The Story Behind Disney’s “it’s a small world”

in Disney, Disneyland

it's a small world

Credit: Disney

“People think it’s a little novelty. It’s a prayer for peace.” – Richard Sherman 

“It’s probably the most important thing that is in any of the parks.” – Marty Sklar

The year is 1964 and the New York World’s Fair is in full swing. Walt Disney had been hard at work with his creative teams to produce four unforgettable attractions for partnering companies and organizations. But one little boat ride stands out from the rest, and its song remains in the heads of all who climb aboard.

I am talking, of course, about “it’s a small world.”

While the ride was crafted in the style of legendary Imagineer Mary Blair, the song itself was written by none other than Robert and Richard Sherman; the same songwriting brothers who gave Disney fans the songs from movies like Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, The Jungle Book, and Bedknobs and Broomsticksas well as other park favorites like “The Enchanted Tiki Room,” and “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.”

The Sherman Brothers’ documentary, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, reflects on “it’s a small world,” and asks both Dick and Bob the very blunt question on most people’s minds: “WHY?!”

Well, here’s why.

“We were given the assignment to do a song for the UNICEF pavilion at the World’s Fair,” Richard Sherman explained. “Which was called ‘UNICEF Salutes the Children of the World.”

Walt Disney with a model of the Unicef World's Fair Pavilion
Credit: Disney

They were brought in by the Late Great Imagineer and Disney Legend Marty Sklar to run a test of how they were planning on doing the music from all these different countries. Robert Sherman described it in one word: “a cacophony.”

“It sounded like a million kids all singing different things,” he explained. “Walt says ‘can you write one song where they’ll cover everything?’ We told him, ‘we’ll try.'”

This is what they came up with: Kids from all over the world sending a message for world peace by singing the simplest lyrics.

It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears

It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears

There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware

It’s a small world after all

It’s a small world after all

It’s a small world after all

It’s a small world after all

It’s a small, small world

There is just one moon and one golden sun

And a smile means friendship to everyone

Though the mountains divide

And the oceans are wide

It’s a small world after all

It’s a small world after all

It’s a small world after all

It’s a small world after all

It’s a small, small world

It’s a small world after all

It’s a small world after all

It’s a small world after all

It’s a small world after all
“People think it’s a little novelty,” Richard Sherman said. “It’s a prayer for peace. We have to learn to live together and respect each other, or we’re going to blow each other up.”
“It’s probably the most important thing that is in any of the parks,” said Disney Legend Marty Sklar. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people acted like the words to that song?”
Imagineer Marty Sklar in front animatronics from "it's a small world"
Credit: Disney
Richard’s wife, Elizabeth, recalled going to the World’s Fair and being on the ride with her husband, Robert, and his wife when the audiotape broke. The four of them then stood up and sang “it’s a small world” through the rest of the ride.
Richard and Elizabeth Sherman at the World's Fair
Credit: Richard and Elizabeth Sherman
While it may not have been commissioned for a theme park, the original “it’s a small world” attraction can be enjoyed at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California. Other “small world” attractions have been installed at the Magic Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, as well as in Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disney Resort, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Shanghai Disney Resort is the only Disney resort that does not give its guests the chance to hop aboard “the happiest cruise that ever sailed.”
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