When Walt Disney agreed to fill 94,000 square feet at the 1964 New York World’s Fair with an exhibit to honor Unicef, he told his engineers to build “a little boat ride.” He then asked his songwriters, brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, to compose a tune that would unite all cultures under a single sonic umbrella. As Walt put it, offhandedly: “It’s a small world, after all.”
Fifty-four years after the attraction opened in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., It’s a Small World and the ride’s theme song continue to repeat a simple homily. “We’re all the same under the moon and stars,” says Lisa Robertson, former Disneyland staffer and author of Babes in Disneyland, a guide for visiting the park with young children. “That’s a powerful message.”
That message begins before the ride does, as visitors wait in line beneath the iconic facade, an architectural Babel of turrets and minarets, onion domes and pagoda roofs. Disney art director Mary Blair’s whimsical design features a parade of wooden dolls that march out from beneath its cuckoo-clock face every 15 minutes. That clock has both marked and passed the time for the quarter billion Disneyland passengers who have collectively sailed a distance equal to 200 circumnavigations of the actual planet.
For the first 10 million It’s a Small World passengers in New York, the ride was a revelation. They boarded the first waterborne people mover—now a theme-park staple—which propelled as many as 4,000 guests per hour along an indoor canal snaking past seven virtual continents and more than 100 miniature countries, each peopled by mechanized dolls singing the catchy song in five languages.
After two seasons at the fair, the ride was moved wholesale to California’s Disneyland, where it took up permanent residence, much as its song did in the brains of everyone who ever visited the Happiest Place on Earth—and a great many who didn’t, including Indira Gandhi. At the New York State Theater in 1966, hundreds of schoolchildren serenaded the visiting prime minister of India by singing “It’s a Small World.” And so it proved to be. Visibly moved, Mrs. Gandhi responded, in the words of one eyewitness, by “throwing each of them a smile.”