Three things struck me recently at Magic Kingdom while riding the Carousel of Progress. 1. The crowd. 2. The crowd's enthusiasm. 3. The state of the ride. My family and I had a single day budgeted to attend Walt Disney World while in Florida recently, and rather than choose a park (an impossible task), attempted instead a modified "four parks challenge," in which we did the things that matter (ride the "mountain" rides at each park, see a live show, watch the fireworks, eat too much food, etc.) while disregarding the things that would detract from the fun (e.g. "Participate in five Kidcot activities"—my daughter is a year or two too old to enjoy them anymore, and a decade or two too young to enjoy them again).
My two favorite rides are the world famous Jungle Cruise and the Carousel of Progress. Don't ask me to choose a favorite. But while the Jungle Cruise feels safe (a millennium from now, guests will still hear the same jokes, e.g."Please exit the ride the same way you got on—pushing and shoving")—the Carousel of Progress, inexplicably, does not. Of all the rides at Disney that should have absolutely been preserved post-9/11—we needed this ride! We still do!—it was the Carousel of Progress that was shuttered, apparently in the wake of declining park attendance. It later reopened as a "seasonal" ride, though today seems again to be year-round. Thank goodness.
I know why I like the Carousel. The boundless optimism. The magnificent, unforgettable theme song. The humor. The artistry and craftsmanship. The history—not only represented, but also of the attraction itself. There's something distinct about a Walt Disney attraction—a ride touched by the man himself—that cannot be replicated. I'm not even talking about abominations like Stitch's Great Escape or Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, both of which would have killed Walt Disney were he not already dead, but even great attractions like Soarin' or Mickey's PhilharMagic. They're just missing...something. (The closest you'll get to Walt-Disney-the-man-level magic is Animal Kingdom park, which is just an astoundingly triumph down the line. I fear that Avatar Land will diminish the near perfection of that park, but I fear change in general.)
So when we conceived our own Four Parks Challenge, Carousel was of course on the list no matter what. I feared, however, that it wouldn't even be open first thing at Magic Kingdom (we started the day at the rope drop) and that we would have to circle back later in the day. My fears were for nothing, however. Not only was it open at 9:45 a.m., but it was packed! That just made my morning. And not just old people already tired of standing. All ages, races, nationalities. The ride still has it! And before it begins, the old black-and-white television broadcast of Walt Disney describing it, and singing "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" with the Sherman Brothers. Well, there's something so distinctly Disney about the whole thing. It positively brims with magic.
So our turn came up, and the crowd filled the Carousel. The lights lowered. The narrator introduced the ride. And the Carousel began. AND THE CROWD—this massive, diverse crowd of normal human beings—SANG THE SONG! The whole thing. We all knew the words! Everyone of course knows the lyrics by the ride's end—but from the start? Well it's like the ghost of Walt decided to find a way to make the morning even better.
And then the ride broke. OK, it didn't break. It jammed? After 1900, it stayed at... 1900. So I wasn't exactly upset about this turn of events, or lack thereof. But the cast member running it kept having to interrupt the second viewing to say, "Please stay seated," which, look, after the first time, everybody got the message. Anyway, 1900 repeated, and then all was back to normal. The carousel continued. And if that had been it, it wouldn't have beared mentioning. No ride is perfect. Not even perfect rides.
But then we got to the "present." Now, look, I've done this ride a lot of times over the years. I know what it's supposed to look like. So when I say that Father looked... dejected? defeated? malfunctioning?... I know what I'm saying. He stood there, said the words, sang the song, but he was somehow slumped over the stove. His mouth moved. His eyes twinkled. He still prodded at whatever it is he's supposed to be cooking. But it's like he needed a few bolts tightened so that he could stand upright. His head needed a little adjustment so that he would look at the audience rather than the footlights. It just looked... sad? Maybe it is a sly commentary on masculinity today. After all, Father in 1900 was The Man of the House, and in "today," he's cooking slaving in the kitchen while Grandma fights an interstellar war. But I don't think it's supposed to be commentary. (God I hope it's not.) What it looked like, during that brief interval, was an old, unmaintained ride. That worries me.
Thankfully, everyone seemed to enjoy it, and the crowd left the Carousel singing. But I get the feeling that someone at Magic Kingdom is slacking on the job. The Carousel of Progress is not just any ride. It's the only ride in Orlando actually, physically touched by Walt Disney himself. (It was previously a Disneyland attraction, installed while Walt was still alive. It was transferred to Magic Kingdom in 1975.) It's like the T-Rex in a natural history museum—the most important attraction, even if it isn't technically the most important attraction. It must be maintained, preserved, protected. The Carousel of Progress embodies the Disney spirit. The Sherman Brothers described "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" as Walt's theme. I like that. I hope it was. It certainly represents everything I like about Disney Parks in general. It's the heart of Tomorrowland and the exemplar of the plaque above the entrance archway of the park: "Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy."