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“It’s a Small, Small World”–The story Behind the Disney Icon

by Rod Wheaton on July 10, 2013


English: Thai Dancers in "it's a small wo...

English: Thai Dancers in “it’s a small world” in Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando Florida, U.S.A. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




It’s been called the best.  It’s been called the worst.  It’s theme song has been maligned as the ballad you just cant get out of your head.  Others say it’s a beautiful song all about the wish for a happier future.  Some Disney faithful haven’t ridden it in years, others wouldn’t miss it for anything every time they come.


Love it or not, the attraction “It’s a Small World” is an icon.  And a monumental one at that.  It’s one of the few attractions with a direct link to Walt himself, and for the most part is far more beloved than not.  Being one of those aforementioned who wouldn’t go to the Magic Kingdom without riding it at least once, I felt it was time to give it some love here on the blog.  The history alone is fascinating to any Disney Geek…


“It’s a Small World” got it’s start when Walt and the Imagineers were tasked with creating a pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair.  Pepsi was working with UNICEF at the time and wanted something that would evoke children’s welfare and a “salute to the world’s children”.  One of the Pepsi board members suggested that with Disney’s connection with children, they would be the ideal creator.  Ironically, that board member was none other than actress Joan “Mommy Dearest” Crawford.


The idea of an attraction focusing on the children of the world appealed to Walt, and it was Walt himself who decided to pursue the idea of creating the experience as a boat ride.  Imagineer Bob Gurr had already been working on concepts for a boat ride attraction, and here was the opportunity to develop the ideas in real application.  Walt also had it in mind early on he wanted all the children of the world to be singing.


Surprisingly, Pepsi didn’t like the early concepts, but again it was none other than Joan Crawford who insisted to the executives that they were going to go with Disney’s concept.


Disney legends Rolly Crump, Mary Blair, Alice and Marc Davis and many others would be involved in bringing about the attraction that would become known around the world, as well as becoming one of Disney’s most enduring and beloved.  Once the concept of the children of the world was established, Walt set about deciding on the music.  Originally he intended to have the different nation’s children singing their own national anthems, but the conflicting music, singing, and tempos destroyed the harmonious theme Walt was striving for.   Walt brought in his musical equivalent of the big guns: the Sherman brothers (who were currently working on “Mary Poppins”.  Walt described what he wanted; a song that could be sung over and over in a loop that conveyed a message of harmony.  It is  said he used the phrase “a small world after all” in the conversation, sparking the brother’s creative imaginations.  After working on the song only a short time, they came up with the lyrics and the tune, but it was first written as a much slower ballad.  Walt, wanting to keep it up-tempo, sped up the tune, and the result was the song so often jokingly referred to as both the most beloved, yet most dreaded song in the parks.  Those who knew Walt at that time say he himself was very fond of it.


After the World’s fair, Small World found it’s home in Disneyland and in 1971 it became a part of Walt Disney World.  The attraction has remained much the same other than some costume changes and some adjustments of a relatively minor nature.  Even what changes have been made were made with a desire to keep the spirit of Walt’s original.  In a tribute to the fact that Walt had an uncanny knack for what people would like, it is still one of Fantasyland’s most popular attractions even now, 50 years later.


And who would have believed that “the children of the world” would owe some thanks to Joan Crawford?


Until next time; See Ya Real Soon!


–Rod W




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