Disney At The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair: “it’s a small world”

This series of blogs deals with the Walt Disney Company’s participation in the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, a watershed moment in the entertainment giant’s history. This installment focuses on “it’s a small world” and its enduring popularity.

Walt Disney poses with a scale model of the “it’s a small world” pavilion for the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. [The Walt Disney Company]
“it’s a small world”

  • LOCATION: Industrial area.
  • SPONSOR: Pepsi-Cola, in conjunction with UNICEF.
  • MAIN ATTRACTION: Boat ride through many “lands.”
  • RIDE SYSTEM: 53 vessels floating through a winding canal called the Seven Seaways.
  • CAST: Scores of animated dolls dressed in native costumes.
  • NOTEWORTHY SONG: “it’s a small world,” by Richard and Robert Sherman.

The Pepsi-Cola-sponsored “it’s a small world,” dubbed The Happiest Cruise That Ever Sailed, was the last attraction created by Disney for the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair.

Disney’s already under-the-gun creative staff had just 11 months from the time Walt Disney committed the company to building Small World until opening day in April of 1964.

“Starting that attraction 11 months from opening day was kind of nuts, it really was,” Marty Sklar said in 2010. “But it shows you how smart the mechanical people were. They made everything simple, taking things right off the shelves at the studios.”

Despite the tight deadline, “it’s a small world” was tested extensively, without water, in California.

Fair guests mill around the entrance to “it’s a small world.” The base of the Tower of the Four Winds display can be seen, right.

“We actually built the sets on a stage at the Disney Studios,” Sklar said. “The boats were placed on a wooden buck so that they were at eye level with the way you would see them on the ride. They’d push them through a route so that we could see what the show was going to look like.

“Then the sets were dismantled and shipped to New York.”

“it’s a small world” was hands-down Marty’s favorite Disney theme park attraction.

“Whenever I do a presentation, I’m always asked ‘What’s your favorite attraction?’ I always say ‘small world.’ The line in the Sherman brothers’ song – There is just one moon and one golden sun, and a smile means friendship to everyone – what a wonderful world this would be if we could follow those feelings.”

That Sherman brothers’ song, written as a roundelay, is among the attraction’s most endearing features. That, and the distinctively crafted, round-faced dolls – crafted by world-famous artist Mary Blair, known for her imaginative color stylings – give ”it’s a small world” its enduring appeal.

The dolls, each three feet tall, were dressed in authentic costumes designed by legendary Disney animator Marc Davis and his wife, Alice Davis.

One of the many original displays featured in the “it’s a small world” attraction at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. [Alice Schmidt]
There was a small entrance fee to ride “it’s a small world.” In keeping with the theme of the attraction, proceeds were given to UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.

Disney’s creative team, in conjunction with amusement park ride builder Arrow Development, came up with a boat ride concept for the attraction, where flat-bottom boats would be gently pushed by underwater jets through a continuous canal filled with water.

The boat ride allowed Disney to accommodate a greater number of guests … and drastically alter the theme park industry, as well.

“The capacity [of a walk-through] would have been 750, maybe 1,000 people an hour,” Marty said. “With the boat ride, we went in one fell swoop from a maximum ride capacity of 1,000 to 3,600 people an hour. It changed the dynamic of the business.”

It also changed the thinking of an attraction in the works back at the Walt Disney Studios in California. Pirates of the Caribbean was going to be a walk-through, but that idea was tossed aside with the unquestioned success of “it’s a small world.” Indeed, allowing the scurvy pirates to be placed in a watery setting was a far more realistic approach.

A full-page “it’s a small world” ad taken out by the Walt Disney Company was featured in the official World’s Fair Guide.

The “it’s a small world” vessels were originally called FantaSea [a play on the word “fantasy”] boats, but when Disney and sponsor Pepsi-Cola realized that Fanta was a subsidiary of Coca-Cola, Pepsi’s biggest rival, the name was dropped.

“The ride didn’t require any tweaking during the off-season, other than the expected maintenance required to keep the Audio-Animatronics dolls in top shape,” recalled Frank Stanek, former senior planner at Walt Disney Imagineering who worked extensively on the “it’s a small world” attraction.

“Early on, the pavilion had two drink bars serving Pepsi-Cola at the entrance of the attraction. We found that the visitors were also looking for something to eat as well; so, at some point during the first season, we expanded the counter service to include prepared sandwiches and chips to the menu.”

Perhaps more importantly, there were lessons learned that were applied to future boat ride systems employed at Disney parks. Incredibly, guests’ clothing became an issue at the Fair.

“We did learn that people in New York wore heavy coats during the spring and fall, which reduced the seating capacity of the boats as the heavy coats took up more seating space,” Stanek said.

“The boats were designed to hold three persons in each row and often this was reduced to two [when guests wore winter coats]. So, the operating capacity was reduced and made the loading operation less efficient.

Guests begin their trip through “it’s a small world” in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. [AllEars.Net]
“While it was not possible to correct this in New York, as it would require a total re-do of the entire system, the lesson was applied to future ride systems of this type. The boats were widened to a four-person width per row which allowed for increased capacity and more room for variables in dress by season or region.

“I also recall that the waterway propulsion system was problematic as it lacked sufficient power to move the boats through the ride in a consistent manner with boats jamming up at various locations, especially in the turns of the waterway. These issues were also addressed in the aftermath of the Fair when the ride was bought back to Disneyland, as well as on future systems.”

After the Fair closed, “it’s a small world” – dolls, props, boats, and even the water troughs – were trucked back to Disneyland.

One highly visible feature of the Fair attraction, located outside the building – the prominent Tower of the Four Winds, created by Disney Legend Rolly Crump – did not make it back to California. To this day, the whereabouts of the kinetic panel structure remains a mystery.

The clock tower facade featured on the outside of Disneyland’s “it’s a small world” attraction. [Chuck Schmidt]
Disneyland’s “it’s a small world” attraction, with a whimsical clock tower facade in the front of the building, opened in June of 1966.

The ride remained unchanged for decades until it was decided to add a few recent Disney/Pixar and Disney Animation characters to the mix.

“There was a big to-do” at first over the additions, Sklar said, “but we felt it gives guests an added connection to the show.”

And, of course, “it’s a small world” was an opening-day attraction at Walt Disney World in 1971.

And over the years, the “it’s a small world” presentations have become decidedly more colorful and more elaborate.

An “it’s a small world” show is presented – albeit with somewhat different iterations – at Disney parks worldwide.

Third in a five-part series. Next time: General Electric’s Progressland, featuring the Carousel of Progress.

Chuck Schmidt is an award-winning journalist and retired Disney cast member who has covered all things Disney since 1984 in both print and on-line. He has authored or co-authored seven books on Disney, including his On the Disney Beat and The Beat Goes On for Theme Park Press. He also has written a regular blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.

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Chuck Schmidt, bitten by the Disney bug at an early age, remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club after school in the mid-1950s. During his 48-year career in the newspaper business, he channeled that love of Disney as the Sunday News and Travel editor for The Staten Island Advance. Chuck has written or co-authored seven books for Theme Park Press, including Disney's Dream Weavers, On the Disney Beat, An American in Disneyland Paris, Disney's Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History and The Beat Goes On. Chuck has shared his passion for all things Disney in his Still Goofy About Disney blog on AllEars.Net since 2015. He resides in Beachwood, N.J., with his wife Janet. They have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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