Welcome to Part 5 of our series on Walt Disney’s contributions to the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York City. If you need to catch up on the rest of the series, here’s where to look:
Part 1: ‘The Kind Of Service We Can Offer’
Part 2: ‘Something No One Has Seen Or Done Before’
Part 3: ‘I Won’t Open The Fair Without That Exhibit!’
Part 4: ‘At The Intersection Of Commerce And Progress’
This week we’re looking at an attraction that made its debut at the World’s Fair and is still beloved today – It’s A Small World. It’s one of the attractions that appears at every Disney resort, on three continents. Because of its ubiquity all over the world, according to Disney, the title song “is always playing somewhere around the world.” During the course of a 16 hour day in any one of the parks, the song plays 1,200 times. Love it or hate it, It’s A Small World is one of the quintessential Disney attractions, but it almost didn’t make it off the drawing board.
A scant nine months before the Fair, Pepsi approached the Disney Studios requesting that the Imagineers develop an attraction that the company would sponsor to benefit UNICEF. Bob Thomas picks up the story in Walt Disney: An American Original:
A Disney executive, believing that three projects were more than enough to occupy WED, sent the Pepsi-Cola people to an engineering firm that specialized in children’s playgrounds. Walt was angry when he heard about it. “I’m the one who makes those decisions!” he declared. “Tell Pepsi I’ll do it!”
Walt detailed to stunned Imagineers his plan for “a little boat ride” in which guests would see simple, childlike figures representing the cultures all over the globe. He enlisted some of his most trusted artists to design the attraction. Mary Blair, whom Walt called his “favorite artist,” imprinted her unique stamp on the look of the ride. Marc Davis oversaw the animatronics, while his wife Alice and Joyce Carlson designed the costumes for the dolls. Claude Coats engineered the layout of what Walt would call “the happiest cruise that ever sailed.”
To draw attention to what was otherwise a plain, nondescript show building, Walt entrusted Rolly Crump with creating a colorful kinetic sculpture. Crump drew on his own pinwheel and windmill designs to create the Tower of the Four Winds. The massive tower required a foundation reaching sixty feet underground for proper support.
In this video, Crump recalls the development of the attraction:
Initially, Walt and the Imagineers planned for each of the adorable dolls to sing his or her national anthem, but someone realized that the resulting cacophany would be unbearable. So Walt called on his erstwhile songwriting team of Richard and Robert Sherman to compose what he called a “roundelay” that would express the spirit of the attraction in an appealing way. The Sherman Brothers developed a song that vocalists could sing in counterpoint – different singers could sing the verse and chorus simultaneously.
In an exclusive interview with the Disney Parks Blog, Richard Sherman talked about the making and legacy of “It’s A Small World”:
The song was to me a simple child’s prayer to respect each other and to learn to love each other… It’s a very special, dear song. We were not trying to do a master work when we wrote “It’s A Small World”; we were trying to do a very simply constructed counterpoint so two melodies could be sung at the same time… We were working on a puzzle to get this whole thing and make it simple, because Walt worried so much.
I laugh because of the fact that it was written as a ballad. It was not written in this jingly uptempo. As a ballad, it’s a pretty kind of heartfelt song, but when you play it uptempo like that and you hear it for ten minutes, you can’t get it out of your head, I know…
I never dreamed it would be the biggest copyright I ever would write… I think it’s the very simple quality of it and the repetition… It says something very nice. You know, we all share these same things, and so let’s learn to live together. The “after all” is the key line in the whole thing: “It’s a small world, after all.”
Arranger Bobby Hammack adapted the tune to the musical styles of several different cultures to fit the areas of the attraction.
It’s A Small World: A Salute To UNICEF And All The World’s Children made its debut with every bit of the fanfare of a Disneyland opening, and it became the runaway hit of the Fair – over 10 million visitors hopped on one of the 53 boats to cruise with the children of the world. In one humorous side note, Disney called the boats FantaSea Boats until someone at Pepsi reminded the Imagineers that Fanta was a brand belonging to Pepsi’s competitor Coca-Cola. Disney hastily began referring to the boats merely as “fifteen passenger boats.”
Guests lavished praise on It’s A Small World in their comment cards, with comments ranging from “wonderful” to “the best thing at the Fair.” Visitors used the striking Tower of the Four Winds as a meeting place. Actress Carol Channing, then the toast of Broadway, heaped her own acclaim on Walt and the attraction when she said:
With his usual good taste and brilliant imagination, Mr. Disney uses hundreds of beautiful dolls to remind us in song of the brotherhood of men all over the world.
It’s A Small World moved to Disneyland in 1966 and became as big a hit in California as it did in New York. Just a month after its opening, Roy Disney was impressed enough with the attraction’s success to write to a friend:
The “Small World” ride seems to be pleasing everybody. It’s certainly beautiful. I think you know the Bank of America sponsors it. I understand they are happy about it – or reasonably so, anyway.
It’s A Small World debuted as an opening day attraction at Walt Disney World, as well as in the parks in Japan, France, and China. It continues to charm and delight park guests to this day. Disney writer Stacia Martin summed up the legacy of It’s A Small World when she wrote a few years back:
Almost four decades later, the simplicity of the message and the beauty of its design continue to enchant audiences, which is precisely what Walt had planned…after all.