Let’s take a close look at “it’s a small world” from its inception to its current state in multiple parks around the globe. We’ve broken down the full history of this iconic ride, the “happiest cruise that ever sailed.”
“it’s a small world”
The attraction was originally created by Walt Disney in support of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and its message of peace and unity has resonated with guests of all ages for over 60 years.
Themed for world cooperation and togetherness, the original iteration of “it’s a small world” actually premiered at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The attraction was extremely popular during the event. When the fair ended, the attraction was moved to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, where it remains one of the park’s premiere attractions.
“it’s a small world” has shown millions of children about different cultures around the world, and its aim is to promote peace and unity between nations. The attraction attempts to remind guests that we are all connected to one another. Walt Disney specifically considered this purpose for display at the New York World’s Fair.
“it’s a small world” Globally
“it’s a small world” is a water-based boat ride located in the Fantasyland area at various Disney theme parks worldwide, including Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California; Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Bay Lake, Florida; Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. It is also the largest indoor attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland.
The only Disney resort property in the world that does not have this attraction available is Shanghai Disneyland.
The idea for “it’s a small world” came to Walt Disney in the early 1960s, as he was looking for a way to promote peace and understanding between children of all cultures. When he first conceived the ride, it was called “Children of the World.” He was inspired by the United Nations, which had been founded just a few years earlier, and he believed that a theme park attraction could be a powerful way to teach children about the importance of tolerance and cooperation.
Walt Disney himself described the attraction as follows:
Our musical fantasy features the songs and dances from youngsters from more than one-hundred nations. Each singing in his own, native language. Now, when the current World’s Fair ends, all four of our shows: The Magic Skyway, The Carousel Theater, Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, and “it’s a small world” will find a permanent home at Disneyland, U.S.A.
Pepsi-Cola’s ‘Last-Minute’ Request
Of the four attractions featured at the World’s Fair, “it’s a small world” was the last project Walt Disney undertook. After being contacted by Pepsi-Cola, who at the time was partnered with UNICEF, Walt agreed to create one final showcase for the event. With only a year to work, Pepsi-Cola asked Disney to create an attraction that would provide a “salute to UNICEF and all the world’s children.” Walt Disney rarely backed away from a challenge, and agreed to the project before speaking to his team.
Afterwards, Walt Disney met with his Imagineers, who were already busy with work on the other three attractions they planned to ship to New York in time for the fair. Rolly Crump, one of the primary designers for the World’s Fair attractions, described the meeting:
One day Walt pulled all of the show designers in, and he said, “There’s one more piece of real estate that they’ve offered to us. And I’ve got this idea for a little boat ride that maybe we can do.” And we thought, a little boat ride? I mean God, we were working on Lincoln, the Carousel of Progress, both of which were using the highest technology and animatronic figures. And we were working on Ford, too. All of this and Walt wants to do a little boat ride!
Walt Disney explained to the Imagineers that he wanted the boat ride to feature the children of the world, as part of the UNICEF pavilion sponsored by Pepsi.
Imagineers worked closely with UNICEF to develop the attraction, and Walt Disney even donated a portion of the proceeds from its opening to the organization. To go alongside the attraction, Disney also created a 120-foot “Tower of the Four Winds” which represented the “boundless energy of youth” for the UNICEF pavilion’s entrance. At 12-stories high, it was designed to be seen from all over the fair. It is designed a similar art style to “it’s a small world” and uses the same vibrant color palette. It’s name is derived from the fact that all the moving pieces are powered by wind. In addition to its towering height, it also required a 60-foot underground foundation to keep it stable.
To help advertise the new attraction at The New York World’s Fair, Disney filmed an episode of “The Wonderful World of Color” called “Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair.” You can view it on the Internet Archive here. The episode shows “it’s a small world” and the UNICEF pavilion work around the 32-minute mark. (If you’re a Carousel of Progress fan, the showcase for this is just before.) The ride-through for “it’s a small world” begins at the 37-minute mark.
Originally, “it’s a small world” was imagined by WED Enterprises. This stood for Walter Elias Disney Enterprises. It took 11 months for the project to complete for the UNICEF pavilion, and once the New York World’s Fair closed, “it’s a small world” was carefully dismantled piece by piece and relocated to Disneyland Resort. The Magic Kingdom version of the ride took 18 months to construct.
Mary Blair, a famous female artist working at The Walt Disney Company at the time, made significant artistic contributions to the ride’s design and overall aesthetic. She was responsible for the attraction’s child-like design and color palette. Blair is known for having worked on a number of classic Disney films, including “Fantasia,” “Dumbo,” “Saludos Amigos,” “The Three Caballeros,” “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland” and” Peter Pan.” She was known for her bold, colorful, and stylized work, which often incorporated elements of surrealism and art deco.
In her design work for “it’s a small world,” Blair used bright primary colors “straight from the tube” similarly to how a child might approach artwork, and used bold hues alongside one another that were highly contrasting and uncommon at the time. Her artwork was widely acclaimed; she was compared in her visionary style even to legendary artists such as Matisse. Blair was inducted into the Disney Legends Hall of Fame in 1991.
The “it’s a small world” dolls, with their larger heads and small features, were similar to a series of Hallmark cards designed under the Walt Disney label by Mary Blair in the 1940’s. While the dolls were modeled after Blair’s work, the animated dolls were actually designed and sculpted by Blaine Gibson. Walt Disney was personally involved with Gibson’s work on the dolls’ facial design; each animated doll face is completely identical in shape.
In addition, one doll within each iteration of the attraction is modeled after Mary Blair herself, with one of the most notable instances of this occurring in the Magic Kingdom version of the ride.
Pictured above is the doll from “it’s a small world” in Walt Disney World modeled after artist Mary Blair. She is situated in the Western European section of the attraction beneath the Eiffel Tower. The next time you take a cruise, make sure to look out for her.
Roland “Rolly” Crump
Rolly Crump was in charge of designing the toys and other supplemental figures on display in the attraction. He began his career at Disney in 1952 as a substitute artist, or “in-betweener” in the animation studio. He later became an assistant animator, working on films including “Peter Pan,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “101 Dalmatians.”
In 1959, Crump joined WED Enterprises, which later became Walt Disney Imagineering. He was one of the key designers for many of Disneyland’s groundbreaking new attractions and shops, including the Haunted Mansion and Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. He also served as a key designer on the four Disney attractions featured at the New York World’s Fair, including “it’s a small world” and the “Tower of the Four Winds.” He is pictured above posing with the the small-scale model of this tower.
Crump was known for his creative and whimsical designs, which often incorporated elements of art nouveau, surrealism, and pop art. He was also a talented sculptor, painter, and musician. He retired from Disney in 1992. He recently passed away on March 12, 2023 at the age of 93. He was inducted into the Disney Legends Hall of Fame in 2004.
During work on “it’s a small world,” Rolly emulated Mary Blair’s work and design process, utilizing his own attraction to pop art style and bold colors. Though he was one of the co-designers of the project, when collaborating with Blair on “it’s a small world” for the New York World’s Fair he largely followed Blair’s lead. This is particularly evident in the attraction’s façade in Disneyland, as this was created by him. Rolly also designed the large animated clock addition at the entrance after the ride was moved to Disneyland that sends puppet children on a parade.
Marc Davis, arguably one of the most influential animators of all time at The Walt Disney Company, was also involved in development of this attraction. He was one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” the famed core group of animators who worked on some of the studio’s most classic films. He was largely in charge of the Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland development of “it’s a small world.”
Davis began his career at Disney in 1935 as a substitute animator on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” He quickly gained notoriety within the company, and by the early 1940s he was one of the studio’s leading animators. Davis is best known for his work on some of Disney’s most iconic female characters, including Cinderella, Aurora, Tinker Bell, and Cruella de Vil. In addition, his work on characters including Bambi, Br’er Rabbit, and the Cheshire Cat helped to define what many consider the staple “Disney aesthetic” we know today.
Pictured above is some of Marc Davis’ concept art for “it’s a small world.” He was responsible for creating characters and scenes, as can be seen in the artwork above. Additionally, Davis created content for all four of Disney’s attractions at the New York World’s Fair, including work on the dinosaurs for Ford’s Magic Skyway and the figure of Abraham Lincoln for the State of Illinois.
Marc Davis worked on a number of Disney attractions, including the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. He retired from Disney in 1978, but continued to work as a freelance artist and designer until his death in 2000. He was inducted into the Disney Legends Hall of Fame in 1989.
His wife, Alice Davis, also chipped in for “it’s a small world.” A celebrated professional in costume design, she went from a top fashion leader in a lingerie company to creating costume pieces for The Walt Disney Company. She was responsible for making the costumes for the dolls on the attraction. Alice had to invent the art of costuming audio-animatronic figures, as well as set up a method for dressing and refurbishing their costumes. These same techniques and systems are still in use today by Disney parks all globally.
When the ride first opened at Disneyland on May 28, 1966, Walt Disney invited children from around the world to come help dedicate the new attraction. They each brought a container of water from rivers and seas of their homelands and added it to the ride’s flume in Anaheim.
“it’s a small world” is a slow-moving boat ride heralded as “the happiest cruise that ever sailed.” It takes guests on a journey through an indoor pavilion decorated with dolls and elaborate crafts themed after different parts of the world. As guests travel, they see children from all over the world singing and dancing in traditional costumes.
Within the attraction, every room has a moon and a sun, referencing the lyrics “There is just one moon and one golden sun.” It is meant to represent unity amongst all people as we all live under the same celestial bodies.
The turrets and gold ornaments on the exterior of the Disneyland attraction are actually made from real 22-karat gold leaf. The original plan was to simply paint the exterior gold, but Imagineers figured out that the paint would fade and oxidize quickly enough that the cost to upkeep it would be more expensive over time than simply covering the façade with real gold.
Additionally, the American section of “it’s a small world” did not exist in the 1960’s version of the ride, as the World’s Fair was hosted in the United States and Disney did not include a section for the host country. During a recent overhaul of the attraction, the United States was added to the ride as well as several Disney characters in each of their respective locations. This revamp was received with mixed reviews from fans.
Boat and Propulsion Patents and Engineering
The company Arrow Development was involved heavily in the design of the passenger boats as well as the propulsion system within the attraction. Two patents filed by Arrow Development and assigned to The Walt Disney Company show passenger boats and vehicle guidance systems with features nearly identical to those later utilized on the Disneyland installation of the ride. Arrowhead Development is attributed to manufacturing the Disneyland installation as well.
The ride is a beloved classic, and it continues to be one of the most popular attractions at Disney Parks around the world.
The Memorable Song
The theme song for “it’s a small world” is actually the second draft of music selected for the ride. The first prototype was a concept of melding the world’s national anthems together as guests travelled through the different nations. This resulted in a cacophony of anthems all running over one another, which Walt Disney disliked.
He then asked the Sherman Brothers, the same composers behind “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” and “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers” to create a song that would unite the children of the world throughout the boat ride, which resulted in the memorable music we still hear today.
Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner made the claim back in 1985 that the “it’s a small world” theme song of the same name was the most played song of all time. He argued that few other songs are played for 16 hours a day on a continuous loop in five different theme parks across the globe. Robert Sherman Jr. added, “Since 1983, there has not been a moment when “It’s a Small World” wasn’t playing in at least two locations on the globe. Who else can claim that?”
The song is a simple but powerful message of hope and unity, and it has become one of the most well-known Disney songs of all time.
Take a look at our full ride video from Magic Kingdom here.
Depending on which iteration of the ride guests visit around the world, sailors will see a myriad of differences amongst the scenes. The video above depicts the attraction found in Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. Take a look at some of the other versions around the world using the videos below.
Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California
This version is also host to the Wondrous Journeys Nighttime Spectacular, featuring projections on the front of the attraction façade. Check it out below.
This show uses the same projection technology used on Sleeping Beauty Castle and Cinderella Castle, among other iconic structures in Disney Parks.
This version of “it’s a small world” closed in November 2021 for an extensive refurbishment, and just reopened on May 5, 2023.
This ride is also available to enjoy at Hong Kong Disneyland, and you can check out a video of that version here.
Check out our recent coverage of “it’s a small world” here.
Do you love this attraction? Which part is your favorite? We’d love to see your opinions in the comments below.