By Victoria Merlino
The classic Disney attraction “It’s a Small World” has been enchanted millions of Disneyland and Disney World visitors for decades — but did you know the famous ride debuted in the World’s Borough?
The story begins in an unlikely place with an unlikely person: Flushing Meadows and controversial city planning titan Robert Moses, who reshaped city infrastructure — and, it turns out, a bit of the Magic Kingdom.
Moses saw potential in Flushing Meadows and its marina, then an ash dumping ground between Long Island and Manhattan. The land had become a wasteland in the 1920s thanks to a Tammany Hall lackey’s ash removal company.
When Moses became the first Parks commissioner in the 1930s, he focused on rehabilitating Flushing Meadows. He leveraged two New York City World’s Fairs — the 1939-40 Fair and 1964-65 Fair — to make vast improvements to the park. He oversaw the planting of new trees, the construction of a boat basin and the installation of underground utility lines.
World’s Fairs were spectacles that showcased innovations from across the world, introducing the likes of Paris’ Eiffel Tower in 1889, Chicago’s Ferris Wheel in 1893, and in the 1964 Fair’s case, Queens’ iconic Unisphere. Millions of people attended the fairs over the course of their runs, beginning with London’s Fair in 1851.
Moses was so devoted to his vision of Flushing Meadows he resigned as commissioner to lead the 1964 World’s Fair as its president — he had his tentacles in various other city and state departments as well.
It is in 1964 that Walt Disney enters the picture. At this point in his career, Disney was a world-famous showman and businessman, and had successfully launched his California theme park Disneyland nearly a decade earlier. Four organizations tapped Disney and his team to create dazzling attractions to draw people toward their pavilions: Ford, General Electric, the state of Illinois and Pepsi-Cola.
Each of the four exhibits would become classics in their own right after finding their way into Disney theme parks.
General Electric had “The Carousel of Progress,” a show cast with entirely audio-animatronic figures (aka robots) describing the beauty of technological “progress.”
The Illinois pavilion featured “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” where an animatronic version of President Abraham Lincoln would stand and speak to the audience. That attraction later became Disney’s Hall of Presidents.
Ford presented the “Magic Skyway,” which took visitors on a ride through the past and the future in a Ford car.
Pepsi commissioned “It’s a Small World” to benefit the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. It was the most challenging attraction to pull off during the Fair, according to the Walt Disney Family Museum, as Disney and his team had to design and construct the entire ride in nine months.
You may have heard the song that accompanies the ride before, but for the uninitiated, “It’s a Small World” is a gentle boat trip through scenes of children on all seven continents. The ride highlights the world’s diversity — fitting for Queens, now one of the most diverse places on Earth.
The ear-wormy “It’s a Small World (After All)” was developed by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, Disney super songwriters who also wrote the “Mary Poppins” tunes.
“It’s a Small World” was a huge success, and Disney moved it to Disneyland in 1966, where it still delights guests today.