It’s a Small World turns 50 years old today and has quite the legacy to celebrate. The attraction’s cultural impact outweighs perhaps any other in the history of themed entertainment.
A few months ago, I took part in a panel at the Coronado Springs resort in Walt Disney World, where I spoke at some length about It’s a Small World. Nearly half a year later, I’m still getting emails from participants about those comments in particular. I drew some comparisons between the attraction and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Dream” speech. That apparently struck a chord with the audience there — a testament, I think, to the attraction’s incredible rhetorical resonance.
Those comments at Coronado were adapted from my book, The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Walt Disney World: Magic Kingdom, which explores It’s a Small World as both hypnosis and racial rhetoric. Today, in honor of the ride’s golden anniversary, I present an excerpt from that chapter:
Fantasyland is the attraction’s home in all five of those theme parks, an interesting fact when one considers that an international troupe of dancing children is not, strictly speaking, a thing of fantasy.
[It] could just as easily belong to Adventureland, by virtue of its voyage round the world theme, or to Tomorrowland, given its message of hope for the future. So why Fantasyland?…
…The attraction opened in the World’s Fair at the peak of the civil rights movement, mere months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. The nation was facing a new future of integration in spite of lingering prejudice and racial divide. Meanwhile, international tensions were high as the Vietnam War escalated. Whether Walt and The Sherman Brothers intended it as a commentary on the changing sociopolitical climate or not, the ride and its song grew out of that especially tumultuous period in time. The fantasy in the attraction is one that imagines a more loving and cohesive world than existed in the 1960s. While strife stemming from racial and national barriers dominated the headlines of the day, the attraction contemplates humanity’s potential to overcome those barriers. The Small World fantasy, then, is not a fictive realm of magic and dragons, but a dream — the same kind of dream that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously described the year before, a dream in which little children are not judged by the color of their skin…
For more on It’s a Small World, Carousel of Progress (which also celebrates its 50th Anniversary this month), and all the other attractions in Magic Kingdom, check out The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Walt Disney World on paperback, Kindle, Nook, iBooks, or in a bookstore near you! (The ebook is currently available for under $8.)
Happy Birthday, It’s a Small World!
Looking for more on It’s a Small World? Check out my analysis of the Sherman Brothers’ theme song in Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Pod Episode #54 (begins at 59:53)!
* The attraction’s actual birthday is April 22, but Disney chose to observe it today so as to avoid getting bogged down with Earth Day coverage.