Home » Women Who Changed the Disney Parks Forever: Mary Blair

Women Who Changed the Disney Parks Forever: Mary Blair

"it's a small world" holiday entrance

Walt Disney’s park-bench daydream may have set the wheels in motion for Disneyland’s creation, but he needed a talented and diverse staff to make his dream a reality. The early days of the Disney Parks’ development are littered with a plethora of legendary talent, from Nine Old Men holdovers like Ward Kimball and Marc Davis to Claude Coats, Xavier “X” Atencio, Rolly Crump, Harriet Burns, Alice Davis, and so many, many more.

Here, we’re going to take a look back at some of the women that furthered Walt’s ideas at the Disney Parks—women without whom the parks would be far less rich, colorful, and inspiring as they are today. First up: Iconic artist-turned-Imagineer Mary Blair.

Walt’s new project—and his new problem

"it's a small world" holiday entrance

Image: HarshLight, Flickr (license)

Love it or hate it, the one thing you can say with absolute certainty about “it’s a small world” is that it leaves each rider with an indelible impression. With the Sherman Brothers’ tinny earworm playing on a loop, guests are ferried from room to room of floor-to-ceiling displays. Dolls, each intricately detailed and outfitted to fit the décor of international platforms, dangle from balloons, balance atop surfboards, bang cymbals, beat drums, strum guitars, wave pennants, shimmy in hula dance, fish from icy cliffs, steer gondolas, twirl lassoes, and test-drive flying carpets. It’s the kind of attraction you could ride dozens of times without absorbing everything it has to offer, as well as the kind of attraction most guests can’t stomach more than once in a day (barring the need for air-conditioning during a particularly unbearable California/Florida summer).

What is commonly looked down on as a “kiddie ride” today was neither annoying nor juvenile when Walt came up with the idea in 1963. WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) had been approached by the Pepsi-Cola Company nearly a full year before the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, in the hopes that they could sponsor a brand-new Disney exhibit in honor of UNICEF.

When Disney finally accepted the challenge, their team of Imagineers and designers had just nine months to make the whole thing come together. According to Disney historian Sam Gennawey, Walt had no sooner looked over animator and Imagineer Marc Davis’ first models for the project when he did an about-face and asked, “What’s Mary Blair doing?”

Mary Blair: concept artist, designer… and Imagineer?

"it's a small world" attraction interior

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

By the early 1960s, Blair was a renowned artist both within and without the Disney bubble. Her boundary-pushing concepts and bold, innovative use of primary colors had already enhanced classic films like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, as well as mixed animation-live action features like Saludos Amigos, Song of the South, and So Dear to My Heart. She pursued a career in freelance art and design following the premiere of Peter Pan in 1953, but later accepted a new position within the Walt Disney Company when Walt requested her assistance in fleshing out his new attraction.

The concept, as Walt explained it to his team, couldn’t be further from the elaborate dark rides, lifelike Audio-Animatronic displays, and treacherous roller coasters that populated his theme park in Anaheim, California—at least, not from a storytelling perspective. As “it’s a small world” was intended as a tribute to UNICEF’s stated goals of helping impoverished children around the world, he wanted to commission a design that would eschew sophistication and advanced mechanics in favor of bright colors, diverse cultures, and an overall feeling of happiness and unity.

This meshed perfectly with Blair’s talents. She applied her light-hearted style to the concept of the “happiest cruise on Earth” and drew from her experiences in Latin America during the formation of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros to better inform the wide swath of diverse characters Walt was looking for. After the World’s Fair wrapped in 1965, Disney shipped “it’s a small world” to Anaheim piece by piece, where it was reassembled and fitted into a permanent installation in the back woods of Fantasyland. The only thing lacking was an entrance as whimsical and wonderful as the ride itself, a design job that eventually went to Imagineers Fred Joerger and Rolly Crump after Blair struggled to transfer her innovative designs into working three-dimensional models.

That hiccup taken care of, the opening of “it’s a small world” was a massive triumph for all involved. The world Blair had helped dream up—a brilliant tapestry of nations and people celebrated in song and dance—would forever remain an iconic part of Walt’s Disneyland.

Disney places Blair in charge of the future

Concept art for Mary Blair's 1967 Tomorrowland murals

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

The design of “it’s a small world” may have been Blair’s first Disney Parks assignment, but it wouldn’t be her last. And in 1967, just months after Walt’s death, there was a new problem to tackle: the concept, in both design and purpose, of Tomorrowland.

Unlike the expedition-centered Adventureland or Western cowboy fantasy of Frontierland, Tomorrowland lacked a clear focus. Was it meant to provide a portal into the future, showcasing only the latest gadgets and giving guests a taste of things to come? Did its vision of the year 1986 portend a utopia or a dystopia? Could it be a place of learning, exploration, and experimentation, rather than a jumble of impossible fantasies? Should it?

Disney wasn’t sure exactly how they wanted to shape Tomorrowland, only that they needed to take measures to prevent it from looking and feeling outdated. They had grown impatient of the carousel of corporate slogans and heavily-sponsored attractions and were searching for something more welcoming, more visionary, and more… fun. Enter Mary Blair (yet again), who was commissioned to create two tiled murals to adorn the entrance of Tomorrowland.

By the time she was done, it looked almost as if “it’s a small world” had been stretched from one end of the park to the other. A red, roiling sun—not unlike the smiling clock face on the “it’s a small world” façade—rose from the center of the mosaic over Circle-Vision 360°, flanked by small figures who were flying through the air, hanging from trapeze bars, and lounging on the wavy boughs of white-and-gold clouds. On the opposite mural, this one atop the newly-opened Adventures Thru Inner Space, children from multiple countries gathered on what appeared to be two white picnic blankets, while a third group played trumpets and tubas under a hovering UFO and a few jewel-toned planets.

Before long, however, Disney tired of their new vision for Tomorrowland. Public tastes were shifting as once-revolutionary attractions became increasingly stale and hokey, there had been more than a few unseemly accidents involving the PeopleMover, and their next idea of the future—headlined as it was by their recent acquisition of Lucasfilm—clashed with the simple, sunny vibes of Blair’s tilework. As the land began to morph into its next redesign, the original murals were gradually covered up by more space-age designs in 1987 and 1998. Rumor has it that Blair’s designs were never fully removed, though Disney hasn’t gone so far as to suggest that they have any plans for excavating those particular artefacts of theme park history.

It’s hard to believe the decision to erase a little of Blair’s influence and artistry was made out of any kind of malice, especially given the company’s ongoing dissatisfaction with Tomorrowland. Still, given her tremendous impact on Disney’s films and theme park attractions over the years, perhaps there will come a time when more of her vibrant work can be salvaged and preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.

From Disneyland to Walt Disney World and beyond

Contemporary Resort Mary Blair mural

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Of course, there’s still one Mary Blair mural that remains visible to the public today—if you know where to look. When Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort debuted alongside the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971, hotel visitors were treated to another very colorful, very fanciful, very Mary piece of artwork as they strolled up and down the Grand Canyon Concourse. Rising nearly to the ceiling itself, her 90-foot mosaic was visible from multiple vantage points within the hotel and from the windows of passing Monorail cars, too. Its intersecting panels of deep reds, striking oranges, olive greens, sunshine yellows, and royal blues formed an impressively tapestried canyon wall, decorated with the charming creatures and children that had come to be so distinctive in Blair’s work.

Although that was the final Disney project Blair worked on before her untimely death in 1978, her impact on the Disney studio and theme parks can be felt from Anaheim to Shanghai. It was her sense of wonder and whimsy, after all, that helped breathe life into Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Three Caballeros, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and more—all of which have inspired numerous attractions, shows, and parade floats for Disney’s six properties over the last 64 years.

So, the next time you take a tumble down Splash Mountain, sail through the Darlings’ nursery window in Peter Pan’s Flight, escape the heat in EPCOT’s Gran Fiesta Tour, trail the White Rabbit through Alice in Wonderland, or dodge a gang of conniving weasels in Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, take a moment and reflect on one of the most inspiring Imagineers to leave her thumbprint on the Disney Parks. Your experience will be richer for it.