Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride: An Incursion into the Racial Implications of the African Display, by Audrey Boutot

July 23, 2021
ARCH 251
Professor Annmarie Adams

The famously idealized Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida is an attraction park large enough to be considered a city. Founded on tourism, the park promises a world of magic and endless possibilities. It is branded as a place of escape, capable of perpetually reaching new heights of imagination to fuel the maintenance of the fabricated dream world it sells. Disney World is home to four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot Center, and Hollywood Studios. Within Magic Kingdom, visitors can discover a place called Fantasyland, home of the famous ride called “It’s a Small World”. It opened in 1966 and became one of the park’s most beloved attraction.1 The visitors are invited to sing a classic hymn advocating world peace, while leisurely enjoying a small boat cruise. This gentle ten-minute journey allows for the viewer to observe different cultures from across continents in the form of displays. The ride is filled with hundreds of dolls representing children from all over the globe. An inevitable question arises: how can a single fabricated display of a few meters wide be able to summarize a country’s entire culture? Disney World answered that question by relying on the portrayal of each nation’s biggest stereotypes. The result is a very problematic depiction of other countries. The racist showcasing of the African continent falls victim to the juxtaposition of those controversial clichés.

The old Walt Disney World postcard, advertising Magic Kingdom, shows the display that is supposed to be representing the African continent (see Figure 1 & 2).2

Figure 1: Front side of a Walt Disney World postcard picturing Africa in the “It’s a Small World” ride. Postcard. From Cardcow. Accessed March 25, 2021. https://www.cardcow.com/721123/orlando-florida-its-small-world-fantasyland-amusement-parks-disney/.

Figure 2: Back side of a Walt Disney World postcard picturing Africa in the “It’s a Small World” ride. Postcard. From Cardcow. Accessed March 25, 2021. https://www.cardcow.com/721123/orlando-florida-its-small-world-fantasyland-amusement-parks-disney/.

The planners sought to demonstrate that global unity and harmony can be achieved when dissolving boundaries between countries. From the photograph, the ride’s central water pathway is considerably wide and clear from obstruction. The space feels open and safe with its high ceiling and clearly defined route. The water acts as a monolithic pathway that guides visitors seamlessly throughout the entire ride. This aimed to symbolize the dissolution of boundaries, the boat smoothly sailing from one room to the next. As opposed to conveying unity, I argue that situating the ride on water results in the complete removal of context, alienating the display from its surroundings. The centrality of water also promotes the comparison between the stereotypical cultures portrayed. It provides a foundation on which false cultural interpretations can thrive. The postcard shows the African continent presentation next to the main water pathway, devoid of a meaningful surrounding. It could be seen as a small, secluded island floating on water with no connection to the exhibit as a whole. For an exhibit aimed to showcase different parts of the world, employing water as the connecting element does not unify cultures, it untethers them.

The isolating nature of the ride is further evidenced by the arched passage leading from the African display in the postcard. This arched portal defines the end of the African display, concluding the space while providing a preview of what will come next. It creates a small tunnel that has a powerful impact. The diminutive passage effectively tricks the brain into thinking the new space is more spacious than in reality. It expertly crafts feelings of amazement and wonder upon exiting the partition tunnel. This arched passageway firmly separates the different displays from one another. The transition from one room to the next is abrupt. Layered in irony, the ride advocates unity and peace between countries, while displaying them each individually within separated perimeters. This theme of unity is obscured by this minimization of access and interaction between displays.
Furthermore, the animals in the postcard appear unrealistically portrayed. They come together with a playful mix of colours. The pink elephant, the blue hippopotamus, and the red lion stand out prominently. There is however one exception. One animal is not drawn up in the same bright coloured fashion as the others. The monkeys are found dangling from high up in the strands of greenery and are painted brown. Above the arched passage, we can see the pink elephant’s head with two children perched on its tusks and one child on its trunk. This juxtaposition of forms displaying the monkeys in front of the children could be an innocent and random occurrence. However, considering Disney’s evidence of racism in their classic films, it leads me to believe that the choice was intentional. It reads as an inherently racist strategic positioning to imply a parallel between the two. Both the children and the monkeys are shown at a similar height and scale. The three dolls are suspended from high up amongst the same greenery as the monkeys, and they dangle down in a similar way. Additionally, the exclusion of playful colouring solely from the monkeys suggests intentional significance.

Positioning the children on the elephant’s head shows how they seem to be very close and comfortable with the animals in the wild. Children can also be found surrounding the red lion, where one of them is even standing upon its head. This proximity extends the untamed and wild nature of the animals towards the children. That they have so much in common with wild animals, they can climb on top of an elephant’s or a lion’s head for fun. The children are also represented by a single skin colour tone. In a place where the displays are supposed to showcase culture, the events portrayed in the African exhibit do not accurately represent the vast array of cultures in Africa. With an entire continent of culture available to portray in such an exhibit, the designers chose to show children in the wild keeping company with animals as its main presentation.

As seen on the postcard, the design seems to be imitating a jungle. It lacks clear organization since the greenery is a large component of the display. The disorganization of the space suggests a lack of civilization, that humans in Africa live in a jungle landscape amidst wild animals. This portrayal perpetuates the stereotype that there is no organized or advanced society on the continent. The planners centered the whole display solely around the jungle instead of displaying a collage of cultural elements similar to the European displays. The ornamentation, colour, and detail of the African display are much less spectacular compared to many of the displays about other continents. The décor is much more somber in terms of lighting but also in terms of colouring. Other displays have copious amounts of superimposed flamboyant colors that contribute to the grandiosity of the ride. As seen in the postcard, the main colours used for the African display were varying tones of green and blue. It lacks imagination, as seen by its central focus on the jungle, minimal detailing, and absence of cultural elements. This inconsistency when comparing the African portrayal with the other displays serves to downplay its importance, as it does not leave the same lasting effect on visitors’ memories.

The “It’s a Small World” display on the postcard showcases an extreme over-generalization of the African continent. There is no distinction between the many African countries. The extent of what we see serves to present a single view to encompass an entire continent. This ignorant portrayal has a racist undercurrent: while the display is already void of culture, it also minimizes the multitudes of African countries by generalizing them all as one homogenous continent. Perhaps the inclusion of dolls resembling children in the design was an effort to lighten its racist depictions.

The ride has a subtle educational purpose that might not have been intentional from its initial planning but is especially problematic in today’s society. On the postcard, we can see a little girl on the tourist boat looking at the African continent display. This begs the question, what are children supposed to learn from these portrayals of foreign countries? Will the display influence how this little girl views the African continent after the ride is over? I imagine it will influence her perspective, setting a concrete image in her mind about the false, stereotypical portrayal of Africa. This rationale is true for any child that visits the ride. Children are the most easily influenceable and impressionable visitors of the attraction, they most likely do not question the validity of what they see on display. The African showcasing could be the only reference point a child might have in their mind about Africa. If that little girl were to acquire the postcard as a souvenir after the ride, the impact of the display would then surely have a much longer-lasting effect. The postcard would then serve as a constant reminder about how the African section looked. A tangible image is a stronger reminder than a memory. If someone who’s never been on the boat journey were to see the postcard, that person’s perception of Africa could also be influenced. Therefore, hyper-generalisation is one of the reasons why the display is problematic, promoting stereotypes to both children and adults. The ride has the power to shape a child’s perception of the world in a matter of minutes. The racial implications are extreme since the representation of Africa serves as a subtle educational tool that propagates broader racist content.

The original intention behind the ride might have been innocent; to simply invite people around the world and to advocate a message of unity. The problem lies in the disingenuous cultural and societal portrayal of foreign countries. As seen with the postcard, the African display in the ride is polluted with racist elements. It offers a depiction of racialized falsehood that could influence the way visitors, especially children, view Africa. Most intriguing and disturbing is how this ride has survived the test of time. Despite the increasingly globalized worldview, the attraction is still filled with offensive stereotypes, offering extremely outdated interpretations of foreign societies dating back to its year of creation. Accepting the African display’s racial implications serves to affirm the characterization of distinctive cultures in such a way.

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Audrey Boutot is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 251.

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Laudan Nooshin, “Circumnavigation with a Difference? Music, Representation and the Disney Experience: ‘It’s a Small, Small World'” Ethnomusicology Forum 13, no. 2 (2004): 236-51, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20184484.

2 “It’s a Small World- Fantasyland Orlando, FL Disney Postcard”, Cardcow, accessed March 25, 2021, https://www.cardcow.com/721123/orlando-florida-its-small-world-fantasyland-amusement-parks-disney/.

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