walt loved the Carousel of Progress so dearly. In some ways the Carousel is a loose allegory for his life and times. Born at the turn of the century, experiencing struggles, growth, and change while retaining optimism and traditionalism, Walt Disney and his family lived through the show scenes portrayed. Act IV of the 1964 World’s Fair show was Disney’s literal and intended vision.

In each act of the Carousel of Progress, the characters truly believe that they are living in the best time period yet. The Carousel is supposed to reaffirm guests that Act IV, the future, will be just as good, or better, as the now. But here is where the Carousel of Progress is unintentionally brilliant. The outdatedness of Act IV with its talk of car phones and laser discs date the act in the past. As guests exit the Carousel theater, the common perception is that they have seen four historical tableaus, not a scene of the future. It is at this point where the Carousel reaffirms a common theme: the technological advancements of today have truly made living in the now a singular experience.

Wilder’s Our Town concludes with the character of Emily Webb realizing the merits of a nostalgia appreciation for everyday life and the human condition. The Carousel of Progress echoes this, insisting that while innovation and change may occur, the future is optimistic and values will stay the same. The future of the attraction is unknown. In the fourth act in the kitchen a post-it note exists reading “Marty Called, Wants Changes,” a more than likely reference to former Walt Disney Imagineering President Marty Sklar. Eventually, the irony around an outdated show about progress will need to be addressed. The attraction’s staying power has relied on its nostalgic importance as well as the show’s reaffirmation through anti-escapism, but changes or removal are certainly imminent at some point. But of course, that’s progress.

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References

 1. John Hench, Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show, (New York City: Disney Editions, 2003), 10.

2. Lawrence Salinger, Encyclopedia of White-Collar & Corporate Crime, Volume 1, (SAGE, 2004), 94.