Were we risking our lives to get to Walt Disney World? For all we knew that morning, my husband and I were actually going to put our seven-year-old daughter in the same building, possibly the same train, as a terrorist bomb just so we could go to “the happiest place on Earth.”
Train service was suspended the day before. Today, no bombs were found yet, but uniformed squads were still looking. Train service was back. We drove to the station in a hard-hitting rain. When I closed my eyes, I saw exploding train cars and flying tracks. This was a mere four years after the September 11th attacks. Why hadn’t we just stayed home? It was just Disney World.
OK, our daughter had never gone, and my husband and I had each only been there once back in the 1980’s, before half of what was now there was there. Every few months, our daughter came home from school with news of another classmate who was “at Disney World”. It is the Mecca of American childhood, right? It is where fairy Tinker Bell waves her wand and all your dreams come true. Or did old Walt tell us what our dreams should be before we were old enough to create our own?
I felt very stupid as we boarded the Amtrak for the twenty-four hour trip to Orlando, with first class accommodations including two bedrooms. I cried a couple of times as I thought about how much my husband and I love trains and wanted our daughter to remember this experience of the sleeper and the dining car as much as Disney World itself. Would she even see Disney World? We had not told her about news reports of Penn Station bomb threats. She must have thought I was having a nervous breakdown. She knew I didn’t like hot weather, but were thoughts of Florida making me cry this much?
Our daughter did see Disney World. She danced with the singers and dancers on Main Street USA and the princesses at The Magic Kingdom. She waited in line for “It’s a Small World". She waited in line for the Winnie the Pooh ride. She waited in line for the flying Dumbo ride. She waited in line to fly with Peter Pan. At dusk, the boom of the fireworks frightened her. We headed for the least crowded part of the park. It was called Tomorrowland.
Tomorrowland was old and neglected looking, unlike anything surrounding it. I thought I saw dust and heard creaking as the cars lurched around taking a smattering of people to see glimpses of “the future”. Our daughter sighed with boredom. Before heading back to the hotel, my husband and I decided to do one more ride, just because it looked old and quaint, and we thought maybe it would not be there much longer. It was called “The Carousel of Progress”.
We dragged our daughter into the dark, circular theater and took our squeaky seats. She probably wondered why this was called a carousel, with no horses to ride. I wondered how a carousel, which goes around repeatedly, could be used to illustrate “progress”. Wasn’t progress linear? Didn’t it keep going forward? As the stage lit up, a chorus of unseen voices sang, “It’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, and tomorrow is just a day away!”
Suddenly, what looked like a moving department store mannequin of an old man sitting on a bench addressed the audience from a small stage. He said he was going to show us how our great country has progressed over the last one hundred years. He was going to show us how oil lamps and water pumps would become electric lights and kitchen appliances.
Then, our seats began to move. The entire audience was now moving to our right. Then the stage went dark, and lit up again as we stopped at the next scene on this “carousel.” We now saw an old-fashioned kitchen inhabited by a whole mannequin family dressed like it was America circa 1910.
The song blared again about the great big beautiful tomorrow. We saw and heard the family talk about their technology. Then the stage went dark. Then the lights came up, and the 1910 family did their scene again, in the exact same way as before.
This couldn’t be right. I was pretty sure our seats were supposed to move to a new scene further into the future, say, the roaring twenties. I realized I had not felt my seat move at all.
The beautiful tomorrow song blared again. The stage went dark. The stage lit up. The 1910 family started their scene AGAIN. A real, human family sitting in front of us began to chuckle, then complain. Our daughter asked what was happening.
“We’re stuck, or it—the show—is stuck,” I told her.
“We’re stuck in the Carousel of Progress?” Even my second grader saw the irony. She, my husband, and I laughed until the stage went dark again.
I held my breath. The 1910 family was still there when the lights came up. Would we ever get out of here? A lady with a baby in her arms got up and walked toward the exit door. A loud man’s voice boomed from above:
“SIT DOWN, PLEASE!”
Was it God? I could feel panic begin to permeate the dark, nonmoving auditorium. My husband, the engineer, was going to fix this. He stood up. The loud, buzzing voice cut through our optimism:
“THERE IS NO STANDING UP IN THE CAROUSEL OF PROGRESS!”
Was it Walt Disney himself? My husband sat down. We had made it through the rainy drive, the train station of terror, and the train of terror, just to end our days here, stuck in a broken-down American carousel of progress, doomed to watch plastic people talk and sing about life in the early 1900s for all eternity. Why had we done this to our daughter? She could be home running about in the fresh air and sunshine, bare feet rejoicing in the backyard grass!
But she would not have done that. If we had been home at this very moment, she would have been staring at our living room television watching a movie produced by the same company that produced this hell we were in right now. Her dreams would be taking shape in front of the glowing box while she played with her Disney Princess dolls. But she could stand up and leave it, couldn’t she?
I was always encouraging her to go out and play, wasn't I? But I spent most of my childhood in front of TV too. I even watched reruns of the original Mickey Mouse Club that my mother used to watch.
The Carousel of Progress eventually righted itself and got through all the decades of American ingenuity and technological advances until the doors opened and we were allowed to get up and leave the ride. We blinked in the twilight of Tomorrowland. “That was weird,” said my daughter.
The Carousel of Progress is the only Disney ride we talk about to this day, nearly twenty years after being stuck in its ironic dark uncertainty. We made it home safely on the train that October of 2005. The TV news reported that the bomb threat turned out to be a prank. The danger was pretend. The world was pretend. The Carousel of Progress was broken. That part of our trip was real.
This story was originally published on Medium.com.
About the Creator
An older Gen X-er, my childhood was surrounded by theatre people. My adulthood has been surrounded by children, first my students, then my own, and now more students! You can also find me on Medium here: https://medium.com/@becklesjm