Artist behind ‘It’s a Small World’

Times Staff Writer

In need of a job in 1944, Santa Monica High School graduate Joyce Carlson followed a friend to Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, where she landed work in the traffic department delivering mail, and office and art supplies.

But what started out as just a job turned into a career for Carlson, who spent the next 56 years involved first with Disney animated movies and then theme park attractions worldwide.

Carlson, who helped ink animated films such as “Cinderella,” “Peter Pan” and “Sleeping Beauty” before helping create the original model for the “It’s a Small World” attraction for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, died of cancer Wednesday at her home in Orlando, Fla. She was 84.

As part of Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s theme park attraction design division, Carlson worked on many attractions but is most closely identified with “It’s a Small World.”


In addition to working on the model for the ride, she was known as the artist behind many of its singing dolls.

Carlson, who was among a small group of artists sent to New York by Walt Disney to install the attraction at the World’s Fair, had a feeling “It’s a Small World” would be a hit.

“It was fabulous, because of the song and the characters,” she recalled in a 2006 interview with the Orlando Sentinel.

“The little audio-animatronic figures, the way they were moving. The costumes were beautiful. Everyone, grownups and kids, would just love it.”


With her experience on “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland, Carlson later helped bring the ride to Walt Disney World in Florida and Tokyo Disneyland.

“What Joyce shared with everyone in the Model Shop was passion,” Marty Sklar, executive vice president and Imagineering ambassador for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, said in a news release.

During her years as an Imagineer, Carlson was known for preaching the message of artistic precision that she had learned from first-generation Disney attraction designers such as Mary Blair, Grace Bailey and John Hench.

“Without a doubt, Joyce influenced a whole group of us about the importance of detail,” Patrick Brennan, Disney World’s director of show design, told the Orlando Sentinel in 2006. “It’s all in the detail. And the authenticity. And color. . . . She would have you remix a color 10 times if it was required. You learned that it wasn’t arbitrary.”

Even after she officially retired in 2000, Carlson continued to mentor fellow Imagineers at Walt Disney World for several years.

Born in Racine, Wis., on March 16, 1923, Carlson moved to Southern California with her family in 1938.

Several months after going to work at Walt Disney Studios in 1944, she produced a portfolio of pen-and-ink sketches and landed a job in the studio’s ink and paint department. The department, she later said with a laugh, was dubbed the “nunnery” because the workers were “all girls,” who sometimes put in 16-hour days to ensure a feature film was finished on time.

Beginning with work on short animated training films for the Army, Carlson spent the next 16 years as an inker and by the 1955 classic “Lady and the Tramp” had become the lead ink artist.


After technology replaced inkers in 1960, Carlson joined what later became known as Walt Disney Imagineering.

Carlson, who moved to central Florida in 1982, was a 70-year-old senior show production designer in 1994 when she became the first woman in the Walt Disney Co. to become a 50-year employee.

Even then, she still enjoyed sneaking backstage at Walt Disney World and watching children as they rode the boats through “It’s a Small World.”

“You watch them going through,” she told the Orlando Sentinel at the time, “and they’re just all eyes.”

When she retired in 2000, Carlson was declared a Disney Legend -- an honor given to those who have made major contributions to the company.

She also received another tribute on Main Street at Walt Disney World: an inscription on a second-floor shop window above the Emporium that reads, “Dolls by Miss Joyce, Dollmaker for the World.”

Carlson is survived by her sister, Veryl Jones.

A private celebration of her life is planned. Contributions in Carlson’s name may be made to the Hospice of the Comforter, 480 W. Central Parkway, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714.