The Year was 1966, and Walt Disney smiled cheerfully as a crowd gathered in the far corner of his magical kingdom known as Disneyland. It was a beautiful day for a Grand Opening, and Walt was pulling out all the stops to make sure this would be one to remember. There were celebrities, balloons, fanfare, family, friends, and a whole crew of cameramen gathered around a little “canal” leading into a charming looking building; a façade that would put a smile on anyone’s face. The crowd cheered and clapped as little children representing countries from around the world each poured a bottle of water shipped from their country into the man-made river. The balloons were released into the air. Walt Disney smiled even wider as his boat drifted down the river into the building and disappeared as he waved to the crowd.
It was a celebration the little ride deserved, because it was one of Walt’s favorites. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Or you at least have the tune stuck in your head! It’s a Small World, after all!
It seems impossible, but Small World has only grown more popular since that day in 1966. It seems daunting that, more than 50 years after its debut in Disneyland, it’s still entertaining the young, and the young at heart, who ride it. But what’s even more astounding is the origin of the happy singing dolls; which goes back even further than that special day at Disneyland.
In 1963, Walt Disney was called up by Hollywood friend Joan Crawford with a very interesting proposition. Crawford was the widow of Pepsi’s former president Alfred Steele, and she was desperately looking for an attraction for Pepsi to sponsor at the already famous upcoming World’s Fair in New York. Pepsi was on a deadline and time was running short. Joan Crawford believed Walt Disney, who was already working on four other attractions for the fair, was the only one who could create a worthy attraction for the Pepsi brand on such short notice. It would be a tribute to UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), but other than that, Pepsi had no idea what it would look like.
Walt, who already happened to have an idea lined up, jumped at the chance to get funding for another of his wild ideas. With only 11 months to prepare the attraction, far less time than any other thing he had contributed to the fair so far, Walt immediate jumped at the task. He wanted to make something truly special; something that would touch the hearts of millions and bring a smile to their faces. It would be a little boat ride with children from around the world in adorable doll form called “Children of the World”.
Truth be told, Walt wanted a change of face from what he saw in the rest of the world. It was the time of the Cold War. Tensions were high, and a possible nuclear war loomed on the horizon. Culture was changing, and unrest was breaking out all over the country. Walt was sick and tired of the fear which clouded the atmosphere and aimed to make this new attraction a ray of sunshine to the anxious public; a symbol for the World’s Fair and its idealistic look at the future.
So, Walt brought on board the happiest crew of “Imagineers” that had ever set sail on a Disney voyage. Walt put his favorite artist, a Disney color stylist and children’s illustrator named Mary Blair, in charge of most of the project. With Mary’s unique style helming the design of the attraction, other talented artists had clear direction on where to go. The husband and wife team of Marc and Alice Davis were immediately set to work on designing the iconic look of the dancing dolls and breathing personality into them; Marc imagined the characters, while Alice lovingly clothed them in fashion of her own design. A younger Imagineer named Rolly Crump, who had repeatedly impressed Walt with his very unique creative style, was given the task of designing the Doll’s toys and accessories, as well as the kinetic “Tower of the Four Winds” which would anchor the outside of the ride and draw attention to it. Lastly, master modeler Blaine Gibson sculpted out the physical dolls under Walt’s direct supervision. Strangely enough, every single one of these Imagineers, save for Mary Blair, would eventually work together again on Disneyland’s great masterpiece Pirates of the Caribbean; and most of them would contribute to the Haunted Mansion too!
The result of this all-star team of Imagineers was nothing short of magical, as the ride exceeded all of Walt’s expectations. But it was the music of the ride that would elevate it from a great ride, to one of Walt’s favorites. The Sherman Brothers of Mary Poppins fame were inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to write a song of hope to go with the ride. They specifically made it as catchy and simple as they possibly could, so that it could be translated easily and sung in multiple languages. At first, they wrote it as a slow Ballad, but on prompting from Walt for something more upbeat and cheerful, they sped up the tempo. The resulting song “It’s a Small World” moved Walt so much that he decided to change the name of the entire ride in honor of it, and it was subsequently moved to the World’s Fair in 1964.
Despite its extremely short production time, the now renamed It’s a Small World was a huge hit, becoming one of the most popular attractions at the fair. But it wasn’t only children who were flocking to it. There was something deeply innocent about the ride which spoke to the hearts of downtrodden adults everywhere. Whether they were 9 or 99, Small World made them think of a simpler time when the threat of nuclear missiles wasn’t at their doorstep. It gave them hope that maybe the world would one day be at peace again. It’s a Small World seemed to reach out and speak to the child in everyone.
Even today, the original Small World continues to entertain and delight children of all ages with its message of hope and unity. And with versions at Disney parks all around the world, it’s continuing to bring smiles to faces everywhere…Just like it did to Walt over 50 years ago.