The Carousel of Progress and the concepts of today and tomorrow

The Carousel of Progress premiered in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair, moved to Disneyland in California in 1967, and then moved to Walt Disney World in Florida in 1975, where it’s been ever since. It’s a mild attraction, which mostly consists of sitting in a rotating theater where the audience moves instead of the stage. You see four scenes, and each represents a different decade in America, where the same audio-animatronic family (which ages about ten years over a supposed span of a century) explains how their lives have changed thanks to the progression of technology. It’s definitely not enjoyable for everyone. I remember the last time I went on it, the cast member giving the safety spiel closed by telling us to enjoy our twenty minute nap.

Most early Disney attractions had or have theme songs, many of them written by one of two teams: Buddy Baker and X Atencio, and Robert and Richard Sherman. The songs served as a way to easily identify the attraction with an audio cue, are generally simple enough to remember, and usually repeat throughout the attraction (think “It’s a Small World”). The Carousel of Progress’s themes were written by the Sherman Brothers, and they both play or would play at the beginning and end of each decade’s scene, as a way to usher the audience from one portion of the show to the next.

The first song they produced was called, “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” It was used until the move to Florida in 1975, and then brought back in 1993. It’s still being used today.

The song was considered “Walt’s song” by the Sherman Brothers, and there’s probably a lot of truth to that statement. Walt Disney was really into the idea of technology and progress, and how they could be utilized to make our lives better. He was about as optimistic as they come (or, at least, his public persona was).

So, why did the song change? Well, like many attractions at Disney, the Carousel of Progress had a sponsor, and the sponsors have generally had a good say in how the attraction is presented. The Carousel’s sponsor at the time was GE, who didn’t like a song about “tomorrow,” because it didn’t inspire customers to buy their products “today.” So a new song was written: “The Best Time of Your Life,” also by the Sherman Brothers.

In 1993, GE ended its sponsorship, and Disney decided to re-do the ride and reinstate “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” although “The Best Time of Your Life” can still be heard in background music that’s played throughout the park.

Now, discussion boards aren’t exactly lighting up with debate about which song is better, but it’s something I think about a fair amount. The first time I went on the Carousel was with my mother in 2010. She was singing “The Best Time of Your Life,” which is the theme she grew up hearing, and was disappointed that it had been changed. When I started to do research on the ride, I immediately decided, never having heard “Best Time of Your Life” all the way through, that I preferred “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” for several reasons:

  • It was the original
  • It was preferred by the Sherman Brothers
  • It was one of Walt’s favorite songs
  • “Best Time of Your Life” seemed to be too much of a commercial, since its specific purpose was to get people to buy GE appliances
  • Disney parks are all about the concept of “tomorrow,” and I love when a theme is consistent. There’s a reason it’s not called “Todayland.”

I definitely think we need to be concerned about the world we’re leaving behind for future generations, but I think there’s also value in being optimistic about the future and believing that we can create things that make our lives better. So for a long time, this was my favorite of the two.

Then I started listening to “The Best Time of Your Life,” and I finally memorized the lyrics. Being stubborn, I still told myself it was inferior, but I started to sing it more and more and I realized it has a lot of merits.

There’s a line in the second song that says “tomorrow is still but a dream.” That bit of lyrics rubbed me the wrong way; it seemed to be implying that the message of the original was useless. After all, if tomorrow is just a dream, then we’re wasting our time thinking about it when we could be focusing on the here and now. But the more I listened to it, the more I wondered, is that such a bad thing? By focusing on the future, we can sometimes forget that what we do now is important. If we’re so obsessed with the idea that there’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow, are we saying that because we’re so tired of today that we can’t see the good things that are here?

One of the last lines of the song goes, “Now is the best time/be it a time of joy or strife.” I like that. I like that the song is encouraging us to realize that we can take advantage of any time we’re living in, whether it’s good or bad.

BUT, I still also love the idea of being optimistic about the future. In a world where there’s so much bleak news about what tomorrow might bring, I think optimism is ultimately what’s going to help us actually make that future great.

So, what do you think? Not necessarily which song is better (unless you happen to be as nerdy as me), but where do you think we should turn? Is it smart or silly to think about the future being great? Does it help us to think of now as the best time, or does it hinder us?

Are you living in the future, or are you living in the now?