Love it or hate it. There’s no denying that It’s a Small World is one of the most iconic attractions that Disney ever created. As a child, I leaned more towards the “hate it” crowd. My grandma would insist we ride it at each visit. I would impatiently endure It’s a Small World while wishing I was on one of the more thrill seeking mountain rides. Once I grew older, I began to appreciate the detail and artistry that went into creating this attraction. My heart warmed up even more to it when I discovered that it was created for the UNICEF pavilion at the 1964’s New York World’s Fair. It’s a Small World is truly a unique attraction. It is even more special when considering the phenomenal women who worked on this project.
It’s no secret that creative women had a hard time making it in the Disney company for quite some time. There were some exceptions in animation, costume design and imagineering, and I want to draw attention to and celebrate four gifted women who worked on creating It’s a Small World.
Mary Blair is the artist most often attributed to It’s a Small World. She was one of only a select few of female artists who had a place at the predominantly male animators table. Blair began working for Disney in the 1940s, when women were only able to be an “Ink and Paint” girl. She left the Disney company in the 1950s to work on her own projects. She was a master at color design and not afraid to give the sun or an elephant unexpected shapes and color combinations. Walt Disney admired her playful and colorful designs and thought she would be a natural fit for his World’s Fair project. He convinced her to work on his UNICEF pavilion attraction. I can’t imagine anyone else creating a more perfect storybook setting. What has made It’s a Small World an enduring attraction for more than 50 years is the whimsical and fantastical international landscapes Blair created.
Alice Estes Davis
Alice Estes Davis was the costume designer for It’s a Small World. It was her first big assignment with the Disney company, before that she had helped her husband, a Disney animator, design Aurora’s skirt in Sleeping Beauty. Davis and her husband were world travelers. They particularly had a passion for collecting Papua New Guinea art and artifacts. Davis was the perfect person to create the over 150 international costumes. The cherub dolls are adorned in reproductions of Davis’ original costume designs, but it is still apparent that a lot of care and detail went into her costumes.
Harriet Burns was the first female imagineer. Her career with Walt Disney Imagineering began in the 1950s and she worked on some of the most beloved Disney attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and Enchanted Tiki Room. Burns was also an imagineer for It’s a Small World. In addition to her imagineering talent, it’s rumored that she might have given the Sherman brothers the idea for the most played song in the world. At first, Walt Disney wanted the ride to feature anthems from the various regions represented, but this turned out to be a chaotic noise. He decided to go for something more unifying to go along with the theme of the attraction. The Sherman brothers were stuck and apparently Burns stated in passing, “It’s a small world after all.”
Like Harriet Burns, Joyce Carlson was an early female imagineer. Carlson began her career with Disney in the “Ink and Paint” department. She made models for the UNICEF attraction and worked closely with Mary Blair to help her vision and dolls come to life. In 2000, Joyce Carlson was honored with a window on Main Street USA at the Magic Kingdom that reads, “Dolls by Miss Joyce, Dollmaker for the World. Shops in New York, California, Florida, Japan and Paris. Owner and Founder Joyce Carlson.”