A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

The same optimistic futurism of Ford’s Magic Skyway was represented at Progressland, sponsored by General Electric. Before it became known as the Carousel of Progress, this unique show — housed in a large, circular building where guests entered to sit in theater-like seats that would rotate around a stage and its four setpieces — was designed to both remind audiences of how far technology had come just in the first 60-plus years of the 20th century, and how much further it could go.

The Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard, came up with a song that served as a particularly satisfying earworm, “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”, and represented the hope of the attraction. As with Great Moments, the Audio-Animatronic figures are all human, talking and moving to approximate human movement as they delivered expository dialogue about what it was like to live in the 1900s, or 1920s, or 1940s.

The Carousel of Progress, as it’s now known, is no longer sponsored by General Electric, and its original home is no more. After being rebuilt at Disneyland, opening a few months after Walt Disney’s death, the Carousel of Progress eventually moved to Walt Disney World in 1975, both to placate GE and to help welcome in a refurbished version of Tomorrowland. The attraction has gone through notable, understandable refurbishments over time — the final show scene, in which the family we follow now lives in the present day, looks more like a 1990s version of the future — but continues to appeal to anyone with a love for a brighter future. And the Audio-Animatronic designs here, too, inspired future Disney attractions.

The Purest Earworm of All

And then, of course, there is It’s A Small World. The attractions mentioned here have all had some kind of a foothold in popular culture of the last 55 years. The basic concept of Audio-Animatronics has been referenced in movies as big as Jurassic Park (though without using the phrase, as a lawyer confuses it with “auto-erotica”). But it’s hard to think of a ride more recognizable, and more divisive, than It’s A Small World, so much so that The Lion King name-drops the attraction song simply to mock it.

This ride first came into being fairly quickly — Disney’s early Imagineers were only given 11 months to create and build the pavilion, sponsored by Pepsi. The whimsical, colorful and bright design of the attraction was led by art director Mary Blair, whose work had been a major part of Disney’s 50s-era animated features. Other iconic figures like Marc Davis (one of the Nine Old Men of Disney Animation) designed show scenes and characters, though they all amounted to the same basic idea: traveling through different countries of the world by boat and seeing children singing…the same song. Over and over.

“It’s A Small World” is perhaps the purest earworm of Disney music, a song that you’ve heard even if you hate it, even if you’ve never been on the attraction, even if you’ve never even heard of the ride. The song is short, but it can repeat unendingly; it can be slowed down or re-arranged, and it’s as familiar to people as the Audio-Animatronic dolls in the ride itself. Those dolls and that song, though it may seem hard to imagine now, made for a wildly popular ride at the New York World’s Fair.

In the two seasons of this particular World’s Fair, the attraction sold 10 million tickets between children and adults, with all proceeds going to UNICEF. This is one of the strange appeals of Disney theme-park attractions — some of them seem truly baffling on paper, but still work for the majority of guests. It’s A Small World is the rarest of attractions, too, appearing at five of the six Disney theme parks worldwide and given a holiday makeover every October. Only the truly iconic Disney attractions can be found basically everywhere around the world.

Paving the Way of the Future

Today, of course, Audio-Animatronic technology is not the be-all and end-all of what you can find at a theme park. In 2019, Audio-Animatronics represent something more antiquated, a sign of the times. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios and Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom both have introduced a more immersive sense of guests being in the themed environment, leaving aside characters themselves.

And many attractions in all sorts of theme parks incorporate 3-D and 4-D technology on large screens to give you a sense of being inside a given world. But that kind of technology was predicated on the success of what came before. If we’re now in a larger, more expansive third-generation revival of theme-park technology, Audio-Animatronics were the second generation. The ultra-immersive theme-park environments of today only exist because Audio-Animatronics suggested a way to replicate the real world to entertain guests of all ages. 55 years ago, Walt Disney and his Imagineers unveiled the results of their imaginations, having paved the way of the future. At the 1964 World’s Fair, the Disney team opened up a world of possibilities with a ripple effect that isn’t over yet.

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