‘It’s a Small World’ still a big favorite after more than 50 years

A colorful tribute to global harmony got its start as a fundraiser for UNICEF

The Load area of Walt Disney World's It's a Small World is covered due to Florida thunderstorms, but has featured a version of Disneyland's Small World Glockenspiel Clock since 2005
The Load area of Walt Disney World's It's a Small World is covered due to Florida thunderstorms, but has featured a version of Disneyland's Small World Glockenspiel Clock since 2005 (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

BAY LAKE, Fla. – As Walt Disney World prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the so-called happiest place on Earth, it only seems right to take a deep dive into the history of the ride dubbed the “happiest cruise that ever sailed.”

Known for its classic and catchy song, along with its vibrant animatronic dolls, “It’s a Small World” truly has a long history, one that dates to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

Postcards of "Its a Small World" from the 1964 New York World's Fair, featuring the Tower of the Four Winds mobile by Rolly Crump (Disney)

Disney shared with News 6 a little bit about its background and how it got to where it is today.

“In 1964, Walt Disney was asked to create an attraction for the PepsiCo Pavilion at New York’s World Fair that would support the UNICEF foundation. The initial concept developed was given the name “Children of the World” as a working title. It would be a salute to the world’s children and support UNICEF.

Walt Disney with a model of the 1964 World's Fair version of It's a Small World (©2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. For editorial news use only.)

On the first walk-through, each of the audio animatronic dolls inside the attraction sang their own National Anthem in multiple different languages, resulting in a cacophony of sound. Walt told the Sherman Brothers, ‘I need something and I need it right away. It should talk about unity, understanding and brotherly love and I need it yesterday because it has to be translated into 25 languages!’

1928: Composer and songwriter Richard Morton Sherman, who specialized in musical films with his brother Robert B. Sherman, is born in New York City. He's seen here (center) with his brother receiving the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed upon artists by the United States government, from U.S. President George W. Bush. Some of the Sherman Brothers' best known songs were incorporated into movies such as "Mary Poppins," "The Jungle Book," "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Charlotte's Web" and the theme park song of "It's a Small World (After All)." The brothers won an Oscar for Best Original Song for "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from "Mary Poppins" and another Oscar for the film's score, which also earned them a Grammy Award. They were nominated for seven more Oscars during their career along with five Golden Globe nominations and two more Grammy nominations. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

So the Sherman Brothers set about creating one tune that could be sung in all the world’s languages. Walt loved their rendition so much he changed the name of the attraction to match the song – It’s a Small World.”

According to the Disney Parks blog, Richard and Robert Sherman were also working on the classic Disney film “Mary Poppins” when they started creating the now beloved anthem. Fast forward to today, it’s sung in five different languages during the 10-minute boat tour on the river called the Seven Seaways.

French Can Can dancer dolls represented in It's a Small World, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Nearly 300 animatronic dolls sing the anthem, representing a sea of nations from around the world. According to Disney, it took a village of Imagineers to create such detail and it starts with Mary Blair.

Imagineer, Artist and Disney Legend Mary Blair (Disney)

The iconic artist’s unique flair heavily influenced a long list of favorite animated features, including “Cinderella”, “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan” and “The Three Caballeros,” among many others. The colors and designs of the ride’s backdrops and props are largely Blair’s vision.

Image of Mary Blair taken roughly during creation of "It's a Small World" for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Background is part of the mural she designed for the original loading area of the Walt Disney World version of the ride, which opened October 1, 1971 (Disney)

Disney also revealed other key people behind the ride’s development.

“Rolly Crump breathed life into Mary Blair’s 2D designs, sculpting a fanciful three-dimensional world from her visions. Former Disney film animator Marc Davis created many of the character vignettes, while his wife, Alice, designed most of the children’s costumes.”

Alice Estes Davis and Mary Blair were lifelong friends. (Disney)

With Alice Davis steering the ship, seamstresses sewed uniquely stylized outfits for each of the animatronics with authentic material from different regions of the world -- even shoes were handmade. The detail goes as far as hairdressers carefully styling the hair made from yarn or nylon.

Born in 1929, Alice Estes Davis made her career as a costume designer. (Disney)

According to the park, the most detailed costumes are the dolls from Thailand, Cambodia and Java, with each of them wearing 10 to 12 pieces.

Fitting costumes on a sample doll for Walt Disney World's Version of It's a Small World, ca. 1970 (Disney)

After two seasons of success at the New York World’s Fair, the attraction was shipped to Disneyland, where it debuted on May 28, 1966. For the occasion, Walt had his global representatives collect samples from each of the seven seas, plus major waterways from around the world. These were poured into the flume at Disneyland on opening day by a sea of children from those nations, symbolically uniting the world.

To this day, many of the 147 toys and 36 animated props hand-made for New York by Rolly Crump are still featured in the California version of the attraction.

It's a Small World at Disneyland, ca. 2005 (Disney)

Five years later, the ride was slightly expanded to become a must-see for opening day at Walt Disney World Resort in 1971. Since then, the attraction has delighted guests as an opening day attraction at Tokyo Disneyland (1983) and Disneyland Paris (1992), and was added to Hong Kong Disneyland in 2008. Shanghai Disneyland is the only Magic Kingdom-Style park not to feature the attraction.

Singing yarn toys represented in the Mexican section of It's a Small World, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

While the attraction has its roots as a fundraiser for UNICEF, that tradition kind of carries on in Florida. In late 2020, Walt Disney World donated about $20,000 in coins tossed into Small World’s waters and the Cinderella Wishing Well by guests to the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida

Stylized versions of Hawaii, Polynesia and the South Pacific represented in It's a Small World, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Even though you probably have it memorized, here’s the chorus:

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,

It’s a small world after all,

It’s a small world after all,

It’s a small world after all,

It’s a small, small world.

There is just one moon and one golden sun.

And a smile means friendship to everyone.

Though the mountains divide and the oceans are wide.

It’s a small world after all.

Stylized versions of African regions represented in It's a Small World, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)
A Dutch girl with her flock of geese in It's a Small World, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)
the Finale room brings children of all nations together in It's a Small World, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)
the Finale room brings children of all nations together in It's a Small World, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)
Most versions of It's a Small World have now added Mary Blair-esque versions of Disney characters, Like Alice -- Seen here at Disneyland. Florida's is the only original version left. (©2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. For editorial news use only.)

To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present and a peek at what’s in store for the future.

We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us by sending us an email and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.

Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!


About the Authors:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.