How to Compromise a Product Vision

Great products start with a vision. Somebody — perhaps a small group of people — has an idea to change how something works in the world. On its way to becoming a real thing, the team tweaks and adjusts the idea; they make small compromises to the laws of physics, market demands, manufacturing constraints, user feedback, and so on. In the process, the idea goes from a “perfect” imagining of the vision to a pretty good embodiment that can be used by people in the real world.

At least that’s the ideal. However, sometimes a product changes so much that its original vision becomes compromised. One of the best examples I’ve seen of this happened to one of the attractions in the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World: Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. This is one of the few Disney attractions that have Walt’s name on them. There’s a good reason for this. The Carousel was the highest expression of his particular genius: using new technologies to convey big ideas to the masses in ways that they could connect to at an emotional level. Some people say it was his favorite attraction.

The Carousel is a theater show that describes technological progress through a series of vignettes set about 20 years apart, starting around the year 1900. The show takes place in a circular building divided into six wedges, like a pizza. The audience enters one of the wedges, where they sit auditorium-style facing a stage. The building then rotates around a static core, so the audience sees a new stage. On the stage, a family of humanoid robots in period costume (and settings) tells the story of how electricity changed the daily activities of ordinary Americans. The building rotates through four such acts showing the state of home technology in the 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, and in the 21st Century.

During the transition from one act to another, the “dad” robot sings the attraction’s theme song, “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” This song, written by Disney legends Richard and Robert Sherman, ties the show together. Here’s an excerpt of its lyrics:

There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day
There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow’s just a dream away

Man has a dream and that’s the start
He follows his dream with mind and heart
And when it becomes a reality
It’s a dream come true for you and me

As with many of the Sherman’s songs, this song is incredibly catchy. It’s also a perfect articulation of the attraction’s vision and purpose: to express hope in a future made better through ingenuity and effort. According to Disney Imagineer Marty Sklar, “Walt Disney was the eternal optimist, and he really believed that things could be better. And Bob and Dick Sherman wrote that song as a personal ode to Walt. They really meant it… That was Walt’s anthem, and they recognized that.”

The original Carousel of Progress was designed by the Disney organization to serve as General Electric’s exhibit for the 1964 World’s Fair. In other words, it was always meant to be a commercial venture. This influenced certain design decisions. For example, the show doesn’t talk about progress in general: it traces the impact of electricity on everyday life by showcasing GE’s innovations in particular. The fact that the story is performed by robots instead of people serves as a meta-commentary on its theme: The show not only told the story of progress, but was a dazzling demonstration of technological progress in itself. When it opened, it was a near-perfect merging of form, context, and purpose in service to storytelling — suiting the needs of both Disney and its sponsor.

But over time things changed. When the World’s Fair closed, GE continued sponsoring the attraction at Disneyland in California, largely unchanged. In the early 1970s, however, Disney decided to move the show to the (then-new) Magic Kingdom theme park in Florida. GE agreed to continue sponsoring the attraction, but they requested a change: they commissioned a new theme song for the show. The new song, titled “The Best Time of Your Life,” was also written by Richard and Robert Sherman, and was even catchier than “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” However, it told a very different story:

Now is the time, now is the best time
Now is the best time of your life
Life is a prize live ev’ry minute
Open your eyes and watch how you win it

Yesterday’s mem’ries may sparkle and gleam
Tomorrow is still but a dream
Right here and now you’ve got it made
The world’s forward marching and you’re in the parade

Now is the time now is the best time
Be it a time of joy or strife
There’s so much to cheer for
Be glad you’re here
For it’s the best time of your life

Essentially, the new version of The Carousel of Progress was a reversal of the original vision. Instead of hope and optimism for a better future, the new song was saying that the present is as good as it gets. So much for dreaming of a great big beautiful tomorrow! “Tomorrow is still but a dream.”

What happened? Basically, GE’s executives got nervous that all this talk of the future would lead people to put off their appliance purchases. GE wanted sales now, not in some far-off tomorrow, beautiful as it may be. This was, of course, misguided. The main point of The Carousel of Progress was never to sell refrigerators: it was to get people excited about the future by showing them how much progress they already enjoyed — especially thanks to GE. The new version of the show was a betrayal of this original vision. It was still entertaining after this change, but vacuous. Walt had been dead for almost a decade at this point; we can’t help but wonder what he would’ve made of the 1970s Carousel of Progress.

The story ends on a bittersweet note. You can still see the Carousel today at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. It once again features “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” — the original theme song was restored after GE refused to renew its sponsorship deal in 1985. But now the show isn’t presented as an optimistic take on the great future that lies ahead, but as a historical curiosity: The bright-eyed spirit of the original is out of sync with today’s postmodern ethos, the 1960s-era robots don’t blow today’s minds in the same way they would’ve when they premiered, and the conceit of showing progress in 20-year intervals has worn thin. Seventy years have now passed since the last “historical” vignette, and the final act (which was last updated in the early 1990s) is laughably outdated. So today’s Carousel of Progress isn’t a vision of a better future through progress: it’s an abandoned vision of how we used to conceive of a better future in the past. The show now starts with a recorded voiceover that states that “while the show has changed, its spirt of progress is a living tribute to the man who first created it — Walt Disney.” In other words, it’s a museum piece — almost the exact opposite of the vision that drove its original design.

In retrospect, that vision came down to one man: Walt Disney. His successors were able to continue to evolve and sustain his product — but not his vision. As the song says, following a dream with the mind isn’t enough: the heart must also be in it. And the vision is the heart. If the team is unclear on what the heart is, they may mistake the product’s expression of the vision with the vision itself. As the context changes around the product, the team will have to make tradeoffs to keep it viable. Eventually, this may lead to the vision becoming compromised to the point where the product contradicts its original purpose.

You can learn more about The Carousel of Progress at the wonderful Yesterland website.