Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair sponsored by General Electric (GE) for the Progressland pavilion and has since become the longest running show in the history of American theater. The show features a stage held within a rotating theater where each scene follows an American family through a century of progress as new technological advances are introduced each time the theater rotates.
If you haven’t seen the show, or if it’s been a while, watch it here so this post makes sense:
You can also check out this video of Walt Disney talking about the Carousel of Progress (the same one shown outside the show in the park):
I don’t know what got me to want to look into this (my guess is that I’m probably just looking for any distraction for anything fun because of these dark times we’re living in right now…) but for whatever reason I decided I needed to figure out where the family in the show lives. I know the original concept for the Carousel of Progress as it was presented at the New York World’s Fair was based on a settling like Disneyland’s proposed Edison Square. (Had Edison Square come to exist, it would have been an offshoot of Main Street.)
Imagineer John Hench mentioned that inspiration for Edison Square came largely from Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town (which is takes place in the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corners along the New Hampshire/Massachusetts border). Other inspiration for the Edison Square proposal drew on Main Street’s cues from Marceline, Missouri, while the area would have also featured bits of architecture from across America, focusing more on up and coming technologies and less on a set place.
With the original Carousel of Progress concept stemming from these ideas, a setting doesn’t seem to have been nailed down however it seems safe to say (like many American-themed projects Walt personally worked on) we can at least theorize that the Midwest is a likely answer. A 2014 issue of D23 focusing on the New York World’s Fair points out some of the inspiration for the show:
As Carousel of Progress developed through story meetings, the show became an extension of Walt– His personality, his values, his optimism, his genius. The show was filled with Midwestern values– values that formed the moral center for Walt the man and his work. “Walt picked all of the voices personally,” Imagineer Harriet Burns once enthused, “He wanted that Midwestern drawl, because the show represented Midwestern ideals.”
Before I started researching (or even watching the show again) my gut told me Chicago, or more specifically a suburb of Chicago. I was open to other suggestions (so I asked what everyone else thought on Twitter) but my first instinct was that it had to be somewhere in the Midwest or at least the Mid-Atlantic. The show debuted at a World’s Fair, Elias Disney (Walt’s father) worked on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it all just seemed to work out nicely in my head that the Progress family would live somewhere near Chicago, but here’s what I found…
— Quick note: These findings are based on the current version of the Carousel of Progress in Walt Disney World. I do not believe a city/state has ever been specified as inspiration for any version of the show, so this research is primarily based on the current Magic Kingdom show. —
Turn of the Century
The first line of the show after the theme song features robins chirping, and John notes, “It looks like the robins are getting ready to celebrate Valentine’s Day today,” meaning their location has to be somewhere in the US where robins would be in February. I don’t know much about robins at all honestly, so I started digging, and immediately I began second-guessing my Chicago hunch thinking robins probably migrate south and would not be in Chicago for Valentine’s Day. What I learned though is that robins do migrate south in the winter- some of them. They don’t have the same large scale migration patterns as other birds, many migrate to warmer areas in the winter, but some do not, so having a robin chirping outside the window in February would still make sense for the Chicago area…or anywhere, really, ugh.
With the robins not narrowing down a location like I thought it would, the script continues with John mentioning some facts about the US in general (things like there are now 8,000 automobiles on the road, and they could now travel from New York to California by train in less than seven days). To me, this isn’t really indicative of him being in a certain location, but rather just facts about the entire country that people seeing the show would understand with little explanation. Some of the replies to my tweet on this pointed out that the mention of New York and California here led them to believe that the family lived in one of those states, but I wasn’t buying that.
The mention of gas lamps and telephone poles really do not narrow down a geographic area too much either. Of course there were rural areas at the turn of the century that didn’t have such technologies, but there isn’t enough detail here for that to be evidence for one place over another. The rest of the new technologies mentioned in this scene are pretty standard for many middle class or upper-middle class Americans during this time regardless of where they live (things like the ice box, water pump, washday marvel, etc…) so this discussion still doesn’t help us.
A few minutes later, Sarah mentions that she needs to get the laundry off the line before it begins “raining cats and dogs,” to which John responds that it isn’t going to rain as his lumbago isn’t acting up. Of course, lumbago isn’t a term we hear often today, so I looked right into this one. “Lumbago” is really just “lower back pain,” it could be caused by any number of things, but for the show’s purposes we’ll leave it at “lower back pain”. Some studies show that lumbago or back pain in general is worsened by wet, damp environments. I could be reading way too far into this, but I took this to mean that the line was added to the show for some purpose because otherwise uh…It’s just kind of weird. I guess it serves for some character development, but I used this to see if it was worth noting areas with particularly rainy weather around Valentine’s Day during the turn of the century. Any results from this proved too vague, so I kept thinking…
We then see the couple’s son, James using his father’s stereoscope to looks at images of Little Egypt, a dancer known for performing at World’s Fairs. We know she performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (which inspired many of the objects we see today around Main Street U.S.A.) and in the Carousel of Progress, John mentions that she is the star of the “new World’s Fair in St. Louis” which took place in 1904. You could look into this dialogue a couple of different ways, but I took this to mean that the stereoscope was probably a souvenir from the fair, and so the family most likely went to the fair. The majority of attendees to the fair in 1904 arrived by train, which means if the Progress family went to the fair in theory they should live somewhere where they would have easy access to a train line that would stop in St. Louis. (As an aside, there were evidently multiple train collisions and other disasters on one of the lines that went to the St. Louis World’s Fair so really we should all just be thankful that the family survived!)
The above map shows the Union Pacific Railroad, which had lines that were used in 1904 to get to the St. Louis World’s Fair. (There are connections to eastern railroads along some of these lines, but we’ll get to that later.) For now though, I think it’s safe to assume the family is in some reasonable distance of this map, or possibly somewhere further east with a connection that wouldn’t have been too difficult for them to switch over and attend the fair.
Later in the first scene, we see the daughter Patricia, who as she exclaims is “indecent,” sitting in her bedroom essentially half dressed in undergarments (but also with shoes on?). We’ll get back to this in a bit as it’s a point I came across in later research, but just keep that in mind for now. Patricia is getting ready to go to a Valentine’s dance across town on a new horseless trolley. When I had other clues to narrow down the general area, a DisTwitter friend looked into which towns had trolleys at the time, but again, we’ll get to that…
One response to my tweet suggested that based off the first scene, the family could live in Pennsylvania, maybe somewhere near an Amish county, a guess based on the butter churn behind John in this first scene. As far as I know, this butter churn isn’t specifically Amish and therefore doesn’t help us narrow down a place, maybe just the time. I think in terms of the ride, the butter churn is more representative of the changing technologies at the turn of the century (but I liked seeing everyone’s thoughts on this!)
The last piece of evidence I considered from the first scene is the newspaper John is holding, but this is the one thing that didn’t really add to any theory one way or another. The newspaper is Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which ran from 1855 to 1922 and was not specific to one part of the country but rather a publication you could have picked up anywhere. (In fact, John mentions going to the drug store soda fountain for a root beer later in the scene, it’s possible he picked it up there.) It appears that the style of the headline on the issue John is holding in the show looks too early to be 1904-ish, but I’d chalk this up to it being the kind of publication you may not throw away (or a simple oversight)- He clearly seems like a nostalgic guy, it’s quite possible he’s holding an older issue. The newspaper featured pieces by some well known writers like Louisa May Alcott and Ellis Parker Butler, along with famous illustrators like Norman Rockwell and James Montgomery Flagg (who created the iconic depictions of Uncle Sam we often see on recruitment posters).
The second show scene brings us into the 1920s which opens with John exclaiming that they’ve had the hottest Fourth of July in years. Immediately I look up locations that experienced their hottest Julys (and the 4th specifically) around this time and along the train route for the St. Louis fair. As it turns out, Chicago had some massive heatwaves during multiple Julys throughout this decade. 1930-1936 (aka “the Dustbowl Years”) brought massive droughts to the Midwest and heatwaves that in some instances became seriously dangerous. The hottest specific location that would make sense in terms of distance to a rail line to the fair in 1904, would be Springfield, IL which in 1936 had their hottest 4th of July on record (at the time) with temps of 105 degrees. The heatwave combined with the drought that encompassed much of the Midwest led to about 50 deaths in the Springfield area. At this point, I’m feeling pretty confident about Springfield. The show does not need to mention that it was the hottest 4th of July they’ve had in years, but they went there. They put that out there into the universe and brought it up multiple times throughout the scene.
We need to talk about the timeline of the rest of this scene though, and that’s where it gets a little tricky and I think is just the result of the show taking some creative liberties. John then mentions that Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight is about to happen, which would put this scene at 1927. He also mentions the first scene aka the turn of the century was “over 20 some odd years ago”. We know the last scene goes up to at least 1904 because of the St. Louis fair, but the newspaper he’s holding is noticeably a pre-20th century cover design, and there is also mention of Edison’s electric lights being “new” despite the fact that they were invented in 1879. The line about Lindbergh’s flight made me want to second guess the Springfield theory for a hot second, but given that the first scene of the show was also a little all over the place timing-wise, I’m thinking the second scene could easily include the years 1927-1936 and then some.
“Sports stadiums are springing up all over,” doesn’t really help us with a time or place either. (I think because I wanted my Chicago or at least Illinois idea to be correct my mind instantly wanted to use the fact that some of the oldest stadiums around today (Soldier Field from 1924 and Wrigley Field from 1914) are in Chicago as some justification for this but that’s probably a stretch honestly. John does on to talk about Babe Ruth, mentioning that he’s new, which may put us at another time jump in terms of the year (he played for the Red Sox from 1914 to 1919 and the Yankees from 1920 to 1934). I guess baseball history isn’t my strong suit but would he point out that he was new if he were already playing for the Yankees? This supports my thought that the timeline of the ride is pretty vague and the tidbits mentioned in each scene don’t necessarily add up or go in chronologically order (which is fine, we’re looking for a place, not a time, but it’s just some extra confusion that was thrown in while trying to narrow down the place).
The actor Al Jolson is mentioned, as his performance in a new movie in which he’s going to talk (and sing)! His first talking picture was The Plantation Act (1926) but he was most known for his work in The Jazz Singer (1927). I didn’t know Al Jolson honestly, but it seems like there is quite the history there (it really has nothing to do with the ride so I won’t get too far into it) but basically he was known for being a complex and surely controversial figure (for his use of blackface) and even more so by today’s standards. He was obviously a big deal for talking and singing in The Jazz Singer, but the performance is uncomfortable through a modern-day lens, and unfortunately, it doesn’t help position us any further into knowing where this family lives.
Next up we hear about Schwartz (the family’s neighbor) in his Hupmobile, a car manufactured between 1909 and 1939 in Detroit. (Again, the years in each scene I think could be stretched). The most popular car produced by Hupp Motor Car Company was the Hupp Steel 32 which came out in 1911 and due to some poor decision making in the company’s leadership the cars were on their way out by the Depression years before manufacturing ended altogether in 1939. John then mentions that he drives an Essex (with an electric starter, now he doesn’t have to crank!), which means his car was manufactured in Detroit as well, by the Essex Motor Company sometime between 1918 and 1922. I’m not sure what I was hoping for here, but with manufacturing becoming increasingly automated these cars made it all over (not everyone had them due to cost, but in theory they could have had them) so I’m not sure that’s something to tie to a specific location.
Also in this scene, John is holding a Niagara Falls fan. These fans were popular tourist souvenirs at the time, so the fan implies that he traveled to Niagara Falls. Perhaps also by train? If so, we can use that logic to determine cities that would make both Niagara Falls and St. Louis accessible by train to help narrow down our search.
At one point, we see Patricia return to the right of the stage, and this time her bedroom features a West City pennant. As it turns out, West City is a village in Franklin County, IL, in the southwestern part of the state close to…St. Louis! It’s pretty far south of Chicago, (but still the same state, so maybe my gut instinct was sort of correct?) but it’s a little closer to Springfield, so my guess is that while I can’t find any data on it West City probably had some pretty hot 4th of Julys.
John mentions indoor plumbing next and how it’s “great on cold nights.” By this point I figured we could disregard the warmer states, but I think that seals the deal on that. While Floridians for instance do get cold in the winter (but it’s only a comparative “cold” to the heat they’re used to) I think it’d be a weird comment to put in the show if the “cold nights” comment were not referring to the cold weather that the northern parts of the country experience.
This is also the scene where Uncle Orville is introduced with his air cooling device set up in the bathroom. I’ve had a couple of people tell me that his accent sounds like the Midwest. (I’ve never been to the Midwest, and I think I only know….two people from the Midwest and neither of them have noticeable accents, but for those who think Orville sounds Midwestern I’ll take their word for it! I did also check out the newspaper he’s reading, hoping that might give a clue as to their location, but it’s not entirely helpful for that.
Orville is reading the National Police Gazette, which existed nationwide in some form from 1845 to 1977. It was essentially tabloid covers of “Wild West” style exploits, and it contained a number of “lewd” images at least for the time of burlesque dancers and strippers (so “lewd” that multiple stores didn’t carry it and there were times where the USPS tried to avoid mailing it). It fits the time period but doesn’t give us any indication of a place.
When Jimmy plays the radio during this scene, John points out that thanks to the radio they can hear news and entertainment from all over the country, “even Pittsburgh”! After a DisTwitter friend pointed this out, we looked into how far a radio show from Pittsburgh would have been able to be picked up during this time and used this radius to narrow it down. St. Louis would be just outside this radius of about 500-600 miles, but Springfield or West City would both still work.
Before we leave this scene, I’d note the view out the window. It could easily be any downtown street in the country, but I thought it was worth noting that the view from the window in the first scene is essentially farm land and either another house or a barn, and by the second scene it shows downtown storefronts. (At first glance of the first scene I actually thought it was corn which is part of why I immediately thought Midwest, but it’s really hard to tell from the audience what exactly is outside the windows). The second scene though has a theater and Chinese restaurant in the background done up with red, white, and blue bunting for the 4th of July celebrations, so I’m taking this to mean that they live in some down with a vibrant downtown district that has some serious celebrations planned for the holidays.
By the 40s the window scene shifts to only include some foliage (which again implies that they live somewhere with all four seasons). John goes on to describe the then new concept of the rat race, explaining how he now commutes from the suburbs into the city for work. Before I started rewatching the show and doing all of this research that was one of the things that really struck me as Chicago. But going with my new theory of southwestern Illinois, maybe Springfield or West City this comment could still make sense with Springfield being the city in question.
This scene also brings up the “do it yourself craze” with Sarah working on turning the family’s basement into a rumpus room…They have a basement! Not everywhere in the country has homes that typically have basements, so we can use that to help narrow down our search (Springfield and West City continue to work). The rest of this scene is pretty vague in terms of location. We learn things like John Cameron Swayze gives them the news each day, but that’s a national broadcast throughout the 40s and 50s that wouldn’t place them in a specific location. Let’s move on to the final scene…
Throughout all of this research, I was thinking that the family has to be pretty well off (I know GE sponsored the original show and the whole point is literally that they have all the latest gadgets so I could be reading way too far into this, but new cars and TVs, the entire final Christmas scene? This all screams $$). So initially I was thinking they must be from some wealthy area, but I guess that doesn’t need to be the case. (If you find some evidence though that they must live somewhere else because of this, I’d love to hear it!)
The final scene really doesn’t give us much insight for their location- The daughter in this scene is holding ice skates she got as a Christmas gift, and while indoor rinks exist everywhere this could imply that they live somewhere with cold winters if you’re specifically gifting skates in December. I wish they were making some sort of regionally inspired Christmas dinner as that would give us more insight, but turkey is a holiday staple anywhere so that doesn’t help us too much. Or if they flipped on a sport of any kind on the TV, anything like that could have helped us narrow it down further.
While I do love this scene (I know it’s dated but it has some of my favorite Hidden Mickeys in it) we’re not going to learn about where they live here. After a long discussion with some DisTwitter friends though who helped brainstorm all of this and talk through it, we came up with what I believe to be the setting for the Carousel of Progress…
Remember how I said to hold onto that thought about the mention of trolleys in the first scene? Springfield and West City don’t have trolleys. Neither does Rochester, New York (another theory, but I’ll touch on that in a bit). Centralia (located just south of West City) has trolleys, and they went from horse-pulled to electric in the time frame consistent with what John says in the show. After Centralia came up on DisTwitter as a possibility, I began looking deeper into it and it fits the small town look where it would have gone from farmland to a downtown district when the show claims it did. The town has also held a large 4th of July celebration that lasts for a couple of days and includes parades and fireworks for the entire time frame covered in the show.
I also learned that Centralia has (and did have at the times in the show) a railroad depot which connects to lines that stop at St. Louis and reach New York and Niagara Falls. Radio shows from Pittsburgh would reach Centralia, and John could commute to work in St. Louis– By the time car travel would have made commuting possible, he’d be able to drive from Centralia to St. Louis in about an hour. Moreover, the hot Fourth of July comment would work for Centralia as it’s the same region as Springfield which saw the hottest fourth of July on record, and I believe Patricia’s West City pennant still checks out as it’s just a town or two over. I went back and looked over a couple of more details and also noted that the style of corset and the buckled shoes that Patricia is wearing in the first scene appear to be styles that were fashioned and manufactured in Centralia (and although I have no idea if Centralia was the town in mind while creating the attraction, it seems like an interesting note that she’s in her underwear for apparently no reason).
Since the attraction debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair, I considered that perhaps upstate New York could have served as the location for the family. Most of this checks out, though I think that’d be a stretch for them to get to the World’s Fair in St. Louis by train at the time and as far as I can tell there isn’t a town in this area that had horseless trolleys during the same time they’re mentioned on the ride. Still, I think this is a solid theory otherwise– It’d be closer to Niagara Falls and that would check out, as would getting the news from Pittsburgh. It’s not the ‘winning theory’ in my opinion, but if you think this makes more sense I can see it.
General Electric sponsored the original show and the company is headquartered in Boston. Boston would fit most of the points we’re looking at (trolleys, distance from Pittsburgh, all the seasons, etc…) But the “hottest Fourth of July” comment wouldn’t make any sense and I think it’s unlikely that a family from Boston would travel by train to the St. Louis World’s Fair. Then you have Uncle Orville’s apparent Midwest accent (though I guess he’s more of an unwanted house guest and could be from anywhere) and the lack of mentioning anything about being near the ocean…Boston (or Massachusetts/New England in general) would be far from one of my picks, but I can see why some people would think this.
Each scene represents a different location OR multiple locations are represented in small ways throughout the ride. I like this theory just because I think it’s a fun one. I think each scene representing a different location gets a little tricky because so many of the clues that hint at a specific place are in the first two scenes, and after that it really could be almost anywhere, but I’m sure you could look more into the items in each scene and make something work there if you really wanted to. I do like the theory that every state is represented in some way, and I think that’s probably the case just by virtue of the pop culture that’s mentioned, and the items in the background of each scene.
+ everyone who shared their thoughts on this thread.
But at the end of the day…
Confirmed. Carousel of Progress family lives inside the Carousel of Progress. https://t.co/QeXLaDQjHW
— Brittany DiCologero (@brittdicologero) August 4, 2020