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Turn of the Century

No, no excuses, just haven’t written in a long time.  Last night, when I wasn’t sleeping (large Coke at the theater, late dinner), Carousel of Progress entered my head and spun in there for some time.

If you are not familiar with this Disney attraction, it debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, then was moved to Disneyland for several years until it was moved to Disney World in the 1970s.  It is presented in a carousel theater – that is, the outside ring of theater seats revolve around a core of six stages.  The first and last stages are used to load and unload, welcome and thank, the audience, leaving the other four stages to tell a story.

In the Carousel of Progress, the story is technology in the home, shown in snippets of under five minutes each.  Each chapter is hosted by the father of the house, the family dog at his feet.  He lauds his world to the audience, telling us how wonderful life truly is with all these state-of-the-art appliances.  He calls out to members of his family, who are spread throughout the house, each with their own story to tell.  Although the family appears very similar in each scene, the dog’s name seems to change every time, so maybe they are not supposed to be the same people – which only makes sense, with twenty years between chapters.  These chapters break down as:

1: Turn of the century, maybe 1907.  Pre-electrical home technology: kerosene lamps, coal stoves, ice boxes, hand pump at the sink.

2: Middle of the Roaring 20s: Electricity, cables strewn all over.  Lighting, fans, irons.

3: Post-war 1940s: a much less transient-looking use of electricity: modern kitchens, radio, early TV, Formica counter-tops.

4: Today.  Naturally, today has changed a bit since 1964 and the attraction was updated several times to try to keep up.

The ride was originally sponsored by General Electric, so the focus is naturally on electrical gadgets, but a few other things are noticeable, not the least of which are fashions in clothing and furniture.  Through the show, one is allowed to view slices in history, at twenty-year intervals.

Except. of course, it isn’t.  Twenty years, that is.  The gap between scenes three and four started at twenty years, in 1964.  Fifty years have now gone by and that gap is now seventy years.

Which is why I am telling you this.  This long-time bastion of Tomorrowland has long been a favorite of mine and that of many others, but it must be of less and less consequence to the younger generation.  This theater tells a tale of time travel, but most of the story it tells is in the relatively distant past.  Do the differences between 1905 and 1925 really resonate with an audience looking back from today?  In 1964, it was all well within living memory.  Today?  It has been a century.  No matter what updates are made to the final scene, the rest of the show must give the appearance of sameness.

As the attraction loses relevance, it will also lose ridership.  There have long been rumors of its closing and, were they to come up with a good replacement, Disney probably would.  I would not like to see that happen.

So, what to do?  I see two possible courses, beyond replacement:

1)  Go retro.  Put the final scene squarely in 1964.  There are three networks on television, Beatle haircuts are considered shocking, Lyndon Johnson is in the White House, Walt Disney is in Burbank, and Viet Nam is not quite seen as anything of major importance.  Let people see the ride mostly as it was originally presented in 1964 and draw their own conclusions.  Still, while many would be curious to see the show in this configuration, I do not know how many repeat customers it would bring back – and it does little to address the relevance issue.

2)  Increase the gap.  Ax the second scene entirely.  Go from 1907 directly to 1947.  Forty years!  Scene three becomes 1987.  Scene four remains “Today.”  Increasing the gap to forty years, I think, would increase the relevance of the ride, as the scenes would show a much clearer evolution of home technology, easily distinguished:

1:  Scene pretty much unchanged, 1907 shows the pre-electric home.

2:  1947 shows the electric home.

3:  1987 shows the electronic home.

4:  Today shows the connected home.

Increasing the gap makes the change much easier to see and gives the show a much longer lifespan.  If the show is still running in twenty years and the gap between scenes three and four is then sixty years, it probably won’t seem as noticeable as the seventy-year gap they have today.  Somewhere in the middle of the century, they can retool the ride again with fifty year gaps.

The reason Disney probably won’t do this is, of course, money.  Going retro would not cost them too much, but increasing the gap changes every scene but the first one.  Since, I assume, they are still using the original ride system, we are talking about either making massive changes on an analog system or ripping it all out and replacing it with their latest digital systems.  General Electric sponsorship is long gone and Disney is reticent to change their attractions if they cannot get a sponsor to pay for it.  Still, the final scene of the connected home would allow for a fair number of soft plugs should, say, a Google or an Amazon wish to make a go of sponsoring it.  And after fifty years, Disney should have a more than a few good clues on how to greatly enhance the presentation itself, while leaving enough of the original show to please the Disneyphiles.

Not only has this show been a crowdpleaser for years, the function of the ride itself has allowed it to be a haven of sorts on crowded park days – a ride you can get into fairly quickly, sit down, relax in the air conditioning, and enjoy a show for twenty minutes.  That the show is really good is just icing on the cake.  It deserves to be saved.  It really deserves to be given a new lease on life.

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