Disney At The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair: General Electric’s Progressland

This series of blogs deals with the Walt Disney Company’s participation in the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, a watershed moment in the entertainment giant’s history. This installment focuses on General Electric’s Progressland, featuring the Carousel of Progress.

The host and his dog greet guests inside the rotating Carousel of Progress attraction at Walt Disney World. [DisneyFoodBlog.com]

  • LOCATION: Industrial area.
  • SPONSOR: General Electric.
  • MAIN ATTRACTION: Carousel of Progress.
  • RIDE SYSTEM: Rotating theater seats with four fixed stages.
  • CAST: 32 Audio-Animatronics “actors.”
  • OTHER SHOWS: The Skydome Spectacular; Nuclear Fusion Demonstration; Medallion City.
  • NOTEWORTHY SONG: “There’s a Great, Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” by Richard and Robert Sherman.

More than any of the other Disney-created New York World’s Fair pavilions, General Electric’s Progressland – which showed guests how the world of electricity had grown in leaps and bounds over the years – was all about change.

And those changes occurred both inside and outside the massive domed building, designed by the firm owned by Walt Disney’s good friend, Welton Becket.

A partnership between Disney and General Electric for an attraction was first proposed in the late 1950s for Disneyland. Edison Square was to show folks “an astounding dramatization” called Harnessing the Lightning. The new attraction was so far along in planning that it was featured as a “coming attraction” in Disneyland guide maps.

But GE switched gears and decided to drop Edison Square and turn its attention to sponsoring a pavilion at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Naturally, Disney was asked to lend its expertise to the new project.

The pavilion featured an eclectic mix of shows and displays. There was The Skydome Spectacular, which took advantage of the pavilion’s concave ceiling to provide “a dazzling sequence of thunder, lightning, solar flares and spinning atoms.”

Walt Disney stands with a scale model of the Carousel of Progress attraction. [The Walt Disney Archives]
There was the General Electric Nuclear Fusion Demonstration, staged every six minutes. “Don’t worry, this demonstration is completely safe,” a host assured guests. It was the first time nuclear fusion had ever been displayed in this manner.

And there was Medallion City, a product display area touting GE’s latest advancements for the home. Tucked in Medallion City was The Toucan and Parrot Electric Utility Show, which was written by Marty Sklar … much to his chagrin.

“Oh, god, I hated it,” he said bluntly. The show featured two Audio-Animatronics birds [one was hypnotized and thought he was actually back at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair] chatting with an animated utility pole transformer about – you guessed it – electricity. ‘Nuf said.

But by far the most talked-about show under the Progressland dome was the Carousel of Progress. The attraction followed four generations of a typical American family as they traveled through the various stages of electrical advances in the home, from the late 19th century to “modern” times in the mid-1960s.

An early Audio-Animatronics control board. [Chuck Schmidt]
The family consisted of 32 Audio-Animatronics figures – eight per scene. During the development stages, the family went through a number of incarnations: First, they were Wilbur K. Watt’s family, then they became the Cartwrights, followed by the Peabodys from Middleburg, U.S.A. The final version saw country music star Rex Allen voicing the role of “father” for his now anonymous brood.

One of the most important aspects of the show was the theme song, composed by Disney Studios songwriters Dick and Bob Sherman. “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” not only served as the anchor of the Carousel show, but the song epitomized the optimistic spirit Walt Disney embodied.

The Shermans’ tune was arranged by Buddy Baker to reflect the various eras that were represented during the attraction – the 1890s, the 1920s, the 1940s, and, finally, the swingin’ 1960s.

Disney Legend Bob Gurr lent his considerable expertise to the Carousel of Progress. [The Walt Disney Company]
According to Disney Legend Bob Gurr, a family pet was not part of the original show, but was quickly added when Walt Disney saw a mock-up and said: “Let’s have a dog in there.”

The script had to be rewritten slightly after the dogs were added – giving GE a plug in the process – with Allen at one point admonishing his growling pooch. “Now stop that! He [meaning the audience] may be a good customer of GE.”

The dogs’ names during the show? Rover, Buster, and Sport.

The 32 Audio-Animatronics figures used in the Carousel show were the most “human” figures ever used in one attraction at the time. It was quite a challenge for Disney’s creative staff, with a technology they were just beginning to master.

The carousel stages also employed a classic theater technique called “scrims.” Smaller rotating stages to the left and right of the main stage were concealed by a thin curtain; when the lighting was lowered on the main stage and was turned up behind the curtain, the audience could see what was behind the previously hidden corner stages.

The entrance to General Electric’s Progressland pavilion, which featured a sign indicating how long the wait was.

It allowed for several different scenes to be played out by family members of each era, like the mother, children, grandparents, and a clever house guest named Orville who created “air cooling” with a fan and a block of ice.

Gurr played a key role in bringing the figures to life by devising a standardized parts system, allowing the figures to be mass-produced.

“We came very quickly to learn how we could … do animated figures in a wholesale method,” Gurr said. “I started a whole system of parts numbering, how we could do the engineering, drawing, and working with the shops.”

The figures were linked to a computer system that, by today’s standards, was quite primitive. Yet, the entire presentation – seats rotating around fixed stages, dozens of Audio-Animatronics figures, lighting, and audio – worked seamlessly.

During the winter of 1964-1965, Disney addressed a problem that had arisen outside the Progressland pavilion during the opening season. It seems the planners didn’t figure on so many people visiting the attraction, and long lines often backed up outside the entrance and snaked haphazardly in and around the Fair’s Industrial Area.

A covered waiting area was erected between seasons, which kept guests out of the sun during the summer months. The now-familiar switchback lines also were installed to keep things far more orderly.

Sklar also remembers that the Progressland pavilion became the first Disney attraction to use a wait time sign, which gave guests an idea of how long the wait would be; similar signs are now employed at the entrances of just about every Disney attraction worldwide.

The Carousel of Progress figures and sets were transported back to California after the Fair closed. They were reassembled and opened in a circular theater in Disneyland in 1967. The show debuted in Walt Disney World in 1975, where it still plays to appreciative audiences to this day.

After guests experienced the Carousel of Progress at the Fair, they could take a look at Walt Disney’s vision of the future.

“You went into the General Electric exhibit and there were a whole bunch of things there regarding community development,” Sklar said.

The General Electric pavilion is shown between seasons at the New York World’s Fair. [Staten Island Advance]
Years later, after the Carousel of Progress was moved to Disneyland, a model, called Progress City, was put on display. “The audiences moved up a moving ramp to the second floor in Tomorrowland at Disneyland,” Sklar said, “and there was Act 5, the so-called Progress City model. It was developed from the Herb Ryman illustration of EPCOT that we used for many of the publications we did about Walt’s EPCOT.

“What Walt had decided was that we should do a model of this concept called EPCOT, and we built this big model that was upstairs on the second floor in the Carousel pavilion. That model fascinated Disneyland guests for five years.

“It was basically a depiction of the EPCOT community that is represented in Walt’s EPCOT Film.”

Part of that model can be seen today along the PeopleMover route in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World.

Fourth in a five-part series. Next time: Ford Motor Company’s Magic Skyway.

Chuck Schmidt is an award-winning journalist and retired Disney cast member who has covered all things Disney since 1984 in both print and on-line. He has authored or co-authored seven books on Disney, including his On the Disney Beat and The Beat Goes On for Theme Park Press. He also has written a regular blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.

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Chuck Schmidt, bitten by the Disney bug at an early age, remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club after school in the mid-1950s. During his 48-year career in the newspaper business, he channeled that love of Disney as the Sunday News and Travel editor for The Staten Island Advance. Chuck has written or co-authored seven books for Theme Park Press, including Disney's Dream Weavers, On the Disney Beat, An American in Disneyland Paris, Disney's Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History and The Beat Goes On. Chuck has shared his passion for all things Disney in his Still Goofy About Disney blog on AllEars.Net since 2015. He resides in Beachwood, N.J., with his wife Janet. They have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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