It’s a Small World has been a Disney mainstay for nearly 60 years. From that famous song to the terrific charm of the dolls, the ride is as classic as any Disney attraction can be. Yet it’s often overlooked how it was a famous Hollywood star who got the whole thing going.
Disney and the World’s Fair
In 1963, Disney began preparing for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. This was a huge opportunity for Walt and his Imagineers to create new rides that could be transplanted to Disneyland. They had already agreed to create Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln for the state of Illinois, the Carousel of Progress for General Electric, and a motorway attraction for General Motors that would include the Primeval World dinosaurs.
So when Pepsi Cola called up, Admiral Joe Fowler, one of Walt’s key executives, turned them down. While known as “Can Do Joe,” Fowler said “can’t do” as he felt there was no way an overwhelmed Disney could handle a fourth Fair attraction. He felt Walt himself was so busy he didn’t even have to know about this.
This is what would have happened, and thus, It’s a Small World would never have come to be…had Walt Disney not happened to run into Joan Crawford at a Hollywood party.
Why was Joan Crawford involved?
The natural question is exactly how Academy Award-winning Hollywood legend Joan Crawford fits into this story. The answer is that Crawford had been married to Pepsi Cola president Alfred Steele (her fourth husband), and when he died of a heart attack in 1959, Crawford inherited a seat on the company board.
While mostly absent from acting at this point, Crawford was still heavily involved in charities and trying to boost the Pepsi brand. She knew about Walt's fame and figured a Disney attraction with the Pepsi brand would be terrific publicity for the company.
So when Crawford heard Fowler’s refusal, she wasn’t happy. And as anyone in Hollywood knew, Joan Crawford’s temper was legendary. So she went to Walt to lay it out, and Walt was likewise incensed at Fowler making this decision without even telling him first. That drove him to agree to create a ride for Pepsi.
It was Walt who came up with the idea for a boat ride involving international children and had Mary Blair put together the initial designs for it. Fowler took them to New York for a meeting with the Pepsi board. Reportedly, some members were wary of “getting some Mickey Mouse thing,” only for Crawford to give them a savage dressing down.
After she and Fowler made peace, Crawford pushed the board into agreeing to the Disney proposal. That left the Imagineers just 11 months to create a brand new boat ride system, all the audio-animatronic dolls, the sets and a theme song.
It’s a Small World’s legacy
As everyone knows, the Imagineers managed to pull off the impossible, and It’s a Small World opened with the rest of the Fair in 1964. Like the other three Disney attractions, it was a smash hit, with proceeds going to UNICEF (one of Crawford’s favorite charities). After the Fair ended, the ride was moved to Disneyland, opening in its huge clock-designed building in 1966.
Since then, It’s a Small World has been transported to other Disney parks worldwide, and its universal message is still fantastic. And the credit for it goes to Joan Crawford and how her unique drive pushed Walt and so many others to bring this now-iconic ride to life.