"When we completed "it's a small world" for presentation at the New York World's Fair, we felt that we had accomplished what we'd set out to do. We wanted to foster a better understanding among the nations of the world by showing the dress, the customs, the language, the music, and a little of the culture of our neighbors around the world… And I think it's safe to say that having fun has universal appeal." – Walt Disney
Some attention was given to the iconic "it's a small world" attraction in April this year because it marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the New York's World Fair on April 22, 1964.
That day, of course, was also the debut of "Pepsi Presents Walt Disney's "it's a small world"—a Salute to UNICEF and the World's Children" that became one of the most popular attractions at the fair during its two years. Pepsi and UNICEF officials welcomed Walt Disney that first day, who opened the attraction by releasing a profusion of colorful balloons, just like at the Christmas Parade at Disneyland.
"One of the great gags that was played on us at the Fair was while we were working on "small world," Imagineer Rolly Crump told Disney historian Paul Anderson, whose issue No. 6 of his outstanding but out-of-print magazine Persistence of Vision remains the definitive source of information of Disney at the 1964 World's Fair.
"One night after we left, the workmen had gone over to one of the pavilions that had a big Koi fish pond," he said. "They stole a whole bunch of Koi and put them in the trough. So when we came in to work the next morning, there were all these fish swimming around in the trough. So we had to get all the fish out."
"A few days later, they had put Super Suds in the trough," Crump added. "The next morning when we came in, there was soap foam going through the entire ride about four feet above the actual trough itself. It was a wild time at the World's Fair. We were living off of black coffee in the morning and martinis for lunch. Mary [Blair] and I were kind of kidding, that if it hadn't been for gin, we never would have opened 'small world' on time."
After its successful run, "it's a small world" was then dismantled and trucked across country to be installed at Disneyland where it opened on May 28, 1966.
Thirty-six foreign consular officials and 800 members of the press joined Walt, and the internationally costumed "children from many nations" for the gala dedication.
Water had actually been collected from the oceans and seas of the world and was now poured into the Seven Seaways canal. Walt emptied water from Disneyland Park's own Rivers of America from a rustic Davy Crockett canteen as white doves, the symbols of peace, were released into the skies above.
On August 8, 1989, "it's a small world" was rededicated in honor of the 25th anniversary of its New York World's Fair origin, and a special plaque was ceremoniously installed to remind everyone that "it's a small world" represents peace, understanding and friendship.
At the end of April 2014, it was announced that the Disney company had hired director Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure, Last Vegas) to develop a major motion picture based on the popular Disney theme park attraction "it's a small world." Writer Jared Stern (The Watch, The Internship) was hired at the same time to write the script.
Disney has been looking during the last few years to develop their theme park rides into film franchises similar to The Pirates of the Caribbean.
At this point, no one knows what the possible storyline would be for a film based on "it's a small world."
In fact, with the recent 50th celebration of the attraction, I was a little surprised that so few people knew much about the ride itself at the New York World's Fair. Maybe I shouldn't be. After all, it has been 50 years.
If a person in 1965 talked about something that took place 50 years ago, he would be talking about something in 1915! That sort of puts into perspective how something is really ancient.
I've written about "it's a small world" before for MousePlanet under my former pseudonym of "Wade Sampson," but here's some more stuff I have learned since that 2008 article.
It was Walt's own concept that the attraction be "a little boat ride" as he described it.
Imagineer Harriet Burns remembers Walt talking with the songwriting team, the Sherman Brothers, and using the phrase "it's a small world." He was not using it as the title of the attraction or even a lyric for the song, but as the philosophy he wanted embodied in the song.
Walt specifically chose artist Mary Blair, who was working as an advertising and children's book artist at the time with distinctive illustrations of children.
"It was about children, the freedom of color, and that Walt asked her to do it," said Rolly Crump to an interviewer. "["it's a small world"] had to be the crescendo for her because I've never seen anything as powerful in her work."
"Walt was very high on Mary," recalled Imagineer Marc Davis, who considered Blair another Matisse in her dynamic use of color.
The official Disney souvenir guidebook for the Fair attraction stated: In 'it's a small world," simplicity of color, achieved by balancing and contrasting darks and lights, instantly changes the mood as your boat sails 'round the world. Brilliant sunshine is achieved with yellow. Cool blues and greens change the mood from day to night. And, for dramatic effect, the bright colors of a Central American marketplace have been intensified."
Blair worked closely with Imagineers Crump, Davis, and Claude Coats. She created childlike patterns and stylized shapes, kinetically capturing the international innocence and fun of childhood.
"I guess you could call it theater-in-the-round," Blair commented of the colorful attraction, "but it's really much more… everyone—especially the children—seems to have a grand time."
When the attraction was moved to Disneyland, Blair designed the dazzling exterior façade, an "International Gateway" (as she called it and Walt echoed that term) featuring stylized spires and finials covered in 22-karat-gold leafing representing famous landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal.
The Disney staff at the 1964–65 New York World's Fair included Bob Matheison as the resident manager and Bill "Sully" Sullivan as his assistant. Supervisors were Billie Hoelscher, Frank Stanek, Frank Petitta, John Edwards and Bob White.
Sullivan is quite a character and filled with stories that no one has yet extracted from him. Here is a short excerpt from an interview I did with him in 2007.
Jim Korkis: So after all those years working at Disneyland, you spent some time at the 1964-1965 New York's World's Fair.
Bill Sullivan: I was told to get packing to live in New York for a year or more. There were 48 truckloads because there were 10 families with personal items that needed to be shipped out there. When the trucks finally rolled up, there was a lot of stuff lost. I was going to be an asistant manager for the four shows that Disney was doing for the New York World's Fair in 1965.
The night before we opened, Walt came by and said, 'Sully, we're going to open tomorrow. Are we going to be ready?' I said, 'Yes, sir' and at 4 o'clock in the morning we were all out there still putting in stuff. Walt came by and gave me a thumbs-up that morning.
JK: Tell us a little about the "it's a small world" attraction.
BS: At "small world," Walt came to see the attraction and the hostess was trying to back door him. Walt said, "No". The hostess just didn't get it. The third time she tried, Walt growled and we had to tell her that Walt really wanted to stand in line. So we stood in the line for over an hour and people are whispering, "Is that him?" "It looks like him." Walt knew how VIPs like presidents were being treated, but he wanted to see how the guests were treated.
"To move people through "small world" we used these big fans. They were originally supposed to cool the area but we found it helped with the movement. We also built up the capacity by giving kids chocolate and that stirred things up."
"One of my favorite memories is when Ed White, who was the astronaut who was the first astronaut to walk in space, came and we got him to the front of the line because he had to hurry back to Houston for some important meeting or training. "
"As he was leaving, he saw this young boy out there in a wheelchair and there were stairs to the ride so that the kid couldn't get over in a wheelchair. So White went out and picked up the kid and carried him up over the steps and on to the ride and went with him. These days we have to worry about access issues."
The University of Disneyland put out "Big News From the Small World" newsletters to keep West Coast Disney cast members up to date with what was happening in New York, including listing Disney cast members who visited the Disney attractions.
Here is an excerpt from Volume 2, No. 1 published February 1, 1965 about some of the changes to the 'it's a small world" attraction for its 1965 season:
"The technicians are experimenting with a change in the belt system in the loading area which will boost our capacity by about 500 guests per hour—giving us an hourly count of 4,500 (now we will be even able to beat G.E. on those busy days).
"Realizing how difficult things were for some of our Disney characters last season, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will stay at home this year. Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Alice in Wonderland and White Rabbit, Esq. will be joined by two of Donald Duck's closet friends—Chip and Dale.
"Well, I bet you Attraction Hostesses will be pleased to learn that 'gracious' Grace will have hats to help you maintain that natural 'Disneyland look' even when the breeze is blowing off Meadow Lake at 100 miles an hour!
"We don't know who'll be happier to hear this next news more—the Passport Sellers or the Cash Control staff—but here it is: NO MORE NICKELS!! To alleviate that nickel problem (and what a problem), the adult passport will sell for a straight $1, instead of 95 cents."
Pepsi-Cola had come to Disney so late in the game, roughly a year before the opening of the fair, that they had already started construction on the building, which was a simple L-shape before Disney even came up with a concept for an attraction. It covered roughly 93,696 square feet.
Basically, it wasn't until February 15, 1963, that Walt agreed to begin a Planning Design Feasibility Study for the pavilion.
The Pepsi-Cola Pavilion had that large building with the nine-minute boat ride. In the adjoining smaller pavilion of the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, (which was also sponsored by the Pepsi-Cola Company and still considered part of the overall Pepsi-Cola Pavilion), were pictures of children from countries around the world, indicating the needs served by the United Nations agency.
In this smaller pavilion, UNICEF greeting cards, books, games and posters were sold to raise money. A garden had photographic displays on the theme of every child's right to security, good health and education.
It was in front of the pavilion where the 120-foot-tall Tower of the Four Winds was located.
Many Disney fans know that Imagineer Rolly Crump was primarily responsible for this monument that many attendees used as a landmark.
"Meet Me Under The Tower Of The Four Winds" was a slogan that both Disney and Pepsi promoted in its publicity.
A great addition to your Disney library is a copy of the book It's Kind of A Cute Story where Crump recounts a part of his amazing life, including a chapter on the World's Fair and another on "it's a small world."
I wish more Disney Imagineers and animators had taken time to record their memories of their time working for the Mouse. Two recent releases of first-person accounts of working in the "Golden Age of Disney" that may have slipped under your radar are Life in the Mouse House: Memoir of a Disney Story Artist (by 1940s Disney cartoon storyman Homer Brightman) and Inside the Whimsy Works: My Life with Walt Disney Productions (by Jimmy Johnson, who created the Disney records division)
Unlike Rolly's book, these books contain additional material to help you understand the person, his place in Disney history and his accomplishments.
However, as good as Rolly's book is, here are a couple of secrets of the Tower of the Four Winds that most people don't know.
The United States Committee for UNICEF operated a gift shop under the tower. Free literature about UNICEF was also available. Understandably, the merchandise (including a record of the theme song with Winston Hibler narrating a trip through the attraction on the other side) based on the ride was the most popular purchase. Guests were also encouraged to make contributions to UNICEF.
A VIP lounge was also hidden beneath the Tower of the Four Winds, directly above the gift shop. It had huge windows where people could look out, but it was difficult for people to look inside.
There was a circular patio outside the VIP lounge that had railings and it was one of the locations where Disney characters frolicked (and could go inside and interact with the VIPs).
It was listed as "a hospitality center at its base where the Pepsi-Cola Company and the United States committee for UNICEF host distinguished visitors who attend the attraction."
It was the success of this area that inspired Walt to create Club 33 at Disneyland.
The first year, Disney characters interacted with guests at ground level, but were soon moved to safer heights like the elevated walkway above the ticket booths. Several unfortunate incidents had occurred with the guests who, unlike at Disneyland, were unused to meeting the costumed characters up close and eagerly punched and pushed them as if they were oversized toys.
"I don't remember anything about the characters being hurt, although we all had to learn how to do this certain maneuver, 'how to turn a hug into a handshake' .... a kind of deflecting trick when people crowded us or became physically obnoxious," remembered Susanna "Susie" Vance who was "a friend of" Alice in Wonderland writing to Randy Treadway.
"There was a big thing at the fair though, that did 'hush up' any unpleasantries, though—with Uncle Walt being the most diligent about this. Nothing bad—publicly!—ever happened on his watch! Squeaky clean behavior was expected of all of us," Vance said. "At one point a professional Mickey was flown in from L.A., an older man [Paul Castle] who'd been Mickey Mouse forever, and he helped pass on lots of crowd management, and 'mingling' techniques."
Multi-lingual guides were available to escort visitors through the UNICEF exhibit. UNICEF had nine paid employees and 450 volunteers working the pavilion over the two years.
In addition, each day at the pavilion, a member country was honored in behalf of its people. The flag of that country was flown and its representatives and delegation invited to tour the exhibit.
Interestingly, there was little mention of Pepsi-Cola in the pavilion. There were Pepsi "Refreshment Centers" where the soda was dispensed with "a sparkling smile"
Pepsi maintained that guests would leave with "a happy remembrance of Pepsi-Cola" so they didn't need to aggressively push their product.
Disney handled the training of the Pepsi staff and the manual stated "You are not a 'counter girl' or 'counter boy', a 'waitress' or a 'bus boy', you are an 'ambassador of happiness' for our Small World and an ambassador of good will for the entire Pepsi-Cola team."
Disney artists even created a Pepsi mascot, a lively young blonde teenager in a somewhat Bavarian dress of a puffy sleeved white blouse and black corset, called "The Pepsi Maiden".
Disney also trained the UNICEF volunteers that staffed the pavilion. Disney leased space in a nearby motel and used it as "Small World University" with Disney Legend Van Arsdale France in charge.
Always the showman, France set up a training room at the motel in a conference room and dressed it up like a New York café with checkered tablecloths, flowers, and the training handbook like a menu. He oriented hundreds of people in that room in groups of 20, night and day, seven days a week like an assembly line.
The Pavilion was one of the very few that charged admission, $0.95 cents for adults and $.60 cents for children younger than 12 years old, Everyone assumed that money went to UNICEF, but thanks to research of Disney historian Paul Anderson, it was discovered that none of that money went directly to UNICEF, a decision that the United Nations organization's officials themselves made.
Pepsi gave UNICEF an outright donation to cover operating and administrative costs during the two year run of the pavilion. What was left from that donation at the end of two years as well as the proceeds from the souvenir items sales went to the UNICEF's children emergency fund so the admissions did eventually trickle back to UNICEF… just not directly for some obscure legal or political reason I don't know.
As the years and decades roll on, the people involved with the "it's a small world" attraction at the World's Fair have died, and much of the information has been lost. Hopefully, this article has preserved some of those stories for future generations.
I am in Disneyland today enjoying "it's a small world" before I prepare for my presentation to the Disneyland COMPASS diversity group on Disney and Asian-Pacific heritage, and, tomorrow, I will be back at the Walt Disney World Resort where I can compare the same attraction experience almost immediately. Whew! It really is a small world today.