Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress is a nostalgic look at how electricity and technology improved the lives of an American family over the course of the 20th century. It’s a classic for a reason, and we’ll tell you why. If you want to go back through time with us, keep reading; otherwise, skip to the nuts and bolts with this shortcut.
1. It takes you around in circles.
The Carousel of Progress focuses on the introduction of electricity into the lives of the American family. Presented in four different acts, each is set in a different decade at the time of a different holiday. John, the father of the family, acts as your host. In each act, he holds forth about daily life and how technology – and the appliances and inventions it inspired – has made life better. You’ll also meet Sarah, the mother; Patricia, the daughter; James, the son; Grandpa and Grandma; and Uncle Orville. All family members add to the discussion from time to time.
What sets this apart from other audio-animatronic presentations at Walt Disney World is the venue. The audience sits in a 240-seat theatre that rotates around the stage, stopping for each scene. The entire presentation lasts about 21 minutes, making it a great place to rest during a long day at the park, while being entertained and maybe even educated.
2. It takes you back through time.
Act One of the Carousel of Progress takes place around Valentine’s Day, in the early 20th century. (To be exact, our research points to Thursday, February 14, 1901, on a farm outside Arkansas City, Kansas.) You’ll be introduced to gas lamps, an icebox, and a cast-iron coal stove.
Act Two is set on the 4th of July around 1927; it puts the spotlight on the radio and electric lights.
Act Three occurs sometime in the late 1940s near Halloween; here is the first time you see television plus the new refrigerator and automatic dishwasher.
Act Four is allegedly a “contemporary” Christmas, but the references to things like car phones and “a whole new century waiting for us” are not-so-subtle clues that the script hasn’t been updated in over 25 years.
Overall, it’s fair to say that the script illustrates Walt Disney’s optimistic view of the future made better through innovation. It’s a great reminder of how Walt looked at the world, and as such, may even inspire you to view our world through the lens of possibilities today.
3. There’s history behind this trip through history.
In the early 1960’s, Walt Disney wanted to create a show illustrating the impact that electricity had on the daily life of an American family. He intended to stage this in Edison Square, an expansion to Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. When the idea for Edison Square was abandoned, the idea of the show lingered. It finally came to fruition for the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York City, sponsored by – you guessed it – General Electric. Called Progressland, it was a huge hit with visitors, thanks to the innovative rotating theater and audio-animatronics. Here’s how Walt himself described what he was trying to do.
When the fair ended, the show was moved to Disneyland. There, it became a two-level pavilion, with the show on the first level, and a model of Progress City (Walt’s original concept for EPCOT) on the second level. General Electric remained the sponsor.
In time, at GE’s request, the Carousel of Progress was moved from Disneyland to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. It opened on the same day as Space Mountain, January 15th, 1975. A new carousel theater was built, this time as a one-story pavilion with a loft above. (The loft allows the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover to pass above the attraction.)
The Progress City model was disassembled and only portions of it were re-assembled in Florida. You can see these through a window on the PeopleMover. A new Sherman Brothers theme song was introduced, “The Best Time of Your Life,” and a few minor modifications to the show were made.
Since moving to the Magic Kingdom, the attraction has been updated in 1981, 1985, and 1993. It was renamed in 1993 to “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress,” and the original theme song, “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” was restored. Lastly, in 2022, audio-animatronics in the final scene received new wardrobes to update their look, but the script was not changed.
4. It’s a Carousel of Secrets.
When the animatronics in Act Four got their wardrobe updated in 2022, the Imagineers snuck in a few Easter eggs!
- Patricia now wears a sweater from the “Progress Tech School of Urban Planning.” This is an indirect reference to Progress City, the model city of the future that Walt had in mind when he was developing EPCOT.
- James, is wearing a quarter-zip with a logo on it. The logo shows a mountain, snowflake, and the sun, which may be inspired by the Mineral King Ski Resort, another idea of Walt’s that was later abandoned. (A different theory is that the logo calls to mind the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride at Disneyland.)
- John’s apron reads “My Food Rocks.” This is a nod to the now-closed EPCOT attraction Food Rocks, another musical audio-animatronics stage show that ran from 1994 to 2004.
- On the white board by Sarah’s desk, the flight information for Grandpa and Grandma’s visit is visible. Their flight number seems to be 1964, the year the audio-animatronic grandma was flown out east to the original Carousel of Progress at the World’s Fair.
- Also in the final scene are four hidden Mickeys, the most obvious under the tree.
But my favorite Carousel of Progress secret is this one. There’s a scene in Iron Man 2 where Tony Stark promotes the “Stark Expo”, a fictional version of the World’s Fair. The original Carousel of Progress building can be seen on the map of the Stark Expo 2010 website as the Kodak Pavilion. (Super cool extra secret: Richard Sherman also wrote the Stark Expo’s theme song, “Make Way for Tomorrow Today.”)
5. The Nuts and Bolts.
Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress is located in Tomorrowland next to Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin and across from the entrance to the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover. The queue for the Carousel of Progress is a sloped ramp up to the entrance. There are overhead monitors that explain a bit about the show’s history and significance. As an indoor attraction, the weather doesn’t affect the show’s operation. However, guests waiting for the next show stand outside and may be exposed to the elements, although there is a roof overhead.
Carousel of Progress handles big crowds effectively, making it a great option for busier times of day – especially when it’s hot and humid. In my experience, it’s nearly always a walk-on and the only wait you’ll have is waiting for the next show to begin.
There are no height requirements and no health restrictions for the Carousel of Progress. In order to make it possible for everyone to enjoy the show, handheld captioning, video captioning. assistive listening, and audio description are all available. Guests may remain in their wheelchairs or ECV.
Carousel of Progress doesn’t offer Lightning Lane entry via Genie+. If you’re an early bird, Carousel of Progress is open for Early Theme Park Entry, but it’s not a great use of your Early Entry time.
The Bottom Line.
We visit the Carousel of Progress every time we’re at Walt Disney World. Our surveys make clear it’s a favorite of seniors, a category I fall into. True, the last scene always seems to need updating. And because of its age, we’ve sometimes seen operational glitches. with the same dialogue and songs repeating an extra time or two. We think of it as extra time in the AC, and it’s also a great spot to rest or grab a quick nap! Maybe the most compelling reason to visit is this: Carousel of Progress displays Walt’s optimistic vision of a better future through technology and industry. If you’re at all interested in the man behind the mouse, this show is a must-see.
Have you visited the Carousel of Progress? Which act is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!