It has been more than 30 years since we took our kids to Disney World, and I still find it impossible to dislodge the park’s “It’s a Small World” theme song from my brain. By the time we visited the Magic Kingdom, my kids were too old for the kiddie ride of the same name, which features some 300 animatronic dolls of every nationality singing this ditty in endless rounds. However, as we discovered, the song was nearly ubiquitous throughout the park; indeed, since it was first composed for a Disney-engineered exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, it has become one of the most performed and translated songs of all time.
The song’s theme is as irresistible as its melody. How can one quarrel with the notion that people all over the world share so much in common – particularly when presented in a park setting that is its own small world? In fact, Disney World and especially Disneyland are even smaller than they appear to be, thanks to a moviemaking technique called forced perspective, employed by the film art directors and animators who designed much of the original theme park in 1955. The narrow-gauge steam trains than run around the perimeter of Disneyland are built to three-fifths scale. The two-story gingerbread storefronts along Main Street U.S.A. are three-quarters scale, with the second story smaller than the first. The proportions and architectural details of Cinderalla’s Castle in Disney World are only about half size at the top, making the structure appear to be much taller than it actually is. Similarly, the trees planted on the higher slopes of the Matterhorn replica in Disneyland are miniatures, so you don’t realize the 147-foot structure in only 1/100 the size of the mountain in Switzerland.
Just as the artful use of forced perspective can turn a cramped sound stage into wide open spaces, Disney’s designers managed to squeeze a small world into a space not much larger than a Hollywood movie lot. And while objects at a distance may appear larger than they actually are, there is also a subtle kind of Alice-in-Wonderland effect that operates on both children and adults in this scaled-down realm. Children who must normally contend with a world built for grownups now find themselves in an environment that is more nearly their size. Adults, meanwhile, have that nostalgic sense of returning to a world remembered from childhood and discovering that everything is smaller than their recollection of it.
We forget how the world appears to a small child and how little power they have to operate in an environment where almost everything is above their line of sight and out of reach. Dolls and toy trucks enable children to engage imaginatively with the larger world long before they are capable of mastering it any other way. They create their own small worlds. Those who build model cars and airplanes as kids may continue to build scale models as grownup engineers and architects. Walt Disney was a model railroad buff his entire life. The 1/8-scale miniature railroad he operated on a half-mile track in his own backyard became the prototype for the narrow-gauge steam trains he operated at Disneyland.
Why this lingering fascination with miniature realms? Perhaps it’s because we never outgrow a sense that the world we normally inhabit is vastly larger than ourselves. And yet if we pay strict attention to the world as it actually presents itself to us, we will realize it is never larger than our own bodies. Our bodily senses conjure a world of sweeping vistas that plays out in the theater of the mind, but its true breadth is never greater than the space between our ears. It’s one of those clever tricks of perspective that makes you believe the small world you actually occupy encompasses an entire universe.