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The Distinctive Design of “it’s a small world” – A DIS Attraction Review

In an effort to establish trust with anyone who may be reading this review, I need to make my motivations clear. I want to hate “it’s a small world.” I want to passionately rage against everything it represents. All of the quaint, cutesy, doll-like animatronics, the stereotypical representations of cultures from around the world, and that song — I can’t remember the name of it, but the repetition of those atrocious lyrics should boil my blood.

I want to hate it, yet I can’t. In fact, I think it’s kind of amazing. To understand how this attraction won over someone with a heart as bitter as Turkish coffee, who actively avoids anything he judgmentally deems exceedingly adorable, I’ll have to describe what, exactly, makes this boat ride so endearing to so many.

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For those reading this who might have never been to a Disney park and have no knowledge of the attraction’s historical significance, let me quickly fill you in. You see, for many Disney fans out there, experiences that have had the personal influence of Walt Disney himself serve as a sort of emotional tether to the lifeline of the park. Touching something designed by the man whose dreams laid the foundations for their own makes them feel as if their bond with the parks is something much deeper and more internal than casual visitation. They start to become more than guests; they become family.

I mention this because while Walt may have never actually stepped foot in the Magic Kingdom, his imagination and Imagineers – with artist/designer Mary Blair at the helm — birthed this childlike journey through world culture for the 1964/65 World’s Fair UNICEF pavilion. That first “it’s a small world” was later moved to Disneyland Park. Walt Disney World’s take on the ride is a bit different, a bit grander, and although many prefer Disneyland’s version for its closer ties to Walt’s own history, I personally prefer Orlando’s. It started with Walt, maintained his original vision, but made adjustments and improvements. To me, that describes the ideal attraction process perfectly and encapsulates what originally made Disney, Disney.

Now I can praise something’s historical significance all day without actually enjoying it (eg., Jazz music), but my sentiment for “it’s a small world” actually comes from the aesthetic design and “nuts-and-bolts” of the ride.

Walt Disney World’s “it’s a small world” begins your experience in a queue that is quaint, comfortable, and surprisingly epic. Once in the entrance you’ll find yourself on the top floor of a vaulted, two-story open-air room with décor that sets the stage for the aesthetic characteristics of the ride itself. The pathways aren’t claustrophobic, and it is the grand, wide-open design of the queue that lets you truly appreciate the cool air and shelter from Florida’s oppressive sunshine without feeling frustrated or inconvenienced. Guests entering and exiting their boats are visible throughout much of it, which helps build anticipation (for sitting down as much as for the journey itself).

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A feeling of relaxation is a running theme on your trip. There isn’t much of a need to stress over where you sit, no trying to find the best spot. All of the rooms you enter will be expansive and detailed; your view won’t be compromised by sitting behind even the tallest moms or dads – or the starting lineup for that year’s NBA championship winners for that matter.

Upon being seated and shoving off, you’ll look up at the grand, almost two-dimensional structures you saw from above as you were waiting in line, noticing that from this perspective they seem so much more immersive and impressive.

You’ll pass through a small tunnel, entering the attraction itself. The size of this portal shields guests still queued up from seeing too much of the ride in advance, but it does something else that is much more important. The diminutive nature of the entryway expertly misleads guests to the expansive wonderment to be found immediately past its partition.

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Perspective is the key to why this attraction works. Your humble little ship glides through calm waters as you gaze up at idealized interpretations of the different cultures that this planet has to offer. For adults, this viewpoint has a profound yet often underappreciated effect.

The people of this fictionalized Earth are dolls. Even when dressed in adult costumes they appear childlike, which is quite intentional. “it’s a small world” is meant to evoke not only a sense of youthful wonder, but one of innocence. The ride wants to remind us of a time in our lives before our adult baggage weighed us down with the belief that some people are better than others, that true cooperation and absolute love are impossible.

When looking at the world’s people as if they were children, we are more likely to see with eyes that are empathetic and kind. By having us sit down below eye level, making us look upward at these childlike figures, “it’s a small world” is subtly but deftly forcing us to see things through the eyes of a young one gazing skyward at a brilliant, diverse world absolutely filled with mystery and possibility.

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Peter Pan’s Flight evokes wonderment by placing you above the world, looking down with a feeling of adventure and escape. “it’s a small world” tries the opposite approach, and to great effect. For adults that can remember what Walt Disney World looked like as a child compared to a slightly (or not so slightly) taller adult perspective, many things may seem significantly less grand, but the cultural caverns of this ride always feel the same.

On the subject of culture, part of me wants to feel like Disney’s antiquated interpretation of foreign societies should be wrong. We are, of course, only seeing stereotypical storybook versions of the Earth’s inhabitants*. Once again, this sentiment is lost during the experience because I am seeing an unknown world through a child’s eyes — a specifically North American child, but a child nonetheless.

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Straying away from the emotional foundation of the ride, let’s talk about aesthetics. Although dolls in costume doesn’t seem like a groundbreaking idea, the way “it’s a small world” crafts its animinatronics and sets is highly specific and relies on an art style that is truly unique. If some kind-hearted but overly enthusiastic fan decided to decorate their entire house in an “it’s a small world” theme, they could do it without using a single doll and guests would still know their inspiration immediately upon entrance by the distinctive use of shape, color, and pattern.

My favorite aspect of the aesthetic elements is that it can evoke two completely contrary reactions, depending on the viewer. The beauty of the message aside, I fall into the category of those who find this ride intensely creepy. While some find it adorable and amusing, I sometimes imagine that I’ll turn to my left and see Charon the boatman, then realize that we have been sailing down the river Styx towards a blistering inferno the entire time. This dread was exacerbated when upon one sailing the attraction came to a halt just as I was passing underneath a clown in a hot air balloon. He raised, then lowered, raised, then lowered slightly deeper; encroaching towards me a bit more each time, his smoldering clown stare never once breaking eye-contact. This lasted for twelve hours. Probably. It felt like twelve hours.

The clowns are everywhere now, even sleep provides no escape. My dreams are theirs — everything is theirs.

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Speaking of ride elements that switch between sweet and sinister, maybe now is the time to talk about the song. You’re probably listening to it right now. I know I am. It’s always been there, in the back of our brains, waiting until we are calm and sedate, letting our guards down — and then it strikes. We were born hearing “it’s a small world” and we’ll die hearing “it’s a small world.” This repetitive dirge is the one universal constant.

Creepy and annoying aspects aside though, we can once again translate this using the theme of childlike innocence. Repetition is one of the building blocks of music. If you take a spoken sentence, shorten it a bit, and play it over and over again, it will begin to sound like the words are being sung. This is even more important to a child; young children rely on repetition as part of their cognitive development. If your child has ever requested to watch the same movie eight times in a row, have the same book read to them twice every night, or listened to the same terrible song over and over again, you probably already know this. While frustrating, this behavior is ingrained and crucial to them as their brain grows and learning skills begin to form. Take this attitude and add youthful voices from around the globe, and you’ve got the perfect song to convey a child’s perspective. I have no clue how much of this was deliberately intended by the Sherman Brothers when they devised this ditty, but it fits the theming perfectly, regardless.

If you aren’t unsettled by your environment, this is one of Disney’s best dark rides for photography. The pace is slow, there are no unexpected jerks or motions, and each room is absolutely filled with scenes to capture. Depending on your camera and lens you may still experience some background noise, but memorable pictures won’t be nearly as difficult to take as something like Haunted Mansion.

After completing a world circuit, you are brought to one last room. Pristine and pure in whites, blues, and golds, all of the cultures you have seen before are now joined in celebration. Given the color scheme and presence of the world’s people gathered together in song, it doesn’t require Olympic-level mental gymnastics to figure out the meaning behind this final chamber.

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While the world is populated by a wondrous array of distinct and unique cultures, there is a place where we abandon the details that separate us and come together in love, respect, and cooperation. Whether you choose to believe this is the Heaven we enter when we pass from this life, a heaven within our power to create on Earth once we relinquish our hate and fear, or just a Utopian imagining reminding us that we need to start sharing this world rather than dividing it into pieces, this last great hall makes its statement quite clearly: We are meant to celebrate humanity, in all the forms that it takes.

I have actively avoided researching any official or unofficial Disney statements regarding this final stop on the voyage, as I find that each individual’s personal interpretation generally ends in a good place, regardless of what that may be.

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You’ll depart the attraction the same way you entered, through a small tunnel that leads out into the vaulted waiting hall. The joyous-yet-oddly-intimidating people of “it’s a small world” wish you goodbye in the form of numerous signs which decorate the exit tunnel. Assuming there were no unexpected delays, your voyage will have lasted approximately ten minutes and thirty seconds. The song will remain in your head until you travel to California and leave flowers on Robert Sherman’s grave.

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I myself do find the aesthetic a bit creepy, and of course the song gets annoying, but each element of this attraction works in concert to create a uniquely memorable experience with a basic but sincere message. I would love to hate “it’s a small world,” but do I want to spend my energy raging against something that attempts to make the world a better place? Love and cooperation are two of the earliest learned yet most quickly disregarded lessons, and if even a small fraction of guests are taken back to the childlike innocence that reminds us that friendship and understanding should be the foundation for all human interactions, then I hope this ride never closes.

*While Disneyland Park’s “it’s a small world” has made the addition of Disney characters to their associated culture, Walt Disney World’s version has not. Both versions include Don Quixote, who valiantly but misguidedly patrols the top of this article, and if ever auctioned off as memorabilia, would have me immediately robbing banks for bidding money.

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