There has been a lot of controversy surrounding some reported upcoming changes to the sentimentally popular Disneyland attraction, “it’s a small world.” The attraction has always been one of my favorites. I even enjoy the infamous song … in small doses. However, in all the uproar, I haven’t seen any historical discussion of the attraction so I thought I might try and give some historical perspective.
The New York World’s Fair of 1964-1965 was an opportunity for Walt Disney to show that his style of theme park entertainment was not just a California accident, but something that appealed even to the supposedly more sophisticated folks of the East Coast.
It turned out that 91 percent of the fair’s guests attended at least one of the Disney shows: Ford’s Magic Skyway, Carousel of Progress, Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, and of course, "it’s a small world."
“It’s a small world” opened April 22, 1964 and during its two years of operation it was determined that more than 10 million people rode it, which means it had a higher ridership than any of the other Disney shows at the fair. Amazingly, this was even though there was a special admission ticket (with funds going to UNICEF: United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) for this happiest cruise that was not charged at the other Disney shows.
While the entrance to the pavilion itself and the other exhibits were free, the 12-minute “boat ride” cost a $1 for adults and 60 cents for children. According to the official guidebook for the fair: “Inside, visitors glide by such scenes as France’s Eiffel Tower, a Dutch windmill and India’s Taj Mahal. Animated figures of children dance, play with droll animals and sing, ‘It’s a Small World.’ The twelve minute ride is conceived as a ‘salute to UNICEF.’”
It was sponsored by the Pepsi-Cola Company that was working with the United Nations agency devoted to children’s welfare to have a pavilion that would provide a “salute to UNICEF and the world’s children.” I always wondered why Pepsi did not sponsor the attraction when it moved to Disneyland, especially since Pepsi was already sponsoring one of my all-time favorite Disneyland shows, the Golden Horseshoe Revue in Frontierland. Bank of America became the original sponsor for the attraction at Disneyland.
It turns out that the executives of the Pepsi Company hated the final attraction. In the 1980 book called “The Pavilion” which was published to publicize the Pepsi exhibit for EXPO ’70 in Japan, the company describes the “small world” show as an “embarrassment.”
The Pepsi Company had trouble coming up with a concept that they liked and finally at almost the last moment, they approached the Disney Company. One of the Pepsi board members, film actress Joan Crawford, had heard exciting things about the other three pavilions Disney was doing for the fair and suggested that with the Disney connection with children that Walt could come up with something amazing.
Pepsi executives went to California in February 1963 and met with Disneyland’s construction boss, Admiral Joe “Can Do” Fowler who had to sadly inform the executives that Disney “couldn’t do” the project since it was less than a year before the fair opening and that Disney was experiencing challenges with all the innovative things they were working on for the other three pavilions and needed to focus all their resources on those projects.
When Walt found out, he was incensed. According to one Disney executive, Walt said, “I’ll make those decisions. Tell Pepsi I’ll do it!” So on February 15, 1963, Walt agreed to do a “Planning Design Feasibility Study” for the pavilion .
It was Walt himself who came up with the concept of a boat ride. (Arrow Manufacturing, responsible for innovations like Disneyland’s Matterhorn, was already working on a boat ride system based on some ideas by Imagineer Bob Gurr). Walt also came up with the name for the attraction: “The Children of the World.” He also wanted all the children to sing their national anthems. Walt wanted it to be a pleasant experience for “children of all ages” showcasing a “wonderland where all the world’s children live and play.”
Because time was of the essence, a simple L-shaped building was quickly designed and construction started in New York in late March even though Disney had no clue what the ride would eventually look like. There were several meetings with the show designers and Imagineer Marc Davis came up with a sketch that really stood out.
However, Walt wasn’t satisfied and decided to get artist Mary Blair involved. Blair had left the Disney Studios after contributing as an art supervior or color stylist to many Disney animated films including Song of the South, Cinderella and Melody Time.
In particular, Walt enjoyed the “Los Posada” segment in the film The Three Caballeros designed by Blair where Mexican children in a small village celebrate Christmas. In addition, since leaving Disney, Blair had gained prominence for her work on children’s books. Blair started work on the show in June 1963.
Fowler took the preliminary ideas to the Pepsi headquarters in New York for a presentation and buy-off, since there was roughly nine months until the opening of the fair. The Pepsi executives hated it. Supposedly, one executive disdainfully complained, “Why do we need this Mickey Mouse thing?”
Once again, Crawford exercised her authority and firmly told her fellow Pepsi executives that they were going to go with the Disney concept.
There was a special press announcement banquet held at the Waldorf Hotel in New York on August 1963. Walt Disney was there with Robert Moses, who was in charge of the World’s Fair, and Herbert Barnett, the president of Pepsi-Cola. Moses told the press that he predicted “small world” would be one of the fair’s three or four most popular attractions.
(The training manual for the pavilion features not only the Disney characters like Tinker Bell and Jiminy Cricket but also a Pepsi advertising mascot I have never seen anywhere else, the "Pepsi Maiden,” a blonde young woman who seems to be in a traditional German maiden outfit of puffy white sleeves, a black laced corset and a knee length striped dress.)
While it has been popular to think of "small world" as all Blair’s creation, many other talented Disney artists contributed significantly to the final version. Besides the basic design of the children, Blair’s major contribution was the color styling helping to create instant mood changes as guests sailed around the world. All the colors in the scenes combine into an all-white finale.
The Audio-Animatronic doll figures were known as “rubber heads,” based on a notation that appeared on Marc Davis’ drawings. Davis was supplying gags for the scenes and the flow of action of the figures including the dancing. The dolls were sculpted by Blaine Gibson and costumed by Alice Davis, Marc Davis' talented and often underappreciated wife. It was estimated that a singing figure might open and close its mouth more than 1million times in one month.
Imagineer Claude Coats laid out the pattern for the river. Imagineers Rolly Crump and Jack Ferges created all the “toys,” the term that referred to everything that wasn’t an animated children doll from props in the scene to skating penquins. Working with approximately 30 people, Crump used styrofoam and paper-mache, often gluing on Chem Wipes for additional support, to build more than 250 “toys.”
Crump studied Blair’s children’s books for ideas and to help understand her style. The idea for the ice skating penquins came from a toy on Imagineer Yale Gracey’s desk where a little ice skater would skate thanks to a hidden magnet underneath.
One day, Walt visited Crump and gave him a gift that Walt had picked up in Europe: a little bicycle rider on a thin wire. Crump built a larger version and in the mock up had a bucket of sand holding the cable tight. Moving the bucket would cause the cable to loosen and the rider would go back and forth. Crump still remembers fearfully Walt coming over and picking up the bucket and shaking it violently to make sure the toy wouldn’t come off the cable and hit a guest.
Crump was also responsible for the 120-foot high Tower of the Four Winds that was installed in front of the pavilion. Walt realized that the building that was so quickly constructed for “small world” would seem very plain and unappealing, so a more distinctive marquee was necessary to attract the attention of the visitors to the fair. The 52 different mobiles “represented the constant energy of the young.” At the end of the fair when Walt found out it would take nearly $80,000 to move it back to Disneyland, it was cut up and dumped in the nearby river.
That famous song that some people find tortuous had an interesting creation. Originally, Walt had wanted the children to sing their national anthems. However, when it was attempted, it was a cacophony that was insufferable. Walt called in songwriters the Sherman Brothers who were hard at work on “Mary Poppins.” He told them he wanted a song like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” that would be melodious and was simple enough that it could be repeated over and over in different languages.
Imagineer Harriet Burns remembered Walt talking to the Sherman Brothers at WED and using the phrase “it’s a small world after all” to describe the feeling he wanted. Walt never meant the phrase to be a title or even a lyric but was just making a casual remark to try and capture the spirit of song that talked about the children of the world.
The brothers quickly came up with the famous song but worried that it came so quickly, so they worked on two more songs trying to top it. However, with time running out, Walt was anxious to hear what they written at that point and they played the simple song first. They never got a chance to share the other two songs when Walt said, “That will work” which most Disney employees knew was high praise from Walt. Those who knew Walt have said that Walt really loved the song.
To install the attraction, crews worked seven days a week to make the deadline. Crump told Disney historian Paul Anderson, “We were living off 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.”
Costumed Disney characters were there for the opening of the attraction. It was one of the few times that the characters had appeared outside of Disneyland and proved to be so popular that they became permanent additions to the pavilion for the duration of the Fair. The nearby Kodak pavilion encouraged many photos of guests with the characters.
In June 1965, as the New York World’s Fair was preparing to close, construction had begun on the show building at Disneyland for the attraction. Construction ran from June 9, 1965 to May 28, 1966.
When the attraction moved to Disneyland, it changed significantly from the New York presentation since the show building was one-third larger.
“The New York sets were placed in the same order at Disneyland (although some were different, right or left side) but we added quite a lot. The European section was built at least a third larger than the World’s Fair, so I had to ‘piece’ the sets to fill the space. We never had a North Pole area at the Fair, which I designed for Disneyland along with the Islands of the Pacific. We had to completely rebuild every set that was at the Fair…re-canvas them, re-paint them, re-flitter them, and then add another third to the ride,” Crump said.
It was Crump who designed the façade for the Disneyland attraction after Blair’s initial design was rejected by Walt. Crump worked with Blair to get her style in the final façade. It was Walt himself who came up with the idea of the clock and the idea of having 24 characters since there are 24 hours in the day. It was Crump who came up with the idea of the façade being white with gold accents to help with maintenance. (Blair’s rendering for the façade was so colorful it would have been a maintenance nightmare requiring constant repainting as the colors faded in the California sun.)
“Small World” opened at Disneyland on May 28,1966 and was sponsored by Bank of America. Besides the Disney and Bank of America dignitaries, there were 36 foreign consular officials, more than 800 members of the press, and the Interntaional Children’s Choir of Long Beach. In addition, a parade of local folk dancing groups and marching bands also participated. Walt Disney joined “children from sixteen ethnic groups” to pour flasks of water from the “seven seas and nine major lagoons” into the waterway for the attraction. The water was authentic and had been flown in at a significant expense from different countries. The gentleman shown with Walt in most of the publicity photos for the event was Louis Lundborg, Bank of America board chair.
This event, known as “Operation Water” was created by Disneyland publicist Jack Linquist, who has never gotten enough credit for his imaginative marketing for Disneyland. He was named a Disney Legend in 1994.
There have been changes in the attraction over the years but they were so subtle that most guests were completely unaware. For instance some figures, like the children in India have undergone costume changes. China was not officially recognized by the United States so was not represented in the attraction until the 1970s when it was added to both the Disneyland and Walt Disney World version.
As Rolly Crump told “E Ticket” magazine, “Walt’s intended audience with 'it’s a small world' was everybody. He was always saying that there should be something in Disneyland for everybody. I used to sit outside the ride and watch people come out of 'small world.' They’d be smiling, and they’d be laughing, and there really wasn’t another attraction where people came out and were happy like that.”
How do I feel about the rumored changes for “it’s a small world”? Well, I’ve always liked the show as it is, especially when the Walt Disney World version got “cleaned up” with new paint and lighting that helped remind many guests how good the show was when it first premiered.
However, a friend that I trust who has seen the concept art told me that the new additions really captures the “spirit” of Mary Blair so I guess I will withhold judgment, especially since I know that unlike Walt, the current Disney Company is not interested in the concerns of its audience, nor, despite the pronouncements from Bob Iger and John Lasseter, is it interested in preserving its history. Perhaps when I am in a grumpy mood, I will give some more specific examples but for right now, I am filled with the good feelings from “it’s a small world.”