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The World Behind “it’s a small world”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of “it’s a small world” opening at Disneyland, so I’m looking back at its amazing history. When famous urban planner Robert Moses—who was chiefly responsible for the layout of much of modern New York City—came to Walt Disney in early 1960 and asked him to design a “children’s village” (something that Variety had deemed a “permanent eastern Disneyland”) for the 1964-65 World’s Fair to be held in Flushing, Queens, he had no idea that Walt had already begun talks with several potential sponsors to do just that. Namely, create something technologically innovative, with an immersive story, and unforgettable visuals at a World’s Fair pavilion. It was a serendipitous coincidence that sparked the famous attractions’ beginnings.

Just as the Silly Symphonies short film series was a place to develop and experiment with cutting-edge techniques that could later be implemented in his feature films, these pavilions would serve the same function: Walt could design brand new attractions, ride systems, effects, and technology on a smaller scale, before developing them in a larger capacity elsewhere (like Disneyland or his mysterious “Florida Project”).

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Pavilions were proposed and financed quite quickly—General Electric sponsored Progressland, which housed the Carousel of Progress, a kind of futuristic, rotating stage show, populated by audio-animatronic figures, set to an equally snappy theme tune (composed by the Sherman Brothers) and filled with Walt’s patented brand of gentle futurism (you can still see it today at Walt Disney World). Ford sponsored  the Magic Skyway, whose technology allowed guests to ride genuine Ford automobiles through animated dioramas and show scenes, creating the technology which would lead to the Omnimover system (utilized in everything from The Haunted Mansion to The Little Mermaid-themed attractions on both coasts); the State of Illinois was responsible for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, a show whose centerpiece was a next-generation, lifelike version of the former president (again: you can still see this at Disneyland); and Kodak got a pavilion that featured CircleVision 360°, a panoramic photographic display that Walt had been tinkering with at earlier World’s Fairs and expos around the world.

While Walt was negotiating with the state of Illinois on the Lincoln project, he received word that the Pepsi-Cola Company was looking to partner. In conjunction with the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Pepsi had a huge amount of space at the World’s Fair, but didn’t have much time or money. Disneyland supervisor Joe Fowler told Pepsi that there just wasn’t enough time to get the pavilion ready (and this was coming from someone who built Disneyland in one year). Walt thought otherwise.

While Walt didn’t formally meet with Pepsi vice president Don Kendall until March 1963, he still told the Imagineers that they would be working on one more project. He described it as a “little boat ride, that maybe we can do.” As veteran Imagineer Rolly Crump said in Neal Gabler’s definitive biography Walt Disney, “We thought, little boat ride? We were working on Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress, both of which were using the highest technology and animatronic figures. And we were working on Ford, too. All of this and Walt wants to do a little boat ride!”

The original proposal was a boat ride, where large boats of guests would travel past a world of miniature, super-cute dolls that would represent different cultures and nationalities. At first, Walt wanted the dolls to “sing” their national anthem; the result was, as Richard Sherman described, “a cacophony.” So he tasked the veteran songwriting duo, the Sherman Brothers, to create a single, universal song. Harriet Burns, who worked on the attraction, told the brothers rather nonchalantly that, “It’s a small world after all.” That comment inspired both the song and ultimately the name for the attraction.

With the timeline so truncated, Walt had to assign artists to the project—and quick. Claude Coats, a background painter who eventually became a part of WED (Walt’s independent research and development arm that would eventually become Imagineering), designed the route; Marc Davis, another animator-turned-Imagineer, known for his playful sense of humor and commitment to character, designed the attraction and served as art director; Alice Davis, his wife, made the costumes for the dozens of tiny, nearly identical dolls. Crump devised an amiably abstract, 120-foot mobile structure called The Tower of the Four Winds (hey, it was the ‘60s), which would stand outside the pavilion and blow gracefully in the breeze, representing, in Walt’s words, “the boundless energy of youth.” (“When you visit the fair, ask to meet your friends under the Tower of the Four Winds,” Walt cheerily advised on a special World’s Fair-themed episode of Wonderful World of Color.) When Walt deemed the original designs of the dolls charmless, Mary Blair, the brilliant illustrator who had accompanied Walt on his influential, World War II-era trip to South America, was brought in to rework them and to add additional stylistic flair. Bob Gurr, the visionary master of transportation, devised the ingenious boat system (that would be utilized later on attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean), working closely with Arrow Manufacturing, the company behind the original Matterhorn Bobsleds. Blaine Gibson sculpted the characters.

After he was shown a mock-up of the attraction (Crump said, “We would put Walt on a boat that was on wheels and that was elevated to the right sightline, and then push him through the ride”), he agreed to construction, despite the impossibly tight deadline and financial restrictions.

They were going to get it done. And it was going to be spectacular.

Golden Horseshoe Revue

Initially, the attraction’s corporate sponsor, Pepsi, who already had a close relationship with Disney thanks to their funding of The Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland, were unimpressed. According to Disney historian Jim Korkis however, this waffling came to an end when Joan Crawford, who was a powerful board member and widow of past company president Alfred Steele (she was also a close friend of Walt Disney’s), stood up at a board meeting and shouted, “We are going to do this!” (Their disapproval continued, however. They were unhappy that the attraction didn’t feature the product enough–although there were Pepsi “Refreshment Centers,” where employees would dole out soda with “a sparkling smile.”)

Given the time constraints, Crump and Davis gathered 30 artists and started fashioning the characters out of Styrofoam and papier-mâché, inspired in part by Blair’s Little Golden Book illustrations and the work she had done on Saludos Amigos (a film that directly came out of that South American trip with Walt). Inspiration came from everywhere: Imagineer Yale Gracey got the idea for the ice skating penguins from a toy on Walt’s desk that featured an ice skater that would dance thanks to a magnet underneath a mirror. The entire attraction was constructed in California and then painstakingly disassembled and reconfigured in New York. During construction, Blair decorated her hard hat with flowers and glitter. At various points during construction, the water trough was filled with koi fish from a nearby pavilion, and, on a separate occasion, soapy suds. As Korkis notes, the company put out “Big News From the Small World,” dispatches from New York that would keep the west coast informed—including listing Disney cast members who had visited the attraction.

When describing the attraction on that episode of Wonderful World of Color, Walt said: “Here we enter the children’s world of imagination, fun, and laughter. During our voyage we’ll visit more than 100 lands.” A truly unprecedented amount of footage was then played, showcasing each part of the attraction, as Walt narrated, from country to country, and the doll-like characters happily bounced, sang, and danced. Particular attention was given to the Tower of the Four Winds, the icon that you were supposed to meet your friends underneath (there was a gift shop there, and above it a VIP lounge that partially inspired Walt to build Club 33). “I guess you could call it theater-in-the-round,” Blair said of the attraction. “But it’s really much more. The audience moves, the performers move and everyone–especially the children–seem to have a grand time.” That last point seems to have been, unquestionably, true. “For our finale, children of every nation join in singing our theme,” Walt said.

That theme, by the way, is one of the most iconic of all time. In 1985, then-CEO Michael Eisner proclaimed that it was “the most performed song of all time.” When they originally conceived of the song, with its playground rhyme-like circuitousness, the Sherman Brothers worried that it might be too simple and concocted two additional, more complicated tunes. (Walt liked the simplest one. He told them, in his typically subdued way, “That will work.”) In the wonderful Sherman Brothers documentary The Boys, Richard Sherman said it wasn’t just a silly song, but was rather a profound “prayer for peace.” I like to think that it’s both.

After the Sherman Brothers’ insanely effective song was submitted, the ride’s name was changed. The Children of the World concept (with guests riding the “FantaSea”) was jettisoned; instead they would be welcomed aboard “it’s a small world,” the happiest cruise on Earth. While “it’s a small world” was one of the only attractions to charge admission (60¢ for kids and 95¢ for adults), it was still a runaway success, partially due to the fact that its high hourly capacity meant that there was never much of a line. In four seasons, over the course of two years, it attracted over ten million guests. The gift shop that guests would pass through as they exited the attraction is thought to be the first ever instance of “exiting through the gift shop,” now a common practice the world over. 91% of every attendee to the World’s Fair enjoyed at least one Disney attraction.

“When the current World’s Fair ends, all four of our shows–the Magic Skyway, the Carousel Theater, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and ‘it’s a small world’–will find a permanent home at Disneyland, U.S.A,” Walt said on that Wonderful World of Color episode. That wasn’t exactly true, since only elements of the Magic Skyway were incorporated into Disneyland and the Tower of the Four Winds didn’t make the trip back west. But Disneyland was the benefactor of a majority of the creative output Walt had put into the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Not that everyone thought it would become such a mainstay. In 2014, Richard Sherman admitted, “”We thought, ‘Well, when the World’s Fair is over, that will be the end of it. For two years, they’ll have this thing.’ We never dreamed it would have the ‘legs’ as they call it, the distance that it’s run.”

18 small world

In 1965 the attraction was again dismantled and shipped back, piece by piece, to California. Its new permanent home would be Fantasyland at Disneyland. (The area was previously used as the Fantasyland stop for the Disneyland Railroad, and the Railroad still charmingly passes behind the attraction’s glittery exterior.) If you look behind certain show elements, you can still see the shipping labels and handwritten instructions on how to piece the attraction back together again.

The attraction finally opened at Disneyland in 1966. While largely the same attraction that wowed World’s Fair guests, at least spiritually, the Disneyland version was expanded and enhanced, which makes sense given that the new show building was a third larger. Crump described the migration: “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-glitter them, and then add another third to the ride.”

The attraction was given a new façade that was designed and implemented by Crump, again channeling Blair’s bold graphic stylization. The clock and the iconic hourly march of dolls was Walt’s idea, with characters that come out and entertain those waiting in line. And it was Crump who suggested that actual gold be affixed to the outside of the building, to make maintenance easier.

For the grand opening 36 officials from various nations were on hand, along with 800 international journalists. Walt invited 16 children from around the world to attend, and had them dump water from “seven seas and nine major lagoons,” into the attraction’s flume. During the ceremony, dubbed “Operation Water” by Disneyland marketing whiz Jack Linquist, Walt dumped water from the Rivers of America. It was a gesture meant to emphasize the attraction’s spirit of global unity, understanding, imagination, and peace, and as such was an incredibly powerful one. White doves (the symbol of peace) flew overhead while the International Children’s Choir of Long Beach sang.

Imagineering_it's a small world

While slight alterations to the ride (including a doll holding a red balloon, which was added as a tribute to Mary Blair) have been made over the years, in 1997 its first big overlay happened with “it’s a small world holiday,” which bedazzles the outside of the attraction in hundreds of Christmas lights, and replaces the song with versions of “Deck the Halls” and “Jingle Bells,” with holiday props and lighting strung throughout the attraction. It has become a yearly tradition and an absolute sensation. More than a decade later, in 2008, “it’s a small world” received a major overhaul, adding 37 Disney and Disney•Pixar characters into various set pieces in the attraction and replacing the New Guinea room with one themed to the American West. Now Mulan, Woody, Jessie, Aladdin, Cinderella, Lilo, Stitch, Alice, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Simba, Ariel, Marlin, Dory, and the Three Caballeros, mingle with the children of the world, in the same style of the original attraction. In the same refurbishment, the way that guests boarded the boats was reversed.

In 1971, a version of the attraction opened at Walt Disney World, and subsequent variations would open in Tokyo Disneyland (1983), Disneyland Paris (1992), and Hong Kong Disneyland (2008). Each have their own quirks (thanks to MyMagic+, guests at Walt Disney World get a personalized goodbye message as they’re leaving the attraction, while the Tokyo Disneyland version of the Asia room is much bigger), but the spirit of the attraction can be fundamentally traced back to that original World’s Fair exhibition.

It should also be noted on this grand anniversary that the ride has had a profound impact on popular culture, mostly due to that insanely catchy theme song by the Sherman Brothers. (Thanks to the global position of the various resorts, the song is supposedly performed all day, every day, the world over.) In The Lion King, grand vizier Zazu sings the song, to the consternation of despot Scar. In last year’s Tomorrowland, the entrance to the technologically advanced alternate dimension is hidden underneath the World’s Fair version of “it’s a small world” (and filming for the scene took place at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World). In the same summer, Michael Pena’s character in Ant-Man hums the ride’s song during the movie’s climactic heist. (Get it?) This means that “it’s a small world,” an attraction built on foundations of unity, peace, and an international understanding, is also part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

So, on this anniversary of “it’s a small world,” go out and ride the version of the attraction closest to you (if you’re traveling to Disneyland, you can expect some super-cool exclusive merchandise), take a trip on the happiest cruise that ever sailed, and let your heart fill with the kind of peaceful optimism that the original attraction was founded on and continues to be all about. That, or hum the song. I know you remember the words.

Posted 8 months Ago
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