The genesis for the Carousel of Progress dates back to the early days of Disneyland with an area being developed by WED called Edison Square. This was to be a residential extension of Main Street USA. Here Disney wanted to place an attraction called “Harnessing the Lightning” where guests would walk through four adjacent theaters and journey from 1898 to the future witnessing the improvements made to life by the miracle of electricity.
But by 1959 Walt had begun to turn his attention to the upcoming 1964 Worlds Fair to be held in New Uork City as General Electric requested that Walt design a series of exhibits for their pavilion there to be known as Progressland. The work on the World’s Fair was seen an important test by Walt and other Disney executives as having attractions on the east coast would quash worries that Disney attractions wouldn’t satisfy the more sophisticated tastes of the east coast population and would be the proof Walt needed that Walt Disney World could succeed.
The Harnessing the Lightning attraction had now grown into a concept called the Carousel of Progress. Early concept versions of the carousel show didn’t use the memorable soundtrack we know today. They had instead made use of popular songs from the periods depicted such as “Bird in a Gilded Cage” and “Barney Google.”
But during development Walt decided to go to the musical talents of Richard and Robert Sherman and he asked them to create a song that would tell the story without giving away what’s happening and also capturing the spirit and essence of the pavilion.
The “boys” as Walt like to refer to them came up with a tune called There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” that was able to be adapted to the musical styles of each decade represented in the show.
Only a few days after the Sherman Brothers came up with the theme, Walt hastily requested the boys come to a soundstage and be sure to wear suits. The reason why is because when they got there, they had to star in a filmed performance of the song singing along with Walt that would be used as a presentation to GE executives for the attraction.
Buddy Baker took the tune and adapted into several different musical styles to match the various eras presented in the show as well as loading and exit areas of the attraction.
Following two seasons running at the World’s Fair in 1964 and 1965, The Carousel of Progress had two years off before reappearing at Disneyland’s newly themed Tomorrowland: A World on the Move, in 1967. This version of the show remained pretty much as it was at the World’s Fair except for the last act. The fair version featured references to the General Electric Medallion Home.
Also at the exit of the Disneyland version, guests exited to the upper level of the Carousel Theater to view a detailed model of Progress City. By now word was out that Walt had intended to build a city of the future in Florida and the Progress City model provided a preview of Walt’s vision for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). The guests would stand around the model and listen to a presentation about each of the city’s futuristic features as each area was lit up and featured individually.
After running for 6 years in Disneyland Carousel of Progress closed in 1973. Two years later in 1975, Carousel of Progress found a new home in the Tomorrowland of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom where it received updates to the show’s increasingly out of date look at the future, but also a new theme song. The new track titled “The Best Time of Your Life” was also written by the Sherman Brothers.
In 1994 Carousel of Progress received a refurbishment along with the rest of Tomorrowland. The show was rewritten to more closely match its original non-commercial message while also restoring the original Sherman brothers song. It was also renamed “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress”.
The original Progress City model that served as the Disneyland version’s post show can still be seen today, at least in part. A portion of Walt’s Progress City model is housed in the Stitch’s Great Escape building in the Magic Kingdom and can only be viewed when riding through on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover.
The now extinct EPCOT attraction Horizons was believed by many to be a sequel to Carousel of Progress and even featured a nod to the Carousel of Progress theme during the “looking back on tomorrow” section of the attraction.
The band They Might Be Giants recorded a version of the famous track for the movie Meet the Robinsons.
It was also featured in the 2015 Disney movie Tomorrowland during the scene where young Frank is at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Both “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” and “The Best Time of Your Life” can be heard as part of the current Tomorrowland area music.
The Sherman brothers once recounted that they believed There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow to be Walt’s personal theme song because he was always so excited and optimistic about the future.
The episode of EarzUp Podcast with the SpectroTime History of Carousel of Progress segment: