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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

January 6, 2016: DisneyStudying: The Carousel of Progress

[In November, I finally visited DisneyWorld for the first time, accompanying my 9 and 8 year old sons. We hit the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios in a whirlwind three days—and as you might expect, this AmericanStudier found a great deal of interest in all three places. So this week I’ll DisneyStudy five such details, leading up to a special weekend post on themes parks in America!]
On an attraction that highlights the best and worst of Disney’s visions of America.
Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California in 1955, and by less than a decade later—the New York World’s Fair of 1964—the company had become synonymous enough with American theme parks that Disney was commissioned to produce four significant attractions for the fair. Of those four, It’s a Small World (about which I’ll write in Friday’s post) is probably the most famous, and certainly reflects an important and evolving element of Disney’s perspective: the company’s embrace, likely for both practical/commercial and philosophical reasons, of a global worldview. But if Disney was already by 1964 moving toward global domination, it was also first and foremost, then as now, a part of America’s landscape and culture. And it is another of the World’s Fair attractions, known initially as Progressland and ever after as the Carousel of Progress, which to my mind best embodies Disney’s influential contributions to American perspectives and identities.
The Carousel, often said to be Walt Disney’s favorite of all the Disney attractions created in his lifetime, presents some of the same ideas of social and technological innovation on which Spaceship Earth (Monday’s subject) focuses. But while Spaceship Earth focused on the broadest levels of human history and society, and on topics of equal breadth such as the development of language and art, the Carousel brings progress down to its most intimate level: creating, in a quartet of animatronic settings and performances, the home and voices of an “average” American family across four time periods (1904, the 1920s, the 1940s, and “the present,” initially 1964 but having evolved multiple times over the half-century since). Those scenes are not without their broader historical resonances, both of Disney’s own histories and of the society beyond, but they nonetheless focus on the most everyday and personal meanings of progress: the change from one type of stove to another, new methods for young people to communicate with their friends, the different views out the windows of urban and suburban homes. This intimate vision of progress not only complements Spaceship Earth’s nicely, but also reflects the most communal, shared experience of history.
Well, kind of shared. Certainly stoves and youthful relationships and homes are significant parts of most American (and human) lives, but there’s no doubt that the Carousel’s portrayal of both its particular time periods and of progress overall is in other ways quite narrow. It’s not just that this “average” family happens to be white and (in my recollection) overtly Christian, for example, but also that in the father’s extended monologues about each time period we get precisely no engagements with any of the more complex histories unfolding in those eras; while of course many of the periods’ darkest histories would seem to be outside the concept of “progress,” others (such as Progressive labor reforms or the women’s suffrage movement) were deeply tied to that ideal. Yet the Carousel’s extremely rosy vision of the future (captured in the attraction’s song, “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”) is closer to the easy form of optimism and patriotism, the kind that makes it difficult to include the challenges and struggles on the road to shared progress. That’s a clear and consistent downside to the Disney worldview, and one front and center in this popular attraction.
Next DisneyStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of Disney or theme parks you’d AmericanStudy?

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