It’s a Small World After All!

A closer look at the cartography of the famous Disney ride

It’s a Small World After All!

The world may be your oyster, a stage, or one big hospital [1], it is also a Disney ride. It’s a Small World After All (IaSWAA) can be experienced at each of the five Disney parks [2] across the world. The ride has been thrilling - and its repetitive and catchy theme song annoying - guests since 1964, when it debuted at the UNICEF pavilion at the New York World’s Fair.   

When we say ‘thrilling’, we mean mainly for the up-to-four-year-olds: IaSWAA is a slow, spatter-free boat ride through scenery set to represent the entire world, replete with 300 robotic children singing the eponymous theme song in different languages [3].  

The original ride fit in nicely with the overall theme of the World’s Fair [4], which was meant to celebrate ‘Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe’. But in fact, IaSWAA’s presence at the Fair was a try-out for Disney; and it proved popular enough to be introduced to Disneyland in 1966 [5].

The vibrant colours, simple and repetitive music and limited range of doll movements are surely elements of the ride’s continued popularity - especially with Disney’s younger customers. Might it be too much wishful thinking [6] to presume that its geographic angle is also part of the attraction?  

Surely, for many of those tiny visitors, this must be their first introduction to the concept of the 'whole wide world', and its rich diversity of landscapes, languages and peoples. Perhaps this is why the potentially bewildering concept of the world’s vastness is sugarcoated by the reassuring message that it’s a small world after all. And not a huge, violent, incomprehensible and sometimes even downright impolite one.

In this light, IaSWAA can be seen as an important tool for social engineering, nipping xenophobia and jingoism in the bud and imbuing kids at their most impressionable ages with a cosmopolitan outlook on the world [7]. But does it also teach geography worth remembering? 

Well, no - unless for its novelty value. Disney’s Small World may be the first ‘global’ experience for many kids, it's not the best possible introduction to the correct layout of the world’s countries and continents. Due to the constraints of the ride, what passes for the world is laid out in a continuous strip, on both banks of a world river, with obvious sacrifices to accuracy.

The world starts in Scandinavia, visitors being greeted by reindeer on hilltops, Nordic folk dancers, and Danish toy soldiers standing guard at Tivoli Gardens. 

Make-believe geography has Denmark border France - which must please Henri [8], the French-born prince consort of the Danish queen. Inevitably, the Eiffel Tower and cancan dancers symbolise the Hexagon; are tourists visiting Paris disappointed when it turns out the boulevards and avenues of the French capital aren't teeming with girls lifting up their skirts to show off their twirling legs?

All this is happening rive droite, while on the left bank of the ride, Tower Bridge [9], Big Ben and the tower of Parliament compete with Beefeaters [10] to paint a postcard-perfect picture of London. The metropolitan scenery melts into a few Scottish and Irish clichés (tartan and bagpipes and shamrock and leprechauns, respectively) before transforming seamlessly into Belgium, Holland (tulips and windmills) and Spain and Italy (windmills and Don Quixote, the Leaning Tower of Pisa). Across the water, Germany’s glockenspiel abuts Switzerland’s yodelers and cuckoo clocks.

The second bend brings the boats abruptly from Europe to Asia, avoiding the usual gateway of Istanbul to proceed via Israel (chuppah [11] wedding), Indonesia and Bali (the Hindu goddess Kali), India (flying carpets and the Taj Mahal) and Thailand (folk dancers) on the left bank, and on the right: Greece (shepherd with pan flute), Russia (cossacks and Red Square), China (pandas and the Great Wall), Japan (Mount Fuji) and Korea.

Past a Torii Gate [12], Asia suddenly gives way to Africa. Egypt is the only nation clearly distinguished, with the Sphinx and its pyramids; the other exhibits refer to a generalised, generic Africa: lots of wildlife (lions, zebra, monkeys) and straw huts.

A pink elephant marks the border with South America, with Argentina (penguins and gauchos), Brazil (carnival dancers), Chile (llamas) and the rain forest occupying the left bank, and Central America (blue oxen - really?), Mexico (Aztec pyramids, sombreros) and more rain forest on the other side. 

The penultimate section transports the visitors to the South Pacific, showing off Hawaii’s hula dancers, Australia’s marsupials (koalas, kangaroos and suchlike), and the drummers and dancers of New Guinea, Polynesia and Tahiti. 

The last section is the grand finale, a resumé of what went before: dolls of all nations sing together in harmony, from Russian boys to Thai girls; French cancan girls and a few other famous stereotypes [13] make a second appearance. 

Exiting IaSWAA, impressionable young minds have learnt a thing or two about the wide, wonderful world we live in: it is replete with a small selection of stereotypes, in three categories: architectural (France equals Eiffel Tower, no Egypt without pyramids), musical (the Spanish love flamenco dancing, bagpipes are typically Scottish), and natural (India is filled with tigers, Holland with tulips); music is the universal language; and beneath their exotic veneer, people (or at least Disney’s mechanical dolls) are really just all the same.

Oh, and Australia borders Hawaii, Holland is next to Spain, and Thailand is just across the water from Japan...

Many thanks to Jonah Adkins for researching, producing, and sending in this map. It can be found here on his website. Also check out this map of Lost, and other cartographic stuff


Strange Map #578

Got a strange map? Let me know at


[1] Heinrich Heine: "Das Leben ist eine Krankheit, die ganze Welt ein Lazarett, und der Tod ist unser Arzt." (Life is a disease, the whole world one big hospital, and death is our doctor). Try making a ride out of that, Mr Disney!

[2] There are Disney Parks and Resorts in California, Florida, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong. A sixth one, in Shanghai, is slated for 2016.

[3] If our sources are correct: English, Spanish, Japanese, Italian, and Swedish.

[4] The third, and as yet last World’s Fair to be held in New York (1853, 1939 and 1964), on the same grounds in Queens that hosted the previous one. 

[5] The later versions of IaSWAA introduced at the other Disney parks are essentially copies of the original in Anaheim, with small alterations: the Paris version has German and Arabic versions of the song, and a separate room for North America; the Hong Kong version has Tagalog, Cantonese and Mandarin versions of the song, and an larger Asia section; the Tokyo version has the song in Japanese.

[6] The best of the possible options will turn out to be the right one. The reverse of Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. 

[7] This is your cue to start ranting against the United Nations, Skull and Bones, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, and/or any other society steering the the planet towards one-world government. Or should that be, small-world-after-all government?

[8] Full name, Henri Marie Jean André de Laborde de Monpezat (b. 1934). An accomplished poet (in French), the prince-consort is more in love with his wife than with his adopted country - to put it mildly. In the early 1990s, he even ‘eloped’ back to France for three weeks, before he resumed his official duties. Decades ahead of the current vogue for celebrity cookbooks, he published a collection of favourite recipes, entitled 'Ikke altid gåselever' (Not Always Foie Gras).

[9] Often confused with London Bridge, which is the subject of the famous nursery rhyme, but less recognisable as it lacks the other’s two towers. The rumour that this confusion played a part in the sale (1967) and relocation (1971) of the previous London Bridge to the United States, was strenuously denied by Robert P. McCullough, the chainsaw baron who used the Bridge to attract interest in a development scheme on the shores of Lake Havasu, on the Arizona-California border.

[10] Officially called the Yeomen Warders, these remarkably attired guardians at the Tower of London are an attraction in their own right; their nickname may derive from their ancient privilege to eat as much beef from the King’s table as they desired.

[11] The canopy under which traditional Jewish marriages are concluded, symbolising the young couple’s new home. 

[12] A traditional Japanese gate found at shinto temples, marking the border between the profane and the sacred.

[13] And a few lesser-known ones. Belgian goose girl?

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Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

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Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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