The World According to Walt

Emboldened by this, they began to explore the Mighty Mississippi, which, it turned out, was pretty much a pussy. "What'd you say?" the early explorers asked the river. "Nothing," it said. "That's right," they said. "Now go make us a sandwich." And so it did. It turned out you could get across the Mighty Mississippi on a simple raft equipped only with some rope, a pair of Vans sneakers and a high-powered diesel engine. They soon discovered new lands, but disappointment lay ahead. Once in these new lands, they were set upon by fat guys who told them, "Hey, hey, no running!" And, worse, they discovered that the fort no longer sold oversized pickles. This was a devastating blow. But then, in one of those magical moments in this New and Magical Land, the settlers looked across the river and saw the Native Americans waving at them. This gave the settlers a new resolve as they crossed back over the river and set fire to the Native American villages.

—Steve Lowery


The song remains the same, recited incessantly throughout Disneyland's most infamous attraction like the can't-miss-the-point of a culture war's propaganda campaign. And the singsong goes on and on, echoing through my skull for hours after I've climbed out of the too-long boat tour that is It's a Small World.

C'mon, let's all join in:

It's a world of laughter A world of tears It's a world of something-something It's a world of something-that- rhymes-with-tears It's a blah-blah-blah-blah And a dah-dah-dah-dah It's a small world after all. . . .

I don't even know the damn words, and the song terrifies me.

Of course, I'm not alone in my Small World phobia. Generally, this ride is held in the sort of contempt otherwise reserved for street mimes—although, in this case, a street mime who just won't shut up. It's hard to find anybody who'll admit he or she likes it. Even 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban refugee made famous when he was found clinging to an inner tube after the boat carrying him to the United States sank, was terrified at the onset of the ride at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The Los Angeles Times reported that the boy gripped his uncle's knee and asked, "Is the boat going to sink?" And yet, according to the same account, little Elian was soon placated and ended up thoroughly enchanted.

Therein lies the wonder of this double-edged amusement: its ability to re-create the innocent—someone more cynical might say repressed—atmosphere of the Eisenhower-era world-view. Added as an attraction in the 1960s, the boat tour through Walt's "salute to the children of the world" is as globally conscious as Hindu-fearing Buena Park and as disturbingly cheerful as a Stepford Wife.

Because, of course, it's not a small world. It's a big, wide, diverse world, no matter how many times 436 animatronic children—Swedish children, Dutch children, German children, African children, Asian children, a child cowboy and a child Indian standing side by side, as well as mermaid children from beneath the sea—sing otherwise.

And, although it doesn't admit it, the ride knows this.

On the one hand, it presents a world before Babel, before the arrogance of building a tower to heaven splintered the family of man into a thousand separate languages. But even as it delivers this paragon of multiculturalism, It's a Small World filters its e pluribus unum through America's post-World War II arrogance and isolationism. This meandering boat ride, which I've come to refer to as "Heart of Darkness" (as opposed to the Jungle Cruise, which I refer to as "nap time"), is chock-full of negative—someone more cynical would say "derogatory"—stereotypes. To resolve the dichotomy, it portrays these insults as "quaint" or "cute."

As the boat rounds a bend, the passengers are greeted by an Egyptian display, a sanitized interpretation of Sir Richard Francis Burton's The Arabian Nights: The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, which the great British explorer translated from Arabic in the late 1800s. Devoid of the book's obvious cultural appreciation, violence and blatant erotica, Arab society—one of the oldest surviving on the planet—is reduced to small children soaring on flying carpets and courtesans beckoning suggestively while lounging on a scarf-covered bed. Burton, who was so impressed by the beauty and texture of Middle Eastern culture that he converted to Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, would be thoroughly appalled.

About halfway through the ride—that is, if one can maintain one's senses amidst the incessant droning of that damn song—the astute boater usually makes a disturbing discovery: "Hey! All these kids are honkies!"

Yes, all the white Arabs, the white Latinos in mid-fiesta, the white Indians (Native American and Asian-subcontinental varieties), the white Eskimos ice fishing while surrounded by happy, dancing penguins—all of the honkies are here, in all their white/off-white/just-a-different-shade-of-white glory. Even the blacks are white. All three of them. There they are—the same bodies and heads of the other robots, with a different color of paint dumped on them—wearing Witch Doctor masks and grass loincloths covering their privates. And then there's the Australian aborigine, playing with his boomerang, jerking it up and down, up and down, in slow, steady repetition.

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