Towards a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow
The Capitalist Manifesto of Disney’s Carousel of Progress
The atomic-powered confidence of 1964 came vacuum sealed at the New York World’s Fair — a grand celebration of the energy-rich future “just a dream away.” The fair’s seemingly vapid optimism, now fifty years in the past, offers a trove of critique not just in its design and function, but its underlying and seldom discussed theme, that of progress through limitless capitalism. The fair’s centerpiece, a commission by Walt Disney himself, showcased the history of electric technology with fervent zeal. His attraction, “The Carousel of Progress,” portrays the great history of electric power as seen through the wide eyes of an all-American family. For the 21st century viewer, the majority of the fair seems oddly mummified — frozen like a time capsule with the aspirations and nostalgia of the 1964 American mind. Indeed, much of the expo was immediately retired as resources dwindled and exhibits became obsolete.
The Carousel of Progress, however, is an exception. Today it still happily rotates in its counter-clockwise loop (this time in Orlando). Despite the apparent anachronism of such an attraction today, its central ideology of technological betterment through capital has largely remained unchanged in the intervening half-century. The Carousel of Progress, then and now, is a cultural artifact on how corporatization changed the means in which we measure time. It’s an attraction that keeps itself relevant — a statement that rings just as true today as it did in 1964.
Much like the attraction’s central theme, a strive for domestic perfection was Disney’s unattainable goal.
In fact, Walt’s disdain of amusement park culture is exactly what propelled him to design a theme park devoid of all midways, dark corners, and deviant carneys. His circular creation, Disneyland, provided America with “proper” (read: corporate) entertainment sanitized for familial convenience. The result is a decontaminated representation of America — a seemingly fortressed utopia from a fearful post-WWII world. Robert Venturi notes, as with all utopias, the Disney parks are “protected environments” that shield visitors from the chaotic and unsafe world beyond their railroaded berms. In the words of the impresario himself, “Disneyland is a place where you can’t get lost.”
The strangely user-friendly design opens with a squeaky-clean version of Walt’s Missouri hometown: Main Street USA. At the end of the street, the park’s center, visitors can venture off into the perpetually blooming jungles of Adventureland, the rusty brown mesas of Frontierland, or the bavarian villages of Fantasyland. As suggested by writer Ian Kay, the theme of Disneyland is the childhood of Walt Disney — a meditation on turn-of-the-century literary genres: the jungle adventure, the western, and the revitalized European folktale. These themed areas are still believable to visitors because they were created to look like dated fictional settings. Thus, Disneyland is a park of timeless escapism. Its themed lands appear perennially realistic precisely because they never actually existed.
To the far right of the park map we find a notable exception to Disney’s perennial realism. The futuristic Tomorrowland, the final “land” to be constructed, stands separate from the rest of the park’s fictional worlds. No other themed area has seen nearly as much radical change since its 1955 debut. While the jungle adventure and western genres had lost significant popularity by the 1950s, America’s sense of optimism about the future only seemed to grow. Over the remaining two decades of Disney’s life, Tomorrowland evolved with the world around it. After the Apollo missions of 1969, the “Trip to the Moon” attraction was retired. At the onset of home computing, Tomorrowland demolished the Monsanto-sponsored “House of the Future.” The joy of Tomorrowland is clearly not in its accuracy, but its seemingly timeless optimism. While the predicted 21st century lifestyles of post-WWII Hollywood could not be further from the truth, their vision to this day fools millions of tourists into believing in a future of flying cars and robotic servants.
By the 1964 World’s Fair, Disneyland was enjoying its presence as Americana capital and further established the United States as the world’s factory of popular culture. Walt Disney became a figurehead of the fairgrounds not only as a creative producer, but as an American delegate to an international smorgasbord of attractions. From its commission, The Carousel of Progress seemed an impossibly ambitious project in both technical and thematic realms. While today’s audiences might find it difficult to recognize the attraction as a feat of engineering, the building itself became the expo’s postcard marvel. After entering the circular structure, visitors would sit aboard a movable floor. To the surprise of the audience, they — and not the sets — revolved counter-clockwise through four large dioramas. Each of these tableaux would showcase technology from 1890, 1920, 1940, and all the way into a futuristic 1980. As predicted, the ride was an instant success, and its theme tune “A Great Big, Beautiful Tomorrow” felt like a promise to the 3,000 children that cycled through the ride every hour. Millions left the fair with the song still in their heads, duly convinced that corporate innovation was soon to satisfy the United States of her wildest desires.
This promise is built on an assumption that visitors were dissatisfied with the present, a theme echoed in multiplicities around the fairground. Cultural critics began using the term “retrofuturism” to describe the lukewarm feelings of mediocrity the World’s Fair tried so desperately to break free from. Divorcing itself from the military advancements of the recent war and the architectural models of Art Deco, the World’s Fair positioned its attractions as fantastic escapism and, counterintuitively, scientific truth.
Designing such a space is quite challenging, as a futuristic environment must appear one step ahead from the contemporary vernacular. For example, the Streamline Moderne architecture of the 1939 World’s Fair looked shockingly dated by 1964. Disney’s Tomorrowland is no stranger to waning believability — its design has suffered dramatically from the necessity of being slightly prochronistic of the architectural vernacular. Its appearance has changed with virtually every decade: from industrial, to institutional, streamline, futurist, and everything from neomodern to postmodern. The retrofutures of Tomorrowland continually look ahead, in a constant rejection of contemporary ideologies.
But in an uncharacteristically Disney move, the Carousel of Progress chooses to diverge from this model. The ride takes a bold stance against escapism and encourages a sense of satisfaction with the present. This divergence is not only key for its initial success, but is the very reason the attraction can still attract a crowd. Instead of actors on stage, Disney introduced the fair to Audio Animatronics, android actors that would end up trademarking Disneyland’s novel “cinema of attractions” effect. Instead of stagehands moving sets in and out, theatergoers would gasp in amazement as the audience itself moved. Seats revolved around four central stages allowing Disney to deliver the show to audiences at record pace. The mechanized, almost industrial techniques employed by the ride vehicles seem to treat the audience like a manufactured commodity. The ride’s design necessitated a regimented length for each scene (exactly four minutes), likening the carousel experience to a trip down an assembly line. Disney encourages his visitors to fall in love with the efficiency of mechanization, and promises the succinctness and trustworthiness of an electric life that runs by routine.
As visitors pass through each of the four scenes, they meet an extended family ruled by our animatronic protagonist, Mr. Tom Morrow. As we progress through the century, their technology changes while the family remains as youthful as they ever were. Each of the scenes, associated with a season of the year, provides a quaint and simplistic metaphor for technological development. Morrow celebrates the ease and simplicity of the modern era, initially praising such developments as gas lamps, gramophones, and hand-cranked washing machines. “Things could not get any better!” he proclaims, before bursting into song and catapulting the audience forward twenty years. “I’m thrilled with my new dishwasher!” the mother proudly declares. With yet another automated chore, she now has the time to take part in a “garden club, a literary society, a ladies bowling league…” The audience, encouraged to sing along to the great anthem of modernity, are lulled into a state of animatronic bliss.
This corporate influence on the fairground did not go unnoticed. After Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress expo, European critics started to discuss how the World’s Fair futures had become “distinctly American.” By the 1930s, American World’s Fairs started to represent the increasing economic and imperial power of the United States, focused on imperializing the future “as an extension of American corporate capitalism.” The Carousel of Progress makes this shift somewhat literal, conflating technological betterment with America’s growing influence. Its sense of nationalism in a caucasian upper-middle class family serves as a proxy for development. This sense of patriotism underlies the motion of the carousel, glorifying American achievements and localized capital. The retrofutures of the 1940s appear as technocratic fantasies, conflating advanced engineering with western governments and corporate entities. These were both institutions intended to be trusted by the public, as they were the very source of such futuristic dreams. Thus, the Disnification of American culture began to appear shockingly similar to pro-corporate propaganda: a glorification of the power of industry.
Unlike the dissatisfaction that birthed the futurist movement, the Carousel of Progress seemingly tells a different story. Tom Morrow’s stance on technology is not one of discomfort, but one of boyish enthusiasm. His perpetual acceptance of the present in 1890, 1920, and so forth continually excite us because we understand which aspects of his life are uncomfortable. We mock the hand-cranked washing machine despite the ease of convenience it presents the Morrow household. As he mentions “the two crazy Ohio boys trying to build a flying machine,” we cannot help but chuckle at his close-mindedness.
The viewer can watch the family’s excitement over a Model T car, yet also marvel at how painstakingly inefficient the device is by modern standards. Likewise, we can understand the “time saving activities” afforded by these devices, yet question why our futuristic society has so little leisure time. We, after all, have hectic lives despite never having used a hand-cranked washer. By the 1940s, Morrow makes the same proclamations and remains perpetually stuck in the admiration of the present and rejection of a more accessible future. Our protagonist is continually satisfied, though we never see his life appear any less busy. Rather, he literally cannot think of ways his life could improve — he does not forecast the needs for a dishwasher, electric lightbulb, or home computer. Such an attitude might as well be the slogan of corporate capitalism, implying that the consumer has needs they are not even aware of. Thanks to the magic of manufacturing, however, those needs will be discovered by industry before being resolved through automation.
The automation of the appliances is heavily highlighted through the also-automated family. By the 1960 tableau, the mother seems particularly enthralled at how many colors her General Electric appliances come in rather than their actual function. Such aesthetic changes reflect the morphing household, from the visible water pipes and candles in the first diorama to the electric lights and hidden plumbing in the third act that (masking the unsightly workings of an otherwise perfect lifestyle). The wonder of hidden automation intrinsic to the Disney design philosophy is well-articulated by the audio animatronics. For several critics, it seemed odd that Disney would bother inventing robots (an expensive yet low-resolution emulation of a human) to do the job of an actor (lifelike by definition and no cost to develop). To me, the public demonstration of such robotic technologies exists to gild the attraction’s central premise. Furthermore, it adds a sense of reflexivity to the user experience.
The carousel demonstrates that modern technology is so advanced, it can literally speak to you about its self-importance. For this reason, the uncanny movements of Tom Morrow actually aid the thesis of the ride. They communicate a sense of verisimilitude: a futuristic robot that behaves as people expect, not as they are. A completely humanistic animatronic would fail at such a task, as it would draw attention away from its own technological medium.
The roboticism of the characters does not change throughout the ride, but oddly enough, our perceptions of them do. Especially for the modern viewer, Tom Morrow’s quirky motions look immediately comical in the first act but become gradually less intrusive as the ride continues. We actually suspend our disbelief as the tableaux progress, and begin to see the family as less robotic and more human. This is a characteristic of the Carousel of Progress that is definitely unintentional and usually goes uncommented on, but provides an almost Adorno-esque interpretation of the ride itself. We become accustomed to the inhuman actions of the family because we too have become social animatrionics. In the same way the audience is not phased by the telephone or the electric light, they are not remotely bothered by the robotic family. Just like that, we have entered the carousel. We accept the animatronics as living, feeling entities and begin to empathize with their likelihoods. The attraction meditates on our insatiable need for automation and our desires to be as characteristically perfect as the Morrows. We too strive to be perfect automatons, living perfect lives, and moving in mathematically-precise strides towards a great big beautiful tomorrow.
In the ride’s final scene, we find our family in a diorama of a make-believe future. The tableau (in the original 1964 script) predicts life in the 1980s, complete with speaking television sets (“with a home video recorder!”), electronic computers, and the oddest addition: a voice-activated oven. Even for World’s Fair viewers, the last scene was met with a bit of ridicule. For the 21st century audience, we laugh at how outdated the predictions seem and remark how incredible life is in the present when compared to Disney’s predictions. Leaving the ride, the visitors actually adopt Tom Morrow’s attitudes — we marvel at our cell phones, the World Wide Web, and laugh at the notion of a voice-activated oven. Kay interprets this as a visceral reminder that in the future, the audience will marvel at how much their lives have improved. While the purpose of escapism is to divert the audience from real life, the Carousel of Progress actively encourages its viewers to celebrate the present. It draws attention to the stark differences between a ’64 retrofuture and the “true” future, showing how industry will inevitably take care of future problems we may not even realize we have.
One great analogy for retrofuture evolution is the ride’s circular shape. The attraction is not just a wheel; it represents an endless recursion despite the initial theme of teleological progress: “a unilateral move forward, out, and up.” As we exit the ride and remark at the outlandishness of the final scene, we subtly realize that the show will obsessively return to the 1890s. “No matter how much progress is made, a secondary meaning of the shape of the Carousel of Progress could be that everything old is new again.” In the technocratic future, we will still see the same patterns that emerged at every other stage of the carousel. The audience and Tom Morrow will always be satisfied, yet we can find excitement in imagining the increased benefits of the not-too-distant future.
While the futurists at the World’s Fair highlighted the fantasy of deep time, Disney’s mentality builds upon historical pessimism and chooses instead to pacify the audience. Theorist H. Bruce Franklin once famously noted that “a fair billing itself as the World of Tomorrow may be considered just as much a work of science fiction as a short story [or] a movie.” Indeed, Disney’s futures are tinged with nostalgia as well as progressivism. Especially poignant in 1964, Scott Bukatman suggests that a pervasive fear of the 1950s was that the future was in the present. The notion of “futurism” was lost to harmless fiction, and the true world of tomorrow was now upon American society. The previously serious futures past were exhumed and aired, their illustrations simultaneously “mocked and desired.” The fantastical images of robots serving relaxed citizens were reduced to crass episodes of The Jetsons, and notions of the future were becoming harder and harder to take at face value.
A good definition of “future” by the 1964 World’s Fair could be the ambition of mercantile capitalism: both at home (with the radiation of domestic technologies) and abroad (with the seemingly interconnected international pavilions). The presented retrofuture condenses the world into a singular location, easily traversable yet ambitiously expansionist. The 1964 World’s Fair is an immersive space that staged international encounters in a locale constructed to orient their visitors to a mass, globalized economy. It glorifies the present in its hyper-connectedness, ease of efficiency, streamlined design, but also its naivety and unsustainability. The Carousel of Progress is an attraction based in acculturation, likening futuristic optimism with the comforts of home. In a sense, it aims to validate the rest of the fair’s attractions by prompting an audience to recall the passive attitudes of previous generations. Just as Tom Morrow finds notions of airplanes far fetched, we too as an audience are reminded that our own skepticism of the energy-rich atomic age (as seen throughout the other exhibits) is to be expected. Tom Morrow represents the skeptic as well as the benefactor of technological advancement.
The Carousel of Progress is an American icon, not only in its aesthetic, but its sense of timelessness. Perhaps more so than any other piece of themed design, the carousel makes a bold cultural statement on behalf of its own audience. A feeling of gleeful optimism starves its viewers for more: an endless thirst for better technology, faster machinery, leisure, pleasure, and handy globalization. Time’s circular representation, when superimposed on a feeling of forward marching progress, indicates these “progress cycles” are periodic and predictable. Every twenty minutes, Tom Morrow will begin his journey all over again through the history of industry. Better yet, Tom Morrow will never get bored of this perpetual process — he’s an animatronic; a machine. The very circular notion of progress becomes industrialized itself, looping mechanically in a four-stage assembly line fashion. Gone is the postwar cynicism that prompted retrofurism: Disney’s attraction insists not that the future will be wonderful, but that the present is more desirable than the past. After one leaves the attraction, they can be assured that within the next five minutes Tom Morrow will switch on his first electric light. And those electric lights will always be there, forever glowing, ready to pull us around again and again.
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