It’s A Small World at Disneyland

Like millions of Southern Californians and millions more from around the World, I took my first trip to Disneyland this past week. The visit was certainly off-peek, as lines for rides were manageable and the stampede of strollers were escapable.

Walking through the front gate, my design mind was hungry for nostalgia, seeing pictures of Mary Blair’s tile murals as a kid while imagining a journey through the Swiss Family Treehouse or the famed Disney Gallery. Hmmm, “I guess a lot has changed.” Alas, one piece of nostalgia and my favorite ride, “It’s A Small World,” which delivered originality, imagination and a peaceful reminder of evocative artistry gone by.

The vision of Walt Disney seems to have been replaced with oversized consumption—gift shops at the end of every ride greeted with oversized babies fitted within elephantine strollers equipped with monster truck tires and a six-pack drink tray. For whatever reason it seemed the entire park was outfitted with a snack or beverage cart at every turn. Maybe that’s why I felt safe in “It’s A Small World.” But wait, “Why are their NEW Disney characters sneaking around within the small world cast of characters? They seemed oddly out of place.”

And now, some “Small World” historical investigation…

The 1964/1965 World’s Fair was held in New York City celebrating the theme “Peace Through Understanding,” dedicated to “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” More than 51 million people attended the fair and were treated to four shows created by The Walt Disney Company: “It’s A Small World” at the Pepsi/UNICEF pavilion, “Progressland” sponsored by General Electric, “Ford Magic Skyway” sponsored by Ford Motor Company and “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” created for the Illinois pavilion.

Walt Disney proved to the world that entertainment could be heightened through his inventiveness, introducing “Audio-Animatronics™,” in all four pavilions, a technological breakthrough combining audio, electronics and computer controls that animated 3-dimensional characters bringing them to life. All four installations created by The Walt Disney Company were complex, groundbreaking installations responsible for the consistent draw of the crowds and “It’s A Small World” was an important awareness and fundraiser attraction for UNICEF.

Originally, Walt Disney conceived “It’s A Small World” as “The Children of the World” a boat ride through a children’s wonderland “where all the world’s children live and play.” It was no easy ride for Disney, as countless designs were rejected and Pepsi grew impatient with the idea that Mickey Mouse was not the right fit for their brand. In fact, “Pavilion,” a book published in 1980, Pepsi reported that “small world” was an “embarrassment.” None-the-less, Walt was determined and relied on artist, Mary Blair (1911-1978) for concept, character and color development; Blaine Gibson sculpted the dolls and Alice Davis created the costumes; Rolly Crump and Jack Ferges created all of the non-animated props in compliment to Claude Coats who laid out the pattern for the river ride. One of the most memorable Disney song contributions was created, “It’s A Small World (After All),” taking the world by storm and written by the Sherman Brothers. (Of course)!

After the close of the New York World’s Fair in 1965, Disneyland began construction of “It’s A Small World” and opened on May 28, 1966 and sponsored by Bank of America. All of the water was flown in at a major expense from all different countries—a marketing concept developed by Disneyland publicist Jack Linquist.

I thought this information to be helpful in support of “It’s A Small World’s” early beginnings, which survived minor upgrades until a major renovation in 2009. The North American Room featuring the rainforest scene was removed and marginalized with the addition of Toy Story, Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pinocchio, Lilo & Stitch and other Disney characters.

Mary Blaire’s son, Kevin L. Blair, wrote a letter in March of 2008 to Disney executives to rethink the renovation minus the Disney characters, “Once again this will marginalize the children of the world theme and bastardize my Mother’s original art. Furthermore ripping out a rainforest (Imaginary or otherwise) and replacing it with misplaced patriotism is a public relations blunder…”

Ralph Eggleston, production designer of “Finding Nemo” shares,“With all the uncertainty in the world today, one of the few places a person could always escape both reality AND hype, no matter how brief, was It's A Small World at Disneyland. I consider myself lucky to have been able to experience it as it was truly meant to be seen--many times. Its plea to make the world a better place through the multinational voices of our future is something we need today more than ever. Lets hope better taste prevails and any hint of commercialism is avoided in the restoration of this truly great ride.”

Ultimately, you will need to decide for yourself. My first trip to Disneyland was enjoyed as the modern marvels of technology moved me through all of the Disney movies I have yet to see. Overall, the trip was worth it and I was happy to witness the last standing nostalgic icon that continues to entertain billions of us across our rapidly changing planet—“It’s A Small World.”

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