“It’s A Small World” Turns 55 This Weekend!
Memorial Day marks a big anniversary for one Disney staple. “It’s A Small World” celebrates 55 years of magic at Disneyland Resort this weekend! Let’s take a look back and how this attraction came to be a Disney classic.
“Children of the World” at the World’s Fair
The iconic ride can be found at nearly every Disney theme park around the world, but it originally appeared at the NY World’s Fair in 1964-1965. WED Enterprises oversaw development at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, CA as part of Pepsi’s sponsored pavillion. “Children of the World”, was pitched as a salute to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), celebrating the joyful spirit and international unity of children across the globe,
Historic guidebooks say that over 10 million tickets were sold for the ride at the fair, making it a smash hit. Walt arranged for the ride to be moved to Disneyland after two successful fair seasons.
The ride opened to guests in Disneyland on May 28, 1966 with a Grand Opening Ceremony two days later on May 30. Walt Disney, of course, pulled out all the stops.
To celebrate “It’s A Small World’s” theme of global unity, over 50 foreign representatives from around the world attended the Grand Opening festivities. Walt invited children from all over California to represent 16 different ethnic backgrounds, each wearing an outfit traditional to their cultural heritage.
As part of the ceremonies, water from different countries was sprinkled into the Seven Seaways (the ride’s “river”) as a symbolic gesture.
“It’s A Small World” was created in the golden age of Disney Legends and the design credits for the ride certainly show it.
The overall color scheme and whimsical aesthetic was created by legendary favorite, Imagineer Mary Blair. Her work was already famous in the Disney-verse for fantastical creations like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.
Disney Legend Marc Davis had a hand in the Small World, too, designing scenes and animatronics. Marc’s wife, Alice Davis, even hand created each costume in the original attraction!
Blaine Gibson, the legendary Imagineer and artist responsible for the sculptures at the Haunted Mansion and the Disney Partners statue, sculpted the dolls for the ride. Walt specifically wanted each doll face to have an identical shape, enforcing the idea that, as a world, we are all still one people.
Rolly Crump took Blair’s designs and created the iconic white palace facade for the attraction’s exterior, featuring the 30-foot tall clock tower as its centerpiece. The infamous design is reiterated in some form or another at It’s A Small World attractions across the globe.
We can’t possibly talk about “It’s A Small World” – or Disney Legends – without mention of the theme song, created by Disney Legends, the Sherman brothers.
While the tune is universally recognized, it wasn’t the original plan.
Originally, each country featured in the Happiest Cruise on Earth was going to sing their own National Anthem. With transitions between rooms and the speed of the boats factored in, this lead to a chaotic overlap of sounds and melodies that wasn’t pleasing to anyone’s ears.
Enter the Sherman Brothers.
Walt requested a song that could unify all scenes of the ride. Something with a harmony that could be sung in a round and repeated in a uniform manner. The new song not only unified the ride experience, the Sherman brothers managed to create an earworm that spans cultures and decades. Lyrics that symbolize worldwide unity combined with an incredibly catchy tune and the innocent undertone of joyful children lead to theme song gold. Walt was so pleased, the ride was renamed “It’s A Small World”.
The tune sticks in your head for a reason. “It’s A Small World” plays over 1200 times over a 16-hour park day. According to Time.com, it is likely the most publicly performed song in the world. Not bad for a 55-year-old fair attraction.
At UNICEF’s request, the song was never copyrighted by Disney. It “belongs to the world” forever.
It would be easy for an attraction this old to get stale, but Imagineers have introduced creative touches to enhance it. It addition to periodic refurbishments and mechanical updates, Disneyland came out with a holiday overlay that gives the white facade special lighting and holiday themed effects. Holiday music replaces parts of the typical soundtrack and dolls get custom Christmas costumes.
Around the world, with the exception of Walt Disney World, special characters are hidden throughout the ride like Easter eggs. You can find Lion King characters sprinkled through the Africa scene. Alice is hiding in England. You might spot the Three Caballeros in the scene from Mexico. As you can imagine, some Disney purists aren’t big on the extra additions. If we’re talking to you, we recommend sticking to the WDW version of this classic!
Other differences from one coast to the other: length and setting. Disneyland hosts a longer and more elaborate version of the ride, which starts outdoors and takes guests in front of the famous clock tower facade before entering the building. In Florida, the ride is entirely under roof and guests immediately enter the interior scenes after loading into a boat. The outdoor palace facade is under the roof alongside the line queue.
“It’s A Small World” wasn’t Disney’s first boat ride, but it did influence the design of those in the future. The ride’s quick loading and unloading made for a fast moving queue. This proved so successful that Pirates of the Caribbean, still in development in 1965, was redesigned to use the same vehicle system. That system is the same one used today in these attractions around the world.
The original ride also placed a UNICEF gift shop at its entrance. While originally a fundraising opportunity, this successful location didn’t go unnoticed by Mr. Walt Disney. Immersing guests in an experience and then offering them commemorative merchandise has become the norm in Disney parks these days. You can thank UNICEF for that!
So what do you think, Disney fans? After 55 years, is “It’s A Small World” still a staple for your park visits? Or do you skip it? Are you singing the song now?
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