Around the World for Sixty Years: A Celebration of Disney’s “it’s a small world”

walt disney with its a small world dolls

May 24, 2024

Written by: Jim Smith

(A version of this article was shared with Pirates & Princesses and published on May 22, 2024.)

It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears

It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears

There’s so much that we share

That it’s time we’re aware

It’s a Small World after all.”

These were wise words back in 1964, and are more poignant today than ever.

Sixty years ago, Walt Disney and his talented team of storytellers, artists, designers, and Imagineers made a huge splash on the world stage, contributing four magnificent attractions to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Part research and development project, part proving ground, and 100% inspired brilliance – Disney’s accomplishments at the World’s Fair raised the bar for themed entertainment around the globe.

it's a small world doll

Come join the “happiest cruise that ever sailed ‘round the world” as we celebrate the storied history of one of these attractions – the Disney classic “it’s a small world.”

Walt Growing Restless in Disneyland

It was 1960. Disneyland – having recently completed a major update to its Tomorrowland area – was running smoothly and had recently welcomed its 20 millionth guest. The Disney Studios was cranking out an astonishing number of live-action films, to accompany the more expensive and time consuming animated features. Walt Disney himself was revered around the world, as an artist, creator, innovator, businessman, and promoter of peace.

walt disney with mickey mouse in disneyland
Image: Disney

But Walt was restless. It was in his nature. He wanted to do more. Never one to rest on his laurels or “top pigs with pigs” (a lesson he learned after agreeing to produce two less-than-inspiring sequels to his 1933 blockbuster animated short film Three Little Pigs), Walt wanted to reach further than ever before.

His organization needed new goals – challenges that would improve on Disney’s well-established imagination, and couple it with improved technology and a wider global reach. So Walt summoned his staff of planners to tell them about a big fair coming to New York in 1940.

The wheels started turning.

Looking Toward the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair

To Walt Disney, the upcoming 1964/65 New York World’s Fair represented the perfect opportunity for growth in many different avenues of creative expression. If he played his cards right, Walt would receive generous corporate sponsorships to develop new attraction technology, while promoting the values of futurism and global cooperation – values he shared with the upcoming Fair. At the same time, Walt could use the Fair to test the waters for a potential U.S. East Coast market – a new audience ready to receive a new generation of Disney entertainment. 

1964 new york worlds fair image

Walt knew that corporations and organizations from around the world would be competing – creatively and technologically – to outdo each other on a global stage. Walt also knew that his organization – WED Enterprises – could do exactly this, and they could do it better than any of those organizations could do it themselves. So he sent out a task force to visit America’s top corporations, offering the Disney touch for those interested in making a splash at the 1964 World’s Fair.

From this outreach effort, Disney received the tasks and corporate funding to create three unforgettable attractions for the upcoming Fair, including:

  • Carousel of Progress – created for General Electric
  • Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln – created for the State of Illinois
  • Magic Skyway – created for Ford Motor Company

With much to do, a firm deadline, and financial backing, it was time for Walt and his team to get to work.

walt disney planning for 1964 new york worlds fair
Image: Disney

Walt Disney’s “Little Boat Ride”

In early 1963, representatives from Pepsi Cola spoke with Disney executive Admiral Joe Fowler. Pepsi was looking to add Disney’s storytelling touch to a pavilion benefitting UNICEF – the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. Fowler politely turned Pepsi away, stating Disney had plenty on their hands with the three projects already on their plate.

When Walt found out about Fowler’s decision, he was furious, asserting “I’m the one who makes those decisions! Tell Pepsi I’ll do it!” By the time the deal was finalized, Walt and his team had barely a year to design, construct, and install this fourth attraction.

What could Disney create in a year? Walt had an idea. A little boat ride. Not just any boat ride – the “happiest cruise that ever sailed ‘round the world.” Walt’s floating salute to the children of the world would be a perfect match to the peaceful mission of UNICEF.

But Walt’s decision to take on a fourth project, and for it to be a relatively simple concept, baffled the team at WED. In the words of Disney Legend Rolly Crump “[We] thought, a little boat ride? …We were working on Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress, both of which were using the highest technology and animatronic figures. …All of this, and Walt wants to do a little boat ride!”

But Walt was the boss. And he was almost always right. 

The team at WED set out on a race against time.

Creating a Small World

The design of Walt’s “little boat ride” got underway immediately. Artists, Imagineers, and other creative stars at WED were already stretched thin contributing to the other three World’s Fair attractions, but Walt inspired an unmatched sense of loyalty among most who ever worked for him, and his staff doubled down on the mission.

walt disney with its a smal world model
Image: Disney

Once the basic overall design was completed, a “mock-up” was put together at the Disney Studios in California. By March 1963, construction began in New York on the attraction’s show building.

Disney sourced out the design and manufacturing of the passenger boats and flume/propulsion system to Arrow Development. In fact, Arrow filed two patents related in the process of constructing the attraction, which were assigned to The Walt Disney Company, covering development of the passenger boats and vehicle guidance systems.

As the Fair deadline grew shorter, the mock up – whether complete or not – was sent to New York. The attraction functioned flawlessly, minus a few initial bugs – which is more than can be said for Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, which faced countless electrical and engineering problems before finally opening a week after the Fair itself.

The Happiest Cruise That Ever Sailed

The World’s Fair opened on April 22, 1964, and “it’s a small world” opened with it.

For guests at the Fair, the “small world” experience began even before entering the pavilion building. The dramatic Tower of the Four Winds, a perpetually kinetic structure, stood proudly in the center of the pavilion’s open space area. The tower evoked the feel of a child’s mobile, with all its carefree movements. Walt was a master of using a “weenie” to draw guests to a location, and the tower functioned exactly as he hoped. “Meet me under the Tower of the Four Winds” became a popular refrain heard around the Fair.

tower of the four winds from 1964 new york worlds fair

As for the ride itself, Walt decided to load guests into the boats outside the show building, so those waiting in line could feel a sense of progress as they caught a glimpse of what lay ahead. Once seated in their boat, guests sailed through “Seven Seaways” where over 300 children from around the world embraced them with a smile, dance, or even a playful nod. As guests floated from one region to the next, the children of that region proudly represented their local culture through their dress, toys, and activities.

its a small world boat ride

Joining the children were 250 multi-colored animals and “toys” from around the world. Disney’s fledgling audio-animatronics technology was strongly on display throughout the attraction, though in the form of more simplistic marionette-looking movements, compared to the modern articulation we see today.

Throughout the attraction, guests heard the now-familiar tune “It’s a Small World,” sung by the youthful cast in six different languages, corresponding to six different world regions. The Grand Finale of the cruise brought together the children from around the world in a unified “curtain call” of white, silver, and gold – promoting the theme of peace and togetherness.

“Worldwide” Success

The attraction was an immediate success, with rides costing 95 cents for adults and 60 cents for children – with all proceeds going to UNICEF. Over the two years of the Fair’s operation, over ten million guests visited the “it’s a small world” pavilion. Guests and critics alike considered “small world” to be the most charming attraction at the Fair.

pepsi unicef pavilion at 1964 new york worlds fair

While other attractions had lines out the doors, there seemed to always be a seat available aboard “small world.” Walt recognized the value of the attraction’s high rider capacity, and would later incorporate the innovation into future attractions. The most obvious examples of this are Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Both of these attractions were initially designed to be walk-through attractions. But Disney automated the attractions to create a more organized and predictable guest flow, allowing for better control and management of guests, and inclusion of more guests into the attractions. This concept has forever since influenced attraction design and popularity.

Meet the Makers

Like the other attractions Disney was producing for the Fair, the team for “small world” included a “who’s who” of standout artists, designers, Imagineers, and other creatives in the Disney studios and WED – most of whom are now Disney Legends.

Mary Blair – who many say was Walt Disney’s favorite artist – created the attraction’s overall design and color styling. Blair had a unique way of simplifying imagery and mixing colors – a combination which perfectly matched a cruise through a world of child-like wonder. Her whimsically artistic fingerprints are all over the attraction, from the purity of the children to the ever-changing colors throughout the attraction’s different regions.

Rolly Crump – Disney’s “man of the weird” who created many of the off-the-wall artifacts in Haunted Mansion and the tikis in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room – designed the toys and other supplemental figures found throughout the cruise. Outside the walls of the attraction, the Tower of the Four Winds was created entirely by Rolly as well.

Marc Davis – an animator turned designer/storyteller – designed and arranged individual scenes and characters for the attraction. Walt once admitted to Marc’s wife Alice “I haven’t used Marc as I should…I have a whole building over there filled with animators and that’s all they can do. Marc can do story, he can do character, he can animate, he can design shows for me. All I have to do is tell him what I want and it’s there. He’s my Renaissance Man.”

Alice Davis made a name for herself as a wardrobe specialist for many Disney attractions. For “small world,” she designed the costumes for the dolls. According to the “it’s a small world” souvenir guide from the World’s Fair pavilion, Alice and her wardrobe artists “depleted the costume jewelry market of Southern California.” When Alice finished her work on “small world” and moved on to Pirates of the Caribbean, she later mused that she “went from sweet little children, to dirty old men overnight.” 

Blaine Gibson – most famously known for his immortalized “Partners” sculpture of Walt and Mickey Mouse – designed and sculpted the animated dolls for the attraction. Walt himself added a bit of creativity to Blaine’s designs. Recognizing the value of contrast, Walt and Blaine cast two completely different types of characters for the attraction, with some being round-contoured and childlike to sing and dance, and others as rough-textured “toys” embellished with decoration to evoke a sense of whimsy.

Harriet Burns – one of Walt’s favorite Imagineers – led the finishing of the dolls’ facial designs. Harriet’s impeccable style was equally matched by technical ability and witty personality. Following the completion of sculpting and assembly, Harriet would, in the words of fellow artist Blaine Gibson, “bring the dolls to life” with their youthful expressions. Fellow artist Leota Toombs – most famous as the face of Haunted Mansion’s Madame Leota – was also instrumental in finishing the faces of the over 300 citizens throughout “small world.”

Many, many other talented Disney artists, designers, and Imagineers contributed to “small world” as well, to help Walt’s “little boat ride” come to life.

About That Song

As striking and happy as the childlike visuals in “it’s a small world” may be, music is what adds heart to the performance.  Walt Disney needed just the right mood to bring the children of the world to life, and he knew who could craft the perfect tune – Richard and Robert Sherman. The legendary songwriting duo had helped make Mouseketeer Annette Funicello a star, and made a splash in the 1961 Disney films The Absent-Minded Professor, starring Fred MacMurray, and The Parent Trap, showcasing Hayley Mills). The Sherman Brothers fit the bill perfectly.

sherman brothers with hayley mills
Image: Disney

In the original concept for “small world,” Walt wanted the dolls to sing different national anthems in the different rooms of the attraction. But that resulted in something less than “music to our ears,” with co-writer Richard Sherman recalling that it sounded like a “cacophony.” The songs simply did not blend together well.

Given the frosty political climate at the time, underscored by the Cold War and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Walt pivoted from numerous different anthems to a single song. “[Walt said] I want it so it can be translated into many languages,” explained Richard Sherman. With Walt’s instruction, the Shermans instead opted for a singular song serving as a “call for peace.”  The lyrics were translated into multiple languages and sung throughout the different regions of the attraction, promoting worldwide unity. The song fit perfectly with the Fair’s theme of “peace through understanding.” In the words of Richard Sherman, the song is “a simple, simple child’s prayer to respect each other and to love each other.”

As for the title? Harriet Burns recalled Walt explaining the concept to the Shermans, stating “it’s a small world after all.” What was offered as a simple throwaway comment took on a new weight and meaning when the Shermans placed the line at the heart of their song. As the Shermans flushed out the music and lyrics, the simplicity and whimsy of the song’s title and refrain proved to be the best name for the attraction, replacing the previous title “Children of the World.” 

The Sherman Brothers’ song is the most publicly performed song of all time, estimated to have been played nearly 50 million times as of 2014, according to a 2014 article by TIME Magazine. This includes playing approximately 1,200 times per day at each Disney Park featuring a “small world” attraction. How’s that for an earworm?

Moving to Disneyland

After two successful six-month seasons at the New York World’s Fair, “it’s a small world”  was carefully disassembled and installed at Disneyland in Anaheim. Construction of the attraction’s new Disneyland location began in June 1965. The 1965 season of the World’s Fair ended in October 1965, on May 28, 1966, “it’s a small world” was welcoming its first guests in its permanent home.

Once it was located in Disneyland, “small world” was sponsored by Bank of America. Walt Disney, Bank of America dignitaries, consular officials from 36 foreign nations, more than 800 members of the press, and the International Children’s Choir of Long Beach, attended the grand opening. In addition, a parade of local folk dancing groups and marching bands also participated in the festivities.

walt disney dedicating its a small world in disneyland
Image: Disney

Walt joined “children from sixteen ethnic groups” in pouring flasks of water from the “seven seas and nine major lagoons” around the world into the attraction’s waterway. The water was authentic, and had been flown in from locations around the world.

The one casualty that came from moving the attraction to California was the loss of the Tower of the Four Winds. Creator Rolly Crump had been informed of a situation where a piece of the tower’s mobile components had fallen from the structure, and could have injured a guest at the Fair. After careful consideration, Walt – with guidance from Crump – decided to disassemble and dispose of the tower’s components.

As a replacement for the Tower of the Four Winds, Crump designed a large facade for the building, inspired by Mary Blair’s artistic style. The facade included stylized cutout turrets, towers, and minarets reminiscent of two iconic international landmarks – the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The central feature in the facade is the now-famous 30-foot-tall clock, with a smiling face that rocks back and forth as the seconds tick by. Every fifteen minutes, a whimsical parade of those signature wooden dolls dance out from doors at the base of the clock, to an instrumental toy soldier version of the classic Sherman Brothers tune.

its a small world facade disneyland
Image: Harshlight

Inside the attraction, several scenes were added to the cruise, which were not included in the World’s Fair version due to time and budget constraints. “Hello” and “goodbye” rooms were added at the beginning and end to the attraction, as well as scenes representing the Oceania region, the “Spirit of America,” and a scene featuring several polar bears.  

“It’s a small world” would prove to be the last attraction to open at Disneyland before Walt passed away on December 15, 1966 – less than seven months following the attraction’s opening.

Cruising Around the World

Outside Disneyland, in many Disney theme parks and resorts around the world, guests will find the unifying experience of “it’s a small world.” The attraction opened with Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in 1971, and has since also opened in Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. A live version of the song is performed at Shanghai Disneyland. This widespread reach ensures that the iconic earworm song is always playing somewhere around the world.

its a small world interior

In all parks featuring the “small world” attraction, it is generally similar to the original Disneyland version, with some regional and operational differences.

Cruising Into the Future

Over the years, Disney has tinkered a bit with the attraction, though it has largely remained true to its original design. In 2008, 29 Disney characters were tucked into the Disneyland attraction’s various show scenes, providing an entertaining dose of search-and-find amusement. These additions have been incorporated into several other “small world” attractions around the globe.

In recent years, Disney has added dolls using wheelchairs and other ability enhancements to most of the “small world” attractions, to create a further sense of inclusion among all who visit.

its a small world christmas scene with wheelchair doll
Image: Disney

The original and still the best – Disneyland’s “small world” continues to be the most dynamic version of the attraction. Since 1997, Disneyland has featured an annual “it’s a small world holiday” overlay during the end-of-the-year Christmas and holiday season.  This hugely popular overlay 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 a combined mashup version of “Jingle Bells” and “it’s a small world.” Outside the attraction, Disneyland adds about a million Christmas lights to the iconic facade. Several other Disney parks have incorporated their own holiday overlay of the attraction as well.

its a small world holiday lights
Image: Disney

Beginning in 2011, Disneyland’s “small world” facade has been used as a canvas for Disney’s impressive video projection technology. Projection shows displayed on the facade have included “he Magic, the Memories, and You,” “Mickey’s Magic Mix,” seasonal holiday projections, and most recently a show celebrating Disney’s Encanto.

it’s Still a small world after all

Whatever part of the world you come from, you’ll find plenty to identify with – and be inspired by – in Disney’s “it’s a small world.” This prayer for peace is even more critical now than it was when it was created in the 1960s. Sure, the song may get a little repetitive after a while, but it comes from a place of caring and concern. And while it may be presented by the children of the world, we are never too old to believe in the youthful ideals of peace and playfulness.

its a small world art from worlds fair souvenir guide
Image: Disney

I hope you enjoyed this cruise around the world. Until next time…





Auf wiedersehen

 مع السلامة

Au revoir

до свидания

Do widzenia


If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share it with friends. Also, please reach out with a comment on social media:  Instagram  Facebook  X

Sources referenced in writing this article include:

Walt’s World’s Fair – Chris Mullen, Walt Disney Family Museum, October 9, 2016

Walt Disney: An American Original (pp. 307-314) – Bob Thomas, 1976

Is This the Most Played Song in Music History? – Richard Corliss, Time Magazine, April 30, 2014

Small World, Big Message: The Music of “it’s a small world” – Sophie Jo, The Walt Disney Family Museum, August 22, 2017

The Imagineer’s Field Guide to Disneyland – Alex Wright and the Imagineers, 2008

Designing “it’s a small world” – The 1964 New York World’s Fair –

Walt Disney’s it’s a small world – Complete Souvenir Guide and Behind the Scenes Story – WED Enterprises, 1963

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