Today we here at GDP begin a two week series on the classic, and beloved attraction, “its a small world”.
The Pepsi Company had trouble coming up with a concept that they liked and finally at almost the last moment, they approached the Disney Company. One of the Pepsi board members, film actress Joan Crawford, had heard exciting things about the other three pavilions Disney was doing for the fair and suggested that with the Disney connection with children that Walt could come up with something amazing.
Pepsi executives went to California in February 1963 and met with Disneyland’s construction boss, Admiral Joe Fowler who had to sadly inform the executives that Disney “couldn’t do” the project since it was less than a year before the fair opening and that Disney was experiencing challenges with all the innovative things they were working on for the other three pavilions and needed to focus all their resources on those projects.
When Walt found out, he was not happy. According to one Disney executive, Walt said, “I’ll make those decisions. Tell Pepsi I’ll do it!” So on February 15, 1963, Walt agreed to do a “Planning Design Feasibility Study” for the pavilion .
It was Walt himself who came up with the concept of a boat ride. Walt also came up with the name for the attraction: “The Children of the World.” He also wanted all the children to sing their national anthems. Walt wanted it to be a pleasant experience for “children of all ages” showcasing a “wonderland where all the world’s children live and play.”
Because time was of the essence, a simple L-shaped building was quickly designed and construction started in New York in late March even though Disney had no clue what the ride would eventually look like. There were several meetings with the show designers and Imagineer Marc Davis came up with a sketch that really stood out.
However, Walt wasn’t satisfied and decided to get artist Mary Blair involved. Blair had left the Disney Studios after contributing as an art supervisor or color stylist to many Disney animated films. Blair started work on the show in June 1963.
Fowler took the preliminary ideas to the Pepsi headquarters in New York for a presentation and buy-off, since there was roughly nine months until the opening of the fair. The Pepsi executives hated it. Supposedly, one executive disdainfully complained, “Why do we need this Mickey Mouse thing?”
Once again, Crawford exercised her authority and firmly told her fellow Pepsi executives that they were going to go with the Disney concept. There was a special press announcement banquet held at the Waldorf Hotel in New York on August 1963.
While it has been popular to think of "small world" as all Blair’s creation, many other talented Disney artists contributed significantly to the final version. Besides the basic design of the children, Blair’s major contribution was the color styling helping to create instant mood changes as guests sailed around the world. All the colors in the scenes combine into an all-white finale.
The Audio-Animatronic doll figures were known as “rubber heads,” based on a notation that appeared on Marc Davis’ drawings. Davis was supplying gags for the scenes and the flow of action of the figures including the dancing. The dolls were sculpted by Blaine Gibson and costumed by Alice Davis, Marc Davis' talented and often underappreciated wife. It was estimated that a singing figure might open and close its mouth more than 1million times in one month.
Imagineer Claude Coats laid out the pattern for the river. Imagineers Rolly Crump and Jack Ferges created all the “toys,” the term that referred to everything that wasn’t an animated children doll from props in the scene to skating penguins. Working with approximately 30 people, Crump used Styrofoam and paper-mache, often gluing on Chem Wipes for additional support, to build more than 250 “toys.”
Crump studied some of Blair’s book illustrations to get the look of all the characters to be the same. One day, Walt visited Crump and gave him a gift that Walt had picked up in Europe: a little bicycle rider on a thin wire. Crump built a larger version and in the mock up had a bucket of sand holding the cable tight. Moving the bucket would cause the cable to loosen and the rider would go back and forth. Crump still remembers fearfully Walt coming over and picking up the bucket and shaking it violently to make sure the toy wouldn’t come off the cable and hit a guest.
Crump was also responsible for the 120-foot high Tower of the Four Winds that was installed in front of the pavilion. Walt realized that the building that was so quickly constructed for “small world” would seem very plain and unappealing, so a more distinctive marquee was necessary to attract the attention of the visitors to the fair. The 52 different mobiles “represented the constant energy of the young.” At the end of the fair when Walt found out it would take nearly $80,000 to move it back to Disneyland, it was cut up and dumped in the nearby river.
After getting the ride designed, Walt wanted to use the different national anthems of the various countries featured in the attraction as the music. But they tried it out and it sounded weird. So Walt called some songwriters that he used before, the Sherman Brothers, they wrote the famous songs of Mary Poppins, as well as other movies.
Opening day was approaching, so to install the attraction, crews worked seven days a week to make the deadline.
In June 1965, as the New York World’s Fair was preparing to close, construction had begun on the show building at Disneyland for the attraction. Construction ran from June 9, 1965 to May 28, 1966.