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The retrofuturistic Carousel of Progress plays an ironic role at Disney World

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Walt Disney built the ride for the future, but now it’s a relic of the past

people with VR headsets playing a game Image: Walt Disney World

My first memory of Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress wasn’t the ride itself, but from a guidebook entry I found at an AirBnB. Rated one star out of five, the micro-review of Carousel of Progress read, “boring, but it’s my go-to place to breastfeed.”

Determined to test the legitimacy of the guidebook, I carved out precious Disney park time to ride the Carousel of Progress. What I found wasn’t a boring place to breastfeed, but a quaint pocket of hopeful retro-futurism that spoke to the ethos of Walt Disney’s vision of the future more than any other attraction in Tomorrowland. (Note: it may also be a good place to breastfeed, I didn’t test that.) Sitting in a dark room for 20 minutes is a welcome reprieve from the hot Florida sun, but on top of that, the attraction captures a moment of blissful optimism that might make you believe in a better future for a snippet of time.

john progress sits in his house Image: Walt Disney World

Currently exclusive to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, The Carousel of Progress, originally constructed for the 1964 New York World’s fair, and now tucked away at Tomorrowland, is essentially a darkened theater where the main “carousel” stage spins around to show off four different scenes. Each of the scenes takes place in a different decade of the 20th century, with a patented Disney Audio Animatronic named John Progress enthusiastically explaining the technological innovations made in the era — be that electric lights in the 1900s, appliances in the kitchen during the 1920s, or dishwashers in the 1940s. The show ends with a big time skip to the 21st century, where the Progress family gathers around their living room for Christmas.

That final scene is a little snippet into a future without dread, one where the characters sing about a “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” The Progress family plays virtual reality video games, watches a HD flat-screen television, and uses voice-activated lights — all things that are quite feasible in this day and age, but back when the ride was created, they were hopeful dreams of the future. The ride has been updated five times since Walt Disney’s original incarnation, but the changes are mostly factual, tweaking a 1970s card to the ’80s to a nebulous date in the 21st century.

Tomorrowland was built as a vision of the future back in the 1960s, a sleek chrome and silver swathed world where technology is a beacon, not a burden. Walt Disney fearlessly looked to that Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, be it in the overall veneer of Tomorrowland or in his pet project, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — which became the Epcot theme park in Walt Disney World Orlando.

But in the decades since, the optimistic vision of the future slowly eroded, while Disneyland and Disney World remained the same. The contrast is obvious enough that Brad Bird interrogated it in his Disney film Tomorrowland. Yet the final scene of Carousel of Progress continues to imagine unbridled optimism. No one questions that the voice-activated lights are tracking their data. The flat screen TV does not televise ominous predictions of a doomed future. Everyone sings. Everyone is happy. Technology has helped the world become easier to live in, not hastened its doom. Walt Disney’s vision remains Walt Disney’s vision.

Some of the park has been updated by the changing tides. While Tomorrowland still boasts Space Mountain and other rocket-themed rides, it’s also the home to Lilo and Stitch, Toy Story, and Monsters’ Inc. attractions. It’s not so much about a hopeful future as it is about having a landing space for science fiction Disney properties. Epcot’s Future World, meanwhile, still focuses on innovation and looking to the future, though the mention of any of its attractions receiving an update sparks debate amongst hardcore theme park fans. It’s ironic that two of Walt Disney’s projects focused on envisioning a new future remain stuck in the past.

Changes are coming to Epcot’s Future World (well, pandemic pending), but for now, the only new attraction coming to Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland is a planned ride based on Tron. The Carousel of Progress remains untouched, un-updated, and the perfect unobtrusive place to catch one’s breath on a busy Disney day. Should it be updated then, to show what a positive future might look like if we dared imagine it, or are we too jaded to even try? Would even daring to touch it evoke the fury of die-hard fans or has the Carousel of Progress’ reputation as a snooze fest insulated it from their ire? Is preserving this moment in time — a bright moment of retro-futurism that dared imagine a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow — more impactful?

The archaic show seems to have a different effect on different modern viewers. For some, the Carousel of Progress’ future is boring. For me, I wondered what it would be like to be a small child visiting Disney in the 1970s, watching Mr. Progress tell me about the wonders of technology, and dreaming of a future that did not make me want to look away. If the Imagineers were to redo the attraction and present a look at the 22nd century and beyond, what would we come up with? It’s not a vision we’re likely to see anytime soon.