Created by WED Enterprises in record time as the 1964 New York World's Fair UNICEF pavilion sponsored by Pepsi as a gift to the children of the world featuring the kinetic sculpture Tower of the Four Winds, a 120 foot high magical, ever-turning mobile. It is one of five attractions (Magic Skyway [Ford], Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln [Illinois], it's a small world [UNICEF/Pepsi], Carousel of Progress [GE], and a tentative widescreen Circlerama 360° [Kodak]) which were used by Disney to test concepts and ride systems, then be moved and re-built at Disneyland after the World's Fair closed in 1966.
Mary Blair was responsible for the attraction's whimsical design. She had been an art director on several Disney animated features (including Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, and Peter Pan). Like many Disneyland and Walt Disney World attractions, scenes and characters were designed by Marc Davis, while his wife, Alice Davis, designed the costumes for the dolls. "Glockenspiel" the rocking, smiling clock face was designed, created and delivered by New York (Valley Stream) artist, Gregory S. Marinello. Walt was personally involved with Gregory's development of the dolls facial design. Each animated child doll face is identical in shape (hence the name "it's a small world").
"Children of the World" was the working title of the attraction Walt Disney only called "the happiest cruise that ever sailed" (and never It's a Small World). The attraction's tentative soundtrack design featured each national anthem, playing all at once, which resulted in a cacophonous noise. Walt demonstrated the miniature mock-up to his staff songwriters Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman. As he and the Sherman Brothers walked through Walt said, "I need one song." A single song for the attraction which could be easily translated into many different languages and which could be played in round.
The Sherman Brothers wrote "it's a small world (after all)". In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this influenced the song’s message. They first presented "it's a small world (after all)" to Walt by singing in counterpoint while walking through the mock-up.
In the spirit of international unity, "it's a small world (after all)" was sung and recorded in various studios around the world - by a church choir in London, TV performers in Mexico City, a school chorus in Rome, and by local children from Tokyo and California.
It is argued that this song is the single most performed and most widely translated song on earth. The song tune and lyrics are the only Disney creations never to be copyrighted, as UNICEF requested, and can be heard worldwide on musical devices ranging from keyboard demos to ice cream trucks, it remains "a gift to the children of the world."
The first incarnation of PEPSI PRESENTS Walt Disney's "it's a small world" - a Salute to UNICEF and the World's Children was an afterthought which nearly couldn't happen. WED Enterprises was already at work designing a life-sized audio-animatronics "doll" fashioned as Abraham Lincoln when the State of Illinois approached Walt to create the Illinois Pavilion, representatives of the state instantly approved after being "introduced" to the robotic figurehead. WED had previously turned down a request by General Motors to design their pavilion, but accepted proposals by The Ford Motor Co. and General Electric which had engaged Disney to create their pavilions for the 1964 New York World's Fair. A CircleVision 360° exhibit for Kodak which incorporated nine synchronized projectors onto wide screen was also in planning, (which replaced Disneyland's eleven screen Cir-Car-Ama but was not perfected in time for the fair,) when Pepsi approached Walt late in the game with a plan to tribute UNICEF six months before opening. "Disney seemed to be the showman to give us the package we want… He's terrific. He's got his hands in more bowls than anyone I've ever seen, but he accomplishes what he sets out to do." — J.G. Mullaly, Ford's World's Fair program manager.
"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." — 1965 Official Guide Book to the New York World’s Fair
The attraction was incredibly successful. Ten million 60¢ and 95¢ tickets for children and adults were collected hand over fist in two half-year seasons and the proceeds were donated to UNICEF. While other attractions had lines out the doors, there seemed to always be a welcoming seat available aboard small world. The phenomenal "people-eater" function of numerous voyagers per hour cruise capacity was recognized as a valuable innovation which was incorporated indirectly and directly into future attractions. Pirates of the Caribbean had been under construction at Disneyland as a subterranean walk-through. That design was literally scrapped as concrete was broken out so similar boats could sail pretend buccaneers past scenes which were different each voyage, another epiphany which forever influenced attraction design and popularity.
Voyagers aboard boats seem to enter a short tunnel through a fifteen foot cube, decorated as a toy box, under the Disneyland Glockenspiel, then emerge fifteen minutes later. Voyagers see animatronic dolls dancing in traditional local costumes singing "it's a small world (after all)" together, each in their native language. Boats carry voyagers as they cruise by these regions of the world:
The Hello/title Room greets visiting guests with a two dimensional cutout decoupage representing a boat carrying children of all nations support the title banner and many cultural greetings from around the world nearby.
The North Pole features dolls representing Scandinavia and Canada singing "it's a small world (after all)" in Swedish.
Europe - the English dolls sing with a Cockney accent, French, Italians, and a yodeler represents Switzerland.
Asia, where the song is sung in Japanese.
Africa, where drums mark the rhythm of the song at first, then sung in English.
South America, sung in Spanish.
South Seas, where at first mermaids sing (previously with an underwater gurgling sound, until the 2009 refurbishment), then a rainforest scene with native drummers, and a Polynesian steel drum version of the song plays throughout the rest of the room.
North America, where dolls representing the United States sing in English. (This room was the rainforest until the 2008 refurbishment).
The Finale Room, where representatives from all the cultures of the world dressed in white versions of their native costumes sings harmoniously in English chorus. (Until the refurbishment, the only figures which represented the United States were standing together here, a cowboy and Native American.)
The Goodbye Room features brightly painted two dimensional cut-outs representing stamps, airmail envelopes and postcards.
Voyagers proceed outside from beneath Glockenspiel in a canal curving through fanciful landscaping featuring topiary representing animals such as dolphins and moose to the twin embark/disembark dock.
By contrast, other Disney park installations wind the flume around one large room, emphasizing its theme that the world is small and interconnected. Each installation may vary the countries which are represented and the order in which they appear. For example:
In Hong Kong Disneyland, "it's a small world (after all)" includes Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin and Tagalog verses, and begins with a separate North Pole room.
In Disneyland Paris, "it's a small world (after all)" includes French, German, and Arabic verses and Europe hosts Scandinavia.
The outer façade of the building at Disneyland presents stylized cutout turrets, towers, and minarets vaguely reminiscent of world landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. "Glockenspiel" is the gigantic, three-dimensional clock central feature with a smiling face that rocks back and forth with a ticking sound (While in Disneyland Paris, it's a face that is a wide-awake sun on its right half and a sleeping moon on its left half).
A parade of wooden dolls in native culture costumes dance out from doors at the base of Glockenspiel to an instrumental toy soldier version of "it's a small world (after all)" in preparation for each quarter hour, reminiscent of a Black Forest Cuckoo Clock. As the last doll returns into the clock, the parade doors close and the large central pair of doors open to reveal two giant toy blocks — the large block displays highly stylized numerals of the hour, the small one minutes by the quarter hour, while large and small bells toll indicating the counts of hours and quarters.
The exterior has been slightly redesigned and repainted over the years, first as all-white with a gold/silver trim, then in various shades of blue, then in pink and white with pastel accents. Currently it is all white with a gold trim as it was in 1966, except the original gold and silver paint of Glockenspiel, the smiling clock face, is now entirely gold leaf. Topiary animals in whimsical animal shapes decorate the canal around the building.
During the 2005–2006 holiday season a sophisticated, elaborate, multi-media presentation was projected upon the outdoor façade which registered holiday colored patterns and film clips matched to the façade each quarter hour after dusk (The three Christie reference digital projectors are now key to "The Magic, Memories and You" show). Guests were encouraged to view the popular Remember... Dreams Come True fireworks presentation from the "it's a small world" Mall and nearby parade viewing platform built for "Light Magic" (which had included a smoking area, now re-located under the Monorail track between the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Autopia) to decrease overwhelming crowds gathered for viewing the fireworks spectacular in Plaza (hub) and Main Street.
Refurbishment with new dolls
Disneyland's It's a Small World was closed from January to November 2008 to receive a major refurbishment. The building's structure was improved, permanent attachments were created for the holiday overlay, the water-flume was redone and its propulsion was upgraded to electric water jet turbines and the attraction's aging fiberglass boats were redesigned in durable plastic. The refurbishment added 30 new figures of Disney characters, each in their native land, such as Ariel underwater, Pinocchio in Italy, Cinderella in France and Peter Pan and Alice in England. The former New Guinea room was transformed into North America with Woody, Jessie and Bullseye. The scenes, figures, props and set pieces of New Guinea were relocated to the end of the South Seas room.
Sylvania has agreed to a twelve year sponsorship and created a new marquee for the attraction.
The Magic, Memories and You
As part of Disney's "Let the Memories Begin" campaign for 2011, a nighttime projection show premiered at Disneyland's "it's a small world" in Anaheim on January 27, 2011. The Magic, Memories and You show projects sequences of classic Disney attractions and characters set to Disney tunes onto the exterior façade of "it's a small world" to fill it's architectural features, personalized with exclusive photographs and videos of park guests taken that day by Disney's PhotoPass cast members. A similar show exists in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom projected onto Cinderella Castle.
The Goodbye Room, which at Disneyland shows different postcards and parting phrases from around the world, instead displays parting phrases written on highly-stylized flowers.
The attraction underwent a major refurbishment from May 2004 to March 2005, reopening with a state-of-the-art sound system, new lighting effects, and an enclosed loading area similar to the attraction's façade at Disneyland.
In August 2010 until October 21, 2010, this Walt Disney World attraction was again closed for refurbishment.
The Tokyo Disneyland version of the attraction is a carbon copy of the Magic Kingdom version except for these differences:
The finale is sung in Japanese.
The Goodbye Room is much smaller.
It has a facade that is based on its western cousin.
In Disneyland Paris, the attraction is somewhat different from other versions of the attraction.Instead of the happy face in the Clocktower, there is a face in which one side represents the sun, and the other the moon. The scenery and music are done in a different style (i.e. more ornate, more symphonic), and there is a separate room for North America, with dolls representing Canada and the United States. This version also has a complete Middle Eastern section (in which the song is sung in Arabic). In the Finale Room, in addition to the song being sung in English, it is also sung in French and German.
The Hong Kong Disneyland version opened in April 2008 with 38 Disney characters (all rendered in the Mary Blair style) added to scenes where their stories originated, mimicking its original sister in Disneyland. This version also features an expanded Asia sequence, a Middle Eastern Room, and a new scene for North America. The Finale Room features extraordinary fiber-optic lighting effects not seen on any other Disney attraction. The song is sung in Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Korean and Tagalog, languages which are unique to Hong Kong Disneyland's version. The finale is sung in 3 languages: Cantonese, English and Mandarin. The attraction is the largest indoor attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland, and the location of the attraction is beyond the Disneyland Railroad next to Storybook Theater.
Since 1997, Disneyland has featured "it's a small world - happy holiday" during the end-of-the-year Christmas and holiday season. The attraction is closed in late-October to receive temporary holiday decorations inside and outside, and reopens in early-November before the start of the busy holiday tourist season. The overlay has proved very popular and at one point during its run needed the use of FASTPASS machines (which have since been removed). The attraction is the same boat voyage through many regions of the world, though the main theme song is not played fully. Instead, the children sing "Jingle Bells" and a bridge of "Deck the Halls" in addition to the main theme.
Slogan: The happiest cruise that ever sailed 'round the world..
Facade: White and gold with the smiling face of Glockenspiel.
Magic Kingdom attraction version:
Grand opening: October 1, 1971 (Opened with the Magic Kingdom park)
Closing date: May 2, 2004
Grand re-opening: March 18, 2005
Flume capacity: 500,000 US gallons (2,000 m³) of water
Boat capacity: 24 passengers
Animated/unanimated figures: 472
Audio-Animatronics dolls: 289
Animated props: 36
Slogan: The happiest cruise that ever sailed the seven seas.
Facade: Same as Anaheim, but the facade is inside a tent-like structure.
Tokyo Disneyland attraction version:
Grand opening April 15, 1983 (Opened with the Tokyo Disneyland Park)
Slogan: Welcomes You to the Magic Kingdom of All the World's Children.
Facade: Same as Anaheim but the entrance is on the left of the clock tower and the facade is more colorful, it is also indoor boarding.
Disneyland Paris attraction version:
Grand opening April 12, 1992 (Opened with Euro Disneyland)
Slogan: The happiest cruise that ever sailed around the world.
Facade: Different clock with a sun and moon smiling face.
Hong Kong Disneyland attraction version:
Soft opening: April 27, 2008
Grand opening: April 28, 2008
attraction area: 83,500 sq ft2
Boat capacity: 23 passengers
Animated/unanimated figures: 514
Audio-Animatronics dolls: 202
Disney characters: 38
Animated props: 42
Slogan: The happiest cruise that ever sailed.
Facade: A color facade similar to Anaheim and Tokyo, but the entrance is on the right of the clock tower, with indoor boarding.
It's a Small World is an important location in the first book of the series, Disney After Dark. The Keepers are searching for references to the sun, the clouds, the wind, and mountains across attractions in the Magic Kingdom. This leads them to It's a Small World because of the big Mayan sun at the end of the Americas scene.
Once they start riding the attraction late at night, the Keepers notice the dolls are moving out of their choreographies and soon they start to get out of the scenery, and move toward them. Once they get into the boat, they start biting the teenagers, getting to hurt them. Following the lyrics of the song, "A Smile means friendship to everyone" the Keepers are able to easily defeat the mindless dolls by smiling at them. Still, they are not able to find any clue in the sun. After they figure out they need 3-D glasses based on a hint Walt Disney gave to Wayne, they return to the attraction and are able to see painted in the sun, a 'Y', an 'I', and an 'R'.
References in other Disney media
The ride and the song has been referenced several times, some of them reflecting on how annoying the song is to tons of people.
In The Lion King, Scar tells Zazu to sing something "with a little bounce in it". Zazu sings "It's a Small World" and Scar cuts him off by saying, "No! Anything but that!"
In The Return of Jafar, Genie returns from his trip around the world. Aladdin remarks that he didn't take a long time at his trip; Genie then turns into a bunch of Genie dolls, and sings "It's a Small World".
In Epic Mickey, the Gremlin Village is based on the attraction. The Clock Tower on the ride's facade is the first boss you fight in the game. Wasteland's version of the tower couldn't stand listening to the song over and over again and eventually snapped sometime before the events of the game. When the player reaches the tower, he will unleash a giant pair of arms and attempt to smash the player. The player then has the choice of either destroying the tower by thinning the arms or painting them so that they will let the player paint the tower's face to stop the music and calm him down. The tower appears one last time in the ending, either floating in the thinner pool or cheerfully letting the gremlins dance below him, depending on how the player dealt with him.
In the movie Tomorrowland, the 1964 World's Fair version of the attraction is seen in a flashback.
On August 18, 1994, a 6-year-old girl from Miami, Florida fell out of one of the ride's boats while it was in the loading area. It was believed that she was struck by an incoming boat. The girl suffered a broken hip, a broken arm and a collapsed lung, but was expected to recover fully. The ride was closed for an inspection and re-opened the following day.
On December 25, 2014, a 22-year-old woman lost consciousness after riding the attraction. She later died. The young woman had a pre-existing condition.
On October 6, 2010, a 53-year-old cleaner subcontracted to Disney, was trapped underneath a boat when the ride was inadvertently switched on while it was being cleaned. The man was taken to a hospital, where later he was pronounced dead.
1964 World's Fair
The exterior of the ride's building at the World's Fair.