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Disney Revives Its "Small World" Heritage, for a Globalized World

Disney takes old conceptual art from one of its most famous rides and turns it into luxury clothing — for charity.

Disney Revives Its "Small World" Heritage, for a Globalized World

In 1964, Disney introduced "It's a Small World" at the New York World's Fair. The ride was dazzling. Folks hopped into small boats for a whirlwind tour of the "globe," where animatronic children of every nationality sang about fuzzy things like diversity and unity. Sure, the whole thing was a tad creepy, but visually, it was stunning. Kids and parents alike were rapt.

Forty-five years later, Disney is celebrating Small World with a line of luxury apparel based on the ride's never-before-seen concept art. It has also re-connected with UNICEF, the ride's original sponsor, and the likes of Nordstrom, Lauren Bush, and FEED to carve out a chunk of the proceeds for children's charities.


At the Disney campus in Glendale, California, a team of raiders dig through Walt's vaults, searching for art that could inspire new products. It's a huge task. Disney hangs onto ideas like they're currency. The company's archives fill four libraries and house some 70 million pieces of artwork.

Elizabeth Litten-Miller, 40, a 10-year Disney veteran and director of strategic marketing, is the team's leader. In 2008, she discovered something extraordinary: a series of stunning artworks that taken together, formed the artistic blueprint for Disney's Small World ride. "We realized we had hundreds of these, and no one had ever seen them before," she says.

The pieces were crafted by Mary Blair, one of Walt Disney's personal favorites and a cult hero among many artists. Blair is best known for the coloring of the Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland movies. Walt personally asked her to conceptualize Small World, Disney's most profound statement of cultural understanding to date.

Blair created beautiful collages (by painting and using other media) that served as tableaus for the ride's set. Each is a tribute to an individual country, featuring elements of its visual identity, such as architecture or the countryside. Ireland's tableau is dotted with green shamrocks, rolling hills, and stone castles. Spain's is saturated with rustic garnet and amber tones and features the blank stare of a big black bull.

It's from this rich time capsule that Disney's present-day designers are bringing Small World back to life. They're lifting patterns, colors, shapes, and more from Blair's work, and they're using them to create clothing for toddlers and parents. Most of the items will cost $18 to $56, but certain pieces, like the Petunia Pickle Bottom Diaper Bag, will fetch a higher price ($168). Aimed squarely at the luxury market, they'll be sold exclusively through Nordstrom.

One of the line's premier design decisions is to feature only one country each season, matching that country's color palette to the traditional colors of the time of year. Japan kicks off the line in spring 2011. In the summer, India will be the focal point. Scotland will roll out in the fall, and frigid Russia will round out the holiday push. "Japan, for instance, was selected for its beautiful cherry blossoms, butterflies and buttery pastel shades that work perfectly for spring styles," says Pam Lifford, evp of fashion and home for Disney Consumer Products.

Also, Disney will be working with name designers to create premium outfits that benefit charity. For the debut, Lauren Bush (the ex-president's niece) has designed a backpack and a toddler's outfit that's made from organic cotton. Anywhere from a $1.50 to $3.00 from each premium item sold will go to UNICEF's nutrition program. "When someone buys the bib, for example, they'll be providing 75 children with Vitamin A for the year." Bush says.

The partnership isn't just about raising funds, though, explains Rajesh Anandan, UNICEF's VP of corporate partnerships. It's about sharing the basic themes of Small World and UNICEF with today's mothers. Says Anandan: "What's really exciting is taking essence of the Small World idea, something that's been limited to a physical, sacred place for 45 years, and connecting that idea around the world."