The Happiest Cruise on Earth
Updated: Jun 11
Little known facts about "it’s a small world" and its Disney legacy
“it’s a small world” may not be the most technologically advanced attraction, but it is the epitome of classic Disney. It was one of four attractions that Walt Disney designed for the 1964 World’s Fair. The others were Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln for the State of Illinois, Carousel of Progress for General Electric, and the Magic Skyway for Ford, the only attraction that no longer runs.
Originally, Walt only had those three pavilions, but Pepsi-Cola’s plans got scratched at the last minute. That was when legendary actress Joan Crowford, widow to a Pepsi-Cola chairman, suggested they reach out to her old pal Walt to see if he would design something. To sweeten the deal of this tight, 11-month deadline, Pepsi-Cola accepted Walt’s one condition: footing the bill for moving the attraction to Disneyland after the conclusion of the fair.
Once on board, Walt enlisted the help of of his talented team including designer Mary Blair, who would go on to craft the mural in the Contemporary Resort. Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman of Mary Poppins fame were asked to write a bright and cheery tune to go along with the ride. Imagineer Marc Davis, one of Walt’s Nine Old Men, and his wife, Alice, were asked to sculpt the dolls and design their costumes.
While this iconic attraction was developed at the last minute, it ended up being one of the most popular attractions at the fair with well over 135,000 guests riding it every day.
The attraction was meant to be a celebration of peace with all tickets benefitting UNICEF, an international children’s foundation. The concept for the attraction was that you would board a boat where the children of the world would show you their cultures.
In the Florida version, you enter the queue in Fantasyland across from Peter Pan’s Flight. The exterior mimics the stone of Cinderella’s Castle. You follow the ins and outs of the chain-linked line, crossing over the boarding area for the boats, and then pass by the sparkling gold and white skyline of the world’s most famous landmarks. You see the thousands of coins people throw in the bromine-smelling water, and take comfort knowing Disney donates it. Then, you board the happiest cruise on Earth.
“it’s a small world” is classified as a continuous-boarding ride even though the boats technically stop to unload and reload up to 20 guests at a time. From there, you look up and wave to the ride operator in the tower, and to those eating by the window in Pinocchio Village Haus. Curving to the left, you start your journey around the world in 10 ½ minutes.
The ride features over 289 animatronic dolls singing the iconic “It’s a Small World (After All)” song, while guiding you through showrooms meant to represent five areas of the world: Europe, Asia, Africa, Central/South America, and South Pacific Islands.
In the song, five main languages are heard: English, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Swedish. These five base languages are altered with different sounds and rhythms to mimic the languages spoken in the rest of the countries in the ride.
The finale scene features an “ambassador” doll from each country wearing white and pastel colors. This represents the camaraderie of all the nations coming together to embrace their own cultures, and the experiences that we all share. This message may seem a little kitschy in 2021, but it's poignant when you consider that the ride was made for the World’s Fair.
In comparison to other attractions, this ride has remained relatively untouched. The version of “it’s a small world” at Walt Disney World is the only one to still have the original story with no other IP. For example, in the Disneyland version, there are Lilo and Stitch, Alice in Wonderland, and Three Caballeros animatronics.
The Disneyland version also has a holiday version that started in 2009. The sparkling facade at the entrance is plastered with 50,000 Christmas lights (and an additional 350,000 on the surrounding greenery). The infamous smiling face on the clocktower wears a Santa Hat, and there’s a small projection show before a parade. The interior of the ride features the songs “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” and is accompanied by holiday scents common in the area. For example, the European scene smells like peppermint and the South American scene smells like cinnamon.
In 2016, “it’s a small world” took advantage of the RFID component in MagicBands to personalize a message in the “Goodbye” scene with the guest’s first name and where they’re from.
Sure, “it’s a small world” is not a ride you go on more than once (unless you’re trying to escape the heat or rain), but it is enjoyed by everyone from babies to grandparents. Plus, you leave singing the song for the rest of your day at Magic Kingdom.
I think we also tend to forget that the work on "it's a small world’s" animatronics and boats paved the way for attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, which was still in development when small world took up permanent residence in Disneyland in 1966. Further, rides like Frozen Ever After would just not be possible without “it’s a small world” coming first.
To me, the greatest thing about this attraction is that it’s a reminder of just how far the Disney parks have come. Yes, the ride could be enhanced, but the nostalgic element of legacy attractions like “it’s a small world” is not something found at other theme parks.
Disney has perfected the combination of modern and historic, so that there is a ride for everyone in their theme parks. Disney was, after all, made for families. And because of that, it will always be a beloved attraction around the world.