"it's a small world"

by Jack Spence
AllEars® Feature Writer

Feature Article

This article appeared in the November 10, 2009 Issue #529 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

The idea for "it's a small world" (IASW) had played in Walt's mind for many years. He wanted to create some sort of show that featured the children of the world singing in harmony and peace. But when an opportunity for his dream presented itself, the idea was almost snuffed out before it began.

In February 1963, representatives of Pepsi-Cola spoke with Admiral Joe Fowler, the man whose will, determination, and fortitude helped Walt build Disneyland. Pepsi explained that they wanted to sponsor a pavilion at the upcoming New York World's Fair in conjunction with UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund. With the fair's opening date only a year away, "can do" Fowler turned them down. He told them that there simply wasn't enough time to undertake such an enormous project, especially since the company was already committed to three other fair projects: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Progressland (Carousel of Progress), and Magic Skyway (Primeval World). When Walt learned that Fowler had sent Pepsi away empty-handed, he was furious. He let Fowler know of his displeasure in no uncertain terms and told Pepsi that Disney was up to the challenge.

One month later, in March 1963, construction began in New York on the building that would house IASW, even though the Imagineers still only had vague concepts as to what would be built in its interior. Back in California, a studio soundstage was converted into a mock-up area for the new attraction. With precious little time left, the ideas and concepts of Mary Blair, Marc & Alice Davis, and Joyce Carlson were turned into showpieces and animated dolls. As soon as a doll was completed, it was set in place along the "canal" that Claude Coats had devised. By constructing a trough/river, with pumps forcing jets of water into the channel, Coats found that he could propel flat bottomed boats at a rate of just shy of one and a half miles per hour - the perfect speed for viewing an attraction of this nature. Another benefit of this system was the large number of people the boats could handle as each craft could hold approximately 20 guests. Also, boats are smooth and quiet, whereas tracks and wheels are jerky and noisy.

The original idea for the attraction called for about 25 national anthems to be sung by the various dolls. In very short order it was discovered that these anthems did not harmonize and a discordant cacophony emerged. Songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman were working on the score of Mary Poppins at the time, but the urgency of IASW prompted Walt to temporarily pull them off of that project. Walt told them, "I need something and I need it right away. It should talk about unity and understanding and brotherly love, but don't get preachy. And I need it yesterday because it has to be translated into a whole lot of different languages." Of course, we all know that the team came up with one of the catchiest songs ever written -- a song that plays in your head for days after visiting a Disney park. In the end, the song was only sung in five languages, English, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and Swedish.

The original name of the attraction was to be "The Children of the World," but after the Sherman brothers wrote their immortal song, the name was changed to "it's a small world." Also note, the name is always seen in quotes and all of the letters are lowercase.

Tower of the Four WindsOn a side note, the Sherman brothers told Walt that they wanted to donate their royalties to UNICEF. Walt told them that UNICEF would make plenty of money at the fair and to keep their percentage to send their kids to college.

The fair opened on April 22, 1964, and IASW was an immediate success. Over the next two years, over 10 million guests visited this pavilion.

Outside of the pavilion was a large kinetic sculpture called "The Tower of the Four Winds." Designed by Rolly Crump, this 120 foot high steel mobile had more than moving objects that turned and rotated in the wind. Its endless movement represented the constant energy of young children and this piece of art became one of the fair's landmarks.

Walt knew all along that once the fair closed, he would move his four attractions to Disneyland. Construction started in June, 1965 on what would eventually become IASW's new home in Anaheim. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln was the first east coast attraction to open at Disneyland in July 1965, followed by IASW in June 1966. Unfortunately, the expense of moving "The Tower of the Four Winds" proved to be prohibitive and the sculpture was cut into pieces and hauled away as junk. But the tower hasn't been completely forgotten. A stylized representation of "The Tower of the Four Winds" can be seen across from the elevators on the fourth floor of the Contemporary Resort.

Whereas the exterior of the attraction was uninspired in New York, California would be a different story. A large facade featuring landmarks of the world was built. Painted white with gold accents, this new exterior was impressive, especially when the Disneyland Railroad passed through this elaborate backdrop.

small world 2A large decorative clock would become the centerpiece of this new structure. Every 15 minutes, gadgets spun, numbers pulsated, and dolls of the world paraded beneath the giant doors that opened to reveal the time. This was also the first time that topiary was used to any extent at Disneyland.

For the grand opening celebration, children from around the world were invited to Disneyland and asked to pour water from their native land into the canal. And just like at the World's Fair, the Disneyland version if IASW, now 33 percent larger than its predecessor, was an immediate crowd-pleaser.

When the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World was in the planning stages, it was a given that IASW would be one of the opening day attractions. Knowing that the heat and rain in Florida can be more severe than in California, the Imagineers decided to enclose the queue area. In addition, the exterior of the attraction would be given a "castle/tournament/medieval fair" style that blended with the other Fantasyland rides.

For the most part, guests who had seen the New York version of IASW thought the Florida exterior was a nice improvement. But for those guests that were familiar with the Disneyland version, disappointment ensued. The Magic Kingdom's entrance lacked the magic of its California counterpart. And the interior portion of the queue was little better -- a dark room with multicolored cutouts adorning the walls.

This was a mistake that the Imagineers would not repeat. When IASW was built in Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong, the exteriors more resembled Disneyland than the Magic Kingdom.

One of the unique features of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean is the Blue Bayou Restaurant -- an eatery inside the attraction. Here guests can enjoy a meal while watching the boats sail by. The Imagineers wanted to duplicate this effect in Florida, but since Pirates of the Caribbean was not planned for the Magic Kingdom, some other attraction was needed to recreate this effect. Since both IASW and POTC use similar boats, it was an easy decision as to which Florida attraction would be incorporated with a restaurant. The Imagineers placed Pinocchio Village Haus, the counter service restaurant in Fantasyland, adjacent to IASW so they could unite these two locations. Unfortunately, after all the plans were drawn and construction complete, only seven tables actually overlook the attraction. The effect is nice, but it isn't anywhere near as charming as the Blue Bayou Restaurant. It wouldn't be until the San Angel Inn, located next to the El Rio del Tiempo in the Mexico Pavilion opened at Epcot, that this wonderful design would be executed properly at Walt Disney World.

Another change made at the Magic Kingdom was the elimination of the "trough" that the boats sailed through at Disneyland. In the Florida version, a sea of water covers the entire attraction floor with hidden guide rails beneath the surface.

On May 1, 2004, the Magic Kingdom IASW closed for a major renovation. Over the next year, a digitally enhanced soundtrack was added, the dolls' costumes were refurbished, and the entire attraction received a fresh coat of paint. But the most obvious change came to the queue. First, the main entrance was moved from the right side of the attraction to the left. But more importantly, the loading and unloading area was given a complete makeover. Now it resembles its Disneyland counterpart, although on a smaller scale, with multiple world landmarks painted white and accented in gold. In addition, a giant whimsical clock was added. The reborn attraction reopened on March 18, 2005.

small world 3I mentioned earlier that the exterior of the Magic Kingdom IASW was designed to resemble a medieval fair. If you look closely at the portico, the roof is held up by jousting poles. Also on the exterior of the attraction are generic coats-of-arms to represent royal lineage.

IASW has seven scenes, Europe, Asia, Africa, Central/South America, the South Pacific, the Finale, and the Good-bye Scene. Within these scenes, over 100 different areas of the world are represented using 289 dolls, 147 toys, and 36 animated props. The attraction holds 500,000 gallons of water and the canal length is 1,085 feet. The voyage around the world takes 10-1/2 minutes.

Mary Blair, the art director for the project, used colors effectively to help tell the story of IASW. Since Europe was the first room guests would encounter, she wanted to create a "big splash" and used a multitude of colors to represent the various countries. In Asia and the Middle East, yellow was the primary hue used to convey a warm climate. In Africa, blues and greens were used to suggest a nighttime environment. Yellow, orange, and rust painted the scenes in Central and South America while greens and oranges were selected for the rainforest. The South Pacific used a pallet of greens and purples to set a tropical tone. And of course the finale is all in white.

Although a cowboy and Native American are among the dolls in the Finale Room (representing the U.S.), North America does not have a room of its own. Not until IASW was built at Disneyland Paris would this continent be represented.

There are two primary types of dolls used in IASW. The first and most prevalent is the AudioAnimatronics, round-faced girls and boys. Upon closer examination, they all look pretty similar to one another only with different wigs and costumes. Unlike sophisticated AA figures, these dolls display a minimal amount of movement that might include eyes blinking, lips moving, and arms and legs extending. The secondary figures used on the ride are rough textured children, animals, and toys decorated primarily in paint and glitter.

Some of you might remember a frowning clown hanging from a hot-air balloon in the Finale Room. Alas, this lone unhappy fellow was given a smile during the refurbishment and his "Help" sign was replaced with a balloon. I miss him.

I have prepared a short video of the attraction. WARNING! If you choose to watch this video, you will have this infernal song stuck in your head for hours, possibly days.




"it's a small world" video:

Disneyland "it's a small world" attraction page: http://allears.net/dlr/tp/dl/small.htm

Walt Disney World "it's a small world" attraction page: http://allears.net/tp/mk/mk_small.htm

Other articles by Jack Spence:

Jack Spence's blog, The World According to Jack: