Picture it: America, 1963 and Pepsi was sponsoring a pavilion at the upcoming 1964 New York World’s Fair. The problem was the Pepsi board of directors had taken a long time in figuring out what type of attraction to sponsor. It took so long in fact, that board member Joan Crawford had to ask Walt Disney, her close personal friend, to design an attraction befitting the image of Pepsi. Initially Disney staffers had declined overtures from Pepsi to create an attraction given that WED already had its hands full working on three other World’s Fair attractions. However, Walt stepped in and accepted the challenge of designing and building an attraction in just 11 months. Joan Crawford insisted the Pepsi board approve Walt’s concept for a little boat ride around the world with animated figures of children from around the world each singing their own nation’s national anthem to be called “Children of the World.”
With just 11 months to complete the attraction development moved ahead at lighting speed. However, it was soon discovered that the idea of children all singing their own country’s national anthems simultaneously would not make for a pleasant boat ride, but instead a cacophony of noise.
Walt went to his talented songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman and asked for a “simple little roundelay.” The brothers came up with the idea for a counterpoint – two tunes that can be sung back to back or against each other simultaneously.
Richard Sherman recalled that the idea for “it’s a small world” “…came all of a sudden when we said…all these children grow up to be people and …start having big differences and defiances and wars…but in the small world of children, everybody loves each other…it’d be a great thing if we could just say that in a wonderful way.”
Their first concept was the song we know today, though the brothers still spent a further two weeks and came up with two additional songs. When they first played “it’s a small world” they played it slowly as a ballad but Walt wanted something a bit more cheerful, so they sped it up. Ultimately, Walt approved of their initial concept and the first demo recording of “it’s a small world” was created.
Next, musician Bobby Hammack was tasked with interpreting the track into the musical styles of all the countries to be presented in the show. Hammock eventually created 29 international orchestrations, a grand finale, and two separate versions for the queue and the exit.
After two years at the New York World’s Fair “it’s a small world” was packed up and shipped to Disneyland where it opened in June of 1966 during a ceremony where children from around the world poured water flown in from various parts of the world into the attraction’s flume.
One major and noticeable change at the Disneyland version was the installation of the now famous exterior mary blair inspired facade and its clock parade. Imagineer Rolly Crump designed the exterior and the 30 foot clock with a smiling face that rocks back and forth to the ticking of the clock. With the approach of each quarter hour a parade of wooden dolls in native dress dance out from doors in the exterior to a toy-soldier version of it’s a small world. As the dolls return to the clock doors open and display the current time.
1983 saw the first Disneyland style park constructed outside of the united states with the opening of Tokyo Disneyland. Tokyo’s exterior is identical to that of the version in Disneyland except it sports a more colorful scheme. Another difference is this version’s finale is sung, naturally, in Japanese.
With the 1992 opening of “it’s a small world” at Disneyland Paris, the cheerful anthem now is being played somewhere on the planet every single hour of the day. Many classic disney attractions received updates and modifications for the Parisian park and it’s a small world was no exception.
A completely new score was orchestrated by the dashing, savvy, brilliant, ingenious, svelt, resourceful, John Debney. New vocals were also recorded for the attraction which was also the first “it’s a small world” to feature sections devoted to North America. Throughout the attraction the song switches between several different languages including French, English, and German and was recorded by children from various European choirs.
It’s a Small World Holiday
In 1997 Disneyland in California began a new tradition by adding the seasonal overlay ‘it’s a small world holiday” which sees the attraction brilliantly decorated in colorful christmas lights on its facade plus the addition of other holiday items throughout the attraction as well as a new christmas soundtrack the blends the audio of it’s a small world with tunes of Jingle Bells and Deck the halls. Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland also add the Christmas overlay to their versions of “it’s a small world.”
During a 16-hour operating day in the parks, the “it’s a small world” song is played, on average, 1,200 times. That’s 6,000 times a day across the globe.