Conceived at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank as Children of the World, it was created by WED Enterprises, then shipped to the 1964 New York World's Fair's UNICEF pavilion, sponsored by Pepsi, where it featured at its entrance a kinetic sculpture, called the Tower of the Four Winds, a 120-foot perpetually spinning mobile created by WED designer Rolly Crump. It's a Small World joined four other 1964 New York World Fair attractions — Magic Skyway (Ford), Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (Illinois), Carousel of Progress (General Electric), and CircleVision 360 (Kodak)—already under development at WED. These attractions were used by WED to fund and test concepts, develop ride systems, and innovate new entertainment options intended to be moved and re-built at Disneyland after the World's Fair closed in 1966. Of these, Carousel of Progress, It's a Small World, and the Magic Skyway's Primeval World scenes would be relocated to Disneyland, with Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln being replicated at Disneyland in 1965, while the original attraction still ran at the Fair.
The Pepsi Board of Directors took so long to agree on what type of attraction to sponsor that then-board member and widow of past company president Alfred Steele, actress Joan Crawford, prevailed upon her longtime Hollywood friend Walt Disney to design such an attraction as would be suitable for Pepsi. Because of the short lead-time to design, create, and construct such an attraction, she insisted that the Board of Directors accept his proposal, seeing as he was already designing attractions for the state of Illinois, Ford, General Electric, and Kodak and knew Walt was the only one who could accomplish such a feat in the short time left until the fair was scheduled to open. The WED Enterprises company was given only 11 months to create and build the pavilion.
Mary Blair was responsible for the attraction's whimsical design and color styling. Blair had been an art director on several Disney animated features, including Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, and Peter Pan. Like many Disneyland attractions, scenes and characters were designed by Marc Davis, while his wife, Alice Davis, designed the costumes for the dolls. Rolly Crump designed the toys and other supplemental figures on display. The animated dolls were designed and sculpted by Blaine Gibson. Walt was personally involved with Gibson's development of the dolls' facial design; each animated doll face is completely identical in shape.
Arrow Development was deeply involved in the design of the passenger-carrying boats and propulsion system of the attraction. Two patents that were filed by Arrow Development staff and assigned to The Walt Disney Company illustrate passenger boats and vehicle guidance systems with features very similar to those later utilized on the Disneyland installation of the attraction. The firm is credited with manufacturing the Disneyland installation.
"Children of the World" was the working title of the attraction. Its tentative soundtrack, which can be heard on the album, featured the national anthems of each country represented throughout the ride all playing all at once, which resulted in a disharmonic cacophony. Walt conducted a walk-through of the attraction scale model with his staff songwriters Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman, saying, "I need one song that can be easily translated into many languages and be played as a round."
The Sherman Brothers then wrote "It's a Small World (After All)" in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which influenced the song's message of peace and brotherhood. When they first presented it to Walt, they played it as a slow ballad. Walt requested something more cheerful, so they sped up the tempo and sang in counterpoint. Walt was so delighted with the final result that he renamed the attraction "It's a Small World" after the Sherman Brothers' song.
It is argued that this song is the single most performed and most translated piece of music on Earth. In 2014, it was estimated that the song had played nearly 50 million times worldwide on the attractions alone, beating out the radio and TV estimates for You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' and Yesterday, which were believed to have been played at least eight and seven million times respectively.
A third verse celebrating the attraction's 45th anniversary was written and popularized, but not incorporated into the ride. In 1965, an album of folk songs from around the world, which included the title track, "It's a Small World (After All)", was recorded by the St. Charles Boys Choir under the direction of Paul Salamunovich using the name, "The Disneyland Boys Choir". It is available for purchase in the theme park.
The first incarnation of It's a Small World, which debuted at the 1964 New York World's Fair, was an afterthought and nearly did not happen. Ford and General Electric had engaged Disney early on to create their pavilions for the 1964 New York World's Fair. WED Enterprises had already long been at work developing a "dancing-doll" designed to reproduce human movement, resulting in a crude early animatronic figure fashioned as Abraham Lincoln when the State of Illinois approached Disney to create the Illinois Pavilion; representatives of the state instantly approved after being "introduced" to the robotic figurehead. A nine wide-screen CircleVision 360° exhibit for Kodak's pavilion was also being planned as an improvement over the existing Disneyland eleven 4:3 format screen Circarama (which later failed the installation deadline for opening) when Pepsi approached Disney with a plan to tribute UNICEF.
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 coloured 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, respectively, were collected 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 seat available aboard It's a Small World. Its high rider-per-hour capacity was recognized as a valuable innovation and 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 scrapped as concrete was broken out so similar boats could sail past scenes which (because the original walk-through scene length was not shortened) were now different each voyage, another concept which forever influenced attraction design and popularity.
After the world’s fair ended, the ride was disassembled and shipped back to Disneyland in 1966. It would be the most expensive ride at the time to ship back to Disneyland. The boats now enter the show building through a tunnel under the Small World clock tower and emerge from the attraction fifteen minutes later. The show building interior is larger than the façade. Voyagers see animatronic dolls in traditional local costumes singing "It's a Small World (After All)" together, each in their native language. Boats carry voyagers as they visit the regions of the world.
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. The boats are stored behind the facade and go in and out backstage in between the Spanish room.
When the ride moved to Disneyland in 1966, the Tower of the Four Winds was not relocated after the New York World's Fair in 1964/1965: in its place is an outdoor oval flume and boarding queue decorated with topiary backed by a large, flat façade with stylized cutout turrets, towers, and minarets, which are vaguely reminiscent of world landmarks (such as the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa). The façade was designed by Disney Imagineer Rolly Crump, who was inspired by Mary Blair's styling. Walt Disney asked Rolly to design a large 30-foot clock, a central feature of the exterior facade, with a smiling face that rocks back and forth to a ticking sound.
Every 15 minutes, a parade of wooden dolls in traditional costumes dance out from doors at the base of the Small World clock to an instrumental toy soldier version of "It's a Small World (After All)" in preparation for each quarter-hour, reminiscent of a European automaton 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 stylized numerals of the hour, the small one displays the minutes, while large and small bells toll to count the hours and quarters.
The exterior has been subtly repainted over the years, first in all-white with a gold/silver trim, then in 1976 in various shades of blue, then in 1993 in pink and white with pastel accents. In 1993 of the same year, portions of the left side of the original façade were removed in order to make room for the entrance to Mickey's Toontown. As of September 2002, the façade is white with a gold trim as it was in 1966, except the original gold and silver paint of the clock, the smiling clock face is now entirely gold leaf. The gardens around the building are decorated with topiary animals.
During the 2005–2006 holiday season, an elaborate multimedia presentation was projected on the outdoor façade which registered colored patterns matched to the façade each quarter-hour after dusk. 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 relocated under the Monorail track between the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Autopia) to decrease overwhelming crowds gathered for viewing the fireworks spectacular in Plaza and Main Street.
2008 refurbishment with new dolls
Disneyland's "It's a Small World" was closed from January to November 2008 (closed and reopening in holiday version, skipping the summer season) to receive a major refurbishment. The building's structure was improved, permanent attachments created for the "It's a Small World Holiday" overlay, the water flume replaced and its propulsion upgraded to electric water jet turbines, and the attraction's aging fiberglass boats redesigned in durable plastic. The refurbishment added 29 new Disney characters, each in their native land, similar to the Hong Kong Disneyland version.
Sylvania has agreed to a twelve-year sponsorship. In 2014, the sponsor logo at the attraction's entrance changed to that of Siemens, the parent company of Sylvania.
The Magic, the 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, the Memories and You show projected sequences of classic Disney attractions and characters set to Disney music onto the exterior façade of It's a Small World to fill its architectural features, personalized with exclusive photographs and videos of park guests taken that day by Disney's PhotoPass cast members. The show also existed in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom but was projected onto Cinderella Castle. As the "Let the Memories Begin" campaign drew to a close, the show ended its run on Labor Day, September 3, 2012, at both locations. The Florida version was eventually replaced by Celebrate the Magic.
On October 1, 1971, a version of the ride opened in Florida's Walt Disney World Fantasyland within the Magic Kingdom. The toy company Mattel originally sponsored the attraction from opening day until 1998, when it transferred its sponsorship to another Magic Kingdom attraction, Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin in nearby Tomorrowland from that attraction's opening in 1998 until 1999, when it also dropped its sponsorship of that attraction, thus ending Mattel's history as a Walt Disney World sponsor.
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. The loading and exit areas were also repositioned to opposite positions.
From August until October 21, 2010, this attraction was again closed for refurbishment.
In 2016, the ride was closed again. This time, the sound was cleaned up and re-tuned, animatronics were replaced and the Goodbye Room flowers were digitalized with screens showing guests' first names.
Previously, the façade was colorful until the 2004-2005 refurbishment, when it was replaced with the colors from Disneyland.
In the Africa room, the pink elephant is above the exit instead of on the right wall and has plain white eyes without pupils.
The finale room has three hot air balloons that move up and down and were reused on all subsequent versions except Disneyland.
During the 2004-2005 renovation, the frowning clown in one of the hot air balloons in the finale was holding the sign "HELP!". After the refurbishment, it was removed and replaced with a happy clown.
The song is sung by the different nations spread all around in unison instead of Disneyland's single version.
The finale does not represent a specific nation.
The entire room is flooded instead of California's flume-style where the water only fills the track and the room is outside the track.
On July 27, 2021, following Walt Disney World's reopening, Magic Kingdom announced that the original version would close for refurbishment. It was reopened on July 30, 2021 in time for Walt Disney World's 50th Anniversary celebration. The ride is currently being repainted with a new color scheme outside of operating hours.
An Australian kangaroo with her joey.
The Goodbye Room
The Tokyo Disneyland version of the attraction is identical to the Magic Kingdom version except for these differences:
The façade's design is an almost-complete replica of the California counterpart, but with a different color scheme.
The loading area is split into two zones instead of one.
The Asian room features radically different sets and dolls for Japan and China compared to the Magic Kingdom version.
The ride uses a different, more recent recording of the song sung in Japanese specifically created for this version instead of the original Japanese recording.
The walls of the African, South American and Polynesian rooms are painted in colors similar to the Magic Kingdom version before its 2005 renovation compared to the current black walls in the Magic Kingdom version.
The African and Polynesian rooms have the song sung in English.
The finale is sung in Japanese.
The Goodbye Room is shorter than the one in Florida.
On March 1, 2017, Tokyo Disneyland's version of "It's a Small World" closed down for refurbishment for its first major update since the park's opening in 1983. The updated version of the attraction reopened on April 8, 2018. Coinciding with Tokyo Disneyland's 35th anniversary, the attraction featured 40 Disney characters similar to its counterparts in California and Hong Kong. It also revealed a redone color scheme for the façade, a new tick-tock sound and parade music (similar to the ones used in Hong Kong and Anaheim), an entirely redone loading area dubbed “Small World Station,” a new Welcome room, an extended Goodbye room, redone set pieces, and music tracks new to the ride including a Mandarin language track added to the China scene formerly exclusive to the Hong Kong version.
The attraction was initially set to be relocated to another area in Fantasyland with a new facade similar to the California counterpart as part of original expansion plans announced in October 2014 for the resort within the next ten years before being revised and updated.
The attraction at Disneyland Paris is a departure from the other versions of the attraction. The façade features rearranged and slightly redesigned landmarks with a completely different clock tower. The exterior clock face features a wide-awake sun on its left half and a sleeping moon on its right half. Unlike all other versions of the ride, every scene is housed in one room with arches being used to define sections of the ride. The scenery design is a complete departure from Mary Blair's distinctive style, though the dolls remain identical to all other versions. The ride also uses a completely different soundtrack by John Debney (which was also used for roughly a decade at the Californian version from the early 1990s to the early 2000s), which can be described as more ornate compared to the original soundtrack. This is the first version of the ride to incorporate a scene for North America with dolls representing Canada and the United States, and a distinct Middle Eastern section with dolls singing in Arabic. In the Finale room, in addition to the song being sung in English, it is also sung in French.
As part of an ongoing plan to refurbish several attractions in celebration of the park's 25th anniversary, this version went under an extensive refurbishment for six months before it reopened on December 19, 2015. The refurbishment included a different color scheme for the façade that was identical to the original color scheme, restored assets, and special effects, refurbished boats, new LED lighting to replace the old stage lighting, and all 176 dolls in the ride being progressively replaced through 2017. The entrance and exit rooms have been completely revamped, being identical to the entrance scene in Hong Kong Disneyland's version and the exit scene in the Magic Kingdom and Hong Kong Disneyland versions (rendered in the Mary Blair style similar to the other parks). The soundtrack has been completely remastered with the base instrumental removed from the majority of the ride's audio except for the finale, making the soundtrack more similar to the original version. Additionally, new audio tracks were added including a new recording of someone yodeling to the tune of the song in the Switzerland scene. Also, the attraction had a post-show area called World Chorus that was sponsored by France Télécom, which opened with the park in 1992 and then closed in 2011 to make way for the Princess Pavilion meet and greet area. At the attraction, guests observed animated children communicating with each other through various uses in technology such as computers, telephone, e-mail, video, fax, and Internet. The scenes included:
An Italian pilot driving an airplane sending an e-mail to a German boy.
An Egyptian boy sending a facsimile of the song's sheet music through fax.
A Russian girl feeding her pet fish when she receives a call from an Italian gondolier.
An English girl practicing singing when her watch tells her that it is time to call Austria to watch a cat get fed.
A Spanish boy playing the guitar when a string breaks, so he calls a French girl seated at a French restaurant.
An Asian boy sending an e-mail before falling asleep when his Venezuelan correspondent receives his message.
An American cowboy calling a Brazilian dancer girl on his phone.
An Italian boy dressed as a clown calling a Swedish girl who is riding a bicycle with her dog by telephone.
An African boy communicating to his pet parrot.
A Belgian boy communicating to an Egyptian boy via computer.
A Dutch girl and her dog using the Internet and receiving tickets to the concert at the Eiffel Tower.
A children's choir singing the attraction's titular song accompanied by a conductor and the silhouettes of three violinists.
A German boy accompanied by bluebirds communicating to his friend via computer.
Hong Kong Disneyland
The Hong Kong Disneyland version of the attraction is mostly modeled after the original Disneyland counterpart, using a canal for the boats to travel through instead of the open-ended water track found in the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo, and Paris versions. Some of this version's prominent and unique characteristics include:
38 Disney characters (all rendered in the Mary Blair style) added to scenes where their stories originated.
An expanded Asian sequence with the Philippines and Korea represented with children singing in Tagalog, Cebuano, and Korean, respectively, as well as an extended Chinese scene with Hong Kong represented and children singing in Mandarin and Cantonese.
A distinct Middle Eastern room, and scenes for North America, similar to the Paris version.
Extraordinary fiber-optic lighting effects in the Finale room not seen on any other Disney attraction.
Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog, and Cebuano versions of the song that were specifically recorded for Hong Kong Disneyland. The finale is sung in three languages: Cantonese, English, and Mandarin.
A Chinese opera singer added to the wooden doll parade.
The attraction is the largest indoor attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland. It is situated beyond the Hong Kong Disneyland Railroad, next to Disney's Storybook Theater where Mickey and the Wondrous Book is performed daily.
Since 1997, Disneyland has featured "It's a Small World 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 in full. Instead, the children sing "Jingle Bells" and a bridge of "Deck the Halls" in addition to the main theme.
Since the holiday 2009 season, the Disney characters and the Spirit of America room (formerly the covered transition room) have joined in the "It's a Small World Holiday" at Disneyland.
Disneyland Paris' version used to add subtle decorations around the attraction and changed the music in the North American area to "Deck The Halls". For the 2009 winter season, Disneyland Paris added "It's a Small World Celebration", a variation of "It's a Small World Holiday" highlighting winter holidays around the world. It includes new costumes, lighting, sounds, decorations, and uses the music from the Disneyland (California) version – "Jingle Bells" and "Deck the Halls". Following the 2015 renovation, "It's a Small World Celebration" used a new soundtrack recorded for winter 2016.
Hong Kong Disneyland's "It's a Small World Christmas" changes the music seasonally and subtly adds a few Christmas decorations as well as an abridged version of the holiday soundtrack. It only ran from 2009-2010.
The holiday overlay has since been implemented at Tokyo Disneyland with similar decorations called "It's a Small World Very Merry Holidays". It ran seasonally from November to January from 2003-2014. Due to damaged set pieces as a result of the 2011 earthquake, the overlay did not take place that year.
The Magic Kingdom does not have its own holiday edition of "It's a Small World", and the regular ride operates continuously through the holiday season.
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. A mechanical-sounding, music box version of the Small World melody plays at the end of the credits.
In the nighttime spectacular World of Color: Villainous, Hades sends the protagonist Shelley-Marie on a little "boat ride" through the River Styx. A dissonant version of the song briefly plays with cutout-style clones of the Hydra, but Hades quickly puts a stop to it, commenting: "I'm just kidding. Even I couldn't do that for eternity!"
It's a Small World is an important location in the first book of the Kingdom Keepers 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 have been brought to life by the Overtakers to attack 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 three letters painted in the sun: a "Y", an "I", and an "R".
A rejected 1977 pitch for a film version of It's a Small World was to have focused on the adventures of the children of United Nations representatives hoping to get their bickering parents to agree on something by staging their own kidnapping. However, a war profiteer seeking to exploit the chaos sets out to capture them to escalate the situation.
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, Paramedics took her to a hospital and she was able to recover fully from her injuries successfully. The ride was closed for 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 he was later pronounced dead.
1964 World's Fair
The exterior of the ride's building at the World's Fair.
The Tower of the Four Winds.
Disney Character Additions
Captions are based on which parks certain character vignettes appear. While many characters are shared between parks, staging sometimes changes.
A Behind the Scenes look on It's A Small World was featured in the 2021, Disney+ series Behind the Attraction.
↑Paul F. Anderson (2001). "A Little Boat Ride: It's A Small World". Excerpted from "Disney and the 1964 New York World's Fair", Persistence of Vision, Issue #6/#7. nywf64.com. Retrieved on November 4, 2015.