‘May the century begin:’ History behind Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress

Animatronic show follows four generations as they navigate different eras of technological advancements

Exterior of Carousel of Progress, the Magic Kingdom (Disney)

BAY LAKE, Fla. – Walt Disney World has seen many great, big, beautiful tomorrows since Walt Disney debuted his audio-animatronic stage show, Carousel of Progress, at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Since then, the theme of progress continues to reign supreme for this Magic Kingdom attraction as it evolved through the years.

The Carousel of Progress, now considered a Tomorrowland treasure, got its start as an ad campaign for General Electric Co. The show expanded off of an idea initially conceived for an unbuilt Disneyland area called Edison Square, but was reconceived as a joint venture between Edison’s company, GE and WED Enterprises, now known as Walt Disney Imagineering, to fit the theme of the World’s Fair: Progress on the Move. As such, the four-act theater show at the heart of the Progressland pavilion showcased the birth, growth and future of electricity. The project’s budget ballooned from $7 million to $15 million over the course of its creation.

Concept art for Progressland - the General Electric pavilion at the New York World's Fair of 1964-65. The heart of Progressland was the original version of Carousel of Progress (Disney)

It was originally imagined as a six-act show highlighting electricity’s contributions to living. Later, it also doubled as a chance to rescue GE’s sullied reputation following a 1959 price-fixing scandal, according to a 1995 edition of “E” Ticket, a magazine devoted to collecting theme park memories.

The attraction itself follows four generations as it transports guests through the technological evolution of the 20th, and now, 21st centuries. The stage show roles included father, mother, daughter, son, grandmother, grandfather and Uncle Orville.

Walt showed off a test version of one scene of Carousel of Progress on his Sunday TV show to raise awareness for the New York World's Fair (Disney)
Walt showed off a test version of one scene of Carousel of Progress on his Sunday TV show to raise awareness for the New York World's Fair (Disney)

In “Persistence of Vision”, a scholarly publication unofficially documenting the creative legacy of Walt Disney, author Paul F. Anderson describes the four distinct eras captured in the 1964 World’s Fair version of the show: the late 1800′s (”The Pre-Electric Years”), the 1920′s (“The Early Days of Electricity”), the 1940′s (”The Beginning of the Electronic Area”), the 1960′s (”GE’s ‘Medallion Home of the 1960′s), and the future (“Gateway to Future Progress”).

Advertisements for Progressland at the 1964 World's Fair (Disney)

In the same issue, multiple collaborators on the project remember how Walt weaved his affinity for nostalgia and Midwestern values into the stage show’s vignettes.

“There was more of Walt in the Carousel of Progress show than in anything else we’ve done,” said Rear Admiral Joseph Fowler, Disney’s longtime senior vice president of engineering and construction who personally oversaw the transformation of Florida swampland into the first phase of Walt Disney World.

Imagineer and show designer Chuck Myall expressed a similar sentiment.

“It was all Walt,” Myall said. “We had writers for what the Father would say, but the anecdotes and human influences were all Walt.”

Walt showed off a test version of one scene of Carousel of Progress on his Sunday TV show to raise awareness for the New York World's Fair (Disney)

Walt also used realistic influences to capture the look of the stage show’s cast of characters, and by all accounts was extremely hands-on as the show and its animatronic cast grew ever more complex and subtle. Artists were tasked with sculpting the life-size plaster and clay figures, made up of a fiberglass and Duraflex combo. The studio would then stuff the models with audio-animatronic machinery.

“He was the best storyman, particularly on the small bits of business, and it’s the small individual things that you never forget,” said John Hench, a onetime leader of Imagineering and a Disney Legend.

Imagineer Wathel Rogers shows off an innovative programming harness for the host figure as seen on Walt's Sunday TV show (Disney)

Hench said as they were designing the script, characters and set, Walt would jump on stage and embody the characters to better encapsulate the authenticity of each narrative thread. Imagineer Wathel Rogers developed a harness to wear to help make programming the father/host easier and more lifelike, something Walt himself showed off during his Sunday evening TV show. While Abraham Lincoln was the single most advanced figure at the 1964 World’s Fair, the Carousel featured 32 figures, most human (minus the family dog, cat and a few robins). All of their movements were saved on reel-to-reel tapes that if played back over speakers would sound like a bunch of musical tones.

Walt showed off the recording equipment that played back each action of Carousel of Progress on his Sunday TV show to raise awareness for the New York World's Fair (Disney)

Speaking of music, no Disney production would be complete without a sentimental soundtrack. Famous musical duo Richard and Robert Sherman, known affectionately as the Sherman Brothers, were tasked with writing the earworm that would accompany the show.

“There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” has since become a theme park darling, not unlike Wendy, John and Michael.

“(Walt) wanted a song, something that was a certain amount of seconds, so when they moved the audience to a different stage it would coincide with the time in between the move—it was a technical job,” Robert Sherman said.

He needed a song that could transform in time and fit with the revolving show style. Walt wanted ragtime for the 1920′s, swing for the 1940′s and a Mantovani sound for the 1960′s.

Walt showed off a test version of one scene of Carousel of Progress on his Sunday TV show to raise awareness for the New York World's Fair (Disney)

“We devised a way of talking about the idea of man looking for new and better ways to live, and it was just a dream away—you know the idea of dreamers being the ones that dream up these things,” Richard Sherman said. “In a way, it was Walt’s theme song, because he was very positive about the future.”

In 1975, when the ride was rewritten and restaged during the move from Disneyland Park to Walt Disney World, they replaced the theme song with another Sherman Brothers’ jingle, “The Best Time of Your Life,” the official Disney website states.

Sheet music for "Best Time of Your Life" shows the 1970s exterior of Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World (Disney)

But nostalgia prevailed, as it often does in Walt’s world, and the original song and staging returned on Nov. 8, 1993, with the opening of the fourth and latest iteration of the attraction.

In this latest version of the Carousel of Progress, there is no electrical era based in the 1960′s envisioning our “friendly neighbor” a General Electric nuclear plant. Instead, the current “future” sees the family playing virtual reality video games and cooking Christmas dinner with self-timing ovens, all details meant to represent the 21st century. Forgive it for seeming a bit out of date with references to laserdiscs and high-def TV. DVDs weren’t even on the market yet, much less Blu-Ray or 4k.

Final scene of the 1993 -- and still current -- version of Carousel of Progress, the Magic Kingdom (Disney)

The 1993 final act is far and away the longest-lived final act of the show. The 1964 World’s Fair version ending was updated when it was relocated to Disneyland in 1967 to include a small depiction of “Progress City” out the family’s window. That was an early version of EPCOT: The City, and at Disneyland guests took an escalator to the top to see the enormous full model, part of which is seen from the Magic Kingdom’s PeopleMover.

Concept art by Dorothea Redmond of the 1960s finale with Progress City for the Carousel of Progress at Disneyland (Disney)

When Walt Disney World opened to enormous success, GE paid for the show to be shipped out East once again, hoping to reach a much larger audience. Times had changed since the 1960s. The ending was rethought almost from the ground up for the opening at Walt Disney World. The 1975 version not only featured the “Best Time of Your Life” song -- it featured the entire family, all generations, together on stage at one time with some very groovy 70s décor and -- naturally -- the latest in GE Appliances.

Construction of Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World as seen in 1974 (Disney)
Carousel of Progress family all together in the 1975 finale at Walt Disney World (Disney)
Carousel of Progress family all together in the 1975 finale at Walt Disney World (Disney)

The Florida changes were so great, Father (now known as John in the current version) was recast to actor Andrew Duggan, who came back to voice final scene updates in 1981 and minor ones in 1985, when GE ended its sponsorship. Rex Allen sang and spoke for the original 1964 and Disneyland versions of the Carousel, and is currently featured as Grandpa in the Florida final act. John is currently voiced and sung by Jean Shepherd, most famous as the narrator and author for the classic 1983 film “A Christmas Story,” which is loosely based on his childhood.

Father in the 1920s scene of Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World (Disney)

That 1993 version also features actress Janet Waldo as the feisty video-game-loving Grandma. Waldo is best known as the voice of Judy Jetson. Since 1964, Uncle Orville has been voiced by the one and only Mel Blanc -- the original voice of nearly all Warner Bros. cartoon stars: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester, Tweety, Marvin the Martian, The Road Runner, Speedy Gonzalez, Pepe Le Pew among many others. He also was the voice of the Flintstones’ Barney Rubble. Blanc originally voiced the cuckoo clock in the Carousel, and a few other odds and ends but those were re-voiced for 1993 by his son, Noel Blanc. Mel had only one other major voice for Disney: Gideon the cat in Pinocchio. Only a lone hiccup remains of his performance, as it was decided to make the character mute midway through production of the 1940 classic.

Grandpa and daughter as seen in the current final scene of Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World (Disney)

Nearly all of the animated appliance props and furnishings from the 1900s, 1920 and 1940s acts of the Carousel are not only genuine antiques, they are the same props used for the 1964 World’s Fair. The sets, backdrops, scrims and many animatronics from the first three acts are also the originals, with some modifications. The robins seen outside the 1900s window were first used in the filming of Mary Poppins. There is video of Walt with one of the birds promoting the Carousel show on his Sunday night TV series.

Walt showed off a test version of one scene of Carousel of Progress on his Sunday TV show to raise awareness for the New York World's Fair (Disney)

While nostalgia is great for those first three acts, it’s been 28 years since The Carousel of Progress, has well -- progressed. Before 1993, the largest gap has been eight years without a final scene update. That’s a long time even without GE’s sponsorship money. But, as with the advent of any electronic invention, man has a dream... and let’s hope that’s only the start for 50 more years of the Carousel of Progress. After all, it’s been breaking records daily as the longest-running stage show in the history of American theater since at least the mid-2000s.

Walt showed off a test version of one scene of Carousel of Progress on his Sunday TV show to raise awareness for the New York World's Fair (Disney)
50 Years of Disney

To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present and a peek at what’s in store for the future.

About the Authors:

Samantha started at WKMG-TV in September 2020. Before joining the News 6 team, Samantha was a political reporter for The Villages Daily Sun and has had freelance work featured in the Evansville Courier-Press and The Community Paper. When not writing, she enjoys travelling and performing improv comedy.

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.