We all know the song. Most of us could sing it in our sleep. Some of us can even sing the version from another country. We hate it; we love it. But I dare say that no other theme song is more recognizable than the one that plays over… and over…. and over again… at the “happiest cruise that ever sailed.” And of course, I’m talking about that ever popular attraction, “it’s a small world”.
We at Disneyland should be especially proud of “it’s a small world” because it is one of those truly classic attractions that not only first appeared at Disneyland itself, but was also one of those that Walt Disney was personally involved with. For those that have never been to a Disney Park, “it’s a small world” is a boat ride attraction that travels indoors past scenes of the children of various countries. Each scene depicts activities and aspects of the particular country. And all the while, the entire attraction is accompanied by the thematic “small world” song. In addition to the original “it’s a small world” attraction in Disneyland, there is a Small World attraction in every Disney Parks and Resorts location worldwide, including Disneyland Park in California, the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World in Florida, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Most people agree that this is a delightful attraction, and while it is the favorite of some, it is certainly high on everyone’s list of definite “must do’s” for every visit to Disneyland.
Small World played an important role in the early development of Disneyland. When Disneyland first opened, there were only a few specialized or unique attractions. There was the Jungle Cruise, and the indoor attractions in Fantasyland, and you could ride the train, or a small model car in Tomorrowland. But many of the attractions, like the Dumbo ride, were really just converted and fancied up carnival rides. Disney didn’t have audio-animatronics, and most of what we now call the “E-Ticket” attractions didn’t exist yet.
In 1964 that all changed. That is the year that Walt Disney was invited to participate in the 1964 New York World’s Fair. There were several other attractions that Disney created for the World’s Fair including Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress. And it was all the efforts for the World’s Fair that helped Disney eventually envision audio-animatronics for those attractions, and that would eventually be brought to other Disneyland attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.
Disney was already working on the Mr. Lincoln attraction for the State of Illinois for the World’s Fair. General Electric was sponsoring the work for the Carousel of Progress. And the Ford Motor Company was the sponsor for the Magic Skyway (which was a ride through-attraction, and a remnant of that attraction can be seen today on the Disneyland Railroad when you go through the Grand Canyon and Primeval World dioramas). Disney was already pretty busy, and this caused most of the new development work within Disneyland to stop completely because WED Enterprises (the name of Imagineering back then) was completely tied up working on the World’s Fair.
But, even with all that activity, there was another attraction that Walt was called on to build for the NY World’s Fair. The Pepsi Cola Company was another sponsor of the Fair. And back in the ‘60s, the UNICEF organization (United Nations Children’s Fund) also wanted to participate and get their message out, which was to help and support the children of the world. UNICEF is a charitable organization, and they called on the Pepsi Cola Company to sponsor an attraction. Pepsi bottles soft drinks, not builds park attractions, so Pepsi and UNICEF approached Disney, who was already involved with all the other attractions for the Fair, to build an attraction for them.
Disney had only been given a couple years to create the other World’s Fair attractions. WED was already hard at work on those attractions when Pepsi approached Disney for their own attraction. At that point, they only had 11 months before the World’s Fair opened. At first they tossed around an idea for another CircleVision 360° exhibit (which was already in operation at Disneyland). That would have been fairly easy to implement.
But then the idea of a boat ride attraction was pitched. This was a totally new concept. But there was a lot of concern about the amount of time (or lack thereof) to create this kind of attraction. Imagineer Joe Fowler was in charge of a lot of the development for the World’s Fair projects. He got the call for the Pepsi proposal and he said absolutely no. With all the activity they were already engaged in, there was no way they could take on another major project. But, Walt heard about the idea. At that point all they had was a series of sketches. Walt loved the idea! He said they would take on the project, and open it on time. And they did!
April 22, 1964 was the opening day for the New York World’s Fair. The Official Guide Book described the Pepsi/UNICEF attraction as follows:
“A salute to the children of the world, designed by Walt Disney, presents animated figures frolicking in miniature settings of many lands. Visitors are carried past the scenes in small boats. In an adjoining building Pepsi sponsors exhibits by the U.S. Committee for the United Nations Children’s Fund. Above the pavilion rises the 120-foot Tower of the Four Winds, a fanciful creation of colored shapes that dance and twist in the breeze.”
Image: Postcard for the 1964 New York World’s Fair
The attraction was an instant success! Tickets were 95¢ for adults and 60¢ and for children and they sold ten million of them. All the proceeds were donated to UNICEF.
The other World’s Fair attractions had huge lines. But Small World, which also had big crowds, never seemed to have a long wait. This was mostly due to the rather large “per hour capacity” of the continuous running boats. Disney recognized this, and saw how this kind of moving vehicle could be used to a great advantage in Disneyland. This concept, invented for “it’s a small world”, was utilized in future Disneyland attractions. Pirates of the Caribbean had been under construction as a subterranean walk-through. That design was scrapped, and instead a waterway was created so that similar boats could travel past scenes which were in motion and would appear different for each voyage. This was another idea which would be duplicated for other Disneyland attractions in the future. And all this came from the development of “it’s a small world”.
The layout of the attraction area featured a large show building which housed the boat ride. In front of the building stood the “Tower of the Four Winds,” which was a 120-foot tall kinetic structure designed by Imagineer Rolly Crump. The tower had many propellers, weather vanes, and other moving parts, and was a landmark at the World’s Fair. Unfortunately, the tower wasn’t saved after the Fair closed.
Image: Tower of the Four Winds at the ’64 NY World’s Fair
Imagineer Mary Blair was responsible for the most of Small World’s special and unique design and especially for the color styling. She had been the art director on several Disney animated features including Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, and Peter Pan, also worked on Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Walt liked her look, and so he wanted Mary Blair to be one of the designers of Small World.
Like many Disneyland attractions, scenes and characters were designed by Marc Davis, while his wife, Alice Davis, designed the costumes for the Small World dolls. Rolly Crump designed the toys and other supplemental figures in each scene. The animated dolls were designed and sculpted by Blaine Gibson. Walt was personally involved with Gibson’s development of the dolls’ facial design.
Perhaps one of the most notable portions of “it’s a small world” is the memorable song that plays throughout the attraction. At first, the attraction music was supposed to be the national anthems of all the countries represented throughout the attraction. The songs were supposed to be played all together, each individual anthem playing through speakers in that scene, and guests were supposed to hear that scene’s music as their boat passed by. The Imagineers mocked up a model of the attraction, got records of all the national anthems, set up the record players and little speakers in each section, and then they could walk the path of the boats and see and hear what the attraction was supposed to be like. Well the sounds were a mess as they all blended together into an indistinguishable blob of noise that wasn’t very appealing at all.
After that, it was time to bring in Walt’s premier musical team. Walt showed the scale model of the attraction to his Imagineer songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman, and told them, “I need one song that can be easily translated into many languages and be played as a round.” The Sherman Brothers wrote “It’s a small world (after all)”. At first, the song was played as a slow ballad. You may have heard and seen videos of the Sherman Brothers singing the song while they played piano accompaniment.
Walt wanted something a bit more cheerful. So the Sherman Brothers sped up the song and turned it into a march. The vocals were provided by school choirs from England, Mexico, Rome, and Burbank, and professional singers are heard in the finale. Apparently, the entire audio portion of the attraction was recorded in only two days. Walt loved the song. In fact, the attraction’s original title was “Children of the World”, but Walt was so delighted with the final version of the Sherman Brother’s song, that he renamed the attraction “it’s a small world”.
One of the most fascinating and endearing parts of the Small World attraction is the animations of the dolls themselves. Unlike the other realistic audio-animatronic characters that were being developed for Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress, the Small World figures were amazingly simple. Most of the characters moved with small repeatable patterns, back and forth, or up and down. They might move their arms or shake their heads, but it was the old standard “store window” animation. But, some of the characters represented children singers, usually in groups of three, who were supposed to be singing the theme song. Their mouths moved and were synchronized to the sound track. They would rock back and forth in time to the music, and every once in a while their eyes would quickly look down at the sheet music that each character was holding. It is beautiful simplicity. And for me, it is one of my favorite parts of the attraction. It is so fanciful to see those little mouths move and seeing them look down at the music to be sure they don’t loose their place in the lyrics. Who hasn’t sung in a school choir and experienced exactly what those children represent? This, along with the uniting scenes of children at play all over the world, is the heart and sole of “it’s a small world”.
When the World’s Fair closed, the plan was to move all of Disney’s attractions to Disneyland. Instead of the Tower of the Four Winds there would be a large, three-dimensional facade. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that term, a facade is a false face or false front of a building or structure. A facade is usually used to hide or decorate a building. In this case, it was designed to hide the Small World show building. The facade has stylized cutout turrets, towers and minarets which look similar to world landmarks (such as the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.) The facade was designed by Rolly Crump who mimicked Mary Blair’s styling. Walt Disney asked Rolly to design a large 30-foot clock, which would be the central feature of the exterior with a smiling face that rocks back and forth to a ticking sound.
Every 15 minutes, a parade of wooden dolls in native costumes would move out from beneath the clock to an instrumental version of the “it’s a small world” song. The clock then displays the current time and trumpet, drums, and gongs sound to announce the time. The whole thing is somewhat similar to an over-sized cuckoo clock. I can’t tell you how many pictures have been taken of the clock and the parade of children.
The original exterior was all-white with a gold and silver trim. It was repainted years later in shades of blue, and then again in pink and white with pastel accents. These days, the exterior is white with gold trim, similar to what it was in 1966. They had some trouble with colors on white which would fade in the California sun, and now the gold on the smiling clock face is entirely gold leaf.
All around the exterior grounds of “it’s a small world” are wonderfully created topiary animals. These are always a treat and Disney goes through some extensive gardening to grown and maintain all the topiary sculptures. I was told on one of the tours that Disney has duplicates of each topiary animal in case one of the “on stage” animals is damaged or needs some extra repair. The animals change from time to time. Right now, I spotted a lion, a moose, a rhinoceros, a sea serpent, and a few other creatures. The topiary animals around “it’s a small world” are another unique feature that not only make the attraction special, but it’s this kind of detail that make Disneyland the magical place that it is.
Over the years there have been several improvements and additions to the Small World show. In 1997, Disneyland created what is now known as an “overlay” for the Christmas season. Disney Imagineers took each scene and created new costumes for the characters, new set pieces and props, new holiday lighting both inside the attraction and all over the external structure and surrounding grounds. They even came up with a marvelous new sound track which not only combined portions of some popular holiday carols, but incorporated them into the original Small World theme song in perfect harmony and tempo. And when it was all ready, Disneyland opened “It’s a Small World Holiday“. The transformation was an overwhelming success and continues every year right through the present. In fact, Small World Holiday is so popular, that the lines to the attraction far exceed those during the regular season. Small World Holiday, along with Haunted Mansion Holiday, are two of the biggest holiday attractions at the Disneyland Resort.
In 2005, another enhancement was added to “it’s a small world” for the holiday season. This time, the exterior façade was used as a screen, and moving and changing images were projected onto the various surfaces to produce a multi-media style holiday show. A special sound track accompanies the show, which plays right after the Small World clock announces the time.
In 2008, Small World went under a major refurbishment and was closed for most of the year. During that time, the boats were replaced with newer models and the exterior got a facelift. But inside the attraction, Imagineers added a few dozen specialized Disney characters from the some of the recent popular Disney films, and some of the rooms were enhanced or changed altogether to fit the new characters. These new characters were inspired by the original Mary Blair dolls, although there has been considerable debate whether that was accomplished. While the new Disney characters make Small World fit more into the overall Disney theme, many feel that Small World was already unique and that these new characters merely distract from the original concept and seem to have been added more for marketing and promotional reasons, rather than to enhance the attraction itself.
For many years, the nightly fireworks show has been enhanced with projections on the Small World facade. In 2011 that concept was taken a step further with the “Magic, Memories, and You” show which also played at night and projected images and patterns on the Small World facade and combined clips from Disney features along with photographs which were supposed to have been taken that day by Disney PhotoPass photographers. I expect that we will continue to see Small World and its exterior structure utilized for special shows in the future.
It’s sometimes not so easy to describe why “it’s a small world” is such a classic Disneyland attraction or why it is so popular to so many people. The animations aren’t that spectacular, the theme song is fairly simple, scenes don’t really tell a story, and the whole ride is obviously contained inside a large building. Any yet, it’s the combination of all these things, and the magical way that Small World comes together that makes the entire experience unique, endearing, and so very special for everyone that takes the “happiest cruise that ever sailed”. You can’t help but feel joyful when you come out. And it makes you remember, through the innocent songs of children, that…
It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears.
It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears.
There’s so much that we share that its time we’re aware
it’s a small world after all!