Today in Disney History, 1966: “it’s a small world” Opened in Disneyland

by | May 28, 2021 | Disney History, WDW Blog

“it’s a small world” opened on May 28th, 1966 at Disneyland, introducing guests to a lifetime of catchy earworms and idealistic futures!

For more than 50 years, “it’s a small world” has randomly popped into all of our heads at the most unexpected moments. That catchy tune first graced our ears way back in 1966 when the attraction of the same name opened in Disneyland. Below, find out just how this iconic song came to life!

The Sherman Brothers

Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman

Courtesy of Disney Parks Blog

The “it’s a small world” song predates the opening of the attraction in Disneyland by four years.

In 1962, the acclaimed Sherman Brothers wrote the song to go with Walt Disney’s plans for the attraction, based on the themes of peace and bringing people together during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

“The Children of the World,” attraction as it was originally called, was to feature a mashup of different national anthems, but when the sounds did not mesh together well, it was clear a new song needed to be composed. 

Richard and Robert Sherman presented “it’s a small world,” (the song) to Walt alongside a scale model of the not-yet-built attraction, though the song in its original form was much different from what we know today. 

The Sherman Brothers originally created the song as a ballad, sharing the same message but with a slower tempo. Knowing the attraction would be cheerful and more upbeat, Walt requested that the song have a more uplifting feel, so the Sherman Brothers tweaked the tempo, resulting in the catchy tune we know and love today!

Design

Disney-History-Mary-Blair-Walt-Disney-DPB

Mary Blair worked very closely with Walt during her tenure at Disney. Courtesy of Disney Parks Blog

The attraction was first designed and crafted at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank by some of the Walt Disney Company’s most well-known artists and Imagineers. 

The unique art style and blends of colors on the attraction came from the creative mind of Mary Blair. Blair is known for her work as an art director on multiple Disney animated feature films, including Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella.

In Walt Disney World, another place we recommend checking out her artwork is at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, where her “Pueblo Village” mural covers the elevator shaft in the center of the resort. Check out the March 2021 issue of WDW Magazine to see the Contemporary Resort transform around Mary Blair’s monumental work throughout the years.

Imagineer Marc Davis designed elements of the show scenes in “it’s a small world.” You might recognize Davis for his work on Pirates of the Caribbean, Country Bear Jamboree, and Haunted Mansion, among many other classic attractions.

Marc’s wife, Alice Davis, took charge of the costumes for the dolls that were handmade and crafted individually for each show scene. Alice is a well-known Disney costume designer (you can see more of her work at the Carousel of Progress). While retired, she still occasionally consults with Disney on current projects. 

Rolly Crump, known for designing such attractions as the Enchanted Tiki Room and for his work on the Haunted Mansion, was responsible for many of the details in each scene of the ride, including accessories to the dolls and some of the landmarks featured in each country. 

Last but certainly not least, famed Disney Imagineering sculptor Blaine Gibson (of The Hall of Presidents and Partners statue fame, but also a lead on a variety of other projects) worked closely on the development and design of the faces of the dolls. 

Creating “it’s a small world” was truly a collaborative effort by some of the most creative minds in Disney Imagineering history. And thanks to the opening location of the ride, they found themselves on a tight schedule too…

1964 New York World’s Fair

it's a small world at the 1964 New York Worlds Fair

Courtesy of Disney Parks Blog

The ride was originally created for the UNICEF Pavilion and was sponsored by Pepsi. The other attractions by Disney featured in the fair had much earlier lead times to get the work done on them, but Pepsi suffered from some disagreements on concepts within their board of directors, so Imagineers ultimately only had 11 months to get enough of a concept together for the board’s approval.

Despite the time crunch, Disney’s artists pulled it off, presenting one of the most beautiful and emotionally inspiring attractions at the 1964 New York World’s Fair with the ride’s sponsor giving a solid approval. 

The entire ride was moved to the fair after being constructed in Burbank, and Arrow Development (which provided the boats and ride system) was on hand to ensure things went smoothly in New York. 

The ride was extremely well received at the fair by guests of all ages, ultimately raising thousands and eventually millions of dollars to be donated in support of UNICEF. Additionally, the ride was one of the first of its kind to succeed at managing a high volume of riders while efficiently letting guests experience the attraction.

As a result, similar ride systems have later been installed in Disney theme parks (Pirates of the Caribbean was the first following “it’s a small world.”) 

Disneyland

Exterior facade of its a small world at Disneyland

Photo by Julie de la Fe

Finally, on May 28, 1966, the attraction opened in Disneyland. In Disneyland, the attraction comes with an impressive façade (that becomes even more awe-inspiring when it’s decorated for the holidays), designed by Rolly Crump. 

Other additions to the attraction that came only with the Disneyland version included the flowers at the beginning and end of the attraction saying “hello” or “goodbye” in multiple languages, and show scenes featuring Oceania (these scenes were not included in the 1964 original due to the time and budget constraints by Pepsi’s board.)

In 2008, 29 Disney characters were added to scenes of the attraction that worked best given their movies, much to the excitement of some fans (and to the confusion of others, who preferred more modern characters be left out of a classic attraction.)

Since opening at Disneyland in 1966, “it’s a small world” has been brought to Disney Parks around the world, including the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, Hong Kong Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo Disneyland. 

It’s one of our favorite attractions despite (or rather, because of) the song, and we’re always excited to ride it with each trip to the parks!


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Written by Brittany DiCologero

Written by Brittany DiCologero

Brittany DiCologero is a freelance writer specializing in Walt Disney World history, along with various travel, and lifestyle topics based in New England. She is the author of “Red, White, and Disney: The Myths and Realities of American History at the Walt Disney World Resort,” and “Brittany Earns Her Ears”. When she is not writing, you can find her exploring local museums and historic sites, and binging documentaries on Disney+.

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