8 Things You Didn’t Know About “It’s a Small World”

With a debut at the 1964 World’s Fair, in Queens, New York, the Disney ride is celebrating 50 years of sweet global joy.

Photo by National Geographic/Getty Images

If you’ve ever ridden “It’s a Small World,” count yourself as one among millions: hundreds of millions, in fact. What its riders have jointly experienced embodies childlike innocence, a short hop around a cheerful world whose citizens sing in peaceful harmony. But its call for global unity—“it’s a small, small world” with “just one moon and one golden sun”—indisputably resonates (perhaps even a little too well). Here, we salute the enduring ride with some fun facts.

1. In 1963, officials from the World’s Fair asked Walt Disney to design an attraction for the UNICEF pavilion to suit the fair’s theme, “Peace Through Understanding.” Disney’s response: a family-oriented boat ride through the countries of the world, represented by animatronic dolls; it opened in April 1964. After the fair’s run, the attraction was dismantled and shipped across the country to Disneyland, where it reopened in an enhanced version.

2. The ride is featured at each of the five Disney parks around the world, though the versions are not identical. During the holidays, the attractions in California, Tokyo, and Paris get tricked out in festive trimmings (some 50,000 lights have been used to illuminate the façade of Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” alone).

3. The Disneyland ride features an ongoing tribute to the dolls’ lead designer, Mary Blair, who died in 1978: She appears in animatronic version—little, blonde, wearing glasses—in the Paris scene, flying from a balloon over the Eiffel Tower.

4. The original musical concept was for the dolls of the world to sing their various national anthems simultaneously. The result was a small world of “horrible cacophony,” according to Robert Sherman, who would go on to write the infamous theme song with his brother, Richard.

5. The brothers penned what Richard Sherman described in a 1996 interview as “a nice little song” that was “simple and translatable, and yet it had to be repeated so often over a 14-minute ride that it couldn’t be boring.” In fact, during a normal 16-hour operating day, the song is played, on average, about 1,200 times.

6. In an online poll conducted by Scientific American, the song topped some 80 other contenders—including “YMCA,” “Yummy Yummy Yummy,” and “Who Let the Dogs Out”—as the most annoying ear worm ever.

7. The dolls sing in Swedish, Japanese, Spanish, and Italian, along with English, in the Disneyland version of the ride. Disneyland Paris includes French, German, and Arabic verses, while Hong Kong Disneyland has verses in Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin, and Tagalog.

8. Disney intends to give the ride the “Pirates of the Caribbean” treatment: Plans to create a movie based on the attraction are in the works.