Amazing Facts About It’s a Small World
A smile means friendship to everyone. That’s true even though the mountains divide, and the oceans are wide. I’m of course quoting less famous lyrics from one of the planet’s most famous songs. Had I continued, you would have instinctively started humming along, which is the awesome power of this particular Sherman Brothers ditty. Today, let’s talk about the ride that launched the world’s most recognized song. Here are a few amazing facts about It’s a Small World.
Thank Mommie Dearest
One of the seminal films of 1981 was Mommie Dearest, which recounted the horror show that was the upbringing of Christina Crawford. On the surface, she seemed to be the luckiest girl on Earth, as her adoptive mother was none other than Academy Award-winning actress and mega-millionaire Joan Crawford.
Crawford had married the President of Pepsi Cola, Al Steele. After his death, she became a prominent executive and shareholder at the company. While she was by all accounts a monster of a mother and a horrible human being, she’s also directly responsible for arguably the most optimistic theme park attraction ever built.
Back in the early 1960s, World’s Fairs were a huge deal, and the upcoming one at New York was the toast of the corporate world. Pepsi Cola’s plans for a pavilion had collapsed, so Crawford suggested (some would say strong-armed) the executive board to reach out to her friend, Walt Disney.
For his part, Disney was stretched thin due to the current production of four other Pavilions, but he didn’t reflexively reject Pepsi’s proposal. He knew that he needed money to buy land in Florida for his dream project. His open-mindedness paid profound benefits when inspiration struck.
Just a Little Boat Ride
The idea of another pavilion was a practical impossibility. Disney had worked on projects for the state of Illinois, General Electric, Kodak, and Ford. They had taken years to generate worthy ideas and construct. Then, Disney would spend the final few months prior to the 1964 New York World’s Fair shipping items from their California headquarters. Once the items arrived in New York, they had to get reconstructed.
Uncle Walt was torn between the idea of more money and another chance to impress guests at the World’s Fair versus a brutal time schedule. Fate interceded when he heard Pepsi’s pitch. They wanted their pavilion to contain the “happiest cruise that ever sailed.”
The proverbial light bulb immediately went off in Disney’s head. He envisioned a “little boat ride” that quickly became the genesis for It’s a Small World. In fact, Disney still hearkens back to that philosophy today, as Pandora – The World of Avatar’s Na’Vi River Journey is a more elegant iteration of the same premise.
For their part, the Imagineers at WED Enterprises already felt overworked in the build-up to the 1964 World’s Fair. No other business was constructing multiple pavilions, and so the idea that Uncle Walt wanted them to make a fifth one was…suboptimal.
But they couldn’t very well say no to a ride whose official name was, “It’s a Small World – Salute to UNICEF.” Their boss wanted a little boat ride, and that’s precisely what they set out to build…in less than 11 months. That was all the time they had prior to the start of the World’s Fair.
The little boat ride that Uncle Walt had in mind is one that everyone knows today. In 1963, however, it was revolutionary. Disney understood that one of the primary constraints of the Happiest Place on Earth was throughput, the number of people who could enjoy an attraction in a given hour/day. He anticipated that the World’s Fair would be that much more chaotic due to its temporary nature.
As such, WED Enterprises designed It’s a Small World as a masterpiece of throughput. They built a contained track, a water canal, and then pushed guests downstream at a relatively controllable rate. Guests could see everything on the attraction…and at a pace that Disney dictated. The little boat ride was a smashing success at the time, but its legacy is the most remarkable part of the achievement.
The Puppet Master Is More Famous for Something Else
Several key elements of It’s a Small World are engrained in people’s minds. There’s the song, which we’ll discuss in a moment, the boats, and the puppets. And the master of puppets is one of the most engaging personalities in Disney history.
Her name was Mary Blair, and she wasn’t working at Disney in 1963. Blair had left the company by that point. She first joined Walt Disney’s team as an art director in 1940 before formally leaving the company after the release of Peter Pan in 1953. She wanted to do freelance graphics design and illustration as well as tell stories, enjoying her time as an independent contractor on side projects.
Those skills place Blair in the crosshairs of Little Golden Books, a then-new form of children’s literature. Blair became an illustrator for the books, ultimately working on five of them including I Can Fly. This story won the Picture Book Honor at the 1951 New York Tribune Children’s Spring Book Festival, proving that Blair didn’t need Disney.
As the World’s Fair approached, Uncle Walt wanted to get the band back together. He re-recruited Blair, asking her to design an integral part of the attraction. Yes, Mary Blair created the color schemes that are inexorably linked with It’s a Small World. Even among Disney’s staff, Blair’s sense of color was legendary.
And when other illustrators admire your palette skills, you know that you’re great. Blair became the go-to Imagineer for the backgrounds and colors of It’s a Small World, with set designs that accentuated the puppets and their costumes. Mary Blair was both puppet master of It’s a Small World and Little Golden Books rock star illustrator. You can even buy a compilation of her works on Amazon.
The World’s Most Played Song Could Have Been a Musical Nightmare
As a Disney fan, you know that it’s a small world after all. What you may not realize is that the Sherman Brothers had different plans for the song. Their original take involved national anthems. Lots of them. Uncle Walt informed his favorite musical writing team that the attraction would take guests through dozens of countries, each of which would have a distinct set piece.
The Sherman Brothers had an epiphany that the best way to highlight the multicultural ride was through national anthems. They intended to structure it similarly to the Opening Ceremony of The Olympics. It’s a Small World would have every participating country’s play during the attraction. There was just one little problem.
Think about what happens when you ride It’s a Small World. You cross through several countries in the course of a single minute. Imagine if the various national anthems were playing in each section. Yes, the Shermans quickly recognized that their creative inspiration was a nightmare of dissonance.
Their quick bit of improvisation had lasting repercussions. In the early 1960s, the Cold War had already started, and the fear of nuclear war was real. The Shermans played against those fears by writing a song of unity and optimism. The lyrics of It’s a Small World demonstrate that belief in a better tomorrow, pointing out how similar all the peoples of the world are. It quickly became a Disney mantra, and Time Magazine deems it the most played song of all-time.
That’s an impressive feat on its own, but it’s that much more amazing given that the first version of the song was a musical nightmare. As the lyrics say, there’s so much that we share…and one of those things is that we’ve all heard It’s a Small World hundreds of times.
David Mumpower is the author of the Disney Demystified series. For only $4.99 each, you can read book one about Disneyland or book two about Walt Disney World. The softcover books also make amazing gifts for any Disney lover!