Disney's It's a Small World Ride: The Complete Guide

it's a small world at Disneyland

Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort

“Small” is a relative term. It may indeed be a small world, but ever since this now iconic ride debuted at the 1964 New York World's Fair, countless people from the world over have boarded the classic attraction’s boats–and subsequently tried in vain to get the cloying theme song out of their brains.

Transported to California's Disneyland in 1966, the ride instantly became a park highlight. Originally designed for the fair's UNICEF pavilion to help promote a message of international harmony, Disney cloned the charming ride for the Magic Kingdom park at Walt Disney World in Florida and other Disney parks around the world. It is now widely recognized as one of the company’s most popular and beloved attractions.

History of the Ride

The importance of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair in the evolution of the Disney parks cannot be overstated. The four attractions that Disney developed for the fair included Ford’s Magic Skyway, General Electric's Progressland (which featured the Carousel of Progress), and the state of Illinois’ Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, as well as It's a Small World. In addition to creating attractions that, in some form, lived on long after the fair, Disney's Imagineers perfected the art of Audio Animatronics, took E-Ticket rides and thematic storytelling to a new level, and perhaps most significantly, demonstrated that Disneyland-style entertainment had appeal beyond Southern California. Disney’s attractions were wildly popular at the fair.

Perhaps surprisingly, the most enduring Disney attraction to emerge from the New York World's Fair, It's a Small World was something of a last-minute add-on. Representatives from UNICEF contacted the Disney company about building an attraction for the fair in early 1963. Because the Imagineers had already committed to the three other projects, executives initially turned down the request. When their boss, Walt Disney, found out about it, he got upset, contacted the children’s fund, and agreed to take on the fourth fair project with only 10 months to design and build it.

Among the Imagineering team that helped craft the attraction were Marc Davis, who developed the doll figures; his wife, Alice Davis, who fashioned the doll's costumes; and Mary Blair, the artist who was responsible for the overall design and its signature look and feel. All It's a Small World rides include a doll made to look like Blair.

Despite the compressed time that the Disney team had to plan and build the attraction, it featured 302 dancing dolls and 209 animated toys. It was one of the fair's most popular attractions and when it migrated to Disneyland, the Imagineers added an expansive facade, complete with an animated, 30-foot-tall clock tower that marks every 15 minutes with fanfares and a procession of figures. While it has remained fundamentally the same, the attraction has received a number of refurbishments and updates through the years. The most significant modifications took place in 2009 when Disney inserted well-known characters such as Peter Pan, Cinderella, Aladdin, and Ariel. The iconic characters were designed in the style of the original dolls and blend in well with them.

In addition to Disneyland and Disney World, It's a Small World is featured at all of the Disneyland-style parks, including Hong Kong Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo Disneyland, with the exception of Shanghai Disneyland. While it shares some similarities with its sister parks, the mainland China Disneyland is markedly different in many other ways; for example, it does not include standbys such as Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, or the entire Frontierland either.

Two It's a small world dolls at Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney World

History of the Song

Whether it was movies, television shows, or park attractions, Walt Disney understood the importance of music in storytelling and placed a premium on it. That’s why he commissioned the Sherman brothers— who composed memorable songs for "Mary Poppins," other landmark films and the theme song for the Carousel of Progress ride—to write the "It's a Small World" song. The duo originally wrote the tune as a slow ballad. When he first heard it, Walt Disney suggested that the Shermans pick up the pace, and it became the peppy song we all know today. Upon its debut at the fair, the tune became an instant classic (and most would say an instant earworm).

The song generally plays on a never-ending loop, alternating between its verses and chorus, at all of the attractions. At Christmastime however, the original version of the ride at Disneyland in California introduces other tunes into the mix. The attraction is temporarily renamed “it’s a small world” Holiday for the season. In addition to getting decked out with holiday decorations, the ride adds renditions of “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” to the score (along with the original theme song).

Going for a Ride on It’s a Small World

The attraction is among the most innocuous, mild attractions at any Disney park—or any other park for that matter. In fact, it has no age or height requirements and does not include any safety restraints. The gentle boat ride moves quite slowly from scene to scene. Although It’s a Small World is known as a “dark ride” (any attraction that conveys passengers through an indoor show building), it is anything but dark in tone. Its sunny, upbeat tableaus of chirpy children from around the globe singing together is presented on bright, pop art-inspired sets. It is quite appropriate for virtually anybody, regardless of age or thrill tolerance, to set sail on the attraction.