Small World, Big Message: The Music of “it’s a small world”
“Though the mountains divide and the oceans are wide, it’s a small world after all.”
Back in 1960, well-known urban planner Robert Moses visited Walt Disney in person and asked him to design a ‘children’s village’ for the 1964/65 World’s Fair in New York City. By the happiest coincidence, Walt had already started discussions with several sponsors about a similar project – the plan was that by creating attractions for the World’s Fair, WED (now Walt Disney Imagineering) would be able to test out new technologies and effects before transferring them to Disneyland on a larger scale, as fully-fledged rides. It would also serve as a test run to see if Disneyland-style attractions would be appealing to audiences living and working in eastern states.
Walt received news that the Pepsi-Cola Company was to sponsor the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) pavilion at the Fair, and that Pepsi hoped to partner with Disney in creating a new attraction to be placed inside this pavilion. With less than a year to go before opening, and several Disney attractions already in development, Walt was determined to go ahead and told the Imagineers about a “little boat ride” he had in mind. This baffled his team – Disney Legend Rolly Crump later commented: “[W]e thought a little boat ride? …We were working on Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress, both of which were using the highest technology and animatronic figures. …All of this, and Walt wants to do a little boat ride!”
A Small World, After All
In Walt’s mind, this “boat ride” would be the perfect way to showcase the different cultures of children around the world – a clear nod to the work of UNICEF and the 1964/65 Fair’s theme of ‘peace through understanding’. His thoughts soon turned to an accompanying song for the attraction. In Imagineer Kim Irvine’s words, Walt knew that he needed to create “a very special song – something that really connected with that child’s story...” He pondered over the idea that each Audio-Animatronics® figure might ‘sing’ its own national anthem, but this, according to Disney Legend, Richard Sherman, ended up as “a cacophony” – the songs did not blend together at all well.
Walt was undeterred. Scrapping one idea, he moved to another, this time asking the Sherman Brothers to create a brand new song for the attraction – one that would appeal to people from all over the world. “Walt’s words to us were: I want it so it can be translated into many languages,” explained Richard Sherman.
And so the brothers got to work. WED’s first female Imagineer, Harriet Burns, who was also working on the attraction, recalled Walt explaining to Richard and Robert that ‘it’s a small world after all.’ The throwaway comment got them thinking, and a slow, heartfelt song named “it’s a small world” was penned. Richard Sherman later explained that it was written as a ballad, not in the “jingly up-tempo” we’ve always known. After requesting a more cheerful, sped-up version, Walt was impressed: “That’ll work,” he said, “Come with me.”
A Prayer for Peace
“it’s a small world” was installed at Disneyland in 1966; the attraction is now featured at five Disney Parks on three continents: Disneyland Park, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. At Shanghai Disneyland the song is performed by live entertainers. As a result, the Sherman Brothers’ iconic song is always playing somewhere around the world. There’s no doubt that its jovial repetition divides opinion – even Richard Sherman notes: “When you play it up-tempo like that and you hear it for ten minutes… you can’t get it out of your head, I know!”
But behind the smiling Audio-Animatronics figures and the attraction’s seemingly simple theme song lies an unwavering central focus on tolerance, empathy and kindness. Written a short time after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the lyrics describe “a world of hope and a world of fears,” before urging listeners to remember that “there’s so much that we share.” Richard Sherman described “a simple, simple child’s prayer to respect each other and to love each other. That’s what we’re saying, without saying those words.”
The simplicity of the song does not detract from its message – and the fact that “it’s a small world” recently celebrated its 50th birthday shows how precious a piece of the Disney Parks’ legacy it remains. In a time of great uncertainty for many, the attraction, its lyrics and its theme of ‘peace through understanding’ are more relevant and significant than ever. “it’s a small world” is Walt’s reminder for guests around the world to remember the things we have in common – as Richard Sherman says, “We all share these things, so let’s learn to live together.”
Sophie Jo is a writer and long-time Disney fan from England. Find her tweeting @sophiejowrites or happy-crying over it's a small world.