Featured Attractions

Saturday, May 25, 2024

it’s a small world Part Six: The Sherman Brothers To The Rescue

Richard and Robert Sherman were the sons of famed Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman. The brothers chose to start writing songs together at the urging of their father. They were originally brought into Walt Disney Productions to write pop songs for up and coming talent Annette Funicello. Having proven themselves after the phenomenal success of the songs they wrote for Annette, Walt Disney decided to hire them as full time staff writers. A rarity then and virtually unknown now, the staff writer positions gave the Sherman Brothers a stable income in a 9 to 5 style job in an industry that rarely afforded such stability.

In exchange for this stability, the Shermans were expected to write songs for whichever projects they were assigned to. As a result, they worked on a wide variety of projects- from pop songs to film scores and beyond. At the time that Walt Disney was busy working on projects for the 1964 World’s Fair, the brothers were busy working on a project that was near and dear to Walt Disney’s heart- Mary Poppins. The brothers had also been working on music for some of the other World’s Fair projects when Walt Disney invited them to see “Children of the World”. After hearing the disastrous soundtrack, the brothers were asked to come up with something that would be a better, more harmonious fit with the existing ride.

They needed to write a catchy song that would sound good regardless of the language it was sung in and could be seamlessly integrated with the existing attraction. And they had to do it quickly so that the attraction could open on time. It was a seemingly impossible task. But as Walt Disney was proud of saying- anything is possible in Disneyland!

The Sherman Brothers originally delivered the song with a slower tempo. After they sped up the song at Walt’s request, it was instantly approved. This was the song that the attraction needed- the one that would make it an instant classic! In fact, Walt Disney was so pleased by the song that he renamed the attraction after the song- it’s a small world. With the song completed and the attraction ready to go, it’s a small world would make its first cross country trip to Flushing Meadows and the 1964 World’s Fair.

it’s a small world Part Five: Mary Blair Takes Control

Walt Disney had been a longtime admirer of Mary Blair’s artwork, enlisting her to produce concept art for such films as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.Walt had long sought to apply her skills to something at Disneyland. The opportunity to do so in a perfect project with Pepsi’s money was too good to pass up. Mary was given the full resources of Walt Disney Imagineering to put something together that would dazzle World’s Fair guests and (hopefully) Disneyland guests in the distant future. Mary began the design process immediately.

There were three elements that had already been decided on and didn’t need Mary’s input to get started. The ride vehicles were going to be boats that would be propelled past the attraction scenes. The main “stars” of the show would be adorable robotic dolls that would perform for the guests. While Mary’s designs would inform how the dolls would be dressed, Imagineers could work on figuring out how to make the dolls move before the costume designs were finalized. Lastly, the music that would accompany the show could be recorded as well.

Mary Blair took control of the design work and quickly oversaw the construction of the set pieces and worked with fellow future Disney Legend Alice Davis to get the elaborate costumes sewn and assembled quickly. Despite the fact that the attraction would be located thousands of miles away in Flushing Meadows, New York, Walt Disney insisted on using the same process used to construct Disneyland attractions: the attraction would be setup on a sound stage in Burbank or Glendale so that he could see how things worked before the attraction was disassembled and shipped back east.

When this happened for Children of the World, the ride looked amazing, the dolls of all nations were adorable, everything seemed okay- except for the sound. While having the dolls sing their national anthems sounded like a good idea in theory- in practice it was a nightmare. Walt Disney was beside himself- with its disastrous soundtrack, his high profile new attraction was not ready for primetime. How could he fix this mess? With the help of two songwriting brothers who he grew to trust with his biggest projects- Richard and Robert Sherman.

Remembering Richard Sherman

Richard Sherman, 1928 - 2024

Monday, May 20, 2024

it’s a small world Part Four: Wait, what?

When we last left our story, Walt Disney had just agreed to take on another huge project for his friend Joan Crawford and Pepsi. As he escorted her out of the building, the assembled imagineers were befuddled. A ride with singing dolls called “Children of the World”?!? What in the world was Walt talking about? Did he pull this idea out of nowhere? Oddly enough, this wasn’t the first time something like this happened- Walt was always coming up with things seemingly out of thin air.

Roy Disney had become accustomed to this sort of thing; he would constantly run into investors or friends who would describe the most amazing new movie, attraction or television show that Walt had told them about. They’d ask Roy what the status of the project was and he’d have to admit that he hadn’t ever heard about the thing that Walt was talking about. Apparently, ideas were always swimming around in Walt’s head and he was always eager to get them out in the world. So when it seemed as though Walt had pulled an idea out of thin air, it was most likely something that he’d been thinking about for awhile.

That proved to be the case with “Children of the World”. Famed artist Mary Blair had worked on concept art for Disney in the past and Walt Disney had wanted to use her talents for something that could exist in Disneyland as a living, breathing work of art. He had been kicking around the idea of an attraction highlighting the children of the world for awhile, though he hadn’t ever spoken about it with anyone before Joan Crawford stepped into Imagineering to beg Walt to do something for Pepsi.

With Pepsi’s money and Mary Blair’s talent, Walt had found a way to bring another of his ideas into the world. But could they do it in time to open the groundbreaking attraction at the 1964 World’s Fair? Walt was certain they could. The imagineers were less confident they could, but with all the work that needed to be done, they didn’t even have time to worry. Work on “Children of the World” would begin immediately.

Monday, May 13, 2024

it’s a small world Part Three: The Impossible Project

When we last left the story of the happiest cruise that ever sailed, Joan Crawford had been given control of Pepsi’s 1964 World’s Fair project, an attraction whose proceeds would benefit UNICEF. After a lengthy internal battle, the company had no firm plans and a potential disaster on its hands. Joan was certain that her Hollywood friend Walt Disney could put something amazing together quickly.

Joan flew out to Los Angeles and scheduled a meeting with Walt Disney and his imagineers. Those who were present at the meeting were curious about what exactly Joan wanted and why she was meeting with them at WED in Glendale, rather than with the studio executives in Burbank. Needless to say, they were extremely busy at the time, and while getting a visit from a glamorous Hollywood legend might have normally been an exciting prospect, on that day everyone was extremely busy with projects for Disneyland and the World’s Fair.

Joan, glamorously dressed and carefully coiffed, dramatically entered the room. Addressing her friend Walt Disney, she apologized for her intrusion and carefully explained that Pepsi needed an attraction for the 1964 World’s Fair that would benefit UNICEF. The Imagineers who were present found her to be very theatrical and were certain that Walt Disney would send her on her way, apologizing for the fact that he could not help her due to everything else they were working on. Walt Disney’s response would surprise everyone present.

Walt Disney told Ms. Crawford that they were working on just the sort of attraction that she and Pepsi were looking for- “Children of the World.” Guests would board brightly colored boats and take a ride around the world. Adorable dolls, dressed in their native clothing would dance and perform their various national anthems. Bright backgrounds and set pieces would feature stylized versions of the landmarks around the world. Joan loved the idea and was certain it would be exactly what UNICEF and Pepsi were looking for. Walt escorted an excited Joan, who most likely was reveling in the win. Her next contact with the rest of the Pepsi board would probably feature some classy gloating. After she left the room, the puzzled imagineers had one question- what attraction was Walt talking about?

Monday, May 6, 2024

it’s a small world Part Two: Joanie Dearest

Before we move forward to tell the story of the happiest cruise that ever sailed, we must go back to the year of Disneyland’s birth- 1955- to learn about the relationship between a Hollywood legend and a soft drink company chairman.

They were quite an odd couple; Joan Crawford was known to millions around the world through her many MGM motion pictures. Alfred Steele was less known, though the company he ran- PepsiCo- made one of the biggest selling colas in the world. Despite their differences, those who knew them felt they were madly in love with each other. That’s why it was shocking and heartbreaking when he passed away just four years later.

Most widows would have been satisfied with the dividends she might receive from her shares- or possibly might have sold them all- but Joan Crawford was not like most widows. She insisted on taking a seat on the Pepsi board so that she could directly influence company policy. While her husband’s hand picked successor installed her on the Pepsi board, her very presence started a rift within the company with two warring factions; those who were loyal to Joan and those who felt she had no business sitting on the board. This remained an issue into the 1960’s.

The split on the board would greatly affect the company’s operations and even had an impact on the company’s charitable pursuits. Pepsi had very publicly announced that it would sponsor a World’s Fair attraction and donate all of its proceeds to UNICEF. The company’s publicity arm felt this would generate a ton of positive press for the company. While the board fully supported the project, it strongly disagreed with what to do. Of course, the board was split along the usual lines- those who supported Joan and those who did not. Meanwhile, the World’s Fair’s opening drew closer with no solid plans for what Pepsi would actually build there.

So what does this have to do with it’s a small world? Well, at some point the company’s public relations team held a special board meeting where they explained that not having something at the World’s Fair would be a colossal PR nightmare, especially since the proceeds were supposed to go to needy children. This finally made the board see the seriousness of the situation and they reluctantly agreed to let Joan Crawford take the reins to jumpstart the project. Why would Joan be a good choice to take on the project? As it turned out, one of her Hollywood friends was Walt Disney. The board felt that if anyone could move mountains to get something designed and quickly built it would be him. But as you might know if you read part one, Walt Disney and his imagineers had their hands full. Would he take on such a large project on short notice?