Disney's 'It's a Small World' Turns 50 – Join the Celebration

The iconic attraction that opened at the 1964 World's Fair will mark its anniversary with a lot of singing

Photo: Jim Zuckerman/CORBIS

Rarely has reaching 50 been so smooth a ride.

The iconic Disney pleasure cruise, It’s a Small World, is about to celebrate its golden anniversary – and not so quietly.

“On Thursday, April 10, 2014, hundreds of voices from Disneyland Resort in California, Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, Tokyo Disney Resort in Japan, Disneyland Paris in France and Hong Kong Disneyland Resort will sing the unforgettable theme song of the ‘happiest cruise that ever sailed the seven seas,’ ” Disney Parks and Resorts said Friday.

To initiate the merrymaking, a virtual sing-along is being launched Friday at SmallWorld50.com, where fans “may record videos of themselves singing the classic song” and create virtual dolls to benefit the United Nations Children’s Fund.

For every video recorded and digital doll shared, the Walt Disney Company will make a donation to benefit UNICEF, $100,000 in total. This will be in addition to a $150,000 gift the company has already earmarked for the organization, which works in more than 190 countries and territories to save and improve children’s lives.

A World of Hopes

The public first heard the infectious theme song on April 22, 1964, the opening day of the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Along with a lifelike Abraham Lincoln who stood up and talked, dinosaurs that hovered over newly introduced Ford Mustangs, and a General Electric presentation about America’s technological progress, Walt Disney – the fair’s “farthest flung impresario,” as The New York Times described him – also presented what would prove to be the expo’s most popular draw: It’s a Small World – a Salute to UNICEF, “in which visitors enjoy a 10-minute boat ride seeing scenes of foreign lands,” reported the newspaper.

Of all people, it was semi-retired Hollywood star Joan Crawford – despite her reputation for mistreating her own kids – who pushed to have Disney honor the world’s children.

As the widow of Pepsi-Cola’s late CEO Alfred Steele, Crawford sat on the Pepsi board. When the company hesitated in hiring Disney for the pavilion it would sponsor at the fair, Crawford reputedly put her formidable foot down – and Pepsi sponsored It’s a Small World.

“Disney’s realistic robots,” said Time magazine, “stalk the fair. [Small World] has about 350 of them, doll-size, flanking a boat ride that children seem to like more than anything else. Scottish dolls climb steep plaid mountains, Iranian dolls fly on Persian carpets, and French dolls cancan.”

During peak periods, the ride – which during its development was called Children of the World – drew up to 40,000 fairgoers a day at 90 cents per adult (about $6.75 today) and 65 cents for those under 12. By the end of its two-year New York run, Small World had been seen by 10 million people.

Knowing it was too good to tear down along with the rest of the fair, “Mr. Disney,” said The Times, “has all future rights to It’s a Small World, which he may move to Disneyland, in California.”

And so he did – situating it directly north of the Matterhorn in the newly expanded Fantasyland, where it opened under a sparkly new edifice on May 28, 1966.

In 1971, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., debuted its own near-replica – same love-it-or-hate-it theme song by Richard and Robert Sherman; same art direction by Walt’s favorite illustrator, Mary Blair; same authentic (if Disney-fied) costumes by Alice and Marc Davis.

So, too, did the later Disney parks in Tokyo (opened in 1983), Paris (1992) and ultimately – after its initial omission proved an unbearable disappointment to guests – Hong Kong (2008). Shanghai Disneyland, which reportedly will also feature the attraction, is due to open sometime late next year.

‘Such a Universal Theme’

“The Hong Kong sets look more vibrant thanks to lighting techniques, while a more sophisticated sound system belts out ‘It’s a world of hopes; it’s a world of tears’ in nine languages,” Time reported in May 2008. “The ‘Asia’ component here has been expanded to include Cambodia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and a bigger China, but the Chinese acrobat dolls still spin plates, the Scandinavian dolls are still platinum blond, and the Africa section is still dark and jungly.”

“This is such a universal theme – seeing the world through the innocent eyes of children,” a Disney Imagineering senior exec told the newsweekly six years ago, although the sentiment certainly still holds true today. “It’s a message that’s timeless, and it’s a message that’s now. It needs to be heard.”

On April 10, it will be. Seemingly everywhere. It’s a small world, after all.

Related Articles