Magic Kingdom: It’s a Small Civilization After All

I’m finally getting around to publishing my Disney posts- you can expect three more after this.

Magic Kingdom’s “It’s a Small World After All” (hereafter IASW) probably won the award for “Ride Experienced Most Differently As an Adult” (though Epcot’s “The American Adventure” was a close second- more on that in my next post). That’s mostly because Eddie Keane’s “Makings of the Modern International System” seminar has had my brain firing hard-core on the complicated politics of globalization and the links amongst geopolitics (or imperialism), civilization, economic ties, and cultural change in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For those of you unfamiliar, IASW is a fixed boat-track “tour of the world” throughout various rooms filled with animatronic puppets representing different countries/cultures/ethnicities all singing the eponymous ear worm of a song. Premiering at the famous 1964 World’s Fair in New York, it proved extremely popular, and later became a Disney World stalwart.

The lazy accusation to make of IASW is that it trucks in mildly racist stereotypes. Which is sort of true, but not very interesting (besides, every people group on the ride is presented rather stereotypically). Much more interesting is actually the way the ride is organized. The world is presented in this order:

First Room: Europe

  • Scandinavia
  • Germany
  • France
  • UK
  • Holland
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • (Classical) Greece (at the doorway to room 2)

Second Room: Asia

  • Hasidic/Shtetl Jews
  • (Modern) Greece
  • Russia
  • China
  • Bali/Indonesia
  • India
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Thailand

Third Room: Africa

  • Egypt/Arabia
  • “Africa” (jungle, savannah, lots of “tribal” dancers/musicians, various African animals)

Fourth Room: South America

  • Argentina,
  • Chile
  • Mexico
  • “Rain Forest”

Fifth Room: South Pacific

  • Hawaii
  • Australia
  • Polynesia
  • New Guinea

Sixth Room: Finale



Less imaginative commentators have pointed out that IASW doesn’t exactly provide a geographically coherent view of the world. Besides organizing rooms into various “continents”, there isn’t much organization, and the order of continents (or of countries within continents) doesn’t make much sense. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a coherent organizational logic behind the ride. I submit that the organizational logic at work here is the “Standard of Civilization” and the remnants of a Euro-centric Enlightenment view of history that still had currency in the early 60s, with a unique American twist which I’ll explain.

The timing sort of makes sense. When Walt Disney was working on the ride in 1963, the colonial wars were still raging, and every major European colonial power was still heavily involved in its former colonies, if not still the formal sovereign. While it is hard to see this in retrospect, a lot of the discourse defending these colonial holdings was of the civilizational variety; “liberal imperialism” (a la JS Mill) was the only acceptable kind – involvement in the colonies allowed the European states to continue the work of “educating” and uplifting colonial peoples to the refinement, manners, knowledge, “civilization” of the West. Lest we see this as purely one-sided, in each colonial nation there was a significant fraction of the populace (usually the educated, often elite section) that more or less agreed with this proposition (Graham Greene documents this in subtle and compelling ways in his novel The Quiet American). At the same time, following WW1, another civilizational discourse had taken ahold in the world, one emphasizing the plurality of civilizations and their (relative) equality. Propelled forward by a curious mix of historically minded Europeans (like Toynbee), new kinds of nationalism, and educated elites from “non-civilized” countries, the civilizations discourse was opposed to and deconstructive of the “Standard of Civilization”, holding that, as opposed to all of humanity moving together (at varying speeds) towards one common standard of progress, science, reason, etc., many cultures and peoples were advancing along their own ideals, standards of progress, and developmental trajectories. These two conceptions (civilization and civilizations) are interlinked in complex ways- societies on the margins of the West like the Ottoman Empire/Turkey, Japan, and Russia often pursued “civilization” before turning to a “civilizations” discourse and their own developmental trajectory after being rebuffed by Europe. And a belief in a planet of multiple civilizations did not prevent a belief in a competition amongst civilizations (a la Huntington) or in the local supremacy of one civilization and the construction of a local “Standard of Civilization” (a la the Soviets in Central Asia or Japanese imperialism in the 1930s-40s).

So what does this have to do with IASW? On one hand, there is clearly a “civilizations” discourse going on here – there is no overt hierarchy of nations, and each society is presented in a positive light with its “traditional culture” at the fore (even though many of those “traditional cultures”, like that of the Scottish, only came into being in light of 19th century nationalism and civilizational discourse). On the other hand, the old Standard of Civilization looms large. The journey starts in the “heart” of the civilized world – Northern and Western Europe, before taking you right down the spectrum into slightly less civilized/enlightened/productive/scientific Southern Europe (Spain, Italy) into even less civilized Eastern Europe and the Balkans (the most “barbaric” parts of Europe) and into the “Barbaric” countries which had real culture and law, but not the individualism and advancement of Europe, such as Japan, Korea, India, and China. IASW showcases the “culture” of these countries (traditional buildings, dress, etc) but none of the modern technology found in the Europe room. After that comes the “Savage” territories of Africa and the New World – “discovered” late by Europeans, and after the Great Divergence was well underway. While lacking in culture and law to European standards, they had the benefit of a “natural” lifestyle, a kind of Rousseauian primitivism. On IASW, only Egypt (the “civilized” part of Africa) and the Aztec ruins of Mexico contain any human architecture – the rest of Africa, South America, and Polynesia is a mixture of wild nature and “tribal” society (with the implied “wildness” of human society in these places front and center).

This leaves an interesting question – where is the United States represented in this world? It seems to me that the Finale room, while not explicitly American, represents a kind of classic American critique/embrace of the Standard of Civilizations. Here, representatives of all different races/ethnicities meet in a kind of “melting pot”, united by the progress of science and technology (exemplified by bright electrical lights, Ferris wheels, hot air balloons, etc), made equal by the experience of migration, assimilation, and integration into American society, which is a kind of prototype of a new possibility in world society. It’s telling that there is an ambiguity between whether this is a depiction of America or the world – this kind of cultivated both/and structure I found to be characteristic of Disney World as a whole (which I’ll explain in my future posts). The Finale room is an insight into how Walt Disney saw the 1964 Worlds Fair – as presenting an image of what the American World Order meant. All of the elements of IASW – the simultaneous embrace of “traditional” culture and technological progress, the earnest belief that the United States offers an alternative to a European way of making sense of world society, the tight link between government, society, and business in the service of this broader democratic vision (IASW was sponsored by Pepsi) – are found today at Disney World, in spades. IASW is a glimpse of the politics of Disney World in miniature; it is, perhaps, also a peephole into a deeper, even subconscious, part of the American mentality towards international politics and the purpose of American society.


My next post will be on the politics of Disney World.