You’re Looking at the Heads

There is something intrinsically lovable about a large, oval head. From Hello Kitty to Madagascar‘s Mort, an oval head screams cute and cuddly. You have to fight the impulse to touch – no squeeze – the oval-headed sweetie.

I am not immune to this desire. In fact, my obsession with ovoid noggins started early. Right about here.

The Avon “Small World” collection. I badgered my mother for all of these little dolls filled with bubble bath and cologne. And she relented. I got the Asian doll, the Irish doll, the Dove filled with cream lotion, and a pin with “glace” fragrance – THAT I STILL HAVE. Those oblong-headed treasures were displayed prominently on my dresser. I can still feel the smooth plastic they were made of and the satisfaction when you pulled off the heads to use the contents. I didn’t know about the Small World ride at the time or who inspired the design of these large-headed girls with interchangeable facial features, but they started a passion that apparently many people share. And I blame Mary Blair.

Mary Blair is beloved by illustrators and designers. As everything mid-century is highly sought-after now, Blair’s joyful, naive yet futuristic illustrations are popular with boomers who view her work with nostalgic longing and with Gen Y who view it as an adorable style to emulate. As a favorite of Walt Disney’s (she actually quit once and he coaxed her back, not just to work but to be part of a group of artists on a goodwill tour of South America), she illustrated concept art for Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan to name just a few. Walt appreciated the modernity and unique color in her work and she became a trusted artistic consultant. Post Disney, she illustrated for advertising and publishing. After retiring, she again worked with Disney as set designer of It’s a Small World, a ride originally created for the 1964 World’s Fair, then transported to Disneyland. Rolly Crump, tasked with the character design, states that he bought Mary’s Golden Books for children and emulated Mary’s style. Large, oval heads.

Dolls from Mary Blair's "It's a Small World"

In addition to providing the inspiration for the character design, Blair painted the exterior concept art,


which was followed closely.

Exterior of "It's a Small World" designed by Mary Blair

Small World was revamped in 2008-09 and some ride aficionados, including Blair’s son Kevin, were dismayed by the changes — specifically the addition of Disney characters into the ride. They felt inserting the Disney properties diluted the original message of the ride: cross-cultural understanding brought to you by the children of the world. It’s a fair point. The ride had long been a pleasant break from the mass consumerism that the park can reflect. (see previous post.)  The designers have integrated them rather seamlessly, however. I didn’t catch sight of all of them.

The boats were also replaced, the rumor being to accommodate the increased girth of your average American. Disney didn’t confirm this. I would imagine the boats were pretty worn out regardless. But we are indeed fat.


(My husband pointed out the loading area looks like something out of the 1960’s The Prisoner tv series. I agree.)

It's a Small World clock

It’s not a thrill ride and was never meant to be. There is seldom a line to get on it. The slow pace of the boats is relaxing to some, boring to others. But I’ll take Blair’s geometric exterior, the white and gold color scheme (22K gold leaf!), the topiary, the lamp shades that look like asian hats, the interior with too much for the eye to see, the colors, the costumes, and the earworm theme song anytime. And those dolls, those damn, darling oval-headed dolls.

That’s nice. Sooo, should I go? If you’re at Disneyland, why wouldn’t you? Even if you hate the song and think the dolls are creepy, you’re out of the sun for a few minutes.

I’m smitten. Tell me more. The gift shop outside the ride used to have tons of Mary Blair merchandise. Sadly, now the shelves are full of princesses without a Blair item in the shop. A missed marketing opportunity – c’mon Disney!

Location  At the back of Fantasyland in Disneyland, CA. There is a Small World ride in each of the Disney parks worldwide.

Cost  Included with your Disneyland admission. Ride as many times as you like!

Tip  Look for the blonde Mary Blair doll on the Eiffel Tower.

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